A series of radio addresses which President Franklin Roosevelt carried out over the course of his presidency. Roosevelt delivered a total of 30 such addresses between 1933 and 1944. They were known as “fireside chats” because they were delivered in an informal, relatively intimate style, as though the audience were sitting around the fireside chatting with the president.
FDR’s first fireside chat was delivered on March 12, 1933. The president used the address to explain the ongoing “bank holiday” and ask Americans for their cooperation in the midst of America’s banking crisis. The country had recently experienced a month-long run on the banks, which prompted FDR to announce a Bank Holiday, shutting down the banking system for a week.
In his first fireside chat, FDR explained the, in straightforward language, the way the banking system worked, and set out his reasons for shutting down the banks. He urged Americans to put their faith in the system instead of, as he put it, keeping their money under a mattress. The chat appears to have worked; within two weeks after the bank holiday ended, Americans returned more than half of their money to the banks.
Over the years, FDR delivered “chats” about his economic policies, unemployment figures, military initiatives, and a range of other topics. He used the chats to appeal directly to the American people, building up popular support for his policies and bypassing the media entirely. This also gave him the opportunity to address criticism against him.
In his fifth fireside chat, delivered on June 28, 1934, FDR acknowledged that there had been some problems with his New Deal, but insisted that those hurt by his programs were the greedy and the self-interested:
“In the working out of a great national program which seeks the primary good of the greater number, it is true that the toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on. But these toes belong to the comparative few who seek to retain or to gain position or riches or both by some short cut which is harmful to the greater good.”
FDR also used that speech to take on his critics, depicting them as “complicated” and positioning himself as a plain-spoken American:
“A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it ” Fascism”, sometimes “Communism”, sometimes “Regimentation”, sometimes “Socialism”. But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical. I believe in practical explanations and in practical policies.”
Decades later, FDR continued to have his critics. In 1964, the New York Times published an editorial titled “The Case Against The ‘Fireside Chat.” The piece urged President Lyndon Johnson to stop appealing directly to “the people” to support his civil rights programs. The Times warned that FDR shouldn’t be used as a role model, explaining:
There are dangers in passionate appeals by the President for popular support. Ours is a constitutional society. Hopefully, that means that we govern ourselves through representatives even while restraining ourselves — and our representatives — within the confines of an elaborate structure of laws, institutions, rules, procedures and customs that collectively comprise our constitutional order. Government by popular referendum is the antithesis of constitutional government.