President Eisenhower’s illness has once again reminded us of the arduous responsibilities that invest his office. Here Daniel J. Boorstin shows that public relations have grown over the last decades to be one of the chief, and least dispensable, of these.
We are slow to notice some of the most important events in recent history simply because they are among the last to be treated in formal historical literature. During the ten years since the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a whole library of autobiographical memoirs and political-historical and polemical writing has accumulated around him and the New Deal. Yet some of the greatest changes that took place in American political institutions during the period of FDR’s ascendancy for the most part still go unchronicled because they remain peripheral to what we usually think of as political history. The story of these events exists only in fragmentary form, scattered through a few monographs, like James E. Pollard’s Presidents and the Press (1947) or Frank Luther Mott’s News in America (1952), which do not reach the general public, or implicit in handbooks like Charles F. Lindsley’s Radio and Television Communication (1952) or Philip Lesly’s Public Relations Handbook (1950), which tend to escape the historian’s attention. Some of the events reported in these monographs and handbooks add up to epochal innovations.
FDR was our first “nationally advertised” President. The attitude of the vast majority of the American people to him was as different from that of their grandfathers to the Presidents of their day as our attitude to General Motors is different from that of our great-grandfathers to the village harness-maker. Like other “nationally advertised brands,” FDR could not, of course, have been successful if he had not had something to offer. But would he have been able to sell himself to the American public—and on such a scale—without the benefit of certain technological changes in our systems of public communication?
During the 19th century the telegraph transformed American journalism. Until the 1830’s—that is, until the coming of the telegraph—the reporting of political news in the United States was a bitterly partisan business. Newspapers were owned body and soul by one or another political party, and, generally speaking, lacked moderation, conscience, or decency. The practice of ignoring or misrepresenting the opposition’s statements was pushed to a point unknown today even among the most partisan of our large daily papers. Not until the last years of the age of Jackson did news begin to be sold in the open market, and as it became a commodity its quality began to improve. And with the rise of the cheap newspaper—the “penny press” in those days—addressed to a vast audience, newspapers tended to become financially independent of political parties. The growing volume of advertising they carried further encouraged them to assert their political independence.
It was the telegraph, of course, that made possible the establishment of enterprises—the wire services—selling news to newspapers (the AP was founded in 1848), and these had a financial interest in seeing a crudely partisan press supplanted by an independent one. The wire services sold a non-partisan product; very early they set a standard of impartial reporting that still distinguishes our press from that of most of the rest of the world.
Technical and economic developments made it possible to communicate news to more and more people more rapidly than ever before. The Fourdrinier machine for producing paper in a continuous strip instead of in sheets, and the Hoe presses, which by around 1900 could produce up to 144,000 sixteen-page newspapers per hour, acted as both cause and effect in making the news big business. By the turn of the century, major newspaper chains like Scripps’s and Hearst’s were going strong. The great rise in newspaper circulation set in soon after 1892; in that year there were only ten papers in four cities that had a circulation of over one hundred thousand; by 1914 there were over thirty of that size in a dozen cities. During this period, the average circulation of daily newspapers in the United States just about doubled. The combined circulation of daily newspapers in 1930 amounted to over forty-four million; by 1955 the figure was nearly fifty-five million.
To this growing business, the government, and especially the federal government in Washington, offered the richest single source of raw material. At the beginning of this century there were less than two hundred Washington correspondents. The number increased sharply during World War I, but even in 1929 the Washington press bureaus were only about a third their present size. Today about fifteen hundred people in Washington make their living directly from collecting and reporting national news.
We sometimes forget that the Presidential press conference is an institution of very recent date. Only fifty years ago there were no regularly scheduled news conferences at the White House. From time to time, President Theodore Roosevelt, while being shaved, would allow Lincoln Steffens to ask him questions; and he was the one who first provided a special anteroom for White House correspondents. Under President Wilson, something like the present formal and regular White House press conferences first came into being. Although interrupted by World War I, the institution was continued in one form or another by all Presidents after him. The figure any one of these cut in newspapers all over the country depended very much on how he “handled himself” during these periodic interviews. FDR was the first President to appoint a special press secretary.
