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Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure
It’s not surprising that Democrats seek to wrap themselves in the Roosevelt cloak; what’s harder to understand is why so many Republicans do too. A distinguished historian explains.
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
Jubilant reporters could scarcely believe the transformation in the White House. So hostile had their relations become with FDR’s predecessor that Hoover, who was accused of employing the Secret Service to stop leaks and of launching a campaign of “terrorism” to get publishers to fire certain newspapermen, finally abandoned press conferences altogether. Furthermore, Hoover, like Harding and Coolidge before him, had insisted on written questions submitted in advance. But to the delight of the Washington press corps, Roosevelt immediately abolished that requirement and said that questions could be fired at him on the spot. At the end of the first conference, reporters did something they had never done before: they gave the man they were covering a spontaneous round of applause.
The initial euphoria continued long afterward. Roosevelt could sometimes be testy—he told one reporter to go off to a corner and put on a dunce cap—but mostly, especially in the New Deal years of 1933 to 1938, he was jovial and even chummy, in no small part because he regarded himself as a longtime newspaperman, since he had been editor in chief of the Harvard Crimson. The first President to appoint an official press secretary, he also made clear that members of the Fourth Estate were socially respectable by throwing a spring garden party for them at the White House.
Above all, FDR proved a never-ending source of news. Jack Bell, who covered the White House for the Associated Press, has written of him: “He talked in headline phrases. He acted, he emoted; he was angry, he was smiling. He was persuasive, he was demanding; he was philosophical, he was elemental. He was sensible, he was unreasonable; he was benevolent, he was malicious. He was satirical, he was soothing; he was funny, he was gloomy. He was exciting. He was human. He was copy.”
One columnist wrote afterward, “The doubters among us—and I was one of them—predicted that the free and open conference would last a few weeks and then would be abandoned.” But twice a week, with rare exceptions, year after year, the President submitted to the crossfire of interrogation. He left independently minded newspapermen like Raymond Clapper with the conviction that “the administration from President Roosevelt down has little to conceal and is willing to do business with the doors open.” If reporters were 60 percent for the New Deal, Clapper reckoned, they were 90 percent for Roosevelt personally.
Some observers have seen in the FDR press conference a quasi-constitutional institution like the question hour in the House of Commons. To a degree, it was. But one should keep in mind that the President had complete control over what he would discuss and what could be published. He used the press conference as a public relations device he could manipulate to his own advantage.
Franklin Roosevelt also was the first Chief Executive to take full advantage of radio as a means of projecting his ideas and personality directly into American homes. When FDR got before a microphone, he appeared, said one critic, to be “talking and toasting marshmallows at the same time.” In his first days in office he gave a radio address that was denominated a “fireside chat” because of his intimate, informal delivery that made every American think the President was talking directly to him or her. As the journalist and historian David Halberstam has pointed out: “He was the first great American radio voice. For most Americans of this generation, their first memory of politics would be sitting by a radio and hearing that voice, strong, confident, totally at ease. If he was going to speak, the idea of doing something else was unthinkable. If they did not yet have a radio, they walked the requisite several hundred yards to the home of a more fortunate neighbor who did. It was in the most direct sense the government reaching out and touching the citizen, bringing Americans into the political process and focusing their attention on the presidency as the source of good....Most Americans in the previous 160 years had never even seen a President; now almost all of them were hearing him, in their own homes. It was literally and figuratively electrifying.”
By quickening interest in government, Roosevelt became the country’s foremost civic educator. One scholar has observed: “Franklin Roosevelt changed the nature of political contests in this country by drawing new groups into active political participation. Compare the political role of labor under the self-imposed handicap of Samuel Gompers’ narrow vision with labor’s political activism during and since the Roosevelt years. The long-run results were striking:…public policy henceforth was written to meet the needs of those who previously had gone unheard.”
Roosevelt and his headline-making New Deal especially served to arouse the interest of young people. When Lyndon Johnson learned of FDR’s death, he said: “I don’t know that I’d ever have come to Congress if it hadn’t been for him. But I do know that I got my first desire for public office because of him—and so did thousands of other men all over this country.”