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Bill Clinton Participating in the First Presidential Webchat // Getty Images
Bill Clinton Participating in the First Presidential Webchat // Getty Images

8 Presidential Communication Firsts

Bill Clinton Participating in the First Presidential Webchat // Getty Images
Bill Clinton Participating in the First Presidential Webchat // Getty Images

When Franklin Roosevelt declared “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking” in a radio address to the American people on March 12, 1933, he was making history. The address—in which Roosevelt explained his reasoning behind calling a banking holiday to reorganize the battered industry and to announce their reopening—was the first of FDR's “fireside chats,” which represented a game-changing communications strategy and use of technology for The White House. Roosevelt bypassed the news media and spoke directly to the citizenry, creating an aura of calmness and confidence during the Great Depression and World War II (though he never gave a radio address near an actual fireplace). Here are eight other firsts and breakthroughs in presidential communication.

1. First State of the Union Address // George Washington

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution stipulates that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The task first fell to George Washington eight months after his inauguration. On January 8, 1790, the former general addressed Congress at the provincial capital of New York City. Because the nation was new, the address covered some basics of maintaining a country. Washington called for the creation of a standing army; money to fund foreign relations; a process for naturalizing foreigners, “[u]niformity in the currency, weights, and measures,” and “the promotion of science and literature.”

2. First Telegraph Line // Abraham Lincoln

Congress authorized funding for Samuel F.B. Morse to build a test telegraph between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in 1843. While Lincoln’s may not have been the first administration to send or receive information via telegraph, it was the first to have a line installed in the War Department, starting in May 1862. (Previously, public officials who wanted to wire a message had to stand in line in a clerk’s office with everyone else.) Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln used the line extensively, starting his day by shifting through communication from various state governors and generals. Some nights, he even slept in the telegraph room. The wire also allowed him to directly oversee the war, giving specific orders for movements and troop counts.

3. First Telephone Line // Rutherford B. Hayes

Fred A. Gower, the managing agent of Alexander Graham Bell, personally oversaw the installation of the first telephone line in the White House in 1877. Gower helped President Rutherford B. Hayes dial up Bell at a hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, in June of that year. According to the Providence Journal, “The President listened carefully while a gradually increasing smile wreathed his lips, and wonder shone in his eyes more and more, until he took the little instrument from his ear, looked at it a moment in surprise, and remarked, ‘That is wonderful.’” The phone was connected permanently to the only other one in Washington, that of the Treasury Department.

4. First Radio Address // Warren G. Harding

Roosevelt was not the first president heard over the airwaves. That honor goes to Warren G. Harding. On June 14, 1922, Harding gave a speech to commemorate the unveiling of a memorial to Francis Scott Key. Due to concerns that too many people would want to hear Harding speak for the venue to accommodate, the decision was made to broadcast the speech on radio. Originally, a transmitting station was going to be built in Baltimore, but that was deemed too expensive. Instead, Harding's voice was transmitted via telephone to the Anacostia broadcasting station and then from Anacostia broadcast to the people of Baltimore. A few months later, Harding used the same transmit-to-Anacostia trick for his State of the Union, which, according to a contemporary New York Times article, was “passed along through relay stations to a good part of the country,” including his sick wife.

5. First Televised Address // Harry Truman

There were 44,000 TVs in the U.S. when President Harry Truman made the first televised primetime address on October 5, 1947. Truman essentially called on Americans to eat less, saving the country’s excess food supply for European countries still recovering from World War II. Truman suggested Americans skip meat on Tuesdays and eggs and poultry on Thursdays and set aside a slice of bread each day. He also suggested restaurants skip the complimentary bread and butter. “We believe that self-control is the best control,” he said. “From now on, we shall be testing at every meal the degree to which each of us is willing to exercise self-control for the good of all.”

