President Carter promises to keep in touch with us by means of fireside chats. There is something beguilingly old-fashioned about the term, and that surely is one of the reasons Mr. Carter promised to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mode of speaking directly to the American people. I wonder, though, if he can succeed in carrying us back to those days of easy, succinct communication.
Roosevelt saw the press and radio as the biggest, best Wurlitzer in the world. Two or three times a week the White House Oval Room became his Radio City Music Hall. He set the rules, stomped the pedals, and pushed or pulled the stops as he pleased. He was not to be photographed except in a situation or a posture which he or his aides approved. His remarks at his news conferences were never to be quoted directly except when direct quotation was specified, and that was infrequently. When he sat before a microphone to deliver one of his chats to the nation (and to a lot of the rest of the world), he could have done so in his undershorts and with a martini in his hand; it would have made no difference had he suffered Nixon’s five o’clock jowl, Kennedy’s self-conscious fiddling with necktie and mopping of hair, or Johnson’s blinking from the grit, or something, of his contact lenses. Nobody was going to see him perform, only listen.
All is very different now. Unless he chooses to confine himself to an audience consisting chiefly of radio-listening motorists, the President, before he can say “Good evening, my fellow Americans,” must be wired up to the commercial networks, PBS, and Telslar, gussied and patted by his resident Max Factor and Yves St. Laurent, politely hectored by his voice man, his profile coach, and the lighting man. Warner Communications people and assorted other packagers hover around the edges with hungry eyes and contract forms in hand, mass paperback arrangements to be negotiated separately. An exaggeration, perhaps, but you know what I mean.
This is not intended to disparage the many advances in communication since FDR’s time (well, not all of them, anyway), nor to suggest that profusion of the means by which a President can reach the people has diminished his power to orchestrate his Administration’s news and/or propaganda. On the contrary. That great Oval Room Wurlitzer has been succeeded by the biggest Moog synthesizer cum picture projector in the world.
Will we laugh or cry once Jimmy Carter sits down to play?
The new President’s way with information will be subject to suspicious scrutiny from the start. One can predict early cries of “news management” from those editors, reporters, and broadcasters who like to believe that only they should manage the inordinate flow of what passes for news. But a President who doesn’t strive to orchestrate the way he and his Administration address and inform the public would be inadequate. So if Carter & Co. “manage” the news, as they surely will attempt to do, our chief concern is that they do so cleanly and well. “Don’t ask how it will serve ourselves but how it will serve the public” is an obvious rule of thumb, but it tends to get smudged in highly placed Administration minds after a few weeks in office. (Until there is evidence that the new Administration is mismanaging the news, we may more usefully focus our concern on what the courts are doing to the First Amendment—see “Danger: Pendulum Swinging,” page 29.)
Presumably Mr. Carter is giving thought to the risk of overkill. Journalists want all the news conferences and other person-to-person confrontations they can get. It is time, though, that some attention be paid to the form, if not the frequency, of those crowded televised conferences. The President can manipulate them almost as he pleases. They are cumbersome and all too often uninformative. The questions follow no logic of progression and they are almost always anticipated by the President and his advisers. (I participated in preparations for nearly forty of John F. Kennedy’s news conferences and can recall only two questions that had not been anticipated and discussed; neither was very important.) Mr. Carter might consider the advisability of scheduling news meetings confined to specific subjects—the economy, defense, energy, or urban problems. They could become public seminars of a valuable kind.
As for those fireside chats, it is interesting to note–as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. did in his A Thousand Days— that FDR delivered only thirty of them in his twelve years as President, and no more than two a year in peacetime.
Mr. Carter needs to find the form and setting that best accommodate his own form of charlatanism. All great leaders and even those who aren’t so great are at least part charlatan. Let us entertain no protestations about that. It is intolerable to contemplate that a President of the United States lacks the considerable touch of con man essential to governing such a country as ours. The jaunty jut of the cigarette holder encased in a smile is not Carter’s style, nor are the Churchillian organ-roll, the cool Kennedy jape, the tall-story charm of LBJ at his best. The new President no doubt will try to avoid the scrambled syntax of Eisenhower, though in retrospect that can be said to have served Ike well. The take-charge humility (if that is not a contradiction) of Truman doesn’t seem quite to fit Carter, though it might. Hoover or Coolidge I presume he is not. Nor Ford, nor—we must hope–Nixon. Extreme youthfulness disqualifies me from dipping further back in history. One suggestion: The blue jeans bit won’t work. It simply isn’t magisterial, and if there is one thing a good conductor has to be, it’s magisterial.
So much for speculation. Quiet, please! The concert is about to begin.