Last Sunday's episode of AMC's Mad Men used a little-remembered bit of television history as a backdrop. The episode took place mostly on Valentine's Day, 1962, and as the show switched from scene to scene, nearly all the characters were watching a tour of the White House hosted by First Lady Jackie Kennedy. The tour itself was real, and the overwhelming interest of Mad Men's fictional characters was by no means overdrawn. Three-quarters of all the television sets in use on that Wednesday night 46 years ago were tuned to the tour, which was shown simultaneously on CBS and NBC. Several million more viewers watched a rebroadcast four nights later on ABC. Eventually the tour was show in more than 50 countries around the world, with an audience estimated in in the hundreds of millions.
Much of the fascination was simply with the White House itself. It is incredibly hard to picture all these years later, even for those of us who were there, but the America of 1962 was vast and disconnected -- unwired, in today's jargon. There was no Internet, no cable TV, no 24-hour news channel. Air travel was still an expensive luxury for most people. So the opportunity to glimpse inside the White House -- which for most Americans was semi-mythological, something they'd heard of but never seen, was irresistible.
So, too, was Jackie Kennedy. She was the youngest First Lady of the 20th century and the most stylish of all time. Her husband's political braintrust was just beginning to sense her drawing power. Earlier in the year she had made a semi-official goodwill visit to India and the Middle East that had attracted a blizzard of wildly favorable reaction. The networks, which covered the trip extensively, sensed a chance to draw in a new audience: The White House tour was the first public primetime documentary explicitly pitched to women.
All three networks collaborated on the tour, sharing expenses -- though the actual production, which involved 54 technicians and nine tons of equipment, fell to CBS. Reporter Charles Collingwood accompanied Mrs. Kennedy on the tour, which was taped during an eight-hour session two days before the broadcast. But he often disappeared during the program, leaving her alone to narrate.
Now the tour is available for viewing once again -- AMC has posted the entire thing on its website, broken into four chunks for easier access. (President Kennedy pops in for a few minutes during the fourth segment.) I suspect a lot of viewers will find it underwhelming. At times, Mrs. Kennedy's breathy voice and her mechanical presentation combine to truly jarring effect. (She does a little better when narrating from off-camera, perhaps reading from a script.) What may seem affected and even a little silly today, though, struck Americans as sophisticated and worldly back then. The myth of Camelot may not have been born on the night of the White House tour, but it surely got a big boost.