Live From the White House: The First-Ever Televised Presidential Speech
Between State of the Union addresses, U.N. speeches, press conferences, and even Daily Show appearances, seeing the President of the United States on your TV is fairly commonplace these days. But in the late 1940s, the opportunity to watch the most powerful man in the world from the comfort of your living room was something Americans had never been able to do before.
Though FDR experimented with television on a small scale in 1939 by using screens to speak to World’s Fair attendees, Harry Truman was the first president to use TV on a national level when he took to the airwaves October 5, 1947. His topic? How Americans could cut back on food consumption. European farmers, still recovering from WWII, were now struggling to stay afloat after a series of droughts, floods, and bouts of cold. In an effort to come to their aid, Truman delivered a televised address asking the nation for their help—while also scolding them.
“[Europeans] cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help—generous help—from the United States and from other countries which have food to spare,” Truman said.
He outlined four steps citizens could take to conserve food: Abstain from meat on Tuesdays, and poultry and eggs on Thursdays. Cut back on a slice of bread every day. And, he added, restaurants should only serve bread and butter by specific request.
Then came the admonishment:
“I realize that many millions of American housewives have already begun strict conservation measures. I say to those housewives, 'keep up the good work' and save even more when and where you can. On the other hand, there are also many Americans who are overeating and wasting food. Unless these people cut their consumption in the ways required, they will be taking more than a fair share of the supplies available. They will be personally contributing to increased inflation at home and to the desperate scarcity of food overseas.”
The White House was expected to abide by those rules as well. During the week of Truman's address, the Citizens Food Committee released the White House's menus:
Tuesday, luncheon—grapefruit, cheese souffle, buttered peas, grilled tomatoes, chocolate pudding; dinner—clear chicken soup, broiled salmon steak, scalloped potatoes, string beans, sauteed eggplant, perfection salad, sliced peaches.
Thursday, luncheon—corn soup, peppers stuffed with rice and mushrooms, lima beans, glazed carrots, baked apples; dinner—melon balls, baked ham, baked sweet potatoes, asparagus, cauliflower, green salad, coffee mallow.
The vast majority of the world still didn’t have TVs in 1947, so Truman’s speech was also broadcast over the radio. Still, he was savvy enough to use the growing medium for another television first the following year: In 1948, Truman became the first presidential candidate to broadcast a paid political ad.