Take it to the People, Mr. President. That’s my unsolicited advice for our new president, who takes office January 20, 2009. Considering the complex issues that our new leader will face after he leaves the Capitol steps and the swearing in ceremony, there won’t be much of a honeymoon for his administration. The real work begins on Day Two, as we’ve written here.
So my advice is this: As the Storyteller-in-Chief, just as he is Commander-in-Chief, President Obama should use every means of communication possible to tell the American people what we are facing (in this time of multiple national crises), and what he and his team will do about it. And what we can do to help. Tell it straight – we can take it – and tell it simple, so we can process all that is shared with us, and rally around our new leadership to tackle the massive problems that we face as a nation…all together now!
The United States is blessed with an amazing assortment of the means of communicating. Newspapers, radio, television, magazines, Web social media, blogs, Web sites, videotaped and DVD recordings, instant messaging, movie house trailers, satellite conferencing — and more. It’s so easy to tell a story. The way has been paved by past president storytellers, who set the pace. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Harry S. Truman (“give ‘em hell, Harry’), John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and the Great Communicator, Ronald Wilson Reagan. (“Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” – powerful message, and a little story that summed up the 40 years of the Cold War.)
Some channels are there for our instant use – our Web sites – and others require the
permission of the owners – for example, as when the President of the United States requests broadcast and cable TV time for a major address. Given his personal charm and the media’s fascination with this president-elect, it will be easy to say “yes” to the White house request.
The way to direct-talk to the American people — from coast-to-coast-to-coast and everything in between, in millions of homes, at offices, or in bars and others’ homes — was paved by the president you (Senator Obama) are being increasingly compared to, and the history that is eerily sounding more familiar every day: President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR).
Radio was still quite new when he was sworn in (March 1933); commercial radio had been birthed about 10 years earlier. (Sort of like our World Wide Web since 1996 or so), and television in the years 1946 to the mid-1950s, which President John Kennedy mastered as our first television Storyteller-in-Chief. Having made speeches on the radio as governor (of New York), and on the campaign trail, President Roosevelt decided to “use The Radio” as a major means of directly taking his messages and stories to the people.
FDR’s inauguration was broadcast to the nation from the Capitol steps on March 4, 1933.
His first broadcast to the nation was on March 12th, from the White House. He had requested the air time for an important address and the leading radio networks (including CBS, Mutual, and NBC “Red” and “Blue”) agreed. FDR said he wanted to talk directly to the American people. CBS newsman Robert Trout supposedly dubbed this a “fireside chat,” envisioning the president at his desk and millions of Americans sitting in their homes…beside a crackling fire.
The subject was serious – very serious, even dire to the listeners. Hundreds of banks had failed, were failing, with the dominoes never ending…bank after bank and bank…gone.
Along with depositors’ saving and mortgages. The president’s tone was reassuring – he had to be that – and educational …and informative…and presidential. He announced that every bank –every bank – in the nation would be closed at once. A “bank holiday,” he brilliantly called it. And after government inspection of the books, they would begin to re-open. Deposits would be insured. And if a bank opened (many did not), customers could trust the institution. FDR went on to explain the how / why / who,etc. of the issue. In the end, the American people understood what was at stake and they could count on their new leader. The great climb out of the dark days had begun.
FDR told a great story that evening and established an important precedent of talking to the American people whenever a story needed to be told. Like the progress being made to roll back the Bad Times of the Depression years. Why certain legislation was needed (the New Deal laws and regulations). Why this isolationist nation after WWI must prepare for war, what was at stake as fascism swept Europe, and so on. The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire – that address was a comprehensive review of global politics, world history, and more. The people understood; we were going to war and that would be great personal sacrifice needed. For hundreds of thousands of Americans, it would be the ultimate sacrifice.
The 125 million American people got the story, straight, the goods, understood the stakes, came together in a common cause…and in the years to follow accomplished the impossible.
From 1933 to his passing in spring 1945, through the years of the Great Depression, through a world war fought on all continents, through all kinds of challenges to the nation, President Roosevelt talked to his people, about three dozen times total. (The actual “Fireside Chats” count varies). Millions of homes would tune in. The White House would notify the broadcasters of the president’s request, usually for a Sunday night after all the prime time shows, and FDR would broadcast from his microphone-studded desk,storytelling in earnest. (You can hear some of these today at:http://www.mhric.org/fdr/fdr.html — listen – be inspired!)
FDR’s example was followed by most of the presidents who followed. The intimacy of radio is different from the “hot medium” of television (picture with sound vs. the mind-images conjured up by individuals around the RCA radio set in the night hours). And the proliferating social media, wireless devices, XM car receivers, etc. are different as well.
But the storytelling – responding to basic human instincts – is as important as ever. And, President-elect Obama, will be ever more important to the American people given the challenges we face and will be facing in 2009 and beyond. Tell it to us straight – we can take it!