6. First Email // Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton has often said that the first email he sent as president was to astronaut John Glenn, who had recently boarded the International Space Station to test the effects of space on aging. But as The Atlantic confirmed last year, this is a complete myth. John Gibbons, Clinton’s Science Advisor, explained, “we wanted to introduce the President to email and the Net. So we brought him over to the old EOB, and he sat down in front of this computer—it may have been the first time he sat down in front of a computer—and showed him how email worked and gave him his email address over across the street in the Oval Office. So he typed in his first email message. It was something like, Bill Clinton, it’s time to come home for lunch. Signed, Hillary, something like that. I saved a copy of it. That was his first email.” And in 1994, the New York Times reported on an email that Clinton sent to the Prime Minister of Sweden. And in what was described as a breach of netiquette even back then, it was “COMPOSED ENTIRELY OF CAPITAL LETTERS.”

7. First Webchat // Bill Clinton

Almost exactly a year after his purported exchange with Glenn, Clinton became the first president to take questions from Internet users in a forum hosted by Democratic Leadership Council and the Internet company Excite@Home. Digital communications had boomed during his administration. In 1993, 1.3 million computers were connected to the web. By 1999, 56 million were online. For 90 minutes on November 8, 1999, a moderator sorted through questions posed to Clinton and an assistant typed out his answers. (The 53-year-old president admitted to being “technologically challenged.”) About 50,000 watched the video feed. Clinton responded to a questioner that the chances of a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians were “better than 50-50.” He also told “Cynthia in Arizona” that he was not hoarding food in preparation for the Y2K computer crash.

8. First Tweet // Barack Obama

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign made unprecedented use of social media. When he was elected to office, his staff instituted The White House Twitter account, while political allies kept up his @BarackObama. Obama never sent a tweet from his own fingers, however, until a tour of the Red Cross’s Washington, D.C. headquarters on January 18, 2010. A Red Cross employee apparently coaxed Obama to hit the “send” button on a tweet reading, “President Obama and the First Lady are here visiting our disaster operation center right now,” marking the first tweet physically delivered by a U.S. president. On May 18, 2015, Obama established his own Twitter account, @POTUS.

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10 Things to Remember About Memorial Day
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Memorial Day is much more than just a three-day weekend and a chance to get the year's first sunburn. Here's a handy 10-pack of facts to give the holiday some perspective.

1. IT STARTED WITH THE CIVIL WAR.

Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers on both sides died. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the country led to spontaneous commemorations of the dead:

• In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their dead from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery.

• In April 1866, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. In the same month, in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.

• Waterloo, New York began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the "birthplace of Memorial Day."

2. MAJOR GENERAL JOHN A. LOGAN MADE IT OFFICIAL.

General Logan, the speaker at the Carbondale gathering, also was commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868 "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."

The orders expressed hope that the observance would be "kept up from year to year while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades."

3. IT WAS FIRST KNOWN AS DECORATION DAY.

The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. The name Memorial Day goes back to 1882, but the older name didn't disappear until after World War II. Federal law declared "Memorial Day" the official name in 1967.

4. THE HOLIDAY IS A FRANCHISE.

Calling Memorial Day a "national holiday" is a bit of a misnomer. While there are 10 federal holidays created by Congress—including Memorial Day—they apply only to Federal employees and the District of Columbia. Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day's pay.

For the rest of us, our holidays were enacted state by state. New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday, in 1873. Most Northern states had followed suit by the 1890s. The states of the former Confederacy were unenthusiastic about a holiday memorializing those who, in General Logan's words, "united to suppress the late rebellion." The South didn't adopt the May 30 Memorial Day until after World War I, by which time its purpose had been broadened to include those who died in all the country's wars.

In 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday of the month.

5. IT WAS JAMES GARFIELD'S FINEST HOUR—OR MAYBE HOUR-AND-A-HALF.

James Garfield
Edward Gooch, Getty Images

On May 30, 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—which, until 1864, was Confederate General Robert E. Lee's plantation.

