Prompted by Donald Trump’s shamefully bombastic behavior and attitude during all his press conferences, and especially during his recent COVID-19 White House press conferences, and their juxtaposition to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s honest, calm, and painfully truthful yet reassuring press conferences, last week I told a former colleague and neighbor “I wish I were old enough to have heard FDR’s ‘fireside chats.’”
Radio historian John Dunning considers Franklin D. Roosevelt to be one of the most effective communicators in American history. In writing about FDR’s “fireside chats,” Dunning states that “It was the first time in history that a large segment of the population could listen directly to a chief executive, and the chats are often credited with helping keep Roosevelt’s popularity high.”
Unlike our current President, FDR never shied away from telling the nation the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. No matter how painful, the veracity of facts, especially in times of crisis, is a mental and emotional palliative that instills confidence and bonds a nation by allaying fears and doubts.
At the height of the Great Depression and on March 4, 1933, FDR was inaugurated as the United States’ 32nd President. He spent the first 7 days addressing bank closings and implementing the Emergency Banking Act, an act that laid the groundwork for creating the federal deposit insurance.
Eight days after his March 12, 1933 inauguration and at 10:00 p.m. ET, “Roosevelt spoke to a radio audience of more than 60 million people, to tell them in clear language ‘what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.’”
Spanning 10 years, the fireside chats were evening radio programs that began in 1933 and ran through 1944. Speech writer and historian Samuel Rosenman recalled that FDR “use[d] one or two common analogies … and [he took] care in avoiding dramatic oratory.” Rosenman expounded that FDR;
looked for words that he would use in an informal conversation with one or two of his friends [sitting around an imagined fireplace]. Eighty percent of the words used were in the thousand most commonly used words in the English language. … Listeners were able to picture FDR in his study, in front of the fireplace, and could imagine they were sitting beside him. … Roosevelt spoke with familiarity to millions of Americans about the New Deal initiatives … the recession, … the course of World War II. On radio, he was able to quell rumors and explain his policies. His tone and demeanor communicated self-assurance during times of despair and uncertainty. Roosevelt was regarded as an effective communicator on radio, and the fireside chats kept him in high public regard throughout his presidency. Their introduction was later described as a ‘revolutionary experiment with a nascent media platform.’
Compare FDR’s “Fireside Chats” to Donald Trump’s recently staged Covid-19 press conferences and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s measured, informative, and comforting press conferences.
The setting for Donald Trump’s recent press conferences in the White House press room commence with the camera focusing on CDC director, the Surgeon General, and other officials lined up (with no “social distancing”) on the platform. After Mike Pence makes his entry and lines up with the others, a door opens and Donald Trump makes his grand entrance; he walks up to the podium, and, without as much as a “Good day, my fellow citizens,” jumps into his speech. In tickertape Pavlovian fashion he lurches into reading his speech from a prepared script. The lack of emotion and conviction in his words comes through. Jam packed with information, stats, and updates, his canned speech is interspersed with meaningless asides, toujours aggrandizing himself and his policies.
While many of the updates and facts are of value, unfortunately the speech comes across as a long campaign speech peppered with self-serving campaign rhetoric ad libs. This is a classic case of the messenger impairing his own message. Following his brief, monotone speeches, Trump calls on Pence and others to make brief statements and to answer the questions of the downsized members of the media – seated six feet apart. Pence and every expert appear to have been prompted to compliment and laud Donald Trump’s leadership, his wise decisions, and the outstanding job their Dear Leader is/has been doing. Talk of which: what’s with Trump’s recent second love letter to Kim Jong-un offering North Korea assistance in fighting COVID-19? This, after North Korea’s very recent firing of missiles!
Now that spring is here, is this peculiar love spark about to bloom?
Ever the impresario, Trump takes over the Q & A sessions by playing one reporter against the other in what appears to be a haphazard selection process. Thrusting his stubby forefinger in a “Hey, you, there, no, not you, you” mode, he calls on reporters to present their questions.
Compare the chaotic clamoring of the reporters’ requests to ask a question during any of Trump’s press conferences to Andrew Cuomo’s reasoned and civilized approach. The differences are as starkly different as noon is to midnight.
