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Speaking from the heart fires up listeners

Rev. Jack Van Ens

“We have listened to all your fire-side chats,” wrote Helen and Curtis Field on June 25, 1938, from Kansas City, Mo. “All of them sermons and each one a message of sympathy and understanding.”Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats established rapport with the Fields. They compared this intimate communication to how Christ touched their lives at depths they could neither explain nor fully understand. FDR spoke to their hearts “like Christ,” testified Mr. and Mrs. Field in their letter to the White House, “going in the homes of the people, giving them comfort and restoring their faith.”Like Helen and Curtis Field hearing FDR’s Fireside Chats, I listen on Saturdays to President George W. Bush’s radio addresses to the nation. His talks ooze with conviction. The president uses compelling language to rouse listeners to his side. Bush rarely equivocates. Using clear, concise words, he recruits advocates for his policies.Why do his addresses come across as rehearsed speeches rather than fireside chats? Why do they leave my emotions flattened? Why don’t I feel motivated to salute the president for his courage in making plain what he believes?Compared to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, Bush sounds as if he is advocating an agenda. He pushes a program. He sounds as if he is trying too hard to convince critics. He speaks logically to clarify whereas Roosevelt touched lives by illuminating complicated issues. FDR caressed listeners’ hearts. Bush aims to convert our minds.Consequently, few compare him to Jesus, as did the Field couple who responded to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. Roosevelt mastered the art of communicating at an emotive level, deeper than what is factual. He used language as a violinist employs her bow, making strings of both instrument and heart tremble. Hearing such soaring music, listeners’ eyes well up with tears of joy or sadness. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow shall be anxious for itself,” Jesus strummed on the heartstrings of his disciples (Matthew 5:34). FDR echoed a similar beat in his Fireside Chats. Bush doesn’t resonate with a comparable empathetic score.Perhaps Bush speaks too often on Saturdays. Roosevelt declined NBC’s offer after his election in 1932 for weekly airtime of 15 to 20 minutes. “Sometimes I wish I could carry out your thought of more frequent talking on the air on my part,” he wrote Russell Leffingwell in March 1942, “but the one thing I dread is that my talks should be so frequent as to lose their effectiveness.” FDR thought Churchill verged on verbal overkill with his stirring, frequent radio addresses. FDR confided to Mary Norton, “For the sake of not becoming a platitude to the public, I ought not to appear oftener. … I am inclined to think that in England Churchill, for a while, talked too much, and I don’t want to do that.”Bush, when in the driver’s seat, sports a bad habit of smirking as he speaks. Instead of a know-it-all smirk, Roosevelt beamed smiles on listeners’ souls.Both presidents attracted detractors like mushrooms sprouting from decayed wood. One of FDR’s New Jersey opponents insulted him, using colorful invective. “I wouldn’t urinate on you if you were burning at the stake,” the critic roared.Listeners to the Fireside Chats wrote huge numbers of letter to the White House. They deified or damned the president. Supporters wrote to him as a wise father or a homespun friend. They frequently reinvented FDR to meet their jittery desires, begging for him to help fend off their anxieties caused by the Great Depression and World War II.Anthony Rodrigues of Springfield, Mass., wrote to Roosevelt in 1937, “Our only means of expression is a ballot and a 3 cent stamp.” This citizen meant more than using a letter as a vehicle of communicating with his president. Anyone could dash off a 3-cent-stamped letter, a penny postcard or a telegram to the chief executive. These postal aids stood for more than what citizens wrote on the page. Letter writers swore how Father Roosevelt made his citizen children part of the political process. Their voices counted with their president. Bush receives admiring letters in response to his radio addresses. Some citizens are proud he is so forthright, action-oriented and tenacious when fighting terrorism. But are such supporters less anxious? Do they seldom slip into dismay because Bush regularly speaks on the radio?Bush stirs the will of listeners. FDR hugged their hearts. “I back you,” gushed Frances Furnice of the Bronx. “You are my sweepstake ticket to happiness, security and good health.” Though the world might plummet into bankruptcy caused by war and economic depression, this woman felt at the top of her game. She cashed in on FDR, confident he would protect values making her life worth living.Lenore B. Parker wrote Roosevelt on Dec. 10, responding to Roosevelt’s Dec. 9, 1941, Fireside Chat. The president used his talk to rally stout patriotic hearts after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, which left our nation vulnerable, nervous and terribly anxious. Working as a teller in a Philadelphia bank, Parker, a 27-year-old bride, volunteered her husband to defend our nation. She realized being separated from him would make her lonely. “Your frankness, honesty and sincerity make us all want to fight to the bitter end for victory for this wonderful country of ours,” she pledged, even if her husband might die in battle. FDR felt citizens’ pulses in his speeches. Bush relies on platitudes to firm up his policies. FDR’s Fireside Chats magically lifted hearts. Bush’s Saturday editorials merely inform, hardly filling dead airtime.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian ministers who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado


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