The New Deal celebrates its 75th anniversary this week. National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez checked in with New York Times bestselling author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Amity Shlaes, to mark the occasion.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How are you celebrating the New Deal’s 75th?
Amity Shlaes: I’m participating in the Roosevelt Reading Festival at Hyde Park Saturday! One of the people I will see there is Nick Taylor, author of his own book, American Made, on the Works Progress Administration.
Anyone who hasn’t used the archive at Hyde Park: It’s fabulous. Cynthia Koch’s shop there is great. They have a virtual FDR calendar created out of multiple sources. So you can check how often FDR saw someone and when, down to what hour of the day. He almost never saw John Maynard Keynes.
The best object: FDR’s car. A mechanic in Dutchess County retrofitted it to accommodate his weak legs. But the mechanic also set up the car so it supplied him with cigarettes while he drove — lit cigarettes. So that is fun to see and I recommend a Hyde Park visit to even the most ferocious anti-Rooseveltians.
Lopez: What was the most enduring New Deal program?
Shlaes: Social Security, Social Security, Social Security.
Lopez: What did FDR do for radio as a medium?
Shlaes: Two things: The first is: He contributed enormously to its popularity. We all know about the Fireside Chats. What I didn’t know, at least until I did this research, was that the relationship was reciprocal. The medium worked hard to please FDR.
Columbia Broadcasting System published a memo for private distribution timed for the 1933 inaugural. Titled “We Think a Point has been Missed,” their doc argued that the claim that radio had made Roosevelt was misleading. On the contrary, said CBS. Roosevelt had made radio. Columbia thanked FDR for helping the medium win “public faith in its name” by using its “microphone to sell American sanity.”
As for the Academic Left, it wasn’t merely biased. It was beyond biased. On May 16, 1935, for example, a Columbia Teacher’s College prof “surveyed” tapes of 1,000 radio speakers to determine who had the best voice. Her criterion was pronunciation of words such as “government” and “capitalism.” She awarded FDR first prize out of all 1,000. (Father Coughlin, among her losers, lost because he had a “pulpit” voice that made him sound unnatural. Huey Long, she said, could be “ineffective and poor.”) The professor, Jane Zimmerman, said of FDR that “there is a sense of security in his voice.” The papers then reported Zimmerman’s findings as though they were objective and significant.
FDR’s radio is relevant to today for the following reason: These days there really is a salon. The salon says — right wingers can come in, but only if they are loud and mockable. Think of the right-winger on The View, Elisabeth Hasselbeck. When Michelle Obama came on the show, Elisabeth was wearing a top with only one shoulder. Hasselbeck is supposed to be representing conservatism, including social conservatism, but she’s dressed in a way that undermines her seriousness. That happens a lot.
That salon was created by FDR through the radio. The Columbia prof was right in one thing: He mastered his medium by understanding that performance skill mattered — he spoke in a low voice because he figured out that the mike was doing the work. His opponents by contrast shouted. So they seemed… unsalonworthy.
It’s not too Machiavellian to say that the Fairness Doctrine, which sprang up later, post-FDR, was Washington’s institutionalization of the exclusive salon.
Lopez: Was the FCC, created 74 years ago this month, a New Deal mouthpiece?
Shlaes: No. But there were many who were immediately concerned that through its licensing power it was advancing a political agenda. New York Herald Tribune editor Ogden Mills Reid called the radio “Spokesman of the New Deal.” The authority to revoke a license did indeed have a chilling effect. Remember: licenses were reviewed twice a year. That’s a frequency that all by itself generates anxiety.
By election year 1936 the media were speaking frequently about political abuse by the young FCC. At the American Newspaper Publishers Association, a spokesman noted that the FCC had “assumed dictatorial powers” generally, in a unanimous resolution the publishers condemned FCC for intervening in wire traffic. The publishers worried that the FCC was so mighty it might suppress print freedom along with that of radio freedom. Many Americans believed that Roosevelt’s critics, even the sane ones, were not getting sufficient airtime.
A Michigan man poles apart from Coughlin, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, created a new kind of broadcast when, using a phonograph, he went through a Roosevelt speech with the audience, halting the player at various points to provide a rebuttal. But the power of the mock-debate format terrified CBS. The network blocked the scheduled program on many affiliates.
It all led to modern radio as we knew it in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties — bland. Along with the voice of the bigot Father Coughlin, many relevant radio voices were suppressed by Hoover’s regime and then Roosevelt’s. Jurisprudential confirmation of FCC power was supplied by the Supreme Court decision in 1943 in which Felix Frankfurter wrote that the FCC was no mere traffic cop: “the act does not restrict the commission merely to supervision of the traffic. It puts upon the commission the burden of determining the composition of that traffic.”