March 5, 1977, Walter Cronkite is in the White House’s Oval Office sitting in a wing-backed chair in front of a coffee table and in front of the fireplace. He is broadcasting live on the CBS Radio Network. Cronkite was not alone. President Carter was there, too. It was his office, after all.
And there was a phone. Who was on the other end of the line? The American Public. The program’s premise was simple: the President of the United States would answer questions propounded by the public. At the same time the broadcast was historic. There was no email. No twitter. No whitehouse.gov. Connecting the President directly with citizens was an extraordinary concept.
For the next two hours, Cronkite wrangled calls while President Carter answered a variety of questions. Variety is an understatement. Carter fielded questions regarding foreign policy, oil companies, taxes, and even questions regarding his son Chip living in the Whitehouse. Some callers were fans of Carter, others were not. Some callers identified themselves as Republicans who supported the President. One caller was eleven years old.
Despite the wide array of callers, no one managed to truly stump Carter. When speaking to a woman who’s father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Carter said “Why don’t you let me have someone call you Monday, if you don’t mind. It wouldn’t help much if I called you, because I’m not a medical doctor and I’m not familiar with it. Would that suit you okay?” A caller challenging Carter over drug enforcement and the origin of heroin seemed to bother Cronkite more than the President. His answers were honest, the President admitted he wasn’t aware of certain pieces of legislation.
Regardless of Carter’s policy positions and his answers to questions, “Ask President Carter” was a truly historic broadcast. Never before had the President been accessible via telephone on a live radio broadcast. And the questions presented to the President weren’t confined to one or two issues that he had been prepared to handle. One can argue that the American people were also fascinated with the concept of calling and speaking directly to Carter; nine million people called into the broadcast trying to reach him. The President seemed to enjoy the broadcast as well, remarking: “[t]he questions that come in from people all over the country are the kind that you would never get in a press conference. The news people would never raise them, like the Ottawa Indian question. And I think it’s very good for me to understand directly from the American people what they are concerned about and questions that have never been asked of me and reported through the news media.”
Of course, “Ask President Carter” also spawned a great Saturday Night Live parody. On March 12, 1977, Bill Murray played the role of Cronkite and Dan Aykroyd played the role of the President. Aykroyd’s Carter answered questions regarding a mail-sorting machine, talked a young man into “mellowing out” while on an acid trip, and dealt with the infamous “Doctor Midnight.”