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Published: Saturday, 6/30/2007

FDR's chats sustained a nation

BY GERALD BAZER

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago on July 2, 10 million Americans gathered by their radios to listen to one man speak. For most this was the first time they would hear him. On future occasions, 30 in all, upwards of 60 million, roughly one-half the population of the United States at the time, would gather again and again by their radios to hear his words.

In drawing such an audience, our speaker proved more popular than the best liked radio programs of his day, including: "Inner Sanctum Mysteries," "The Lone Ranger," "The Shadow," and "The Green Hornet." With surveys indicating that 80 out of every 100 Americans were radio listeners, more Americans heard his words than the words spoken by Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson combined during their state tours and speeches.

The speech on July 2, 1932, would mark several significant firsts, as on that day Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president, the first of four such nominations, each leading to a successful run for president. To deliver his acceptance speech, Roosevelt became the first nominee of any political party to accept a presidential nomination in person. Doing so meant air travel of more than nine hours from Albany, N.Y. to the convention in Chicago when air travel was a potentially hazardous adventure. FDR saw his departure from tradition, coming as it did during the height of the Great Depression, as a signal to the American people that change and hope lay ahead.

Most importantly, convention delegates and citizens heard for the first time the words "new deal." For Roosevelt concluded his lengthy remarks with:

"I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in the crusade to restore America to its own people."

As Americans came to learn, the words "new deal" were manifested in unprecedented governmental programs in the hope of rescue from the worst economic depression in U.S. history. An alphabet soup of programs would become part of FDR's legacy: the AAA, the NRA, the CCC, the WPA, et al.

Whether to acknowledge Roosevelt's speech as the first of his historic fireside chats as some have suggested is problematic. A stronger case is made that Roosevelt delivered his first true fireside chat on March 12, 1933, one week after becoming president. The inauguration of a president did not change to Jan. 20 until the election of 1936 with ratification of the 20th Amendment.

The March 12 speech, heard by almost half the nation's 125 million people, addressed the banking crisis, the first of many challenges Roosevelt confronted in establishing the New Deal. He tried to reassure citizens that the banks that had closed as depositors rushed in panic to withdraw their money would reopen with replenished reserves.

In this speech, as with so many future speeches and with how he purposely maintained a broad smile, always upward looking, cigarette holder at a jaunty angle, Roosevelt tried to rebuild America's confidence in itself. He said on March 12:

"After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. 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; it is up to you to support and make it work.

"It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail."

From that 1933 speech, FDR went on to deliver 29 additional fireside chats, often beginning with "My friends." His last was delivered on June 12, 1944, exactly 10 months before his death on April 12, 1945.

FDR's topics concerned economic issues and issues of World War II. He discussed aspects of his New Deal, national defense needs, his Dec. 9, 1941 declaration of war against the Japanese Empire, and his reorganization of the Supreme Court which he hoped would determine that his economic recovery program was constitutional. (This reorganization, known as the Court Packing Plan, was FDR's reaction to the existing court's finding that much of the early New Deal was unconstitutional.)

Roosevelt's 30th and final radio chat, "Opening Fifth War Loan Drive," came six days after the D-Day invasion and urged Americans to once again purchase war bonds and stamps.

During that last chat Roosevelt stated: "There is a direct connection between the bonds you have bought and the stream of men and equipment now rushing over the English Channel for the liberation of Europe. There is a direct connection between your bonds and every part of the global war today."

FDR's last words to his vast radio audience were, "I urge all Americans to buy war bonds without stint. Swell the mighty chorus to bring us nearer to victory."

Hearing Franklin Roosevelt on their radios, Americans not only responded to his specific request, but responded to all the challenges of overcoming the Great Depression and the challenges of defeating World War II's Axis Powers.

Roosevelt's leadership, courage, and optimism during the horrific 12 years and three months of his presidency have carried Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the highest pantheon of America's presidents and by his radio chats to the American people sustained us through our darkest days.

Gerald Bazer is a retired dean at Owens Community College and a student of presidential history.



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