Saturday, January 20, 2018

Did Trump Borrow a Play from the FDR Playbook?

Did Donald Trump do something original when he started his Twitter feed? Or is his Twitter feed simply a 21st Century version of a play from the FDR playbook?

This week I re-read David Brinkley's story in the June 1988 Journalism Review. In some ways it's good to be reminded that there's nothing new under the sun.

The image on the cover is familiar to most, a headshot of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the blurb announcing the magazines feature story: "David Brinkley on Roosevelt vs. The Press." The actual title of the feature is An Age Less Than Golden: Roosevelt vs. the Wartime Press.

David Brinkley served as an American newscaster from 1943 to 1997, an era of remarkable change that included wars, rumors of wars and walks on the moon. When I was a kid growing up he was the Brinkley half of the number one news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report with Chet Huntley. In 1988 he published a bestselling book titled Washington Goes To War, hence the appearance of this feature article in the Washington Journalism Review. that begins, "Franklin Roosevelt exercised more power for more years than any president in American history."

The article begins by detailing the manner in which FDR exercised power over business and the unions. When the war was underway Roosevelt went so far as to tell car manufacturers what they were to produce, and it wasn't cars. The automakers went to Washington to lobby for the right to make cars because people needed them and public transportation was inadequate. The meeting was supposed to be a public meeting, but Roosevelt shut the doors and locked the reporters out. In the meeting GM president Charles Wilson explained that Detroit had 75 million dollars of inventory in engines and car bodies, drive shafts and chrome bumpers. The president essentially said, "You can build the cars but they won't have any wheels because there is no rubber for tires." After Pearl Harbor Roosevelt brought the unions in line as well, forbidding strikes until the war was over.

But from the beginning of his presidency the media nettled him, harassing him daily, "the one major element in American society still beyond his control," Brinkley wrote.

From the first of his four terms FDR would start his day reading "fat bundles of newspapers" that were brought to him from across the land. The newspaper editorials were harsh and he would get quite torqued about the things many of them were saying, so much so that Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley asked him, "Why don't you just ignore those sons of bitches?" Brinkley asserts, "But he never could."

Their chief gripe was that the president won political power with "false campaign promises to reduce the size and cost of government," among other things.

Rather than have his message filtered through the newspapers, FDR came up with an end around. These were the early days of radio. This was the birth of his "Fireside Chats" (which often didn't match what his scriptwriters wrote because I liked to ad lib.)

What's interesting to me is that FDR's frustrations with the media took place at a time in history when they still played nice to some extent. That is to say, they showed respect for the president by not showing him with a disability. His wheelchair was concealed. The long affair with his mistress was shoved into a drawer. But as sportswriter Jane Leavy noted in The Last Boy, her bio of Mickey Mantle, "His time in history was a period of innocence in which the sportswriters knew he was a man different from his iconic image. In those days the sportswriters could lose their jobs for writing some of the things they knew. And today sportswriter might lose their jobs for not writing about what they knew. We live in a different time, a time of innocence lost." (emphasis mine)

There has never been a president like our current one. Loose cannon? Bull in a china shop? Epithets readily come to mind. Some of his behavior makes me think of the kid who had the words "Kick Me" taped to his back in sixth grade. (oh, that was me.) Easy target.

But the Twitter move was brilliant. And I've been told he had the best and brightest embedded in the Facebook war room, or something of that kind. Social media was the powerful weapon he used and it hamstrung his media enemies while fermenting a loyal base.

Does social media work as a marketing tool? Ask the POTUS. You can follow him on Twitter @realDonaldTrump or you can frequently find a ringside seat at the various Trending Topics in which are recurring as the seasons. Enjoy the show.

Disclaimer: I tend to be cynical about political solutions and consider politics a false hope and a distraction. Like other forms of entertainment -- sports, movies, etc -- it helps to keep things in balance. 

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