At the opening of the 20th century, United States President Theodore Roosevelt became the
first president to court public opinion through the media, chiefly by establishing and cultivating
lines of communication to journalists. President Franklin D. Roosevelt went even further in the
1930s with his “fireside chats,” which brought his voice, via the developing technology of radio
broadcasting, directly into the homes of ordinary Americans.
The Roosevelts and the Media
By Jim Cullen
Today we take it for granted that an effective president must use the mass media, whether it be
newspapers, radio, television, or even the Internet, for maximum political effect. But it was not
until the two Roosevelt presidencies—Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Franklin D.
Roosevelt (1933-1945)—that the value of the media in building a strong constituency became
For much of the 19th century, presidents derived their power from political parties, which often
controlled newspapers, granted government jobs, and chose candidacies for election. Theodore
Roosevelt, however, was not considered a stalwart of the Republican Party when he received
the vice-presidential nomination in 1900. United States Senator Oliver Platt, a New York
political boss, had helped to engineer Roosevelt's nomination, hoping the position would
effectively become a dead-end job for the reformist, independent-minded former governor.
Thus, when Roosevelt unexpectedly became president after the assassination of William
McKinley in 1901, he felt little allegiance to the party and developed his own alternative
constituency. As part of this strategy, he became the first president to cultivate reporters and to
hold regular press conferences.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (also known as FDR), who was more securely rooted as a Democrat
than Teddy Roosevelt had been as a Republican, faced a somewhat different problem. By the
time of his election to the presidency in 1932, the reformist, so-called “muckraking” tendencies
of American journalism had largely been tamed by conservative publishers busy building
newspaper chains. Many of these publishers, who were more skeptical of Franklin Roosevelt
than much of the electorate (and even their own reporters), used their papers to undercut the
president's program for ending the Great Depression, known popularly as the New Deal.
So FDR turned to another medium, radio. Radio broadcasting, first developed at the turn of the
century for nautical purposes, had only recently become a means of mass communications
(much in the same way the Internet, originally developed by the Department of Defense, is
becoming a household tool). Radio was first used in a political race in 1924; four years later
presidential candidates Herbert Hoover and Al Smith spent nearly a half-million dollars to
reach listeners on the 9 million radios then in use. Not even the onset of the Great Depression in
1929 stemmed the national passion for the radio. By the time of Roosevelt's election, the
number of receivers reached 18 million and by the end of the decade, nearly 90% of American
homes had at least one radio set. Meanwhile, nation-wide broadcast networks such as the
National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)
effectively gave public figures immediate and direct access to the American people without the
mediation of reporters, editors, or publishers.
FDR spoke on the radio as early as 1924, and used the medium extensively during his two
terms as governor of New York: when he campaigned for Smith in 1928, and then in his own
presidential bid. But it was not until after he assumed office in 1933, with the nation reeling
from the effects of economic collapse, that it became clear just how effectively radio could be
The president delivered the first of his famed “Fireside Chats” on March 12, 1933, eight days
after his inauguration. He used this broadcast to explain the nation's banking methods in simple
terms and to bolster the public's flagging confidence in the entire financial system. Over the
course of the next 12 years, Roosevelt delivered 30 more such chats, on subjects ranging from
the economy to preparedness for World War II.
It is difficult to prove that the Fireside Chats changed minds, but they certainly seemed to have
had an impact. In his first term of office, Roosevelt received ten times as much mail than his
predecessor, Herbert Hoover, which suggests that the American people believed they could
communicate with him. After Roosevelt's death, his wife Eleanor reported that people would
stop her on the street to say how much they missed the way the president had spoken to them.
The Franklin Roosevelt of the Fireside Chats came across as a leader, a teacher, and above all, a
human being that tried to speak to his fellow citizens in a dignified, friendly way. “I do not
deny that we may make some mistakes of procedure as we carry out this policy,” he said of his
New Deal plans in May of 1933. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to
bat.” In 1940, trying to persuade a skeptical public to re-arm in the face of Nazi aggression, he
reflected “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it.” Such homespun metaphors
became central to his political style.
Franklin Roosevelt was not the only compelling figure on the airwaves in the 1930s. In Europe
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini swayed millions of listeners with the force of their broadcast
fascist rhetoric. In the United States, Father Charles Coughlin, the so-called “Radio Priest,”
used his Michigan radio station to denounce Roosevelt's policies and to deliver anti-Semitic
messages to a large and devoted audience. Combatting such powerful oratory represented a
major challenge to Roosevelt throughout his presidency.
In the years since the FDR era, no politician has been able to ignore the power of the media,
which has developed far beyond the confines of newspapers and radio. In the process, style has
become almost as important as the message. From the telegenic charisma of Democrat John F.
Kennedy to the FDR folksiness of Republican Ronald Reagan, the ability to connect with the
electorate is now widely viewed as one of the most important measures of presidential
About the author: Jim Cullen is the author of The Art of Democracy: A Concise History of
Popular Culture in the United States (1996).
