When a Game Show made a Government Announcement
Written by Daniel Cuenca
The position of “Secretary to the President of the United States” sounds less glamorous than it really is. This was not the run-of-the-mill business job where one sits at a desk and tells people when the president is in or out of the office. In a sense, the executive secretary of the whole White House is also the secretary to the president. They would be in charge of overseeing both the regular White House personnel and the president's correspondence. When the president is out of the office, the secretary will often speak on his behalf to the press. Sounds familiar? These are all the responsibilities of the precursor to what is now the White House Chief of Staff.
Considering how notable this position is, it makes sense that when President Lyndon B. Johnson selected Geraldine "Gerri" Whittington to serve as his new personal secretary in 1963, he was aware that he was about to make a significant announcement. She was an African-American woman in the middle of the civil rights movement. She was not only the first Black woman in history to hold the job, but also one of the few to have any kind of official government job in the White House.
Johnson was so pleased with his choice that he even asked one of his other employees to find out Whittington's home phone number so he could offer her the job personally. He also wanted to make sure the American public knew about this groundbreaking development, but decided against a typical press conference. According to Johnson, a press conference to announce the hiring of a single Black woman would seem to many Americans as pandering, so he came up with another strategy.
One of the most successful American game shows on television between the 1950s and 1960s was What’s My Line? (The “Line” in the title refers to a line of work.) It would involve a panel of celebrity judges who would interrogate a contestant to try and determine their occupation. Families across the country watched this show every week, way more than they would tune into some minor White House press conference.
Putting it together yet? Indeed, it was through the 696th What's My Line? episode that Whittington's employment was officially but genuinely announced in early 1964. During one of the few shows hosted by celebrity TV personality Steve Allen, the celebrity judges who questioned Whittington about her new job were among the first citizens to discover that she was the first Black woman to be the president's private secretary.