The President and the Radio: FDR’s First Fireside Chat

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the first of his famous fireside chats.

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

It had never been done before. Or, it had, but not like this. On March 12, 1933, sixty million Americans listened to Roosevelt’s first radio address. Thus began a tradition that continued throughout Roosevelt’s presidency. The “fireside chats,” as journalist Robert Trout coined them, became a cornerstone of American life, as the country struggled with the Great Depression and toppled towards war.

Roosevelt wasn’t the first president to use radio to communicate with the country. Calvin Coolidge had given the first ever White House radio address, when he eulogized Warren G. Harding. Herbert Hoover had also used radio, both as a campaign tool and to give radio addresses, but he came across as much more formal than Roosevelt.

For example, during a radio address that Hoover gave on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1931, a little over a year since the markets had crashed, Hoover started like this:

“The Federal Government has assumed many new responsibilities since Lincoln’s time, and will probably assume more in the future when the States and local communities cannot alone cure abuse or bear the entire cost of national programs, but there is an essential principle that should be maintained in these matter.”

By contrast, Roosevelt’s first fireside chat started like this:

“My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking—to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks.”

After Roosevelt’s address, letters poured into the White House in support of the president.

Virginia Miller wrote: “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your splendid explanation of the Bank situation on last evening’s broadcast.”

Viola Hazelberger wrote: “I have regained faith in the banks due to your earnest beliefs.”

And James A. Green said: “You have a marvelous radio voice, distinct and clear. It almost seemed the other night, sitting in my easy chair in the library, that you were across the room from me.”

Suddenly the president seemed accessible. Whereas Herbert Hoover had averaged about 5,000 letters a week, the number of people writing to Roosevelt leapt to 50,000.

It’s no wonder, then, that Trout announced to Americans: “the president wants to come into your home and sit at your fireside for a little fireside chat.” The title stuck. It did feel, to many people, as if the president was sitting in their parlor.

Roosevelt came at the right time. The radio age had just begun, and it only grew during his twelve years in office. About forty percent of Americans had a radio at the beginning of FDR’s term—five years in, almost ninety percent of Americans had a radio.

Certainly it was one thing to have a radio and a large audience, but quite another to speak with the eloquence and clarity that FDR used while speaking to the country (just ask Herbert Hoover). Roosevelt succeeded in reaching a great number of Americans, and giving a boost to their confidence.

Other presidents have similarly used new technologies to communicate with a mass audience. An obvious example is President Trump’s use of Twitter. President Obama used Facebook, and even appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to promote his health care legislation. President Kennedy, too, used the new power of television to reach more Americans. Kennedy gave the first live televised press conference.

Eight-six years ago in 1933, Roosevelt ended his address like this:

“After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work.

It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

Bachelors, Boos, and Cory Booker

By Kaleena Fraga

If elected president, Cory Booker would join a small club of men who held the presidency without a wife

(to listen to the piece in podcast form click here)

During a radio interview on February 5th about his 2020 White House run, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker acknowledged that he has a girlfriend. Still, Booker has endured speculation (much as Lindsey Graham did) about what his presidency would look like if he entered the White House as a single man.

It’s rare in American history, but not unheard of. The single men of the White House fall into a couple of narrow categories. They were widowers; men whose wives died during their presidencies; single or widowed men who married during their presidency; or presidents who never married at all.

Widowers 

Thomas Jefferson’s wife died almost twenty years before his presidency. Although the role of first lady was not strongly defined, various women close to Jefferson resided over social functions at the White House. These included his daughter, Patsy, and the wife of his best friend, Dolley Madison. Dolley Madison played an important role building relationships with the powerful in Washington D.C.–especially since Jefferson and her husband much preferred books to people.

Andrew Jackson’s case was a bit different. He and his wife, Rachel, had endured vicious attacks during the campaign over their marriage (Rachel had been married to another man when she met Jackson, and there was some overlap between her first and second marriages). She died shortly after his election in 1828. Although she’d always suffered health problems, Jackson blamed his political enemies and their attacks for exacerbating her illness and causing her death.

“My mind is so disturbed,” Jackson wrote to a friend, shortly after his election and Rachel’s death, “that I scarcly [sic] write, in short my dear my heart is nearly broke.”

Martin Van Buren, like Jefferson, entered the White House as a widower. His wife similarly died almost two decades before his presidency, and Van Buren never remarried.