By the early 20th century a continual, ever widening current of news was flowing from the White House. The news-gathering agencies themselves began to become self-appointed representatives of public opinion who put point-blank questions to the President, and from whom the President could learn what was troubling the public mind. Communication was now constant and two-way. No longer did the press await “statements” from the White House; it could prod the President when he was reticent, and focus attention on embarrassing questions. The corps of Washington correspondents became a more flexible, more regular, more direct, and at times more successful means than Congress itself of calling the President to public account.
The new continuity, informality, and immediacy of relations between people and President were furthered by the radio, which, with catastrophic suddenness, became a major factor in American political life during the 20’s. The first Presidential election whose results were publicly broadcast was that of November 2,1920: between five hundred and one thousand Americans were wearing earphones on that night to learn whether Harding or Cox had been elected. By 1922 about four hundred thousand radio sets were in use in the United States; by 1928 the number had increased more than twenty-fold to eight and a half million; in 1932 to eighteen million; by 1936 to thirty-three million; and by 1950 to. well over eighty million. It was in the elections of 1924, however, that the radio began to acquire real political significance; in that year, for the first time, the proceedings of the two national party conventions were broadcast to the public. But not until 1928 did the major parties make extensive use of the radio in their campaigning, when for the first time millions of Americans heard the candidates’ voices in their own homes. The inauguration of President Hoover, on March 4,1929, was broadcast over a network of one hundred twenty stations.
These and other changes still to come in American political life were, of course, intimately connected with the rising American standard of living. For the ever accelerating need to cultivate the market, to increase the wants of people, and to attract them to specific products, was served by both press and radio. Advertising had begun to become big business by about the 1880’s, but only in the last fifty years has its growth been spectacular. Until about 1890 most dailies still received more revenue from the sale of papers than from advertising; by 1914 advertising was providing many with two-thirds of their income, by 1929 with three-fourths. The bills that advertising clients received from radio stations amounted only to about five million dollars in 1927; the sum shot up to over one hundred and seven millions in 1936; by 1945 it was nearly four hundred and eighty millions; and in 1949 had increased by nearly another third, to the phenomenal figure of six hundred and thirty-seven millions. Advertising agencies in the United States, which handled a business of nearly six hundred million dollars in 1930, had an annual business in the neighborhood of a billion dollars about fifteen years later.
It is not surprising that the self-conscious and scientific study of public opinion, which was to become important in national political calculations by mid-century, had its roots in the efforts of advertisers to evaluate the reach of their advertising dollars. The first public opinion surveys were made by advertising managers to discover who was reading their copy. In 1919 there appeared the first survey department within an advertising agency, and the first independent surveying agency. It was not until 1935, however, that the representative sample method was used in public opinoin surveys. In July of that year—in the middle of FDR’s first administration—Elmo Roper published his first survey in Fortune; a few months later Dr. George Gallup began releasing his surveys as director of the American Institute of Public Opinion.
During this very period, a new philosophy and science of public opinion came into being. Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion ( 1922)—soon followed by his Phantom Public (1925)—advanced the important idea of “stereotypes” and explored some theoretical consequences of the new publicity. For the citizen was now becoming more and more like the customer. With characteristic American directness, a new profession of “public relations” developed. The anti-big business sentiment of the 1880’s and 1890’s and the rise of muckraking had disposed big business men to offer high priecs for skillful press-agentry. Ivy Lee, by paying some attention to the public interest and to the legitimate curiosity of newspaper reporters, helped put this new activity on a respectable (and profitable) footing. “This profession,” observed Edward L. Bernays in the foreword to his Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), “in a few years has developed from the status of circus agent stunts to . . . an important position in the conduct of the world’s affairs.”