On the eve of Labor Day, 1936, millions of employed and unemployed workers tuned their
radios to hear President Franklin D. Roosevelt speak. Years of drought in the states of Kansas,
Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado continued to burden the Depression era’s shaky
economy as well as the country’s stricken labor force. Newly arrived from a tour of the Dust
Bowl states, President Roosevelt gave a spirited speech on the goals of the Works Progress
Administration (WPA) and other government relief programs, and the power of united effort.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Fireside Chat on Drought
September 6, 1936
I have been on a journey of husbandry. I went primarily to see at first hand conditions in the drought states; to see
how effectively Federal and local authorities are taking care of pressing problems of relief and also how they are to
work together to defend the people of this country against the effects of future droughts.
I saw drought devastation in nine states.
I talked with families who had lost their wheat crop, lost their corn crop, lost their livestock, lost the water in their
well, lost their garden and come through to the end of the summer without one dollar of cash resources, facing a
winter without feed or food—facing a planting season without seed to put in the ground.
That was the extreme case, but there are thousands and thousands of families on western farms who share the same
I saw cattlemen who because of lack of grass or lack of winter feed have been compelled to sell all but their
breeding stock and will need help to carry even these through the coming winter. I saw livestock kept alive only
because water had been brought to them long distances in tank cars. I saw other farm families who have not lost
everything but who, because they have made only partial crops, must have some form of help if they are to
continue farming next spring.
I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested. I shall never forget field
after field of corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves, for what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown
pastures which would not keep a cow on fifty acres.
Yet I would not have you think for a single minute that there is permanent disaster in these drought regions, or that
the picture I saw meant depopulating these areas. No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no
grasshoppers, are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and
children who have carried on through desperate days, and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity and their
courage. It was their fathers' task to make homes; it is their task to keep those homes; it is our task to help them
with their fight.
In 1933 the United States Employment Service was
created—a cooperative state and Federal enterprise, through
which the Federal Government matches dollar for dollar the
funds provided by the states for registering the occupations
and skills of workers and for actually finding jobs for these
registered workers in private industry. The Federal-State
cooperation has been splendid. Already employment
services are operating in 32 states, and the areas not covered
by them are served by the Federal Government.
We have developed a nation-wide service with seven
hundred District offices, and one thousand branch offices,
thus providing facilities through which labor can learn of
jobs available and employers can find workers.
Last Spring I expressed the hope that employers would
realize their deep responsibility to take men off the relief rolls and give them jobs in private enterprise.
Subsequently I was told by many employers that they were not satisfied with the information available concerning
the skill and experience of the workers on the relief rolls. On August 25th I allocated a relatively small sum to the
employment service for the purpose of getting better and more recent information in regard to those now actively
at work on WPA projects—information as to their skills and previous occupations—and to keep the records of
such men and women up-to-date for maximum service in making them available to industry. Tonight I am
announcing the allocation of two and a half million dollars more to enable the Employment Service to make an
even more intensive search then it has yet been equipped to make, to find opportunities in private employment for
workers registered with it.
Tonight I urge the workers to cooperate with and take full advantage of this intensification of the work of the
Employment Service. This does not mean that there will be any lessening of our efforts under our WPA and PWA
[Public Works Administration] and other work relief programs until all workers have decent jobs in private
employment at decent wages. We do not surrender our responsibility to the unemployed. We have had ample proof
that it is the will of the American people that those who represent them in national, state and local government
should continue as long as necessary to discharge that responsibility. But it does mean that the government wants
to use resource[s] to get private work for those now employed on government work, and thus to curtail to a
minimum the government expenditures for direct employment.
Tonight I ask employers, large and small, throughout the nation, to use the help of the state and Federal
Employment Service whenever in the general pick-up of business they require more workers.
Tomorrow is Labor Day. Labor Day in this country has never been a class holiday. It has always been a national
holiday. It has never had more significance as a national holiday than it has now. In other countries the relationship
of employer and employee has more or less been accepted as a class relationship not readily to be broken through.
In this country we insist, as an essential of the American way of life, that the employer-employee relationship
should be one between free men and equals. We refuse to regard those who work with hand or brain as different
from or inferior to those who live from their property. We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as
property. But our workers with hand[s] and brain[s] deserve more than respect for their labor. They deserve
practical protection in the opportunity to use their labor at a return adequate to support them at a decent and
constantly rising standard of living, and to accumulate a margin of security against the inevitable vicissitudes of
The average man must have that twofold opportunity if we are to avoid the growth of a class conscious society in
There are those who fail to read both the signs of the times and American history. They would try to refuse the
worker any effective power to bargain collectively, to earn a decent livelihood and to acquire security. It is those
shortsighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to
dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life.
All American workers, brain workers and manual workers alike, and all the rest of us whose well-being depends on
theirs, know that our needs are one in building an orderly economic democracy in which all can profit and in which
all can be secure from the kind of faulty economic direction which brought us to the brink of common ruin seven
There is no cleavage between white collar workers and manual workers, between artists and artisans, musicians
and mechanics, lawyers and accountants and architects and miners.
Tomorrow, Labor Day, belongs to all of us. Tomorrow, Labor Day, symbolizes the hope of all Americans. Anyone
who calls it a class holiday challenges the whole concept of American democracy.
The Fourth of July commemorates our political freedom—a freedom which without economic freedom is
meaningless indeed. Labor Day symbolizes our determination to achieve an economic freedom for the average
man which will give his political freedom reality.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Reference Library 2005.