Chester A. Arthur’s wife, Nell, died about a year before Arthur entered the White House–although he initially did so as James Garfield’s vice president in 1881. Arthur, who ascended to the presidency after the assassination of Garfield, never remarried.

Tragedy at the White House 

John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and Woodrow Wilson all lost their wives during their administrations.

White House Weddings

There’s an overlap between the last category and this one. John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson remarried during their presidencies. (Harrison also remarried, but not until after his presidency).

Grover Cleveland entered the White House as a bachelor in 1884. He also arrived on a wave of controversy surrounding the paternity of a child born of wedlock.

Cleveland, at 49, would eventually marry the daughter of his former law partner, Frances Folsom. Folsom had known Cleveland since she was 12. At 21, she would become the youngest first lady in American history.

Bachelor for Life

James Buchanan, while regarded as one of the nation’s worst presidents, is perhaps best known as the nation’s only bachelor president. Buchanan never wed, and presided over the White House alone. Today, there is speculation that Buchanan may have been America’s first gay president.

Buchanan’s bachelorhood did not go unnoticed by the American public (and certainly not by his opposition). One campaign ditty went:

Whoever heard in all of his life,

Of a President without a wife?”

Andrew Jackson once sneered that Buchanan, and his close friend Rufus William King, who died before Buchanan’s presidency, were “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”

There’s no definitive proof that Buchanan was gay–especially since male friendships of the era were largely more intimate than today. Still–the two men shared a fifteen year friendship, a room in a Washington boardinghouse as congressmen, and letters, which their respective nieces burned.

***

As for Booker? After admitting he had “someone special” in his life, the exchange went on:

“Oh, so Cory Booker’s got a boo?”

“I got a boo,” Booker responded.

Will Cory Booker’s boo follow him to the White House, should the 2020 race lead him there? Perhaps. But if Booker does arrive at the White House, and if he arrives solo, he certainly won’t be the first to preside over the presidency alone.

VEEP TO PREZ: The Path from the White House, to the White House

A collaboration with Periodic Presidents

We’re SO excited to present the above–a fun collaboration we’ve been working on with Periodic Presidents. Be sure to check out their site and twitter account–definitely worth a follow!

Graphic is based on our post “Veep 2020“, which sought to answer the question–how much does being vice president help someone become president? You can read it here. In the above you can learn about who made it to the presidency from the vice presidency & how–if they made it at all.

Waiting In the Wings: LBJ, the Vice Presidency, and Odds

By Kaleena Fraga

Quotes abound on the uselessness of the vice presidency. John Adams once called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey once said, “There is an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was heard of again.” 

When Lyndon Johnson became Jack Kennedy’s vice president, after a long campaign in which he believed he would eventually pull ahead, Johnson looked to his odds. He had his staff look up how many presidents had died in office in the last one hundred years–five out of eighteen–and later told a journalist: 

“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

(This was not entirely accurate. Five out of eighteen presidents had died in the last one hundred years, but since 1789 seven presidents had died in office).

Johnson had heavily hinted about Kennedy’s various health issues during the campaign (Kennedy suffered from back problems and Addison’s disease, and in the waning days of the campaign Johnson described his future running mate as “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”) As such, although Kennedy was only 43 when he became president, Johnson may have felt his odds of succeeding JFK were greater given the new president’s many health struggles. 

When Johnson became vice president, only three vice presidents in American history had gone on to be president without the death of the incumbent. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren became president in their own right after serving under George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson, respectively. A former vice president would not become president again until Richard Nixon did so in 1968; a former vice president would not immediately succeed the president he served again until George H.W. Bush became president following Ronald Reagan’s two terms in 1988. 

Otherwise put, without the death of the incumbent, the odds of the vice president becoming president are not good.

Even with the death of the incumbent, the odds are not good. In all of American history only eight have died in office, half from assassination, half from natural causes. 

That is, unless you’re Daniel Webster. Webster turned down the offer to become vice president from two presidents–William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. When Harrison offered Webster the V.P. slot, he is reported to have replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”

Both Harrison and Taylor died in office–the first two presidents to do so. What are the odds on that? 

Ghosts of the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

Happy Halloween from History First!

Since John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in 1800, the executive mansion has had its fair share of inhabitants–from this world and the next. Jared Broach, who offers tours of haunted places in America, calls paranormal sightings in the White House “verified.” To say otherwise, he noted, would be “calling eight different presidents liars.”