Ever the aloof, impervious, and hardened person, during Trump’s press conference Q & A sessions, there is a paucity of comforting and uplifting words, a kind of robotic repeat of rote words and phrases such as “I am the one who closed the country down very early”; “Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t”; “We’re looking into it”; “I was a successful businessman when I was elected [therefore I will be successful in solving this catastrophe] ”; “I inherited an absolute broken system”; “We are doing a great job”; “My team is doing an incredible job”; “Incredible job & pretty incredible job [ad infinitum] ;“In the past you couldn’t do that [re. to the implementation of emergency policies]”; “He is a great friend of mine”; “This is a terrible thing”; “He is a great fellow”; “The economy will skyrocket like you’ve never seen before”; “nobody has ever done what we’ve done”; “We delivered at no extra cost to states [a long run down on medical equipment]”; and, instead of addressing legislation that would help alleviate the misery of America’s millions, he concentrates on gifting billions of dollars to large conglomerates – with no strings attached. The ratings, the ratings, always the ratings, “we’re doing an incredible job. Just look at the ratings.”
I wish I’d kept up with the number of times the terms Frankly, Beautiful, Unbelievable, Incredible, Fantastic, Amazing, Outstanding, and Great were bandied around.
When a reporter asks a pointed question, Trump calls it a nasty question and berates another as an unprofessional reporter. Perhaps the lowest point in all of the White House conferences was Trump’s response to Senator Romney’s coming down with the virus. With a sneer, ever the vindictive schoolyard bully, he stated: “Romney is in isolation? Gee, that’s bad.”
And where are the Christian brothers and sisters who read & preach about kindness and empathy but never practice it?
In the last 10 days Mike Pence has come across as a composed, more rational, and more empathetic leader. As far as I am concerned, the heroes of these press conferences are Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Debora Birx. Much shorter than his biblical counterparts, Fauci reminds me of the saintly version of Donatello’s “St. Mark” and “The Prophet Jeremiah.”
Talk of Jeremiah: why has Dr. Fauci not appeared in the last two Trump press conferences? Could it be that, like Jeremiah, he doesn’t mince words and is committed to speaking the truth?
Asked who will oversee the disbursement of the 2 trillion relief assistance over which Congress is haggling, Trump answered: “I will be the overseer.” That’s like asking the wolf to protect the chickens. Think hotels, casinos, golf courses.
For well over a week now New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been holding daily press conferences from Albany, NY. The no fanfare conferences are akin to FDR’s comforting “fireside chats.” Of Italian descent and with a conspicuous Italian accent that reminds me of an Al Pacino New York speech pattern, Cuomo comes across as one paisano talking to all his New York State paisanos. He is/was also conversing with the nation and the world. With no fanfare, a down to earth approach, a demeanor that exudes with realistic expectations, humility, humanity, and empathy, Cuomo makes no pretense that the monumental challenges are real. Instead of cloistering himself in his quarters as Trump has done by cloistering himself in the White House, he travels to hospitals and other sites to assess conditions and to provide New Yorkers with updated first person accounts.
Cuomo decried the hoarders’ behavior and implored New Yorkers to be compassionate and considerate of the needs of the old, the sick, and the needy. He chided young people for their vanity. He expressed his gratitude for the outstanding services of all the health care providers, grocers, pharmacists, police officers, public transit employees, and child care workers. He urged New Yorkers (and the rest of us) to practice gentility, humanity, kindness, compassion, and patience. He admonished people to smile, nod, say hello, and stressed the need “to find our better selves.” He cautioned that conditions “will be hard. Don’t over react, life is going to go on, [albeit] differently. We will be the better for it, and dealing with hardship makes [us] stronger. We overcome challenges. That is what is going to happen. We will be a great generation.”
He hoped that there would be less traffic so that pedestrians roam the streets for exercise and fresh air. Imparting the wisdom of sages, he urged people to;
Think this situation through … Don’t be reactive. Don’t lose control. … Anticipate a place for negatives and positives. … Anticipate emotional hardships [because] it would be unnatural if you didn’t have these feelings. … Avoid emotional isolation, anticipate cabin fever. The virus will spread in 4-6-9 months, nobody has a crystal ball. … Don’t play basketball because it is not safe to do so. … Crises show us our true self, and [teach us] about ourselves. … Mental health is of importance. … we are all first responders.
Like Cicero, his wise Italian ancestor, the orator/philosopher/Roman leader, Cuomo repeatedly asserted the importance of “giving them the truth.”
The sharp contrast between Trump’s self-serving, arrogant, incoherent, boastful, petty, made-up facts, and “socially-distanced” emotions and intellect, and Andrew Cuomo’s heartfelt, personal, warm, sincere, truthful, and honest conversations reminiscent of the Mediterranean penchant for respect and love (“Love wins, always” Cuomo’s words) for and of familia (think of the reference Cuomo made to Matilda, his beloved Mama) convince me that the nation has finally found a true leader.
What FDR was to the nation during the Great Depression, Andrew Cuomo is to a nation hovering under the sprawling CORONA-19 nightmare.
Come November 2020, let’s elect Governor Andrew Cuomo, Fireside-chatter par excellence, as the next President of the United States.