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While listening to Roosevelt’s first fireside chat, I was most intrigued by the intent of his speech. On the surface, the president’s first widespread radio communication was about educating the public on changes made within the banking system. In his rhetoric, he made no implications about what the people knew, and was empathic in the concerns of others in conveying this understanding. I could tell, however, that the real knowledge he wanted to impart was not as much an understanding of banking, but his attunement to the thoughts and emotions of the American people. His repetitive use of intimate phrases such as ‘my friends’ supports the notion that each statement the President delivered was with regard to the diverse interests of all citizens. When Roosevelt addressed the nation on the planned court-packing bill on March 9th, 1937, he took a similar approach in delivery. In reality, to spend more time acknowledging the intricacies of his subject material would have helped very little—FDR was a politician, not a college professor. His decision to speak briefly about such intricate matters was of course deliberate. I was struck by his of talent adhering to general topics, and never weighing his message down in details. To overcome a lack of analysis, Roosevelt used language that spoke to the intent of government operations. One can see this when he compares US government to a ‘three-horse’ team that plows the field of the people. Whenever Roosevelt sought to inject faith in the American people, he often used very visual, figurative language to ground his message. In the fireside chat of December 9th, 1941, Roosevelt’s real influence as a politician and an orator emerged. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the President was faced with a tragedy and ultimately a great decision. Noticing his repetition of key phrases as well as an unusually motivational choice of words, I got a sense of how sudden and startling such an attack had been for the public and for Roosevelt. With the country transfixed by such a crisis, the medium became the message. Regardless of the words he Roosevelt offered, he spoke with great levity. Though his language inspired optimism and strength, the content of the speech paled in comparison to the strength of its delivery.
Aside from a few references to Christianity, which were sensibly used for the sake of further connecting to listeners on an interpersonal level, the only surprise in listening to Roosevelt’s fireside chats was the difference in form between FDR’s speeches and presidential speeches given today. Such a desire to teach Americans on behalf of the president would seem an odd gesture today. In my interpretation, the intricacy of politics seems to underlie the chosen content of presidential speeches today. Education on the part of leadership would simply involve taking on the varied comprehension of too many demographics for such an effort to have any measurable impact. Another difference is the way FDR capitalizes on the use of the first-person (“I”). It speaks to the way Americans viewed the workings of government as being the result of choices made by people, not mysterious, faceless sectors of control. Even if the view presented by Roosevelt was not his own, putting himself in relation to the points made pushes the audience into feeling like they are getting insight into FDR as a person. The recognition of there being personal closeness between Americans and their leaders in Washington is transparent in these speeches. To make our leaders more humane through the use of rhetorical techniques may be strived for today, but is a harder feat to achieve.
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