Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy used what was a relatively new medium—television—to give the public a glimpse of White House history and its living spaces. The documentary marks the first time major television news networks in the United States developed programming specifically for a female audience and the first time a woman was host of a broadcast with a national audience.

Summary of Event

The television documentary A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy aired without commercial interruption on all three television networks in the United States during the second week of February in 1962. The film communicated the efforts by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the Fine Arts Committee for the Restoration of the White House Fine Arts Committee for the Restoration of the White House , which was led by philanthropist Henry Francis du Pont Du Pont, Henry Francis , to transform the White House into a museum of American decorative arts. Television;documentaries Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, A (television program) White House, televised tour of [kw]Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House (Feb. 14 and 18, 1962) [kw]Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House, Jacqueline (Feb. 14 and 18, 1962) [kw]Televised Tour of the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a (Feb. 14 and 18, 1962) [kw]White House, Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the (Feb. 14 and 18, 1962) Television;documentaries Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, A (television program) White House, televised tour of [g]North America;Feb. 14 and 18, 1962: Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House[07220] [g]United States;Feb. 14 and 18, 1962: Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House[07220] [c]Radio and television;Feb. 14 and 18, 1962: Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House[07220] [c]Communications and media;Feb. 14 and 18, 1962: Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House[07220] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 14 and 18, 1962: Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House[07220] [c]Women’s issues;Feb. 14 and 18, 1962: Jacqueline Kennedy Leads a Televised Tour of the White House[07220] Kennedy, Jacqueline Collingwood, Charles

The restoration project reimagined the president’s residence as a museum for the people, and the film was essential in making Americans feel collective ownership of the building and its interior. The documentary also provides an excellent historical record of the restoration and of Mrs. Kennedy’s thoughts and approach to the work.

Mrs. Kennedy’s project to restore the interior of the White House with authentic period furnishings began immediately after her husband’s inauguration. President John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;White House restoration initially objected to the project, believing it to be too costly and potentially damaging politically if public funds were used. Mrs. Kennedy thus conducted the restoration as a private philanthropic effort, leveraging her social connections and moneyed friends, particularly the du Ponts, who were leading American collectors of historical decorative arts.

By early 1962, after just one year of work, the project was nearly complete, hurling Mrs. Kennedy into the public spotlight. The Kennedy administration of the early 1960’s coincided with increasing interest in the public life of women in the United States. Traditionally, women had been relegated to the private sphere of domesticity. At the same time, American women were fascinated by stories of prominent women. Mrs. Kennedy, who appeared on television and in magazine photographs conversing with major world leaders such as French president Charles de Gaulle and Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, was particularly inspiring. She traveled around the world, not only with her husband but also on her own as a goodwill ambassador, and she frequently delivered her own speeches to adoring audiences, often speaking in their native languages.

Mrs. Kennedy’s popularity, along with the historical significance of the restoration project, had the major television networks clamoring for a peek inside the new White House. The networks agreed on a joint effort to produce a documentary tour of the presidential residence. Costs would be shared between the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;news programming (CBS), the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;news programming (NBC), and the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and all three networks would broadcast the program; the production effort would be led by CBS News. CBS assigned several well-respected journalists to the project, including producer Perry Wolff Wolff, Perry , director Franklin Schaffner Schaffner, Franklin , and correspondent Charles Collingwood.

Collingwood was well known and admired as the anchor who had taken over for Edward R. Murrow as the host of the interview series Person to Person. Person to Person (television program) In contrast, Wolff’s career was just beginning at the time of the White House tour. Wolff would become well known in later years for his coverage of the Vietnam War, particularly in his seminal documentary The Selling of the Pentagon Selling of the Pentagon, The (television program) (1971) and the 1988 television program The Wall Within, Wall Within, The (television program) which publicized early knowledge of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Schaffner also worked on Person to Person, as well as CBS’s Studio One and Playhouse 90 programs, and was directing the dramatic series The Defenders (1961-1965) at the time of the White House documentary. He was respected in the business for his unique camera angles, which he used, along with a moving camera, to add intimacy to the White House tour. The Directors Guild of America awarded him the 1962 Directorial Achievement Award for the program; he received this award again in 1970 for his work as the director of Patton.

The documentary was videotaped at the White House using a script produced in collaboration with Mrs. Kennedy. The shoot required nine tons of equipment and fifty-four technicians. Cutaway segments of the rooms and furnishings were filmed first, and the First Lady recorded her segments afterward. The film was produced quickly, and except for Schaffner’s camera work, its technical elements are not noteworthy. Contemporary critics consider the piece monochrome (or dull) and valuable as history only, not cinema.