One of the first people to live in the White House–Abigail Adams–is reported to continue to roam the halls. Witnesses have claimed to see her en route to the East Room–where she once would hang laundry–and some White House staff have smelled wet laundry and the scent of lavender. Why Abigail Adams would prefer to spend her time in the afterlife doing laundry at the White House, instead of relaxing at home in Massachusetts, is beyond the comprehension of History First.

Harry Truman wrote a letter to his wife in 1945 expressing the haunted feeling of his new home–he was only two months into his term at the time.

“I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches–all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth–I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”

Truman wasn’t the only one to imagine Jackson’s lingering presence in the White House. Mary Lincoln, who wanted desperately to believe in the afterlife after the death of her sons, and then her husband, also felt Jackson. She told friends that she had heard Jackson “stomping and swearing.” Jackson has also been spotted lying in his bed in today’s Rose Room, and others have heard his “guttural laugh” in the White House since the 1860s. In addition to Jackson, Mary Lincoln also once reported seeing the ghost of her dead son, Willie, at the foot of her bed, and even thought she heard Thomas Jefferson playing the violin.

In 1946, Truman wrote another letter to his wife detailing a more concrete supernatural experience. He writes that he went to bed, and six hours later heard a strong knock on his bedroom door.

“I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked in your room and Margie’s [the president’s daughter]. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped and looked and no one there! The damned place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.”

“You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”

Perhaps the White House’s most famous ghost is Abraham Lincoln–killed only a month and a half into his second term in office. Grace Coolidge first reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost in the 1920s, staring across the Potomac at old Civil War battlefields. Other first ladies also sensed Lincoln’s presence. Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked out of a room near the Lincoln Bedroom, said she strongly felt Lincoln’s presence one night. Two European visitors, staying down the hall, said that they had felt the same thing. Lady Bird Johnson, after watching a documentary about Lincoln, admitted to similar feelings in the private residence, where Lincoln had once worked out of his office.

Other visitors to the White House have had more tangible crossings with the assassinated president. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited the White House in 1942, and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. She claimed to have heard a knock on the bedroom door, and to have discovered Abe Lincoln on the other side–an experience so frightening that she fainted outright.

Winston Churchill liked to tell a story about his own ghostly Lincoln encounter during a visit to the White House in 1940. As Churchill tells it, he had just stepped out of the bath and picked up a cigar. Walking into the next room wearing nothing and still dripping wet, he found Lincoln by the fireplace.

“Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

Even Ronald Reagan’s dog, Rex, seemed to sense something unsettling about the Lincoln Bedroom. It was the only room in the White House that the dog refused to enter. Reagan himself said that Rex had twice barked “frantically” in the Lincoln Bedroom, then backed out and refused to come back in. The president went on to say that one night while the Reagans were watching TV in the room below the Lincoln Bedroom, Rex began to bark at the ceiling. The president thought the dog might be detecting some sort of spy equipment, perhaps an electrical signal too high pitched for Reagan to hear himself.

And yet Rex the dog wasn’t the only one to feel uneasy about the Lincoln Bedroom during the Reagan administration. The president related a story in which his daughter Maureen and her husband both saw a ghosty figure in the bedroom, looking out the window.

It seems that the ghosts of the White House have been fairly quiet in recent years–or perhaps the current and recent inhabitants are hesitant to tell their stories.

Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson, and Impeachment

By Kaleena Fraga

Talk of impeaching Andrew Johnson began even before his ill-fated presidency.

When Johnson was first sworn in as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president in 1865, he rewarded onlookers to a drunken tirade about his “Plebeian roots” and how he had triumphed over the ruling elite. Senators in attendance covered their faces with embarrassment–Lincoln’s former vice president, Hannibal Hamlin tugged at Johnson’s coattails in a vain attempt to get him to sit down, while the president looked on with an expression of “unutterable sorrow.” A group of Radical Republicans promptly drafted a resolution demanding that Johnson resign, or be impeached.

Johnson survived the demand. Lincoln came to his defense, saying, “It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again.”

A little over a month later, Lincoln was dead–the first president to be assassinated–launching Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, into the presidency just as the Civil War drew to a close.

