FDR and Trump: From Radio to Twitter

April 2nd, 2017 4:28 PM

Over at Reason (unfortunately behind a paywall here) University of Alabama professor of history David T. Beito has written a fascinating look at “Roosevelt’s War Against the Press”. The telling subtitle? “FDR Had His Own Breitbart, and Radio Was His Twitter.”

Well, yes. Exactly. I have been writing for sometime that not only is the FDR and radio comparison to Trump and Twitter eerily analogous, but that two other presidents made superb use of the new technology of their day: Abraham Lincoln and the telegraph and John F. Kennedy and the live televised presidential press conference. In Lincoln’s case, telegraph wires had not yet been strung up in Washington when he arrived for his inauguration in March of 1861. As soon as they were up and running, the 16th President spent hours at the War Department perusing and replying to telegrams that kept him apprised of action on Civil War battlefields as recently as twenty minutes earlier, an astounding feat of technology in the day. 

In Kennedy’s case, television had been around for just over a decade when he took office in January of 1961. His immediate predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been the first President to step before the television cameras for a televised press conference. But there was a major caveat with Ike. Concerned that the President might misspeak, press secretary James Hagerty, a longtime journalist himself (who invented the idea of a televised press conference in 1955 and would later be an ABC television executive) insisted the pressers be filmed — so they could be edited before being shown on the TV networks. 

This rationale was presented to Kennedy, who, having been elected in part because of his skills in a series of live televised debates with the GOP nominee Richard Nixon, rejected it. Thus it was that Kennedy stepped onto the stage of the State Department auditorium days after being sworn-in, drawing an audience of 65 million Americans, a staggering figure then and even now. From that moment forward, the live presidential press conference became a staple of American political life.

It is noteworthy that the rationale behind FDR’s use of radio was his political need ---- first as governor of New York and later as presidential candidate and President — to get around the powerful Republican newspaper publishers of his day. JFK’s rationale was similar. His press secretary, Pierre Salinger, noted Kennedy’s thoughts this way:

The fact of the matter is that the time when President Kennedy started televised press conferences there were only three or four newspapers in the entire United States that carried a full transcript of a presidential press conference. Therefore, what people read was a distillation. . . . We thought that they should have the opportunity to see it in full.

Today, President Donald Trump is famous for his use of the new technology of Twitter, skillfully wielding it as a deadly political weapon from the moment he entered the GOP primaries in June of 2015 right on through his successful fall campaign against Hillary Clinton and on into the White House. In the latter case, he is regularly driving his liberal opponents — and sometimes even his conservative allies — crazy with tweets about things major (wiretap claims, for example) and things minor if not frivolous (a shot at Arnold Schwarzenegger or one of my Trump favorites: “I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke”). 

Yet even the “frivolous” tweets carry a Trumpian trademark as they frequently touch on some hot button personality or issue in the world of American pop culture, Arnold and the perpetual American obsession with losing weight but two examples of countless.

But Beito’s article is instructive in a fashion well beyond the comparison of FDR’s use of radio to Trump’s use of Twitter. Beito — as noted a University of Alabama history professor — recounted in detail FDR’s obsession (and I would call it the liberal obsession) — with using power to crush dissent. Beito went into detail describing FDR’s use of government power to shut off his critics, in a notable instance by relying on New Deal ally and powerful U.S. Senator Hugo Black (D-Ala.). As President Obama used the IRS to try and shut down the Tea Party, so too did FDR use the newly created Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to control if not shut down entirely his opponents’ use of radio.

FDR appointed a Democratic National Committee operative who had “overseen radio for Roosevelt in the 1932 campaign” as secretary of the FCC. Beito wrote:

It did not take long for broadcasters to get the message. NBC, for example, announced that it was limiting broadcasts ‘contrary to the policies of the United States government.’ CBS Vice President Henry A. Bellows said that ‘no broadcast would be permitted over the Columbia Broadcasting System that in any way was critical of any policy of the Administration.’ He elaborated ‘that the Columbia system was at the disposal of President Roosevelt and his administration and they would permit no broadcast that did not have his approval.’  Local station owners and network executives alike took it for granted as Editor and Publisher observed, that each station had ‘to dance to Government tunes because it is under Government license.’” 

Most notoriously, Roosevelt recruited the Black to head a Senate committee to investigate opponents of an FDR proposal to, under certain circumstances, dissolve utility holding companies. Although Beito doesn’t mention it, Black was also a lifetime member of the Ku Klux Klan and was later appointed by FDR to the U.S. Supreme Court where he infamously wrote the Court’s opinion setting up internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Black promptly “expanded the investigation into a general probe of anti-New Deal voices, including journalists.”

Beito continued:

The Treasury granted Black access to tax returns dating back to 1925 of such critics as David Lawrence of the United States News. Then he moved to obtain his targets’ private telegrams, demanding that telegraph companies let the committee search copies of all incoming and outgoing telegrams for the first nine months of 1935. When Western Union refused on privacy grounds, the FCC, at Black’s urging, ordered it to comply.

There’s more, but you get the flavor. FDR was not simply smart — as is Trump today — to use a new technology (radio) to push his political agenda over the heads of the powerful Republican newspaper publishers of the day. FDR was also using the iron fist of the federal government to intimidate and silence his opponents — precisely as President Obama did using the IRS (to intimidate and silence the Tea Party) and the Justice Department (to snoop on the e-mails of Fox reporter James Rosen and attempt to shut down a book on the CIA by New York Times reporter James Risen).

The irony today is that while Trump uses Twitter to attack his opponents in the media and on Capitol Hill, it is liberals — not Trump — who have used government power to silence their critics. It is no accident that out of governmental power, liberals with media power at their disposal now focus on creating scandal where there is as yet zero proof of a crime (the allegation that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election) while ignoring evidence of the actual crime of leaking classified information that they themselves — this means you New York Times and Washington Post — have repeatedly reported herehereherehere, and most notably here in The Times.

While hereThe Washington Post openly admitted that it had received information from nine officials who had access to classified intelligence information obtained by surveillance. This is, in fact, a federal crime on the part of the leakers.

Reason and Professor Beito have done a considerable service in this article by reminding conservatives that the use of power by liberals in government to abuse and intimidate opponents is not only not new. This article also emphasized the liberal obsession with power that can and does extend to liberal media outlets that unhesitatingly use their power to abuse and intimidate a conservative or Republican (the Trump, in addition to Romney, McCain, Bush, Reagan and Goldwater in years gone by) to invent scandal where there is none. Even to the point of ignoring an actual crime — leaking classified information — to achieve their end.

And speaking of Goldwater? In 1964, CBS News ran a story that reported the then-newly-minted 1964 presidential nominee had ties to a German pro-Nazi group. Correspondent Daniel Schorr reported that, as soon as the GOP convention was over, the nominee was headed to Germany “to visit …Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s onetime stamping ground…” This was a blatantly false story designed to cast Goldwater as Hitler. Sound familar?

One can only wish Barry Goldwater had been nominated in the Age of Twitter.