Fireside chats


Many American presidents have made Great speeches. Not very good, or even merely great, but Capital G Great. While I love these big, moving speeches, I also enjoy more mundane presidential moments. I have a collection of Lincoln’s writings which includes advice to young lawyers:

Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.

Bill Clinton took C-SPAN on a tour of the Oval Office and told them that he had been relearning geometry to help his daughter in school. Nixon famously had an audio recording hobby. (That one produced lots of candid White House conversations.)

On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, it seems fitting to recall a truly remarkable collection of “mundane” presidential remarks: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats. These were relaxed radio broadcasts where FDR laid out his opinions, motivations, and policy decisions in simple language to the American people. There are transcripts of every address and recordings of quite a few. While some of the content is dry and outdated (can you really call the gold standard gripping?), the collection as a whole offers a fascinating window into FDR’s decision making.

And FDR, the greatest anti-democratic tyrant of all time, had a lot to talk about. Bank runs (it turns out the gold standard is a bit gripping), the New Deal, the Supreme Court, and obviously the war. Even 90 years later, many themes from these chats are worth revisiting.

The “European War”

In ten or twenty years, we should quiz highschool students on whether the following quote is FDR talking about the Axis powers, or Biden talking about Russia:

It is easy for you and for me to shrug our shoulders and to say that conflicts taking place thousands of miles from the continental United States, and, indeed, thousands of miles from the whole American Hemisphere, do not seriously affect the Americas — and that all the United States has to do is to ignore them and go about its own business. Passionately though we may desire detachment, we are forced to realize that every word that comes through the air, every ship that sails the sea, every battle that is fought does affect the American future.

Of course once you listen to the speech you will know immediately that it is FDR, because he is one of the most powerful orators the United States has ever had, and Biden is Biden1.

While Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, Biden argues with Congress about sending military aid, NATO conducts exercises aimed at countering Russian aggression, and Putin now suggests that he could target European countries with long range missiles. FDR called Hawaii “an outpost of defense in the Pacific,” and there is a good argument that Taiwan is the same. Is the world now so dissimilar to what FDR saw when he looked across the oceans?

One thing you learn from the chats is that FDR had a remarkable talent for framing. Look at how he begins his first fireside chat after the United States entered the war:

This is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk on national security, because the nub of the whole purpose of your President is to keep you now, and your children later, and your grandchildren much later, out of a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence and all of the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours.

Really masterful stuff!

The Supreme Court

FDR was famously unhappy with the Supreme Court. Conservative Justices, appointed by earlier presidents, struck down many of his economic policies, igniting debate about how much the court truly represented and served the people. Does this sound familiar to you?2. FDR threatened to appoint new, younger Justices which would agree with him more often. And this was not some backroom, wink-wink threat; he went on the radio and said this:

It is the American people themselves who are in the driver’s seat.

It is the American people themselves who want the furrow plowed.

It is the American people themselves who expect the third horse to pull in unison with the other two.

What is my proposal? It is simply this: whenever a Judge or Justice of any Federal Court has reached the age of seventy and does not avail himself of the opportunity to retire on a pension, a new member shall be appointed by the President then in office, with the approval, as required by the Constitution, of the Senate of the United States.

Congress eventually decided this was too far and backed out, but the threat was serious enough that the Supreme Court coincidentally started agreeing with FDR more. You can see FDR’s incredible framing at work again in this fireside chat:

If by that phrase “packing the Court” it is charged that I wish to place on the bench spineless puppets who would disregard the law and would decide specific cases as I wished them to be decided, I make this answer: that no President fit for his office would appoint, and no Senate of honorable men fit for their office would confirm, that kind of appointees to the Supreme Court.

Moving forward

Something that I find frustrating about many public political discussions is that they are very “guarded.” Politicians try to not look bad, so they ignore certain topics or distort well-known facts. I understand that this is strategically necessary to some extent, but sometimes it annoys me.

FDR’s willingness to get on the radio and plainly explain himself was an invaluable public service for voters and later generations, but also a politically brilliant move. We should expect more of this from our public servants. (And maybe, as FDR suggested, we should be harsher to the Supreme Court.)

I hope that, should very awful things happen in the next few decades, as happened in FDR’s lifetime, we have a president that can speak with the strength and clarity that FDR did in his fireside chats. So hopefully it doesn’t happen in the next four years!3

With respect to the 80th D-Day anniversary again, it is due to the great efforts and sacrifices of the men and women of the Allied forces that we and the free people of Europe and Japan do get to expect such things from our public servants. So, on perhaps the last big anniversary where any of them will be with us, I offer a very sincere thank you to these heroes.

  1. Four more years and all that. 

  2. FDR had just been reelected while winning all but two states, mind you. Democrats really did have an incredible mandate, unlike the present political situation. 

  3. Although this was very funny. Maybe Biden would rise to the occasion!