Although Republicans in Congress had had high hopes for Johnson–after all, he remained loyal to the Union, even though he hailed from Tennessee–they quickly found that he did not intend to reform the South, but rather sought to reinforce old power structures. Johnson got to work choosing conservatives as state governors and issuing pardons to white southerners. He was lenient toward the Southern ruling class, and dismissive and hateful toward newly freed black Americans. “This is a country for white men,” he once declared, “and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” Before long, the relationship between the new president and Congress became contentious.

As racial violence flared in the South, the Republican Congress, increasingly distrustful of Johnson’s willingness to interfere, passed the Tenure of Office Act. The act was meant to protect members of Lincoln’s Cabinet, whom Johnson had retained when he took over the presidency. The law prohibited the president from removing any officials that had been confirmed by the Senate, without the Senate’s approval. It especially sought to protect the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who had close ties to Radical Republicans in Congress.

When Johnson tried to remove Stanton, Congress responded with articles of impeachment. Nine of the eleven articles related to the Tenure of Office Act–others related to Johnson’s “attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States…to impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress…and to excite the odium and resentment of all good people of the United States against Congress.”

Ultimately the Tenure of Office Act was unclear enough-after all, Stanton had been appointed and confirmed under Lincoln-that Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote.

What does Andrew Johnson have to do with Donald Trump? Aside from sharing several characteristics, recent actions by Congress could put Trump in the same position as Johnson, when Johnson faced impeachment charges.

In the wake of Trump’s decision to revoke security credentials from the former CIA Director John Brennan, Senator Mark Warner has announced his intention of introducing a bill that would bar the president from “arbitrarily revoking security clearances.” The amendment is unlikely to pass–at least as long as Republicans control Congress. Yet, if midterms bring a political shift to Washington D.C. it’s not implausible that such legislation would be revisited.

If that were the case, and if Trump continued to use the revocation of security clearances as a way to punish his critics, he would find himself in the same position as Andrew Johnson–breaking a law set by Congress meant to control him (not to mention Trump has the whole insulting Congress thing in the bag).

For now, at least, it’s a lot of ifs. Still, if Trump finds himself facing a hostile Congress, as Johnson did, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he would face a similar outcome.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Herbert Hoover Edition

By Aaron Bauer

Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, lives in the popular memory as an unmitigated failure. The stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression began just six months after he took office and the calamity deepened throughout his time as president. Though his leadership and policies did not measure up to the greatest economic disaster in the nation’s history, Hoover deserves to be remembered as more than a failure. By the time of his election in 1928, he had accomplish so much, and on such a grand scale, that he was called the “most useful American citizen now alive” in the press. So, in honor of his 144th birthday on August 10th, let’s take a look at the extraordinary life of Herbert Hoover.

His had humble and tragic beginnings. Born in the tiny Quaker settlement of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover lost both parents to illness by age 10. Shuffled between various relatives, he eventually landed with a cold, disciplinarian uncle in Oregon. Hoover showed an aptitude for business as a teenager and rose to an important role in his uncle’s real estate company before leaving to study geology as a member of Stanford University’s inaugural class.

At 22, Hoover passed himself off as 35 and landed a job in Australia as an agent of the famous London mining firm Bewick, Moreing and Company. He proved to be something of a wunderkind. With a good instinct for a mine’s prospects and a ruthless ability to improve an operation’s efficiency, Hoover was a tremendous asset to his employers and enjoyed a rapid series of promotions. After just two years on the job, Bewick, Moreing & Co. recalled him to London, made him a junior partner, and sent him to supervise a massive mining operation in China. When he made full partner at age 27, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hoover was “reputed to be the highest salaried man of his years in the world.” He was also one of the most well-traveled—Hoover would circumnavigate the globe five times before his 35th birthday.

The outbreak of World War I found Hoover in London, running his own mining consulting company with offices in cities across the world. Hoover was horrified by the events of the war, and not just on the battlefield. As part of its invasion of France, Germany had occupied Belgium. This had brought the British in against Germany, and the British fleet set up a blockade to prevent food and arms from reaching their enemy. Belgium, a nation of 7.5 million people, depended on imports for more than 70 percent of its food. With the Germans and the British blaming each other for the situation, Belgium faced starvation within two weeks. Hoover felt a moral obligation to act, and threw his prodigious administrative talents into providing food to millions of Belgians.

