President Trump may have had his reasons for denouncing an NBC reporter at the press briefing this week, but we thought the question from reporter Peter Alexander — “What do you say to Americans who are scared?” — was a slow pitch, meaning an opportunity for the President. Our sense is that the country is filled with dread over the pandemic. Its’s aching for an answer from the president of the country in a presidential setting. The country is waiting.
The question sent us back to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural on March 4, 1933. It was the last inaugural on the date originally set in the Constitution. Roosevelt delivered the speech from the East Front of the Capitol moments after being sworn to the Constitution. The speech is one of America’s most memorable — and echoes powerfully in the current crisis.
Roosevelt began by saying that he was certain his fellow Americans expected him to address them with candor. We were, after all, well into what came to be known as the Great Depression. FDR called it a time to speak the whole truth. “Nor need we shrink,” he said, “from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive, and will prosper.”
And then the famous words: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”
American’s “common difficulties,” FDR said, concern “only material things.” He spoke of values “shrunken to fantastic levels” and taxes that have risen. “Our ability to pay has fallen,” government income was “curtailed,” “the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade,” while “the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side,” farmers “find no markets,” and “the savings” of thousands of families “are gone.”
We comprehend how different are the circumstances today and those that obtained for so many millions in 1933. Only weeks ago, our economy was booming, stocks were near records highs, and unemployment at or near record lows. Even back in 1933, though, FDR would assert that the “distress” Americans were feeling “comes from no failure of substance.” Said he: “We are stricken by no plague of locusts.” Today we do face a plague.
Then, in any event, came the dark side of FDR. “The rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated.” He declared that the practices “of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.” They know, he said, “only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.”
Against whom President Trump might unleash such language is hard to guess — maybe the press, maybe the Deep State, or maybe China. FDR, in any event, quickly turned to the need to put people to work, calling for “treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war.” He warned of the need for “strict supervision” of banking and credit and investments, and an “end to speculation with other people’s money.”
Then, in only broad strokes, he signaled the vast growth of government programs that came to be known as the New Deal. It’s not our purpose to argue about that here. Even if one accepts that FDR’s program included a host of errors — one being a default on the dollar through devaluation, even while he called for “sound currency” — his speech against fear began to allay the panic and will be remembered for all time.
We understand that the nature of the pandemic that has precipitated our country into a crisis is different than what we faced in 1933. Not so different, though, is the problem of fear. We’re told Mr. Trump’s long suit isn’t high rhetoric but rather visiting building sites, so to speak, and getting a job pushed through. We’re not so sure he’s not up to a major speech. We, for one, hope he finds the moment to answer NBC’s question.
Correction: Alexander is the last name of the NBC reporter on whom the President rounded; the last name was given incorrectly in the first edition of this editorial.