(DATELINE: WASHINGTON D.C., MARCH 12, 1933)
On this day in 1933, newly-minted President Franklin Roosevelt delivers the first of many “fireside chats.” These addresses broadcast to a nation savaged by economic calamity helped quell irrationality, and in this writer’s humble estimation played a key role in FDR’s mission to keep the US tacking a relative center course. Roosevelt, a Democrat, would eventually be elected to a record four terms in office, the only US president to serve more than two. Leading the Republic through the ravages of the depression and conflagration of WW2, he is seen by many historians as one of the greatest of our 46 Presidents.
Roosevelt was the only child of James and Sara Delano Roosevelt. The family lived in unostentatious and genteel luxury, dividing its time between the family estate in the Hudson River valley of New York state and European resorts. Educated at Harvard, and then Columbia Law School, FDR married his fifth cousin Eleanor Roosevelt in-between schools.
FDR soon became disillusioned with his work at a Wall Street law firm, and a potential life of rather rudderless gentility; jumping into a seemingly futile 1910 state senate race for Duchess County, he campaigned strenuously and won the election in a stunner, taking his seat in Albany before his 29th birthday. Quickly demonstrating great vigor and talent, in 1913 Pres. Wilson named FDR Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
With a glaringly bright future ahead, in 1920 Roosevelt won the nomination for vice-president on a ticket with presidential nominee James M. Cox. He campaigned tirelessly on behalf of American entry into the League of Nations, but the Democrats were crushed in a landslide by the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Shortly after, while on vacation at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, Roosevelt’s life was tragically transformed when he was stricken with poliomyelitis.
Roosevelt suffered intensely, for sometime nearly completely paralyzed, and his mother urged him to retire to the family estate at Hyde Park. His wife and closest adviser Louis McHenry Howe, however, believed it essential he remain active in politics. For his part, Roosevelt never abandoned hope that he would regain the use of his legs; the malady re-shaped his entire world view, enhanced his empathy toward humanity, and he grimly fought on through a purposefully sunny exterior (this is sounding familiar). Between 1928 and 1932 he was twice elected Governor of the State of New York, and ran for the presidency at the end of his state tenure.
Roosevelt trounced incumbent POTUS Herbert Hoover, receiving nearly 23 million popular votes to Hoover’s nearly 16 million; the electoral vote was 472 to 59. It was a stunning repudiation not just of Hoover but also of the GOP, and its ineffectual flailing against the Great Depression. Americans elected substantial Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress as well, and It would be a full 20 years before a Republican entered the White House as POTUS again. It had been 11 years since Roosevelt was hopelessly bedridden.
Turning back to the fireside chat, without studied, sober and positive leadership and the brilliant staffing of FDR’s Brain Trust, the US very well could have taken a cue from authoritarian regimes to the extreme right or left, and these speeches presage those of Winston Churchill during the darkest hours of the Battle of Britain.
Searching for a recent analog to this brand of steady, intelligent and purposeful leadership in the midst of crisis, one Donald J. Trump’s tepid yet turgid murmurings from the Oval Office on the evening of March 11, 2020 do not spring to mind. However, if you’re listening with fair-minded ears, last night’s remarks by the 46th POTUS regarding the American Rescue Plan stand in stark contrast to any verbiage from 45, and complement that of number 32 here.
And so in this vein, a genuine American President told a shaken populace “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; and it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
(DATELINE: WASHINGTON D.C., MARCH 12, 1933)