THIS week I listened to the first of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s 30 ‘fireside chats’ – the radio broadcasts he made throughout his presidency (1933-1945) to reassure Americans going through the worst (and a few of the best) of times that the government knew what it was doing and things would turn out right.
I thought FDR, who led America out of the Great Depression and through the New Deal, Pearl Harbour and the Second World War, might have some tips for modern leaders, who like to describe their situations as completely unprecedented even when, as with the present plague, they’re not.
The background to Roosevelt’s inaugural radio chat has parallels to Boris Johnson’s TV address on the easing of Covid-19 regulations, except that Roosevelt’s crisis was about money rather than lives (not that the two can be easily separated).
Roosevelt had just been elected president and Johnson had just recovered from coronavirus and both needed to make their mark. America, like Britain, had been through a kind of lockdown – the nation was in a financial panic and all banks had been shut to stop depositors withdrawing their funds. Roosevelt’s task was to announce the imminent reopening of the banks without sparking another money stampede.
Both leaders had to proceed carefully but Roosevelt evidently thought his message could be best promoted by explaining the banking dilemma plainly and patiently. True, he stretched things a bit by pretending to speak from an actual fireside rather than a broadcasting studio, but his tone, understated and homely, seemed completely authentic and he attracted, by a margin of millions, the biggest audiences of the radio age. .
Johnson is a thoroughly modern premier for the visual age; the nation needs, he thinks, meaningless graphs illustrating the declining death rate in kindergarten colours but with no figures attached.
It needs leaders with sharp and emphatic hand gestures, even at the risk of looking a little like Benito Mussolini; it needs the message to be distilled into slogans (such as ‘Stay alert’) which can be written in bright graphics and it needs random words and phrases to be emphasised by booming them out loudly, because otherwise we might forget that we are in mortal peril and nod off.
There are many photographs of Roosevelt delivering his fireside chats. He is surrounded by a bank of microphones plastered with the names of broadcasting networks and there isn’t a fireside in sight.
Yet, by some miracle of the radio age, a conversation seems to be taking place. Roosevelt’s tone is thoughtful and slogan-free; as if he’s talking rather than Making A Statement. And, which is impossible, he seems to be listening as well as talking, having the same quiet, attentive manner as Alastair Cooke in his old Letter from America broadcasts.
In his first chat, Roosevelt explained that the biggest banks would open the next morning and the second-order banks in the next few days. America’s many small-time banks and loan companies, however, would have to wait until their finances were put in order, which might take time, as illustrated in the 194m6 film which always goes down well in troubled times, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Thank you Oliver, until next time….