President Kennedy liked frequent and live press conferences. So did newspaper correspondents, because it gave them a chance to be on television. The meetings were held in the State Department auditorium to accommodate the heavy demand for seating. On October 31, 1963, the Charlotte Observer called the Knight Newspapers Washington Bureau with a request.
Governor Terry Sanford had been lobbying to get a proposed national environmental health research center placed in North Carolina’s new Research Triangle Park. The park was an expanse of land between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill designated for research activity, but it was struggling to gain tenants. It needed a catalyst. Because of disagreement over where to put the environmental center, its approval was stalled in Congress. The Observer needed a reporter to query the President about the possibility of putting it in North Carolina. I was available. It would prove to be Kennedy’s next-to-last press conference.
The procedure was orderly. The President, wearing a three-button pin-stripe suit and narrow tie, entered from stage left, stood behind a lectern, and went right to work. He started at his right, recognizing the senior correspondent, Merriman Smith of United Press International. Then, for the next half hour, he worked his way from right to left. Reporters in his line of vision would stand up if they had a question, and he would recognize one of them with a point or a nod. The situation was more dignified than your average press conference today. No one had to raise his or her voice because the acoustics were good, and a sound technician with a directional microphone stood on the stage to pick up every syllable for the live television audience.
I sat to the President’s left so that I would have time to compose myself. About 22 minutes into the conference, he got to my sector. When he pointed to me, there was an awkward pause while I turned and looked at the reporters seated behind me, thinking he might mean to recognize somebody more important. Then I looked back, and the President nodded at me, a little impatiently. I asked my question.
“Mr. President, as you know, the plan to build a National Environmental Health Research Center has been hung up in Congress. Apparently they can’t decide where to build it. There is a report that you would like it built in North Carolina. Would you?”
To the surprise of some, he had a ready and specific answer.
“North Carolina would be very acceptable,” he said. “I think the Budget recommendation was Maryland, but North Carolina does have the facilities. But I think in our recommendations we made, HEW made, the first recommendation was Maryland. The site in North Carolina is a good one, as there is a triangle there of colleges and hospitals and medical facilities. I have indicated that that would be satisfactory, if that was the judgment of the Congress. I think our first choice was Maryland.”
Some of my cynical colleagues believed the question was a plant, that Kennedy had been warned about it in advance. No, no, I said, this was spontaneous. But much later, after I was more knowledgeable about the ways of Washington and politics as theater, I changed my mind. Governor Sanford had visited the White House a few days before to press that very issue, and it was probably he who made the suggestion to the Observer.
Political theater or not, it must have worked, because the stalemate in Congress ended in favor of North Carolina, and what is now known as the National Institute of Environmental Health Research Sciences has become a major presence in Research Triangle Park. Now that I live in North Carolina, I like to brag that I had something to do with that.
(Adapted from “Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism”).