Lessons from fireside chats

Eighty-six years ago today — March 12, 1933 — newly inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the first of his famous “fireside chats” to the American public.

Over the course of the next 12-plus years while serving as president, Roosevelt gave 30 such radio addresses. They were designed to bolster the morale of an American public that was first suffering the throes of the Great Depression and then engaged in the epic struggle of World War II.

The March 12 fireside chat came only eight days his first inaugural address when he advised the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The radio address was to urge calm as he ended the “bank holiday” he had imposed upon assuming office to forestall a run on the country’s banks.

It was no easy task, calming the fears of a country faced with 25 to 30 percent unemployment.

During the course of his presidency — from March 4, 1933, until his death on April 12, 1945 — Roosevelt epitomized what executive leadership should look like. Sure, there were missteps — the attempt to pack the Supreme Court is one glaring example — but day in, day out he served as a calm, fatherly figure to the American public.

The Depression and World War II were two of the bleakest periods in our history and it is hard to imagine the outcome if Roosevelt was not around. He provided the greatest political leadership since Lincoln.

Times have changed. Where Roosevelt led through good humor, cajoling and a projection of optimism, today’s politicians would rather lecture and surround themselves in bombast.

Roosevelt used the fireside chats to explain in simple terms everything from the bank holiday to Lend Lease. Today’s political aspirants would do well to study FDR’s style to get a real lesson in connecting with the electorate.

(Sources: “No Ordinary Time” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Today in History” and Wikipedia.)

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.