On Wednesday, February 14, 1962, CBS and NBC broadcast the completed hourlong documentary in prime time. It was watched by three out of four television viewers—approximately 50 million Americans. On February 18, ABC broadcast the program, which again received high ratings. The documentary then went into worldwide syndication and was broadcast in more than fifty countries, garnering hundreds of millions of viewers. It is consequently the most widely viewed documentary of the so-called golden age of television documentaries (1957-1963), when more than seventeen hundred documentaries were produced and aired on the three national television networks. In addition to Schaffner’s directorial award, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded Mrs. Kennedy the Governor’s Award, Emmy Awards an honorary Emmy for her achievement in using television for public service.

Significance

The televised documentary tour of the White House is significant as the first television news broadcast to appeal directly to female viewers, but is also noteworthy as the first to feature a woman as a primary commentator. Network documentaries in the early 1960’s tended to focus on foreign and domestic policy issues such as the Cold War and civil rights, which overwhelmingly attracted male audiences and were hosted by prominent male journalists. Mrs. Kennedy was not a journalist, but her popularity and prominence were enormous.

Americans had been fascinated by the First Lady’s clothes and hairstyle, Fashion;Jacueline Kennedy[Kennedy] and they watched her every move. Her success with the White House tour reflects the changing priorities of the media in the early 1960’s, which became increasingly interested in celebrities and stardom, but the successful tour also reflects U.S. society’s growing ambivalence about acceptable public roles for women. Although the image was traditionally feminine—Jacqueline Kennedy, clad in one of her signature Oleg Cassini suits, giving a tour of her home to visitors, a thoroughly acceptable traditional domestic role—she was speaking as an authority on television about a major national restoration effort, discussing the history of one of America’s most famous buildings, describing its rooms and its furnishings, and narrating details about a public service project she had spearheaded. Collingwood frequently stepped out of the camera’s field, allowing Mrs. Kennedy to dominate the screen, which she does until the very end of the program when President Kennedy appears on screen to praise her efforts.

Media critics were not enthusiastic about the program, criticizing the First Lady’s “baby” voice, which was not particularly suited for public speaking. Kennedy political advisers had further concerns that the restoration overemphasized the family’s wealth, and Mrs. Kennedy’s performance displayed her elite upbringing, both of which advisors often tried to downplay. Audiences, however, were unabashedly enthusiastic, and the female audience alerted news agencies of missed opportunities for large viewership by not providing programming for female viewers. In the months following the White House tour, networks broadcast three documentaries with similar themes—The World of Sophia Loren, The World of Jacqueline Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor’s London—each of which drew between one-third and one-half of the television audience the nights they were broadcast.

Furthermore, the program easily fulfilled its mission to introduce the American public to the White House, making them feel “ownership” and feel welcome. The White House restoration project, and the documentary film that introduced it, started a nationwide interest in and a commercial demand for American antiques and reproductions. It also engendered enthusiasm for the protection and preservation of historic buildings and furnishings as both historically significant artifacts and as works of art. Television;documentaries Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, A (television program) White House, televised tour of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abbott, James A., and Elaine M. Rice. Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1998. A thorough history of the White House restoration project, featuring detailed room-by-room descriptions, augmented by first-person interviews, extensive correspondence, and personal and public photographs taken before, during, and after the redesign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Press, Andrea L. Women Watching Television: Gender, Class, and Generation in the American Television Experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. A good academic study of the way television influences women’s self-perception and their perception of other women, and of the role of women in society. Focuses primarily on social class but also on the different influences television had on women from pre- and “postfeminist” generations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwalbe, Carol B. “Jacqueline Kennedy and Cold War Propaganda.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 49, no. 1 (2005). Examines the impact of Jacqueline Kennedy’s role as a television and media personality and a goodwill ambassador addressing Cold War politics. Contains in-depth analysis of the overseas popularity of three documentaries featuring Mrs. Kennedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Troy, Gil. “Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House Renovations.” White House Studies 1 (2001). Discusses the White House restoration as a factor in Jacqueline Kennedy’s popularity and the process by which she became an American icon. Examines how she combined her aristocratic interests in the arts and philanthropy with the “suburban” concerns of child-rearing and home-decorating.

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