I remember my mother telling me about when she was a kid in the late 1930s and early 1940s, how she and her family would gather in the living room of her Brooklyn home to listen to President Franklin Roosevelt deliver his famous “Fireside Chats.”
These broadcasts were an attempt by FDR to communicate with Americans who were desperately struggling through the Great Depression and World War II era. Mom said that my grandfather, Poppy Cody, would insist that the children be there to listen and that there be absolute silence while the president was speaking.
I try to imagine the scene in my mind’s eye. Their house was a modest two-story colonial home on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn. It was small, but very nice (I have been there), and its cost probably strained the limits of Pop’s policeman’s salary. No doubt they owned a radio.
In those days radios were big, hefty pieces of furniture. All burnished oak, polished brass and elaborately adorned. They would also be one of any family’s most prized possessions.
A tiny amber glow would tell you the radio was on.
I can just see my grandmother, Mommy Cody, shushing the young ones as Roosevelt’s patrician tones emanated from the amber glow. He talked about rationing, banking, patriotism, grit, military maneuvers and the struggles of the average American.
It is hard to emphasize the importance of these presidential broadcasts and how warmly received they were by the public. During the Dec. 9, 1941 “fireside chat,” more than 60 million citizens listened in. That is an astounding figure, now or then.
It dawned on me this week that we too are living in a “fireside chat” era, albeit through television. With the deadly virus threat all around us, millions tune in each day to find out the latest news abut the scourge and the country’s response to it. I find that my wife and I do this twice daily. We gather a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers and watch on TV as our governor, Andrew Cuomo, and then later, President Trump, give their own versions of fireside chats.
Both press conferences are informative and highly watchable. And very different in style.
President Trump runs his presser like a business meeting. Usually in his dark suit and trademark long red tie, he gives opening remarks and holds a closing Q&A, but the rest of the time he acts as an emcee of sorts for the experts who form a formidable backdrop to the event. He politely invites each up to the microphone for some comments.
These people are so impressive that they have gained numerous online fans. The “scarf doctor,” Dr. Deborah Birx, gives a brilliant, articulate and insightful look at the days facts, figures, curves and trends of the pandemic. She is great. And unflappable.
Dr. Tony Fauci, America’s new superhero, is a short, gravelly voiced immunologist (also from Brooklyn) who has become the face and voice of this national crisis. He exudes confidence and straightforwardness, and all Americans hold him in high esteem. And, he looks like my other Italian grandfather, Louie, who was a shoemaker.
We hear from the U.S. Surgeon General, 46-year old Jerome Adams, a man almost none of us have ever heard of or heard from before. Again, clearly an impressive man. Vice President Pence leads this A-Team and he also makes a series of remarks, all very on point, at these press conferences.
Governor Cuomo’s events are far different. Seated at a long table, with a required 6 feet between him and the others, he never introduces them, and they almost never speak. He is dressed in a polo shirt and wears khaki pants. Cuomo orates in a tough New York mien, seemingly thinking in advance about every syllable that comes out of his mouth. He is plain, homespun (naming some commonsense rules to adhere to after his mother, Matilda) and not shy about getting his dander up.
Cuomo’s press conferences are accompanied by savvy media tools like informational slides. His question-and-answer period is much more tepid than the presidents, and he only has a very small handful of reporters in the room.
At the close of his press event, he abruptly claps his hands and says, “That’s it, I’m going to work.”
Fade to black.
Are these today’s fireside chats? Are they effective? Do these men match Roosevelt in eloquence? Do they connect with the American audience? We probably will never know for sure.
But they absolutely make for “must-see TV.”
I’ll catch you in two ...
“Big Chuck” D’Imperio’s morning radio show can be heard weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Otsego County, WDLA-AM 1270 in Delaware County and WCHN-AM 970 in Chenango County. All of his columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns.