“ORATORY IS THE PARENT OF LIBERTY,” explained a popular American handbook in 1896. “By the constitution of things it was ordained that eloquence should be the last stay and support of liberty, and that with her she is ever destined to live, flourish, and to die. It is to the interest of tyrants to cripple and debilitate every species of eloquence. They have no other safety. It is, then, the duty of free states to foster oratory.” Before the Civil War, when this was an axiom of American public life, the nation had produced a peculiarly American declamatory literature, and it was taken for granted that there were standards of eloquence. A patriotic citizen knew the Great American Orations; and Great Statesmen, while they championed the People, steadily increased the world’s stock of Oratorical Classics.
Within a half-century this view of oratory was as obsolete as high-button shoes. Many of the very same democratic tendencies which had nourished oratory were to be the death of it. As the spoken word found new vehicles and a new reach, it became less a creature of rules, and it relaxed. The public was transformed, along with the public style of American politics. Even while the uttered word reached out magically and brought everybody into the audience, even as the audience became larger, in strange new ways it also became more intimate. In the post-oratorical era, the citizen would feel both closer to and farther from his democratic leaders.
THE McGUFFEY READERS, the work of a professor of moral philosophy which dominated the schoolbook market for nearly a half-century after their appearance in 1836, have been noted for making clichés of certain American classics while they popularized morality. But the 122 million copies of McGuffey which reached the classrooms, while they gave Americans their declamatory literature, also democratized the arts of the spoken word. It is sometimes forgotten that these books, out of which generations of American schoolchildren learned to read, aimed to teach boys and girls how to read aloud. McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader (1879 ed.) began by describing the purpose of “reading as a rhetorical exercise,” and went on with Twelve Rules and examples of “correct” and “incorrect” Articulation, Inflection, Accent, Emphasis, Modulation, and Poetic Pauses.
Rule IX.—The different members of a sentence expressing comparison, or contrast, or negation and affirmation or where the parts are united by or used disjunctively, require different inflections; generally the rising inflection in the first member, and the falling inflection in the second member. This order is, however, sometimes inverted.
But McGuffey recommended “uniformity of tone … to express solemnity or sublimity of idea, and sometimes intensity of feeling.” The opening exercise for students was a threnody: “Death of Franklin (To be read in a solemn tone).”
During the nineteenth century, children in the primary grades were promoted according to their ability “to read aloud deliberately and correctly.” In secondary schools, ceremonies of Public Reading and Recitation, with “declamation and exercises of a forensic kind,” were common. William Jennings Bryan, one of the last paragons of the old-fashioned oratory, recalled how his high school training in a literary society and a debating club had taken him “a step forward in the art of declamation.”
In the multiplying American colleges of the nineteenth century, rhetoric, elocution, and oratory were essential subjects. Henry Adams, who had been a student at Harvard College in the 1850’s and who knew the cultivated European, remarked that to the American “nothing seemed stranger” than “the paroxysms of terror before the public which often overcame the graduates of European Universities.” After his college experience, Adams was “ready to stand up before any audience in America or Europe, with nerves rather steadier for the excitement.” “Whether he should ever have anything to say,” he added, “remained to be proved.” But the question of content did not unduly trouble young American orators. By the early years of the twentieth century, intercollegiate debating, a predecessor of intercollegiate football, had become one of the most organized activities of higher education, with a specialized apparatus of coaches, textbooks, schedules, and intercollegiate “leagues.”
This prominence of oratory in higher education came from a number of peculiarly American circumstances. The scores of new colleges and universities had recruited their part-time faculties from the ministers in neighboring pulpits. And the ambitious American undergraduate was preparing himself for a seat in one of the numerous legislative bodies which were multiplying with the growth of the nation. As oratory flourished and as Americans learned their history through the public utterances (real or supposed) of patriots and statesmen, it became an axiom of American democracy that there really were great models and correct standards for the public word. Educated persons, it was assumed, would agree on the meaning of “eloquence” and would have little difficulty deciding which works belonged in a collection of “The World’s Great Orations.” And these were profitably marketed in ten-volume buckram-bound sets to become the parlor furnishings of households that possessed few other books besides the Bible and a mail-order catalogue.
Thousands of young William Jennings Bryans came to believe that oratorical standards were a kind of test of their qualifications for statesmanlike greatness. The study of Greek and Latin, still widespread in high schools and colleges, was supposed to provide classic models for the student who tried to decipher the phrases of Demosthenes or Cicero. And the custom of memorizing and declaiming the famous orations of patriot-orators—Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,” James Otis’ “Against the writs of assistance,” Daniel Webster’s “Against Hayne,” Henry Grady’s “New South,” and others—gave generations of schoolchildren a further vested interest in believing that a “great oration” was something very special.
Students were taught the rules by which these models of greatness had been created. Rhetoric remained a basic subject in American secondary schools and colleges, where the classical curriculum included Cicero’s De Oratore, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and Longinus’ On the Sublime. And instruction in the proper modes of public speech penetrated all the studies of language and literature. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783) by Hugh Blair (a Scots minister who “would stop hounds by his eloquence”), was long a textbook at Yale and Harvard, and in its Philadelphia edition went through thirty-seven printings before the mid-nineteenth century. Works like John Quincy Adams’ Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory (2 vols., 1810; his lectures as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard) adapted classical models and British textbook principles to American circumstances.
Competing “schools” of rhetoric offered their own dogmas, with specialized vocabularies and systems of instruction, to help professors dignify their subject. Dr. James Rush (the seventh of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s thirteen children), aiming to give “physiological data to Rhetoricians,” dominated the late nineteenth century with his Philosophy of the Human Voice (1827; six editions by 1867) and its elaborate terminology. His distinctions between the “radical” and the “vanish,” and his classification of “tonics,” “subtonics,” and “atonics,” became the foundation of numerous other textbooks which tried to explain ancient rhetoric by the modern sciences of physiology and psychology. One school was based on “Vocal Gymnastics.” Another (the Delsarte System of Expression, founded by a Paris singing teacher) expounded the Holy Trinity in The Three Forms of Movement: “normal,” or movement about a center, expressing Life; “eccentric,” or movement away from a center, expressing Mind; and “concentric,” or movement toward a center, expressing Soul. All elocutionary gestures and attitudes were then classified into nine derivative forms, from “normo-normal” through “eccentro-concentric” to “concentro-concentric.” To compete with Rush’s textbook and with Vocal Gymnastics, American disciples of Delsarte offered “Harmonic Gymnastics,” which remained popular until the opening years of the twentieth century.
Still, there were a few ominous signs of skepticism about the usefulness of this apparatus. As early as 1835, when Jonathan Barbour, Harvard’s first “scientific” teacher of elocution, whom the orator Wendell Phillips acknowledged as his master, required his students to fit themselves into a bamboo-slatted sphere so they could better acquire the gradations of gesture through a full 360 degrees, the students rebelled, actually forcing the ingenious professor to resign. His successor at Harvard, the brilliant Edward T. Channing, who trained many of the famous New England orators of the pre-Civil War era, warned students against slavishly following classic models: the orator should not be a “leader of the multitude” but instead should consider himself “one of the multitude, deliberating with them upon common interests.” Yet the reverence for “Great Orations” lasted.
When the youthful William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” oration won him the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1896, the popular awe for great orations in the bombastic style was confirmed. Meanwhile the prominence in public life of potent “orators” in the traditional mode—Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana, Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, Senator Hiram W. Johnson of California—kept the tradition alive. And the special role in American life of lawyers like Rufus Choate, Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, Louis D. Brandeis, and Clarence Darrow, seemed to reassure young men that advocacy and the forensic arts were a road to fame and fortune. When Woodrow Wilson, a master orator in the old style, revived the practice of delivering the President’s annual message in person as a speech to Congress, he again reminded the nation of the orator’s power.
In the early twentieth century, American schools and colleges were still teaching the techniques of declamation. The vogue of the subject increased with the founding of new national associations of teachers of speech. By 1930 a course on speech or public speaking was in the regular curriculum of the larger high schools, not because of any revived interest in classical models, but because American education was drawing subjects into the curriculum “in proportion to their relative importance for useful and successful living.” The sophisticated revival of rhetoric in the form of a “New Criticism,” stirred by the writings of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and shaped by the critical writings of I. A. Richards and Kenneth Burke, was confined to literary reviews and scholarly studies.
THIS WIDENING TWENTIETH-CENTURY INTEREST in public speech could hardly have been called the “New Rhetoric,” for it had very little to do with the traditional study of classical models and revered principles. The focus had shifted to the practical problems of personality and “making a good impression.” Now teachers aimed to help students learn to “relax” before an audience, and tried to give them a better understanding of the audience’s point of view. The popular new textbooks aimed to cultivate “the conversational manner.” The self-consciously democratic emphasis defined the objective (requiring a good heart more than a trained mind) as “learning to speak openly and honestly,” because “the real skill in communication comes when a pupil has learned to find the proper voice, the best tone for a particular audience, and when he has something to say and is deeply committed to saying it.”
The advancing knowledge of the physiology and psychology of speech was applied to correcting speech defects such as stuttering and stammering, and to speech therapy for patients of all ages. By 1920 there were remedial speech programs in the public schools of Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and elsewhere, and specialized clinics in several universities.
The shift in focus was dramatic: from the models and standards of “eloquence” and “oratory” to the person and his problems, from “elocution” and “declamation” to self-improvement and personal success. The popular symbol of this new view of the public word was Dale Carnegie. While he was ignored by academic teachers of rhetoric (his name does not appear in the ponderous academic histories of “speech education” in America), his books had a spectacular popular success and his name became a household word.
Dale Carnegie’s life was itself a classic American success story. Born in 1888 on a Missouri farm, he attended State Teachers College at Warrensburg. Lacking the money to pay for a dormitory room, he continued to live on the farm, where he helped with the chores, and rode horseback six miles to class every day. Since he was not heavy enough for the college football team, he joined the debating team instead. After graduation he tried his luck as a salesman. Then at a “social evening” in New York in 1912 he impressed the manager of the Y.M.C.A. on 125th Street by his recitation (to piano accompaniment) of James Whitcomb Riley’s “Knee Deep in June” and “Giddyap Napoleon, It Looks Like Rain.” Carnegie wanted to teach a course in public speaking at the Y.M.C.A. While the manager was not willing to risk the $2-per-evening fee he usually paid his teachers, he did let Carnegie offer classes on a profit-sharing basis. His students, Carnegie recalled, “wanted to be able to stand up on their feet and say a few words at a business meeting without fainting from fright. Salesmen wanted to be able to call on a tough customer without having to walk around the block three times to get up courage. They wanted to develop poise and self-confidence. They wanted to get ahead in business…. I had to be practical if I wanted to eat.” Developing his own techniques for teaching these men how to “conquer fear,” he opened night classes in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Wilmington, and he wrote his own textbook.
To meet the growing demand for his “Dale Carnegie Course in Effective Speaking and Human Relations,” he organized centers in other cities, he trained instructors, and then he franchised the right to use his system all over the United States and abroad. By 1970 the Carnegie courses (tuition $135 to $185, depending on locality) counted a current enrollment of more than 1.5 million. How to Win Friends and Influence People, the text that Carnegie had written for his courses, was a booksellers’ phenomenon. For the first two years after its publication in 1936 by Simon and Schuster (whose general manager had taken a Carnegie course for executives), it sold five thousand copies a day at $1.98 a copy. It remained on the best-seller lists for a decade, and by 1970 had sold nine million copies.
Carnegie’s book, despite the sneers of the literati, was squarely in the classical tradition of self-help literature. The essays of Francis Bacon and Montaigne, Castiglione’s Courtier, and Lord Chester-field’s Letters to His Son gave advice to the ambitious young man who aimed to improve himself. In England, Samuel Smiles, with his Lives of the Engineers, and his cheery essays on Self-Help, Thrift, and Duty, had begun to adapt this literature to the wider audience and the sterner demands of an industrial age. The most popular and most frequently quoted passage of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac was Father Abraham’s Speech, entitled “The Way to Wealth.” For most Americans who heard Ralph Waldo Emerson lecture and who read his books, Emerson was no transcendentalist, but the man who showed them the path to “Self-Reliance,” and so to successful living. A bizarre latter-day American prophet of self-improvement was the pseudo-Bohemian Elbert Hubbard, whose leaflet A Message to Garcia (1899), a parable of the resourcefulness and self-reliance of an American lieutenant in the Spanish-American War, sold over forty million copies, mostly to industrial firms for circulation to their employees. While Dale Carnegie’s work showed no literary distinction, it was written in the plain style and had the virtues of the most effective advertising copy. Brilliant in its psychological insights and in its practicality, it long remained the most successful adaptation of the moralistic tradition of self-improvement to the special circumstances of twentieth-century America.
How to Win Friends and Influence People had appeared in a time of depression and unemployment when Americans grasped for some new success formula. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the best-remembered utterance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, in 1933, expressed the central notion on which Dale Carnegie was building his program. But literary reviewers and academic intellectuals were contemptuous. After Sinclair Lewis read Carnegie’s “six ways of making people like you” (including Rule 2: Smile), he admitted that they might help the student make money, “though there is the slight trouble that they may make it… impossible for his wife to live with him.” James Thurber declared the “disingenuities” in Carnegie’s case histories to be transparent and conspicuous, “like ghosts at a banquet.” One clever young man, a short time before he committed suicide, wrote a book-length burlesque, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
When a prominent person or high executive enrolled in the early days of the Carnegie courses, it was often under an assumed name. But by the 1950’s the Carnegie courses had the public confidence of American men of affairs. The alumni included a United States commissioner of education, a governor of Kentucky, a governor of Maryland, ambassadors and admirals, as well as the board chairman of B. F. Goodrich Rubber Company, the president of the National Biscuit Company, the president of the Regal Shoe Company, and the president of Dun & Bradstreet. Many large enterprises, such as Westing-house, the McGraw-Hill Book Company, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and the New York Telephone Company, presented the Carnegie courses in their own offices to their employees and executives. Dale Carnegie was obviously offering a useful commodity that Americans were willing to pay for.
In a nation with a Go-Getting tradition, Dale Carnegie became the Go-Getter’s Go-Getter. He achieved fame and fortune by selling salesmanship. The Carnegie enterprise used organization, advertising, and the optimistic booster spirit, appealing to every American whose success “had not yet gone through the formality of taking place.” And the Carnegie Courses, along with the Carnegie books, reached out to forty-five countries. Premier U Nu of Burma translated Carnegie’s How to Win Friends (along with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital) into Burmese. When he visited the United States he reported that, in Burma at least, Carnegie was outselling Marx, and the person he himself most wanted to meet here was Dale Carnegie.
Earlier American programs of self-help had tended to be programs of self-improvement, developing the character while showing “The Way to Wealth.” Carnegie’s emphasis was not on character but on personality: “Smile” because it is “A Simple Way to make a Good First Impression.” Unlike most of his predecessors in the self-help tradition, he focused on speech and the spoken word. And democracy in technologically ingenious twentieth-century America fulfilled the prophecies of ancient philosophic antidemocrats like Plato and gave overwhelming new power to the spoken word. American democracy would increasingly depend on the spoken word and the impressions made by it.
BY 1900 THE UNITED STATES had nearly 1.5 million telephones, by 1932 there were 17.5 million. Until the coming of the telephone, the main means of communication between people at a distance had been the written or printed word. But in the new era of oral communication, it would become possible for almost anybody to talk to almost anybody else about almost anything, or nothing. Communication became more informal. The telephone became the means for conducting business. Social invitations, formerly by letter, now came by telephone. The love letter was displaced by long-distance sweet-talk.
When the radio first became workable in the early 1920’s, people naturally thought of it at first as a kind of “wireless telephone.” As we have seen, it was the fact that this wireless telephone failed to offer the privacy needed for person-to-person communication that led many to believe that it could never be commercially feasible. Who would pay to talk on a telephone to which anyone could listen? Only a few visionaries, like David Sarnoff, imagined otherwise—and only because they envisaged radio as a means of entertainment. In 1922, nevertheless, fearful that the growth of radio might somehow bring down the value of telephone stock, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company decided to enter the field which they then called “public radio telephone broadcasting.” “We, the telephone company,” an executive recalled, “were to provide no programs. The public was to come in. Anyone who had a message for the world or wished to entertain was to come in and pay their money as they would upon coming into a telephone booth, address the world, and go out.” They called this “toll broadcasting” from a “phone booth of the air.” The future of broadcasting, of course, did not lie in this particular direction, but rather in exploiting the novel features of the new technique which now made it possible for messages or music to be sent out to an indeterminate, unseen, uncountable audience.
And the public word would be transformed. When the only way to address thousands was from a platform, the formal, oratorical mode had been inevitable: the speaker had to stand up, shout loudly, and make broad gestures in order to be understood in the far corners. Before the days of the public address system, William Jennings Bryan’s success with his “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention of 1896 had depended on his powerful, resonant voice.
Radio changed all this, and so altered the style of American politics. Both speaker and listener found themselves in a new locale, which made possible a new relationship. Oddly enough, radio did remain a one-to-one communication, and in a sense became more private than ever. No matter how many people were being addressed, there could be a new intimacy. And it was a seldom noted paradox that the enormous increase in the audience actually informalized the situation. Radio, like television more emphatically afterward, was creating a new segregation: the listener sitting before his receiver in his living room, his kitchen, his workshop, or his automobile felt alone, and could be alone, with the broadcasting voice. Between listener and speaker a new feeling arose. “Public speaking” became just talking.
In the early days of motion pictures, producers had kept the real names of their star performers secret, fearing that if the identity of the “Biograph Girl” were known, she would demand impossible fees and her celebrity would overshadow that of the company. Similarly, before 1925, radio broadcasting stations generally tried to keep their announcers anonymous, although some stations allowed an announcer to sign off with his cryptic code initials. When a fan wrote to station WHAS in Louisville, he received a form letter: “It is against the rules of this radio station to divulge the name of our announcer.” But as the new relationship between speaker and listener emerged, fan mail increased, and listeners insisted on knowing more about the speaker. In 1922, as Erik Barnouw, the historian of broadcasting, notes, performers still thought of themselves in a great hall, but by 1925 there was a “cozier” image. “Many artists like to imagine the audience as ‘a single person.’ Letters encouraged this; no other medium had ever afforded an audience this illusion of intimacy shielded by privacy.” Fan letters became more and more intimate and even passionate. “Would you like to thrill a lady in person?” read a letter to announcer Ted Husing at WJZ. In this new world of the radio “personality,” any owner of a receiving set could enjoy a secret long-distance rendezvous.
After Graham McNamee announced the 1925 World Series for WEAF, he received fifty thousand letters. Norman Brokenshire, son of a revivalist minister who traveled for the Salvation Army, set a pattern for later radio personalities with his talent for microphone stealing. On his pioneer program of advice to housewives he would introduce his featured guest by giving an anecdote about himself (“I have a confession to make: this morning I wiped my razor on one of my landlady’s best towels”), which brought fan mail to him instead of to the featured performer. When he went to Washington to broadcast the inauguration of President Calvin Coolidge, he ad-libbed for two hours, repeating his own name at every opportunity. “For the nice listeners I think I even spelled it several times.” Late-night programs gave the opportunity for still more intimacy between speaker and listener, and the late-night radio personalities were in great demand for “personal appearances.”
Now it really was possible for one man to converse with millions.
Now for each listener the public message could be a one-to-one experience, no matter how many others were listening. With radio it could not be otherwise, for the listener had no way of knowing who else was listening, or where. At the season of one of the first radio Christmases, on December 20, 1922, a Westinghouse executive announced: “Fellow patrons of KDKA: Now that we are assembled again in KDKA’s unlimited theater, where rear seats are hundreds of miles from the stage and where the audience, all occupying private boxes, can come late or leave early without embarrassing the speaker, or annoying the rest of the audience….”
But this was one-way communication. Even in a large hall, any member of the audience had been able to shout a protest, to cheer or applaud or hiss, all in the hearing of the speaker. Now the listener could hear the speaker, but could not reply. Of course he could write a letter, and he sometimes did. As we have seen, the effort to discover who the listeners were, and how they felt, would bring into being a sophisticated technology for studying “audience reaction.”
An unpredicted new twist was given to the ancient clichés about democracy. To be sure, more people than ever could now hear the voice of their leader. But the people were no longer a “mob,” no longer “The Crowd” of the European sociological classics, of Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde and Graham Wallas, and the others. No longer were listening Americans the sociologist’s “more or less dense aggregation of people in the same locality” nor were they “face-to-face groups.” For the first time, each member of the listening multitude had the opportunity and the burden of shaping his own reaction, without visible guidance from the rest. “Canned” laughter and studio-audience applause tended to supply the missing clues. But despite these, “people” had become more privatized and in one sense at least more individualized, for the “audience” had suddenly become a sum of individuals who were listening separately. What would this mean for the axioms of democracy, for the proverbial weaknesses and strengths of “the people” as a self-governing mass?
SINCE RADIO ADDRESSED an undifferentiated audience—an audience newly fluid and unpredictable—broadcasters had to provide something for everybody. Recognizing that the radio listener could walk out on any program simply by turning a knob, and seeing how easily the listener might find something that pleased him more, the broadcasters desperately tried to keep their invisible listeners from turning their knobs. So they offered a potpourri. In the early 1920’s the radio programs were mainly musical, interrupted by occasional talk shows, lectures, and in the proper season, by political speeches or the President’s inaugural address. The most important
thing was the mix. The 1923 programs of WJZ, New York, included the Rheingold Quartet, Schrafft’s Tea Room Orchestra, the Wanamaker Organ Concert, book reviews, and talks on fashion and sports. To this sort of fare, WGY players, among others, soon added full-length performances of popular Broadway plays (The Garden of Allah, Get Rich Quick Wallingford, A Fool There Was, Seven Keys to Baldpate, The Wild Duck), and then of plays written for radio. The networks (National Broadcasting Company, 1926; Columbia Broadcasting System, 1927) developed serials like Great Moments in History, Biblical Dramas, and True Story. One of the most successful of these was Amos ’n’ Andy, which some said did more than anything else (except for the Democratic National Convention of 1924) to make radio into a national medium. The broadcasting stream was the most motley current of sounds that had ever reached a citizenry.
Radio blurred the distinction between entertainment and everything else and between the paid advertisement and the public service. From the very beginning, as we have seen, there was some confusion about who would or could or should pay for sending words and music “broadcast.” David Sarnoff’s notion in January 1920 was that “Every Purchaser of a ‘Radio Music Box’ would be encouraged to become a subscriber of the Wireless Age which would announce in its columns an advance monthly schedule of all lectures, recitals, etc.” Just as with the movie magazines that were already enjoying a wide circulation, the profits would come from selling the space to advertisers on the printed page. At first the broadcasters tried to solve their problem by keeping their costs down; they did not pay the performers, who, they maintained, were compensated enough by the publicity. In 1925 WEAF offered, “in the case of a lady, a nice bouquet of flowers together with a nice automobile to pick her up at her residence and bring her to 195 Broadway.” Some companies thought the money they spent on broadcasting would be regained by their increased sales of radio receivers.
At the Washington Radio Conference, summoned by President Warren G. Harding and chaired by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1922, Hoover had vaguely mentioned the possibilities of “ether advertising.” But Hoover added reassuringly, “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.” On the analogy of Andrew Carnegie’s endowment of libraries (his gift was to be matched in each town by local funds), it was proposed that radio should be supported by philanthropists’ endowing stations all over the country. All sorts of possibilities were proposed, on the assumption that the undesirable last resort would be “direct advertising,” the hiring of time for straight commercials.
By 1925, stations were beginning to thrive on “indirect” commercials, which meant the sponsorship of a program or a series. This produced the Cliquot Club Eskimos, the Gold Dust Twins, the Lucky Strike Orchestra, the Ipana Troubadours, and the A & P Gypsies. But for some time the misgivings about handing over radio to the mercies of “direct” advertising led to various evasions. On the air, WFAA Dallas, for example, tactfully described its sponsors as “chaperones.” Even in the late twentieth century, when “direct” advertising had lost some of its stigma, the aura of ambiguity remained. Reflective citizens who heard “sponsored” programs “in the public interest” remained confused (as perhaps the advertisers intended) over the sponsors’ motives.
IN AMERICAN POLITICS a new conversational style appeared, taking its cue not from Demosthenes and Cicero or Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster, but from the more successful radio announcers. For the first time it was possible in that style to reach the millions. Despite a few successful surviving practitioners like Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the platform orator, the gesticulating spellbinder played a smaller role than ever. The first president to become a radio personality was Calvin Coolidge. On December 4, 1923, four months after he succeeded to the presidency, his opening message to Congress (the first of these to be broadcast by radio) established the new style of public utterance, and incidentally made President Coolidge a distinctive human figure. His flat conversational delivery in his characteristic nasal twang was punctuated by the turning of his manuscript pages, clearly audible through the microphone. During the next decade Americans became accustomed to hearing the once hidden sounds of their political life, and political figures worked toward a new intimacy.
The national political conventions of 1924 were reported on-the-spot to a nation that heard the actual proceedings at the moment they occurred. There was an ironic appropriateness in the character and style of the leading new reporters—Graham McNamee, who had already made a reputation as a sports reporter and Major J. Andrew White, who had reported the Dempsey-Carpentier fight—announcing the 103 ballots at the Democratic convention. Eighteen stations linked by telephone cables received broadcast descriptions from WEAF which they relayed to their listeners.
By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated, in March 1933, the nation was emotionally as well as technologically ready for a friendly radio voice. And just as the talents of Caruso had played a providential role in popularizing the phonograph for music, so FDR turned radio into a vehicle of politics. The radio and FDR were made for each other. Even his infirmity, which led him to deliver his radio talks while seated, proved an asset. Before FDR, it was customary for public figures to deliver their “addresses” from a formal standing posture, but now the President of the United States sat relaxed in his parlor and spoke to citizens individually in their parlors. It did not seem so strange then for him to address the 150 million citizens as “my friends.” The President was no longer Delivering a Public Address; he was joining other Americans for a “Fireside Chat.”
And radio, in turn, had an effect on how both the President and the people felt about each other, as it was described by FDR’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins:
When he talked on the radio, he saw them gathered in the little parlor, listening with their neighbors. He was conscious of their faces and hands, their clothes and homes.
His voice and his facial expression as he spoke were those of an intimate friend. After he became President, I often was at the White House when he broadcast, and I realized how unconscious he was of the twenty or thirty of us in that room and how clearly his mind was focused on the people listening at the other end. As he talked his head would nod and his hands would move in simple, natural, comfortable gestures. His face would smile and light up as though he were actually sitting on the front porch or in the parlor with them. People felt this, and it bound them to him in affection.
I have sat in those little parlors and on those porches myself during some of the speeches, and I have seen men and women gathered around the radio, even those who didn’t like him or were opposed to him politically, listening with a pleasant, happy feeling of association and friendship. The exchange between them and him through the medium of the radio was very real. I have seen tears come to their eyes as he told them of some tragic episode, of the sufferings of the persecuted people in Europe, of the poverty during unemployment, of the sufferings of the homeless, of the sufferings of people whose sons had been killed in the war, and they were tears of sincerity and recognition and sympathy.
I have also seen them laugh. When he told how Fala, his little dog, had been kicked around, he spoke with naturalness and simplicity. He was so himself in his relation to the dog, based on the average man’s experience of the place of a pet in the home, that the laughter of those gathered around radios of the country was a natural, sincere, and affectionate reaching out to this man….
The people whom he had reached individually responded individually. FDR’s first inaugural brought to the White House a half-million letters. The sudden and enormous expansion of the White House mail became a measure of the new personal politics. And a new dimension was added to the measure of every public man. Commentators praised FDR’s radio technique and called him “a real pro”—much as Americans a century earlier might have called Daniel Webster a great orator.
While radio created the friendly national politician, it could also become a tool for demagogues. But it was significant that both Hitler and Mussolini (even in the Age of Radio) built their movements with huge face-to-face rallies where the hysteria of the whole crowd and storm-troop discipline could enforce the dictated enthusiasm. In the totalitarian countries the individual citizen’s radio receiver, because it was so private a medium, was regarded with suspicion as a potential vehicle of treason. Efforts to suppress or restrict use of the private radio were never entirely successful. Radio Free Europe (an American venture in the Cold War) and other broadcast intrusions reached secretly into the homes of oppressed citizens. In the United States, on the other hand, the privacy of radio reception was an aid to petty would-be dictators, merchants of hate, and demagogues who secured living-room audiences of Americans who might have hesitated to attend one of their public rallies.
As early as 1927 the “Radio Priest,” Father Charles E. Coughlin, at his Shrine of the Little Flower outside Detroit, was receiving 4,000 fan letters a week attesting to his far-flung audience of the air. After his speech of February 14, 1932, attacking President Hoover as “the Holy Ghost of the rich, the protective angel of Wall Street,” he received over 1,200,000 letters from radio listeners. The priest then had to employ ninety-six clerks to handle the 80,000 letters he received weekly. Listeners described him as “a voice made for promises”—“a voice of such mellow richness, such manly, heart-warming, confidential intimacy, such emotional and ingratiating charm, that anyone turning past it almost automatically returned to hear it again…. one of the great speaking voices of the twentieth century.” At first he was one of FDR’s most effective and most enthusiastic supporters, but in 1934 when the President and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau opposed his scheme for inflation through free silver, he became an outspoken anti-Semite and made his own political organization, the National Union for Social Justice, an American voice for Hitler.
Huey Long, another early supporter of FDR who eventually turned against the President, made himself a national political figure by his own intimate and vulgar radio style. When he christened himself “the Kingfish” (after the chief of the lodge in the Amos ’n’ Andy radio series), he proclaimed himself a product of the radio age. In Louisiana his uninhibited radio personality was driven home to listeners on late-night programs that sometimes lasted four hours. Then, in mid-March 1933, after introducing into the Senate his Long Plan for the Redistribution of Wealth (a scheme for capital levies on all fortunes over $1 million), he actually purchased time from the National Broadcasting Company to speak for his bills and so became the first American politician to buy radio time to reach a national audience. He began: “Hello friends, this is Huey Long speaking. And I have some important things to tell you. Before I begin I want you to do me a favor. I am going to talk along for four or five minutes, just to keep things going. While I’m doing it I want you to go to the telephone and call up five of your friends, and tell them Huey is on the air.”
Others—the demagogue Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith, who served on Long’s staff; Dr. Francis E. Townsend of the old-age pension—developed their own styles for radio. In the bitter presidential campaign of 1936 the Republicans tried to counter FDR’s radio appeal by ingenious adaptations of soap operas called “Liberty at the Crossroads,” which dramatized the horrors of the New Deal, and by radio “debates,” in which Senator Arthur Vandenberg spoke against recorded excerpts of FDR’s speeches. By this time radio had become firmly established as a tool of national politics.
American democracy was no longer a nation of crowds. Physical presence meant less than ever before. For now a man in his living room seated before a radio was part of a larger, and in a sense more public, audience than had ever before been possible in the largest assembly hall. The crowd had become the “public”: everywhere-communities held together simply because they were all responding to the same distant stimuli. While listeners a century earlier had wondered whether Daniel Webster could really be as noble as he sounded, now they might ask themselves whether Franklin D. Roosevelt or Father Coughlin or Huey Long could really be as friendly as they sounded.
When Americans abandoned traditional standards of rhetoric and eloquence, they once again had made the world as it was their only measure of the world as it should be. “Nothing succeeds like success,” the old French proverb, might help the novelist tell his story, but was a dubious guide for everyman. Among the charms of American civilization none was greater than its capacity to transform once outrageous witticisms into clichés. It had been simply amusing for Oscar Wilde to say “Being natural is a pose,” but New World fortunes would be made by teaching people how to “relax” and “be themselves.” Naturalness itself was becoming a rare commodity which individual citizens were willing to pay for, while being (or at least seeming) natural became a special political talent, handsomely rewarded by public office. “Hesitate about doing the natural thing, the impulsive thing,” Dale Carnegie had warned, “That is usually wrong. Instead, turn to these pages….”