By the time that Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office on March 4,1933, technological and institutional innovations had in many ways prepared the way for a transformation of the relation between President and people. Communications from the President to the reading or listening public, which formerly had been ceremonial, infrequent, and addressed to small audiences, could now be constant, spontaneous, and directed to all who could read or hear (sometimes whether they wished to or not). And now through the questions put to the President at his regular press conferences, and through the telegrams and mail received after his radio addresses or public statements, he could sense the temper and gauge the drift of public opinion—he could find out what the sovereign people wanted. He could even send up trial balloons to get some advance idea of public response to his future decisions. The President was no longer simply dealing with the “people,” but with “public opinion.”
There is no denying that FDR possessed a genius for using these new means of communication. Without them he could hardly have developed that novel intimacy between people and President which marked his administrations. In the little memorial miscellany published by Pocket Books on April 18,1945 (less than a week after FDR’s death), we read in Carl Carmer’s verse dialogue:
. . . Come home with me
If you would think of him. I never saw him—
But I knew him. Can you have forgotten
How, with his voice, he came into our house,
The President of these United States,
Calling us friends . . . .
Do you remember how he came to us
That day twelve years ago—a little more—
And you were sitting by the radio
(We had it on the kitchen table then)
Your head down on your arms as if asleep.
For the first time in American history the voice of the President was a voice from kitchen tables, from the counters of bars and lunchrooms, and the corners of living rooms.
FDR’s relaxed and informal style, both in writing and speaking, enabled him to make the most of the new informal circumstances under which people heard him. That he was compelled by his infirmity to sit while giving his radio talks only added to the informality. A whole world separates FDR’s speeches from those of his immediate predecessors—from the stilted rhetoric of the oratory collected in such volumes as Calvin Coolidge’s Foundations of the Republic (1926) or Herbert Hoover’s Addresses Upon the American Road (1938). Earlier Presidential speeches had too often echoed the style and sentiments of commencement addresses; FDR could say something informal and concrete even in such an unpromising State Paper as a “Mother’s Day Proclamation.”
Perhaps never before had there been so happy a coincidence of personal talent with technological opportunity as under his administrations. In the eight volumes of the Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which cover the era of the New Deal, we discover two new genres of political literature which were the means by which a new relationship between President and people was fashioned. The first genre was established in transcriptions of Presidential press conferences; the second, in FDR’s radio talks, the “fireside chats.” Both are distinguished by an engaging casualness and directness; but this is not all that makes them new genres in the literature of American politics. Here, for the first time among Presidential papers, we find an extensive body of public utterances that are unceremonial yet serious.
Only a year after FDR assumed office, Theodore G. Joslin, who had handled press relations for President Hoover, observed that President Roosevelt had already come nearer than any of his predecessors “to meeting the expectations of the four hundred men and women who, in these times of stress, write half a million words a day to bring to our firesides news of developments at the seat of the Government.” FDR had already shown the cameraderie and the willingness to make news which made some correspondents (not always his political friends) call his administration a “new deal for the press.” The unprecedented frequency of his press conferences established a continuity of relations with both correspondents and the reading public. During Hoover’s administration there had been only sixty-six Presidential press conferences; but FDR held three hundred thirty-seven press conferences during his first administration, and three hundred seventy-four during his second. Thus, while Hoover met the press on an average of less than once in every three weeks, Roosevelt would see them about five times in that same period. The record of his conferences shows how this frequency bred intimacy, informality, and a set of institutionalized procedures; before long the spirit of those press conferences became on both sides much like that of any other responsible deliberative body.
Similarly, the frequency with which the President went on the air effected a revolutionary change. Between March and October 1933, FDR gave four “fireside chats.” Through these, for the first time in American history, a President was able to appeal on short notice and in his own voice to the whole constituency. Neither the press conference nor the “fireside chat” was an occasion for ex cathedra pronouncements. On the contrary, they were designed to stimulate a more active “dialogue” between the people and the Chief Executive.
