SCOTT SIMON, host:
Can words move history? A lot of people thought so 75 years ago when Franklin D. Roosevelt took the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to declare:
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President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.
SIMON: That speech was broadcast from the Chicago Stadium, July 2, 1932, a time when America was anxious and depressed.
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Pres. ROOSEVELT: Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.
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SIMON: This was the first time that most of America had heard the voice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which would become one of the signature voices of the 20th century. The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago is marking the occasion with a 75th anniversary salute to FDR.
Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek columnist and author, is participating in the tribute at the museum. He's the author of the book "The Defining Moment: FDR's 100 Days and the Triumph of Hope". Jonathan Alter joins us from our studios in New York.
Jonathan, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. JONATHAN ALTER (Columnist, Newsweek; Author, "The Defining Moment: FDR's 100 Days and the Triumph of Hope"): Thanks a lot, Scott.
SIMON: What was it like for Americans to hear that voice, that timbre, that tone?
Mr. ALTER: Well, I think everybody will assume that the FDR of that time was the FDR we've come to know. But actually, he's a candidate who had just barely got the nomination on the fourth ballot. When his nomination was announced, there was booing at the Chicago Stadium. He was seen as being a flip-flopper, a lightweight, not up to the challenges of the time.
The Depression was reaching its worst point at that juncture. And when he came in, he did something that was unprecedented in American political history, which is that he accepted his nomination in person. So the speech you've just heard where he unveiled a new deal for America was tremendously historic.
In the past - it's hard to believe - but the candidate would stay home and weeks later after the convention, a delegation would go and have a little ceremony at the candidate's home where they would inform him he had been nominated and he would formally accept the nomination. So he flew from Albany to New York to Chicago on an airplane, which was in those days like landing on a rocket. You know, and almost nobody at that convention had ever been up in an airplane. So it was very dramatic when he came in to give that acceptance speech.
SIMON: How much of the nation was listening? Can you tell?
Mr. ALTER: A significant portion, even if you didn't have a radio at home, you would crowd around your neighbor's radio. And this was the first time most Americans heard that the Democratic nominee for president was crippled. The radio announcer said that Governor Roosevelt, who's been afflicted with polio, was being helped out of his seat to the podium. And when Herbert Hoover, the president at that time, and his aides heard that they thought the election was over and that he would easily be reelected once everyone discovered that the Democratic nominee was a cripple, as they called it then.
SIMON: Was there something about Franklin Roosevelt that made him particularly effective in an age when radio was becoming a mass medium?
Mr. ALTER: Yes. Not in this speech that you just heard, the acceptance speech, but in the first fireside chat, which took place on March 12th, 1933, a week after he took office - in those days, the inauguration was on March 4th.
And in that speech, at a period when the United States was curled up in the fetal position - the banks were all closed, many Americans thought that both capitalism and democracy were at an end - he revolutionized communications for all time with that first fireside chat. Because for thousands of years before the invention of the microphone, leaders talked to their people like this, in very stentorian tones, because they had to be heard at the back of the auditorium. And they didn't really know how to communicate conversationally.
And Franklin Roosevelt was the first to understand that a conversational tone could change everything. It was the first time people felt that even though they didn't know the president personally, they felt that he knew them personally, and it was a whole different plane of communication.
SIMON: You hear the section of the speech that we heard at that the top these days, and you hear the kind of stridency and, I think maybe because we know how the story works out in history, it's hard not to hear it and say, well, the American people knew what they were getting. They chose the right man at the right time and the right place. Is that sentimental nonsense?
Mr. ALTER: Yes, it is. No offense, but I don't think they really did know what they were getting. I think there was a lot of luck involved. They knew they were getting the governor of New York. There were a lot of rumors that the polio had gone to his brain. Even some of his own aides thought he was so weak that he couldn't go campaign in California, and he had to disabuse them of that notion, and fight a whispering campaign that went past the election.
So it's very easy for us to look back and say, well, obviously Roosevelt was going to, you know, win that election. And indeed, he won in a landslide. But that summer, 75 years ago, nobody really knew what was going to happen. All they knew, and I interviewed a few people in their 90s who were at that convention, all they knew was that Roosevelt went from being seen as a weak choice - which is how H.L. Mencken described him - to being a candidate who electrified the convention. And even those delegates who had been strongly against him were impressed by the drama of the moment.
SIMON: Jonathan, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you.
Mr. ALTER: Thanks a lot, Scott.
SIMON: Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter.