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Clio's Temple

Taking to the people

On March 12, 1933, something extraordinary happened. People who turned on their radios heard a live talk from the newly-inaugurated President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was unprecedented and slightly scandalous. The idea of a President addressing the American people was reserved only for state occasions, such as addresses to Congress. The concept of the "Fireside Chat" became such a success that it redefined the relationship between Americans and their elected leaders.

Radio listeners had already heard FDR broadcast his confident assertion that, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." What the first Fireside Chat revealed was a man who could talk to ordinary folks on their own level and in everyday terms. Roosevelt took the opportunity to explain to the American people the banking crisis that had attended his accession to the presidency, and the steps taken to restore public confidence in our financial institutions.

As a public speaker, FDR lacked Lincoln's ability to frame great issues in simple terms. He didn't have John F. Kennedy's ability to sound as though he were reciting poetry to the national audience. What he demonstrated was that, by talking to the people as "My friends," he could forge a bond that did an end run around the established order of politics. This was a great tool for restoring public confidence in the depths of a national funk. He would later use that ability to explain to the people why sending aid to a beleaguered Britain was in our national interest - albeit with a generous measure of the famous Roosevelt deviousness included. Ronald Reagan idolized FDR as a young man. Although he later entered the presidency in order to reverse the tide of governmental centralization that FDR started, Reagan used the Roosevelt model of going directly to the people again and again.

It's impossible for most of us to understand how deeply the availability to deploy new forms of mass communication - radio, television, the Internet, social networks - has altered how we look at the presidency.  FDR, like most of his successors, sometimes promised more than he delivered. But it may stand as one of his accomplishments that he recognized how profoundly technology was changing the bonds between leaders and followers. We're still wrestling with those changes today.

4 Comments to Taking to the people:

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Phyllis Walls on Wednesday, March 13, 2013 9:04 PM
Steve, thanks for the history lessons, so well told. Very interesting. Hopefully, with the mass media, world-wide, that we have today, our politicians will not be able to keep important issues secret & will make them more accountable & open to more scrutiny. I think all the many personal appearances of Obama on national TV, have helped him "bond" with the public. With the latest hacking among the rich & famous, we are all at risk of having our lives open to circumspection.
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Steve Gordy on Thursday, March 14, 2013 6:00 AM
Thanks, Phyllis. I guess it's a case of "Once a teacher, always a teacher." All this media exposure helps to turn politicians into celebrities(not a good thing in my book). On the flip side, there's also no such thing as privacy anymore in politics.
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