Some 5000 people attended on a spring day which, The New York Times reported, was "somewhat too warm for comfort." The principal speaker was James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, Republican congressman from Ohio and future president.

"I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion," Garfield began, and then continued to utter them. "If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung." It went on like that for pages and pages.

As the songs, speeches and sermons ended, the participants helped to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.

6. NOT EVEN THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER CAN AVOID MEDIA SCRUTINY THESE DAYS.

"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." That is the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns, established at Arlington National Cemetery to inter the remains of the first Unknown Soldier, a World War I fighter, on November 11, 1921. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War subsequently were interred in the tomb on Memorial Day 1958.

An emotional President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment of six bones, the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier, on November 28, 1984. Fourteen years later, those remains were disinterred, no longer unknown. Spurred by an investigation by CBS News, the defense department removed the remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns for DNA testing.

The once-unknown fighter was Air Force pilot Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, whose jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972. "The CBS investigation suggested that the military review board that had changed the designation on Lt. Blassie's remains to 'unknown' did so under pressure from veterans' groups to honor a casualty from the Vietnam War," The New York Times reported in 1998.

Lieutenant Blassie was reburied near his hometown of St. Louis. His crypt at Arlington remains permanently empty.

7. VIETNAM VETS GO WHOLE HOG.

Rolling Thunder members and motocyclists wait for the 'Blessing of the Bikes' to start at at the Washington National Cathedral, May 26, 2017 in Washington, DC
ANGELA WEISS, AFP/Getty Images

On Memorial Day weekend in 1988, 2500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C. for the first Rolling Thunder rally to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action or prisoners of war. By 2002, the ride had swelled to 300,000 bikers, many of them veterans. There may have been a half-million participants in 2005, in what organizers bluntly call "a demonstration—not a parade."

A national veterans rights group, Rolling Thunder takes its name from the B-52 carpet-bombing runs during the war in Vietnam.

8. MEMORIAL DAY HAS ITS CUSTOMS.

General Orders No. 11 stated that "in this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed," but over time several customs and symbols became associated with the holiday.

• It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.

• Taps, the 24-note bugle call, is played at all military funerals and memorial services. It originated in 1862 when Union General Dan Butterfield "grew tired of the 'lights out' call sounded at the end of each day," according to The Washington Post. Together with the brigade bugler, Butterfield made some changes to the tune.

Not long after, the melody was used at a burial for the first time when a battery commander ordered it played in lieu of the customary three rifle volleys over the grave. The battery was so close to enemy lines, and the commander was worried the shots would spark renewed fighting.

• The World War I poem "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. In 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for "keeping the faith with all who died." The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

9. THERE STILL IS A GRAY MEMORIAL DAY.

Several Southern states continue to set aside a day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day. It's on the fourth Monday in April in Alabama, April 26 in Georgia, June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee, the last Monday in April in Mississippi, May 10 in North and South Carolina, January 19 in Texas, and the last Monday in May in Virginia.

10. EACH MEMORIAL DAY IS A LITTLE DIFFERENT.

Ricky Parada sits at the grave of his little brother Cpl. Nicolas D. Paradarodriguez who was killed in Afghanistan, at Section 60 on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery on May 28, 2012 in Arlington, Virginia
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

No question that Memorial Day is a solemn event. Still, don't feel too guilty about doing something frivolous (like having barbecue) over the weekend. After all, you weren't the one who instituted the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. That credit goes to Indianapolis businessman Carl Fisher. The winning driver that day was Ray Harroun, who averaged 74.6 mph and completed the race in 6 hours and 42 minutes.

Gravitas returned on May 30, 1922, when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. Supreme Court Chief Justice (and former president) William Howard Taft dedicated the monument before a crowd of 50,000 people, segregated by race, and which included a row of Union and Confederate veterans. Also attending was Lincoln's surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. "is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday."

