Happy Days are Here Again! I can’t wait to warm up the tubes of my massive Magnavox mahogany radio in anticipation of a Presidential fireside chat!
I am ready to have my confidence restored, my spirits buoyed, and be reassured of our democracy. Of course, because this is not 1939 and our president is not Franklin D. Roosevelt but Donald J. Trump, I am also ready to be disappointed.
Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
Hoping to channel FDR, DJT wants to have a live televised fireside chat with the nation to read the full transcript of his “perfect” call with the Ukranian president, proof positive there was no wrongdoing.
The thought of that is perfectly dismal. He is likely to go down in flames.
Communicating the Presidency
Along with being a natural leader, FDR was a communications natural.
Whereas Roosevelt masterfully used the relatively new medium of radio to speak to Americans to instill trust and comfort a troubled nation, Trump’s motives for his “fireside chat” is purely self-serving.
Not unlike his tweets.
Twitter is, in fact, Trump’s own version of FDR’s fireside chats. Just as Roosevelt saw the potential of mass media to communicate with the widest audience directly, so twitter is Trump’s tool to speak immediately to the American people.
The Presidential communications comparisons end there.
Roosevelt lifted the nation’s spirits during two great national crises- the Great Depression and WWII. Trump’s tweets are mean spirited, divisive, and abusive; he attacks and bully’s others, praises himself, assaults ally nations, and lavishes praise on dictators.
The Only Thing We Have To Fear
The Great Depression had spread across the globe by the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933. Our economy had declined dramatically with bank failures, industry crippled, and 13 million unemployed.
As President, he needed to calm the fears, restore the confidence of Americans and gain support for the programs of the New Deal. Skillfully he would drive home the point the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
On Sunday, March 12, 1933, only 8 days after his inauguration, Roosevelt took to the airwaves giving his first fireside chat.
Though most of the radio speeches were not actually in front of a fireplace, the very first fireside chat was.
Microphones of the National, Columbia, and Mutual Broadcasting systems were installed on the ground floor of the Executive Mansion in front of the fireplace in the Diplomatic Reception Room. The 3 major networks cleared their schedules for the live broadcasts.
That evening at 10pm, radio’s evening prime time, our President spoke directly to the nation. With his cigarette burning down in its ivory holder, FDR explaining how banks work. Like nearly all the fireside chats Roosevelt began with the greeting, ”My Friends”
“My friends I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.”
Speaking simply without condescension, he translated the complexities of an industrial economy into phrases and metaphors almost anyone could understand. His language plain and functional, as though speaking neighbor to neighbor.
He asked people to trust what he and Congress were doing to resolve the problem. It created a great connection between FDR and the public and helped prevent a complete collapse of the banking system.
From March 1933 to June 1944 FDR addressed Americans in some 30 fireside chats, Broadcast on the radio he spoke on a variety of topics from the New Deal, to unemployment to fighting fascism in Europe to military progress in Europe and Pacific.
These fireside chats would be seared into the memory of those who heard them. People like my mother. Everything stopped when a fireside chat began. The country came to a halt when FDR began to speak
On Sunday nights, the network cleared all their regular programs as families gathered in their living room encircling their radios.
Roosevelt’s fireside chats reached record-breaking audiences.
His patrician voice could be heard emanating from car radios with the windows rolled down, resonating out of apartment windows, suburban cottages and farmhouses alike. One could walk into any defense plant and Rosie the Riveter would put down her welding instruments for a few minutes as the factory filed with the presidents voice uninterrupted on the radio
Although most listened in their own homes, some movie theatre would halt a screening and switch over to the broadcast so the audience could listen. When FDR finished, the movie resumed.
Listeners to the fireside chats deluged the WH with letters and telegrams. Though it was requested to have more fireside chats he resisted.
During the war when nerves ran especially high, my teenage mother would recall how her family would gather together in her Crowne Heights living room around the large Philco radio that stood in the corner. As her father adjusted the large glowing amber dial of the massive carved mahogany set, he would announce in a hushed tone that “President Roosevelt is about to tell us how the war is going.” Silence was expected.
Roosevelt’s fireside chats were markedly different from his orations from a podium and demonstrated his expertise before the radio microphone.
The president warm and folksy, modulated his voice to evoke a sense of friendly intimacy.
As if addressing listeners directly and personally, it was my mother would recall, “just President Roosevelt and the American people in what sounded like a one to one conversation. As if he were speaking just to you.” FDR always said he wanted to capture the spirit of a man in his own home talking informally to his neighbors in their living room.
It was a unique gift of communication, assuring Americans during a time of grave crises that if we all stood together, freedom and justice would prevail and fear would be conquered by hope.
Donald Trump, You Are No FDR
Today we find ourselves again in crisis.
This crisis, as the ones then, is a crisis that will define America as to who we are and what we really believe about democracy. Just as we did then, once again we fight fear and greed. Meanness and intimidation have taken over and the voices of reason and calm have been mocked. Trump’s voice devoid of civility and compassion can’t inspire us.
He is incapable.
In 1933 a radio listener from California wrote to FDR: ”Your voice radiates so much human sympathy and tenderness, and Oh, how the public does love that.”
Oh, how I would love to tune into a fireside chat to listen to our president. Just not Donald Trump.
The greatness that still runs in America’s soul has a deep hunger to be reawakened.
By a real leader. Not one who continues to stoke the fire of hate in our nation.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
I loved your article, Sally! As kids we grew up hearing all about FDR’s fireside chats & how beloved he was! Thank you for the memories that are so comforting! Also, thanks for making the important contrast of a great human being & president to one who’s so destructive making the majority of our country anxiety-ridden instead of being comforted.
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Thanks, Beth, and welcome! There was a mythical quality hearing about FDR and his fireside chats as I was growing up. FDR was revered and my mother was a real Roosevelt-Nik-the thought of Trump evoking and trying to replicate anything regarding FDR is a shanda!