Perhaps the best index of the effect of FDR’s radio talks was the volume of White House mail. In McKinley’s time Presidential mail amounted to about a hundred letters a day, which were handled by a single clerk. Despite occasional flurries at inaugurations or crises, the daily flow remained small. Not until President Hoover’s time did its volume increase significantly. Even then letters sometimes did not number more than a few hundred a day, and the system of handling them remained unchanged. Under FDR, however, Presidential mail acquired a new and unprecedented volume, as we learn from the reminiscences of Ira R. T. Smith, for many years chief Presidential mail clerk (“Dear Mr. President . . .”: The Story of Fifty Years in the White House Mail Room):
Mr. Roosevelt always showed a keen interest in the mail and kept close watch on its trend. Nothing pleased him more than to know that I had to build up a big staff and often had to work until midnight to keep up with a run of 5000 to 8000 letters a day, and on some occasions many more thousands. He received regular reports. . . . Whenever there was a decrease in the influx of letters we could expect to hear from him or one of his secretaries, who wanted to know what was the matter—was the President losing his grip on the public?
Before FDR came to the White House, Mr. Smith had handled all the mail by himself. But when, in response to his First Inaugural Address, FDR received over four hundred fifty thousand letters, it was plain that a new era had begun. During certain periods as many as fifty persons were required to open and sort the White House mail; before long an electric letter-opener was installed, and instead of the old practice of counting individual pieces of mail, Mr. Smith and his helpers began measuring stacked-up letters by the yard.
Also, a new self-consciousness governed FDR’s communications to the public; the era of “public relations” had begun. It was not enough that the President (or someone else for him) should state what he really believed—one had to consider all the “angles.” Andrew Jackson had had his Amos Kendall and his Frank Blair; and it had not been uncommon for Presidents to employ ghost writers and close personal advisers who, in some cases, were responsible for both style and content. But perhaps never before did a President depend so consistently and to such an extent in his literary product on the collaboration of advisers. Among FDR’s speech-writers were men like Harry Hopkins, Robert Sherwood, Samuel Rosen-man, Stanley High, Charles Michelson, Ernest Lindley, Sumner Welles, Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, Archibald Mac-Leish, Tom Corcoran, Basil O’Connor, and Robert Jackson—and these are only a few. FDR’s speeches, even the most important and those seemingly most personal, were as much a cooperative product as a piece of copy produced by a large advertising agency. The President’s genius consisted very much in his ability to give calculated, pre-fabricated phrases an air of casualness. It was, of course, remarkable that his speeches retained any personal flavor at all. And it was significant that this collaborative literary activity was not kept secret. The public began to take it as much for granted that the utterances of a President should be a composite product as that an advertisement of the Ford Motor Company should not be written by Henry Ford.
In the longer perspective of American history, these changes that FDR, aided by technology, brought about in the conduct of the Presidency may become permanent and take on the quality of mutations:
1. The decline in the periodicity of American political life. In the early years of the Republic, politics—or at least national politics—was a “sometime thing.” Political interest would rise to fever pitch before national elections or in times of crisis, and tend to subside in between. The very vastness of the country reinforced this tendency to periodicity in American political life. And so our elections became notorious for their barbecue, holiday atmosphere: brief but hectic interruptions of the routine of life.
But the technological developments which I have described increased the President’s opportunity, and eventually his need, to make news. Now headlines could be produced at an hour’s notice. To oblige the correspondents by making big stories frequently, and small stories constantly, became part of his job. In FDR’s era, of course, the crises in economic life and international affairs were themselves rich raw material for the press. There had been crises and wars before, but never before had so large and steady a stream of announcements, information, “statements to the press,” and description of “problems facing the country” poured from the headquarters of government. The innocent citizen now found no respite from this barrage of politics and government. Even over a beer at his faborite bar he was likely to hear the hourly news broadcast, or the very voice of his President.
