FDR'S fireside chats went a long way toward calming fears during dire times

October 19, 2008|By Eileen Ambrose | Eileen Ambrose,eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

You hear lots of comparisons between our current economic troubles and the Great Depression.

One big difference: Back then, a worried nation had President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fireside chats.

In these radio broadcasts, Roosevelt explained the crisis of the moment and what steps he and Congress were taking to fix it. He encouraged Americans to play their part, whether it was to have patience or make sacrifices.

Roosevelt's words guided the country through its worst economic days and a war. And their calming effect still works today. Author and history buff Sarah Vowell recently said on The Daily Show that she was so disturbed by today's headlines that she went back and read the fireside chats. "I decided to go back to the '30s to be reassured," she said.

The chats, about 30 in all, ran from 1933 to 1944. FDR didn't sugarcoat problems. He told listeners the country in early 1933 "was dying by inches." He warned upfront that the government might make mistakes along the way.

So why were these chats so comforting?

"His message was to give hope and confidence and don't be afraid," says William J. vanden Heuvel, founder and chairman emeritus of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y. "He defined the challenge and invited [listeners] to share in resolving it. It wasn't 'us against the government.' "

Vanden Heuvel was 3 years old when Roosevelt gave his first fireside chat. The 78-year-old recalls gathering around the radio with his parents, immigrants from Holland and Belgium who didn't speak English well.

"They understood," vanden Heuvel says. "Roosevelt's voice in its eloquence and confidence conveyed all sorts of things."

FDR also was a hero to the vanden Heuvel family. His moratorium on mortgage foreclosures saved the family's house after vanden Heuvel's father lost his factory job. And as a teenager, vanden Heuvel hitchhiked from his home in upstate New York to attend Roosevelt's funeral in Hyde Park.

Elvin Lim, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says it wasn't the coziness or simplicity of Roosevelt's words that made his chats so effective. In fact, given the length of words and sentences Roosevelt used, he was speaking at a near-college level compared with the eighth-grade level of speech used by modern-day presidents, Lim says.

The chats worked because they were instructive, he says. Lim says he has read thousands of letters to Roosevelt, and the bulk of them thanked FDR for the information he provided and for helping them understand the complexity of the crisis.

Roosevelt served as an instructor and even invited listeners to take out maps as he walked them through progress on the war, Lim notes.

Another reason that the chats succeeded, experts say, was the medium Roosevelt used - radio.

"You got to think of this world without television, without the Internet. ... It is a world in which everyday life revolved around the radio," says Jeffrey Hyson, an assistant professor of history at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "What he did was exploit the intimacy of connection that radio provided, the sense that the person inside that box was speaking to you directly."

When Roosevelt asked listeners to tell him their troubles, millions did just that, Hyson says. The White House today is still digging out from under the mail, he says jokingly.

IN HIS WORDS

May 7, 1933 Discussing the New Deal

"I know that the people of this country will understand this and will also understand the spirit in which we are undertaking this policy. I do not deny that we may make mistakes of procedure as we carry out the policy. I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself but for the team."

July 24, 1933, On the recovery

"On the basis of this simple principle of everybody doing things together, we are starting out on this nationwide attack on unemployment. It will succeed if our people understand it - in the big industries, in the little shops, in the great cities and in the small villages. There is nothing complicated about it, and there is nothing particularly new in the principle. It goes back to the basic idea of society and of the nation itself that people acting in a group can accomplish things which no individual acting alone could even hope to bring about."

April 28, 1935 On Works Relief

"This is a great national crusade to destroy enforced idleness, which is an enemy of the human spirit generated by this depression. Our attack upon these enemies must be without stint and without discrimination."

in his words

March 12, 1933 Addressing the bank crisis

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