Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The sound of hope

in which we hear that truth is something that happens to an idea

The Felix Chronicles, # 24

I'm about to put last night's homework, the text of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat of March 12, 1933, on the Smart Board in the middle of class on a spring Friday afternoon. And then it suddenly occurs to me that there's probably an
audio recording of it out there somewhere. So I do a quick Google search, and within seconds, the room is filled with the sound of FDR addressing his fellow Americans:

I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking -- to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks ....

I turn down the volume, but leave him talking as I ask: "What are you hearing? I'm not simply asking about what he's saying. I'm wondering, how does this sound to you?" A pause. The president keeps speaking.

"He sounds reassuring," Sam says.

"Yes," says Kim. "Like a father."

"He sounds kinda flat to me," Becky says. "After all I've heard about the guy, I thought he'd sound a little more inspirational."

"He sounds inspiring to me," Mindy says, and I find myself wondering whether her conviction has more to do with Becky than FDR.

"The point is, he's trying to reassure people," Sam repeats. "He's trying to explain the situation to ordinary people, who don't necessarily understand banking stuff."

"Well OK," Becky says. "But doesn't mean he can't, like, uplift them, does it?"

"It's a crisis," Lisa says, a tinge of irritation in her voice. "People need calm."

"Well it is true that it was an especially scary moment," I observe and I turn off the sound. "That long stretch of uncertainty from November of 1932, when FDR was elected, to March of 1933, when he took office, created a lot of uncertainty. (After that, lawmakers amended the Constitution to have the President take office in January, just as Obama did about 100 days ago.) The winter of '33 is probably when the nation's economy touched bottom. In part, that was not just unease about a transition, but also unease within the financial community about FDR himself. Was he really up to the job?"

"The thing that bothers me a little," Samantha says, "is that I have this sense that he's talking down to people. It's a little condescending."

"Well, yeah," Sam says, "but you're not really the target audience."

"I know," she says. "But if what Mr. Cullen just said is true, and the bankers are the ones he needs to convince, is this really the right way to do it?"

"No, it isn't. But he wants to get the rest of the country on his side. He can talk to the bankers in other ways."

"You're right, Sam," I say. "But Samantha's reaction is one that some people did have at the time. Rich people in particular were appalled by Roosevelt. They called him 'a traitor to his class,' because just like his illustrious cousin Theodore Roosevelt, he came from old money and championed the poor. And they felt he was dishonest."

"How is this dishonest?" Susan asks incredulously. "He's explaining what happens when you put money in a bank!"

"Actually, Susan, Roosevelt could be quite devious," I say. "And, in a way, he's being a little devious right at this very moment. Even as he was speaking, he had dozens of advisers -- many of them holdovers from the Hoover administration, which he attacked relentlessly when running for president -- working frantically behind the scenes to sort out good banks, bad banks, and ones that could possibly survive. But in order to that, he had to talk them up a bit. He had to make things sound better than they actually were. I wouldn't say Roosevelt lied, exactly, but let's just say he was doing a little of what politicians today call 'spin control.'"

"But he had to do that," Susan says, annoyed. "Sometimes you can't tell the whole truth."

"You speaking from experience there, Susan?"

"Mr. Cullen!" Joey interjects with exaggerated outrage. "Are you suggesting that Susan has ever been anything other than totally truthful?"

"Well, in a way, yes," I reply. (Now it's Susan's turn to exclaim "Mr. Cullen!" But I ignore that.) "Here I'm reminded of my favorite American philosopher, William James, who once said, "Truth happens to an idea." By telling people things were going to turn out fine, and acting as if things were fine, they ended up becoming so," I say. "That's one of the reasons why FDR was so powerful. You look at a picture of the guy and you see this rich man, this still good-looking man, this guy who whipped polio and you think: He's not going to fail. And he doesn't. I mean, people still debate whether the policies actually worked in the long term. But that's kind of beside the point."

I look at the clock. I've got a bus with a ten year-old on it that I've got to be at in about 20 minutes. "And so it is that I will say that I know all of you are going to do just fine when I test you on the various legislative programs of the New Deal in the final exam next month."

"Yeah, right," says Joey. As I recall, his last exam was in the mid-seventies.

"Yeah right is right," I reply. "I've got faith in you, Joey. I know this last exam is going to be real breakthrough for you.." It's a tribute him that we can have this conversation openly. His self-esteem is intact, even if his work ethic isn't.

"You're a tough bastard, Mr. Cullen, you know that?"

"Why thank you, Joey."

"You're very welcome."

"Have a good weekend, Joey. Have a good weekend, everyone."