The citizen was no longer expected to focus his attention only temporarily on a cluster of issues (conveniently dramatized by two rival personalities) at the time of national election. With the rise of the weekly news magazine (Time was founded in 1923, Newsweek in 1938), of news quizzes, news broadcasts, and radio forums, the citizen was given a new duty, that of being “well informed.” The complex of alphabetical agencies, the intricate and remote problems of foreign policy, and the details of the legislative process came now, as never before, to burden his mind and plague his conscience. Whether or not the American citizen was consciously becoming more “political,” he was surely finding it more and more difficult to escape politics. No longer was he granted the surcease of inter-election periods when his representatives were left to their own devices and he could turn to other things. Paradoxically, in spite of the great increase in population, the national government was becoming less and less republican, and more and more democratic; for elected officials were now in more constant touch with their constituencies.
2. Increased communication between the people and the President. The very agencies that the President was now using to communicate his views to the public were also employed to elicit the public’s response. Letters to the President—and to Congressmen—became a special American version of the ancient right of petition. As communications to public officials multiplied, the temptations increased for the public official, and especially the President, to trim his sails to the shifting winds of opinion, which now sometimes blew with hurricane force into Washington offices. The weak representative or the demagogue would find it easier to be weak and yet to seem to be strong by following the majority view at every turn. Here was still another force to prevent the realization of Burke’s ideal of the independent representative, and to make him a “mere” spokesman of popular views.
3. The decline of naivety. The efflorescence of “public relations” techniques and of opinion polls increased the temptation for the President to rely on experts in dealing with the public. Even if Presidential utterances would still have the appearance of casualness, it would be a studied casualness, or one that the people would suspect of being studied. The President would scrutinize surveys of press opinions; he would employ (sometimes within the very agencies of government) specialists in “opinion research” to inform him of what the people liked or disliked. In these ways, the citizen was more and more assimilated to the customer; he had to be “approached,” his responses had to be measured so that he could be given what he wanted, or thought he wanted.
4. The inversion of geographic and political distances. The new developments in communications made many of the oldest assumptions about the relations between geography and politics irrelevant. Jefferson and his “States Rights” disciples had started from the axiom that the citizen’s knowledge and hence his capacity for an informed opinion were in inverse ratio to his geographic distance from the headquarters of decision. The closer he was to the scene, the more he would presumably know, and the more exact would be his knowledge. Thus the average citizen was expected to be best informed about the political affairs of his municipality, only a little less informed about those of his state, and considerably less informed about the affairs of the nation as a whole. The changes that reached their climax under FDR not only exploded this assumption, they came close to making it the reverse of the truth. Both the multiplication of newscasts and the expansion of the profession of radio news-commentator focused attention on national events—since these were sure to interest the largest number of listeners; and audience volume decided where money was to be invested in communications. National affairs became more and more a good thing for the commercial sponsors of newscasts. Inevitably, many of the ablest reporters, too, were attracted to the national capital. The citizen, when he listened to the news from Washington, now had the benefit of sophisticated, well-informed, and competent interpreters who seldom had equals in the state capitals or on the local scene.
There thus developed a new disparity between the quality and quantity of information about national as contrasted with state or local matters. By about 1940, largely owing to the press and the radio, the citizenry had clearly reached a point where it was better informed about national than about local issues. This reversal of a longstanding assumption, which was not just a result of the marked increase in federal activities under the New Deal, would require revision of accepted notions about federalism, and about the competence of the average citizen to participate in government.
We are already far enough from the age of FDR to begin to see that the tendencies which I have just described were not ephemeral. American experience under FDR created new expectations that continue to clamor for fulfillment. When we look on into the administrations of Truman and Eisenhower, we see that these expectations became institutionalized. FDR had set a style that later Presidential candidates could only at their peril violate. President Truman’s success and the defeat of Governor Dewey in the 1948 elections cannot be explained unless such novel factors are taken into account. The growth of television, and its frequent (and on the whole successful) use by President Eisenhower, only carry further the tendencies initiated in the age of FDR. While later Presidents might lack the vividness of FDR’s personality, perhaps never again would any man attain the Presidency or discharge its duties satisfactorily without entering into an intimate and conscious relation with the whole public. This opens unprecedented opportunities for effective and enlightening leadership. But it also opens unprecedented temptations. For never before has it been so easy for a statesman to seem to lead millions while in reality tamely echoing their every shifting mood and inclination.