David Frum has a tough piece out today in National Review Online arguing that George W. Bush has been ineffective in persuading Americans to stay the course in Iraq. This is a direct slap not only at the president, but also at his speechwriters, and from a former colleague who served in the speechwriting office in 2001 and 2002. Frum argues that Bush makes the same case over and over again, and does not flesh it out with arresting details and enlightening narrative.
"The president could have made news yesterday by itemizing the reasons to regard Iraq more positively than most journalists do. He could have ticked off some of the achievements daily posted on the centcom.mil site. (Here's the latest.) He could have teased details even out of the mainstream media. (Mickey Kaus the other day noted that the reliably dour Robin Wright of the Washington Post casually mentioned in the course of her latest down-beater that Iraq has gone on a car-buying boom that has put a million new cars on the road since liberation. Kaus: 'A "car-buying boom"another shocking failure! Don't they know about global warming?')."
He also suggested that Bush should make his case not just before cheering crowds, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Salt Lake City on Monday, but in other, more informal settings.
The obvious model, though Frum doesn't mention it, is the fireside chats delivered by Franklin Roosevelt. These were radio broadcasts, made at a time when radio was a new but already well-nigh-universal medium. The texts are conveniently collected in a FDR's Fireside Chats, edited by Russell D. Buhite and David W. Levy and published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1992. Roosevelt delivered 14 of these talks, almost entirely on domestic issues, from March 1933 to June 1938, and another 18, almost entirely on foreign policy and war, from September 1939 to January 1945. In these talks Roosevelt often explained painstakingly the current posture of the war; before the chat of February 1942, the White House press office suggested that listeners might want to have an atlas or a globe at hand to follow the President's discussion of the war in the Atlantic and Pacific.
A few points on the wartime fireside chats generally. Most of them seem to run longer than Bush's speech in Salt Lake Cityor at least the part of it devoted to the war on terrorism. Roosevelt's talks were run on the three radio networks then in existence, and evidently Americans were prepared to listen to them straight through. It's not clear that Americans today, with their 100-plus cable channels, are prepared to listen so long.
Second, by today's standards, the fireside chats are not particularly chatty. Their language seems to me pretty formalthough not as formal as Roosevelt's ceremonial speeches. The tone of public discourse has gotten more demotic over the last 60 years.
Third, as the war goes on, Roosevelt increasingly uses anecdote and narrative. He relates the stories of war heroes. Bush has not been doing thisone of Frum's complaints.
Fourth, Roosevelt was not afraid to take some pretty rough shots at his domestic political enemies. It is generally assumed today that there was some kind of unanimity about World War II. Not really. Roosevelt was criticized for putting a priority on the European Theater over the Pacific; after all, some said, hadn't it been the Japanese who attacked us? Not everyone forgot that many of his opponents charged before Pearl Harbor that he was provoking the Germans and the Japanese to attack us (indeed a strong case can be made that he was). The media of the day was mostly controlled and run by Republicanssome of them like Henry Luce of Time were supporters of Roosevelt's war policies, but others like Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune (then the biggest-circulation broadsheet in the country) bitter critics.
Roosevelt clearly kept an eye on his enemies. In May 1940, as resistance to Hitler was collapsing in Western Europe, he noted that "there are a few among us who have deliberately and consciously closed their eyes [to foreign threats] because they were determined to be opposed to their government, its foreign policy, and every other policy, to be partisan, and to believe that anything that the government did was wholly wrong." Later in that chat he warned of a "fifth column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery."
In July 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, he asserted, "It is our determination to restore those conquered peoples to the dignity of human beings, masters of their own fate, entitled to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. We have started to make good on that promise. I am sorry if I step on the toes of those Americans who, playing party politics at home, call that kind of foreign policy 'crazy altruism' and 'starry-eyed dreaming.'"
We don't hear this kind of acerbic aside from George W. Bush, and perhaps it is just as well. Certainly it would set many in the mainstream media howling. But maybe the president and his speechwriters might want to give it a try.