By Kevin Baker
On Sunday evening, March 12, 1933, a worried nation sat down by its radio sets to listen to its president. It was the nadir of the Great Depression, and between one-quarter and one-third of the work force was unemployed. Every bank in America had been closed for eight days-many of them since March 1-and much of the public had been scraping by on a combination of scrip, barter, and credit. Chaos beckoned.
Through the gloom, a calm, confident, reasoning voice was heard. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, explaining to the people he governed just how they had reached the fix they were in, and how they would get out of it.
Roosevelt’s voice was already familiar to the public, of course. They had heard it many times before, during his years of public service, and the presidential campaign of the year before. They had heard it most recently as stern, clarion call on the old Inauguration Day of March 4, delivering the bracing message that “All we have to fear is fear itself,” and even hinting at the possibility of dictatorship—a warning greeted by applause so loud and so sustained that it sent a flutter of fear through Eleanor Roosevelt.
On March 12, the President struck a different chord. This was the first of dozens of “fireside chats” Franklin Roosevelt would deliver over the course of his twelve years in office. Speaking in terms that were clear, concise, but never condescending, he began by explaining how the banking system worked: “…when you deposit money is a bank the bank does not put the money into a safe-deposit vault. It invests your money in many different forms of credit-bonds, mortgages. In other words, the bank puts your money to work to keep the wheels turning around…”
He went on to announce that the banks would reopen the next day, and that those that chose to participate would have most of their deposits guaranteed by the federal government. It was not the end of the Depression, but it was the end of the downward spiral that had brought the economy to a standstill.
Roosevelt would go on to give 30 more fireside chats, hundreds of formal speeches, and 998 press conferences, as he guided his audiences through that wonderfully American concoction of pragmatism, improvisation, and experiment that became known as the New Deal; as he negotiated with them through the shoals of neutrality, and the terrible conflict from which the United States would emerge as the greatest power in world history.
It was a remarkable departure for an institution that had previously tended to deal with the public through respectful newsmen, handing written questions to the President’s press secretary, to be answered at his convenience. Few chief executives had ever dared to speak quite so frankly to the American people, about such complex and important subjects—and even fewer have dared to since. The fireside chats were, of course, shrewdly calculated to be homey, “down-to-earth” appeals to “the common man.” Franklin Roosevelt was nothing if not a consummate politician.
Yet they appear downright innocent and high-minded compared to the calculation of innumerable later performances, such as presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton picking out “regular people” in the audiences of their State of the Union addresses—or Richard Nixon, giving his “Checkers” speech before a facade of empty book bindings, on a TV set known generically as “Veteran’s Den.”
Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s not uncritical secretary of labor, described how thoroughly he came to envision the audience himself, across the imaginary fireside: “His face would smile and light up as though he were actually sitting on the front porch or in the parlor with them. People felt this, and it bound them to him in affection.”
Above all, Roosevelt’s fireside chats contrasted with those of another political master of the airwaves. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at the bottom of Depression paralleled Roosevelt’s in many ways; a dark star across the Atlantic. Throughout the thirties, he enchanted his people with his hateful Strum und Drag, pumped out through cheap plastic radioes deliberately built and sold to the Germanic mass man. The appropriation of this new medium for reason and common sense, was one of the great triumphs of American democracy.
American Greats Edited by Robert A. Wilson & Stanley Marcus
Public Affairs Press, a member of the Perseus Group