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FDR's Secret Weapon for Winning the Presidency

Whether it is Jimmy Carter watching more than four hundred movies in the White House cinema or Barack Obama telling people that the flamboyant killer Omar on HBO’s “The Wire” is his favorite character, presidents have long engaged with pop culture. The content of that pop culture, however, has changed dramatically over the years. Here, in the third of a series of short installments from What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White Housewe look at some of the presidents favorite ways to pass the time. Read the first installment here and the second here.

Most Americans know that President Franklin Roosevelt skillfully used “Fireside Chats” to communicate with the American people. What is less well known is the extent to which skillful use of radio enabled him to become president. In 1932, as the American economy sank deeper into the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover tried and failed to use radio to instill confidence. His relations with the press were terrible, giving Roosevelt a golden opportunity to start over with the American people.

Roosevelt was well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that radio offered. He was a great radio speaker. He has been said, in fact, to have had the best radio voice in American politics of his era, better even than that of his 1944 opponent, Thomas Dewey, who was a trained opera singer.

Unlike his predecessors as president, Roosevelt was already practiced in the new medium before becoming president. In his home state of New York, most of the major newspapers were Republican-leaning, and FDR realized that he could use radio to go directly to the people. As governor, he had begun an early version of the fireside chat as early as 1929.

Radio helped make Roosevelt into a national figure. His nationally broadcast speeches at the Democratic conventions had introduced him to the American public in the same way that Barack Obama’s televised speech to the 2004 Democratic convention launched him toward the White House. At the 1924 convention, he put New York Governor Al Smith’s name in nomination with a speech that bestowed on Smith a famous sobriquet from Wordsworth, the “Happy Warrior.” The line was inserted by the New York lawyer Joseph Proskauer, Smith’s campaign manager, over Roosevelt’s strenuous objections. “You can’t give poetry to a political convention,” he complained. Roosevelt and Proskauer fought over the draft for hours before Roosevelt eventually gave in. Later, after the speech was a success, Roosevelt claimed it was his draft, and that he “stuck in” a recommended line of poetry from Proskauer.

The “Happy Warrior” line lived on in part because of radio’s growing reach. In 1928, when Roosevelt delivered another well-received speech at the Democratic convention nominating Smith, radio was even more important. In 1924, only 4.7 percent of households owned radios; in 1928, 27.5 percent of households did. In 1932, the figure was 60 percent of households, not to mention a quarter of a million cars with radios. Roosevelt tailored that 1928 nominating speech for the radio audience rather than just those listening in the convention hall. There were more staccato pauses that one would typically use when preaching to the true believers. He told his listeners that Smith had “that quality of soul which makes a man loved … a strong help to all those in sorrow or in trouble … the quality of sympathetic understanding of the human heart.” The speech was a hit; Time called it “the most intelligently well-bred speech of either of the big conventions.” Roosevelt was also doing something different from other politicians at the time. As Time put it, “Compared to the common run of nominating effusions, Mr. Roosevelt’s speech was as homo sapiens to the gibbering banderlog.”

As radio grew, Roosevelt recognized that it would allow him to reach vastly more people than ever before. In 1932, he telephoned his 72-year-old mother to let her know that he had secured the Democratic presidential nomination. But “I had already heard it over the radio in my own home,” Mrs. Roosevelt later recalled.

In the spring and summer of 1932, thousands of impoverished World War I veterans and their supporters converged on Washington. Led by the unemployed ex-sergeant Walter W. Walters and calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, they demanded the early payment of a promised bonus for their services. The protest, known as the “Bonus March,” received intense and sympathetic coverage from the press. Douglas MacArthur, then the Army chief of staff, moved in with troops to clear the protesters from their camp, and violence ensued. Radio was there, and Franklin Roosevelt joined the rest of the nation in listening to the reports. Struck by the immediacy of the dispatches, Roosevelt suddenly realized that Hoover was going to lose the election. He saw that radio had brought politics into a new era and that it required its own methods of communication. It was a lesson he would never forget when he was president.

Excerpted from What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.