Hoover CRBThe organization Hoover set up, the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), faced a problem of breathtaking scale. It needed to raise at least $1 million a week, buy tens of thousands of tons of food from all over the world, transport it across dangerous waters, and make sure the food reached the right people. As the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium said, the undertaking was “a piece of temerity that no one but a set of God’s own fools would ever have undertaken.” Yet Hoover and his associates were equal to the challenge. Hoover negotiated with foreign ministers and heads of state from all the great powers and rapidly built the CRB into, as one British Foreign Office functionary put it, “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” By early 1915, the CRB operated several dozen cargo vessels flying the CRB’s own flag (the only flag that all belligerents entered into an agreement to respect and defend) and coordinated a network of tens of thousands of volunteers raising money and distributing food.

His work with the CRB made Hoover a prominent figure on the world stage. President Woodrow Wilson took notice. Upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, Wilson appointed Hoover the head of the newly-created U.S. Food Administration. As “Food Czar,” Hoover had unprecedented authority to set prices, direct production, and punish violators in order to ensure a sufficient food supply for America and her allies. Hoover pressed Americans to conserve food during the war to such extent that Hooverize became a household word. It even found its way onto a Valentine’s Day card in 1918:

                                                    I can Hooverize on dinner,

And on lights and fuel too,

But I’ll never learn to Hooverize,

When it comes to loving you.

By war’s end in 1918, Hoover was hailed as an international hero and credited with helping sustain the war effort against Germany. Hoover continued to play a important role in Europe’s food supply as the U.S. Food Administration became the American Relief Administration, focused on helping the war-torn continent rebuild. Accused of supporting Bolshevism with food shipments to Soviet Russia, Hoover pounded his fist on the table and shouted, ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’”

Hoover’s career in public service continued as Secretary of Commerce under the next two presidents: Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover exercised influence far beyond the traditionally limited purview of the department he led. As the quip at the time went, Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of everything else.” To the annoyance of his cabinet colleagues, his appetite for responsibility was endless. Hoover lobbied to get commissions and agencies from across the government transferred to his department, and headed up a diverse portfolio including environmental conservation, water rights, agriculture policy, labor disputes, and regulating the new spheres of aviation and radio. His unusually central role was hard to miss. As a New Republic columnist put it in 1925:

“There is reason to doubt whether in the whole history of the American government a Cabinet officer has engaged in such wide diversity of activities or covered quite so much ground. The plain fact is that no vital problem, whether in the foreign or the domestic field, arises in this administration in the handling of which Mr. Hoover does not have a real—and very often a leading—part. There is more Hoover in the administration than anyone else…more Hoover…than there is Coolidge.”

One final demonstration of his abilities amidst an emergency cemented Hoover’s reputation. In early 1927, months of torrential rains sent the Mississippi River surging over and through the levees built to keep it in check. Tens of thousands of square miles across a half dozen southern states were inundated with water up to 30 feet deep. Coolidge, perpetually reluctant to do anything, relented to pressure for federal assistance and put Hoover in charge of flood relief. “When a man is sick he calls a doctor,” said columnist Will Rogers, “but when the United States of America is sick they call for Herbert Hoover.” With his characteristic hard-charging style and administrative acumen, Hoover pulled together a massive and highly effective operation. He started a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million, organized a fleet of 800 boats along with two dozen planes to find and rescue people from flooded areas, and oversaw the creation of 150 tent cities that housed and clothed hundreds of thousands of displaced people, complete with electric lights, sewer lines, and dining halls.

With his sterling track record of success, it should be no surprise Hoover won the Coolidge and HooverRepublican nomination and the presidency in 1928. He also benefited from the roaring economy and despite private concerns about a stock market bubble, campaigned on continuing the economic good times begun under the previous Republican presidents. Sadly for Hoover and the country, the good times came to a screeching halt just as he ascended to the pinnacle of public life. For all he had to offer, his inflexibility, his exaggerated faith in volunteerism, and, most importantly, the sheer size of the catastrophe, rendered Hoover unable to stem the tide of depression. His was not a successful presidency, and it’s fair to view him as a model of failure in that office. But he was far from a failure in life. Tomorrow, on his birthday, let us remember not just Herbert Hoover the president, but Hoover the world-renowned mining engineer, Hoover the superb administrator, and Hoover the towering humanitarian.

Sources:

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

Hoover: an extraordinary life in extraordinary times by Kenneth Whyte

Herbert Hoover in the White House: the ordeal of the presidency by Charles Rappleye