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Henry Kissinger
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Keystone/Getty Images

You probably know Henry Kissinger as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the German-born political scientist and diplomat.

1. MAO ZEDONG TRIED TO GIVE HIM "10 MILLION" WOMEN.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was engaged in a discussion of trade with Mao Zedong when the chairman abruptly changed the subject by saying, “We [China] don't have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands.”

Kissinger sidestepped this bizarre offer and changed the subject, but Mao later returned to the subject by jokingly asking, “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million.”

This time Kissinger diplomatically replied, “It is such a novel proposition. We will have to study it.”

Other Chinese officials in the room pointed out that Mao’s attitudes toward women would cause quite a stir if the press got their hands on these quotes, so Mao apologized to his female interpreter and talked Kissinger into having the comments removed from the records of the meeting.

2. NO, HE'S NOT THE INSPIRATION FOR DR. STRANGELOVE.

Here’s a riddle that’s been bugging film buffs for decades: who was the basis for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? For years many observers thought that Kissinger might have inspired Peter Sellers’s memorable performance. Blame it on the accent and the glasses. Even though Kissinger was still a relatively obscure Harvard professor when the film premiered in 1964, the rumor that Kubrick modeled the character on him just wouldn't die.

Kubrick did what he could to dispel this notion before his death, saying, “I think this is slightly unfair to Kissinger ... It was unintentional. Neither Peter nor I had ever seen Kissinger before the film was shot.” Most observers now think that Dr. Strangelove was actually a distorted version of Herman Kahn, an eccentric nuclear strategist for the RAND Corporation.

3. HE WAS QUITE THE LADIES MAN.

Even in his youth, Kissinger didn’t quite fit the bill of a matinee idol, but he has always been a hit with the ladies. A 1972 poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom Hef’s ladies would most like to go out on a date. He also had a string of celebrity girlfriends in his younger days, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, Shirley Maclaine, and Liv Ullman, who called Kissinger, “the most interesting man I have ever met.”

Kissinger’s swinging bachelor days are long gone, though. He was married to Ann Fleischer from 1949 to 1964 then married philanthropist Nancy Maginnes in 1974—a union that at one point seemed so improbable that just a year before they tied the knot, Maginnes had called speculation that she and Kissinger would marry “outrageous.”

4. PROTECTING HIM ISN'T ALWAYS EASY.

In 1985 former Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy released the memoir Protecting the President—The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent, in which he described being on Kissinger’s security detail as “a real pain.” McCarthy shared a funny anecdote about a 1977 trip to Acapulco with Kissinger and his wife. There were signs warning of sharks in the water, but Nancy wanted to go for a swim. Kissinger then told his security detail to get in the water to guard for sharks.

Personal protection is one thing, but McCarthy and his fellow agents drew the line at fighting off sharks. Instead, they made the reasonable point that if the Kissingers were afraid of sharks, they shouldn’t go swimming. Agent McCarthy did, however, offer a compromise; he told Kissinger, “If the sharks come up on this beach, my agents will fight them.”

5. THE STATE DEPARTMENT NIXED HIS OFFICIAL PORTRAIT.

Official portraits of government luminaries don’t usually become big news, but in 1978 the painting of Kissinger commissioned by the State Department for its gallery made headlines. Boston artist Gardner Cox had previously painted Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, so he got the $12,000 commission to paint Kissinger. The finished product didn’t earn rave reviews, though.

Some viewers at the State Department thought the painting lacked Kissinger’s dynamism and made him look “somewhat a dwarf.” Others felt the portrait was “a rogues' gallery thing." The State Department offered to let Cox fix the painting, but he said he didn’t see anything that need changing. He lost the commission but got $700 for his expenses.

Kissinger took the whole episode in stride, though. When Houston artist J. Anthony Wills painted a replacement, Kissinger declared it to be, “an excellent likeness, swelled head and all,” and called the unveiling "one of my most fulfilling moments. Until they do Mount Rushmore."

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