January 1st, 1963 was John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 710th day as President of the United States. Those two years had seen the youngest Commander in Chief pushed to the brink, stumble and rally to guide the free world clear of nuclear catastrophe. His approval rating was an impressive 76%, and he had established himself as an orator and motivator par excellence.
Mrs Craig Baffles Mr Kennedy
Under the Kennedy administration the Presidential press conference became an event, an as yet unmatched intellectual sparring session which showcased the charm, quick wittedness and sex appeal of the 35th President. Those 64 sessions remain the gold standard for all future Chief Executives. Kennedy was the first President to go live on television with press conferences and, as proven by the Nixon debates, the cameras loved him.
Three quarters of the way through his first live conference, on January 25, 1961, Kennedy stumbled upon a revelation, one which he would utilize tirelessly to his infinite advantage. So far the conference had been a somewhat staid affair, not far removed from the bore-fests of the Eisenhower era. It was then that Kennedy decided to test something out. He’d try to throw in a little humor. After giving a rather lengthy response to a question about the House Rules Committee, he quipped, “I merely give my view as an interested citizen.” This statement was greeted with a burst of laughter from the press gallery. Kennedy smiled satisfyingly, and from then on humor became a basic ingredient of his meet the press sessions.
There was one reporter, however, who Kennedy could not soothe over with his natural charms. Her name was Miss May Craig ( she was actually a widow in her mid sixties but everyone referred to her as Miss Craig). She’d been attending press conferences since the early days of Roosevelt and was known for asking the prickly questions. Whenever she rose to quiz Kennedy all the other reporters held their breath.
And so it was that when Miss Craig rose to her feet on August 1,1963 no one was surprised when she waded directly into the controversial area of mixed race marriage (miscegenation). Here is what she asked . . .
Mr. President, in some 24 States all over the country there are miscegenation laws in various forms. California courts once found them unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, and said that marriage is a fundamental right of free men. Now, in your crusade against racial discrimination for all races, will you seek to abrogate these laws, and how would you go about it?
Miss Craig was asking a loaded question – in effect she was saying to the President, “Would you like your sister to marry a Black man?” The normally unflappable Kennedy was blind sided. He fumbled for an answer . . .
“Well, I, the law would, if there was a marriage of the kind you described, i would assume that, and if any legal action was taken against the party then I, they would have a relief, it would seem to me, in the courts, and it would be carried, I presume, to the higher courts, depending on the judgment, so that the laws themselves would be affected by the ultimate decision of the Supreme Court.”
Miss Craig was not impressed with this ducking of his own opinion to place the responsibility on the Supreme Court. “Can’t the Department of Justice take some discrimination cases to the courts themselves?” she asked.
Kennedy, visibly nervous now, replied “I’m not sure. I’m not sure they could, as you describe it, because I’m not sure they would be a party in the case. It would probably be an order to have the case heard, and this is a legal matter about which I’m not familiar with, and I speak with some – the valor of ignorance, as I’m not a lawyer . . . I would think there’d have to be a party at interest who would bring the suit . . .er’
The graceful and in control President seemed stuck. He looked up and down – and then seemed to remember something. . .
“But this is a matter which I’d be glad to have the Attorney General or the Solicitor General speak to you personally about, Miss Craig.”
The room, tense seconds before, erupted in laughter. Miss Craig flopped into her chair and Kennedy smiled as he soaked in the adulation. Once again he had been saved by his wry sense of humor.