Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 June 2016

Gwen’s “Fireside Chat”

[For a recent post on Hillary’s possibly fatal character flaw, click here.]

Muhammad Ali

I’m not much of a fan of commercial sports. In any given year, I’m lucky if I know a single one of the winners of the World Series, NBA Championship, or Super Bowl. But I always knew the name Muhammad Ali. And I always respected it.

Ali was not just a boxer, albeit maybe the best ever. He was an icon and a symbol—a hero to some and, for a time, a demon to others. He was a symbol of freedom, independence and self-reliance, as American as Apple Pie. In the end, as our nation’s social conscience caught up with him, he became an odd sort of pugilistic saint.

Most of all, Ali was irrepressible. Not only did he develop a new, personal style of boxing, which appalled traditionalists but won 51 of 56 fights, often against heavier and more powerful men. Not only did he change his name from “Cassius Clay” and forsake a tepid brand of Christianity for a new American kind of Islam, and then later forsake it for a more traditional kind. Most of all, he gave up three and a half years of his prime fighting career to become a conscientious objector and oppose our nation’s greatest foreign-policy blunder, our misadventure in Vietnam.

He had to wait that long, under a conviction for draft dodging, before our Supreme Court unanimously upheld his claim of personal conscience. Secdef MacNamara, a brilliant numbers man who once had been CEO of Ford, had his “domino theory.” Many high and mighty just thought it a good idea to take over the failing colonial venture from the French. Virtually all of us were spooked by Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s great general and leader, who called himself a “Communist” leader of a country that had been fighting China for a millennium.

Ali, in contrast, was smart but uneducated. He had started to box at twelve, and he could barely read. But he was smart enough to know that a war of imperialism was inappropriate for a democratic power that had never known colonialism and had already given up the two colonies—Cuba and the Philippines—that it had won from Spain.

Ali scandalized the nation when he explained his conscientious objection by saying, “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Vietcong,” the Communist North Vietnamese fighters. Today, as our President visits Hanoi to sell arms and make trade and military alliances with a long-unified Vietnam, we see how right Ali was.

Ali was right about another thing, too. He didn’t just give lip service to our Yankee religious freedom. He exercised it. Twice he peacefully changed his own religion. As a celebrity, he so informed the nation, although it was really no one else’s business.

It was no coincidence that, when Ali joined the Nation of Islam (“Black Muslims”) and changed his name from Cassius Clay, the only notable leader to send him a telegram of congratulations was Dr. King. King of all people understood how freedom of religion and the freedom to change it intersects with racial justice and freedom generally.

Even in decline and death, Ali remains instructive. The late-life dementia that so tormented him arose not just from blows to his head. It was Parkinson’s disease, which science tells us is caused by early and cumulative exposure to pesticides. The pathetic death of this remarkable athlete calls us all to environmental justice.

Above all, Ali was a successful self-promoter. Who can forget his ebullience while standing above a vanquished foe and shouting, “I am the greatest!” But we should also recall that this same man risked jail and gave up millions to change his religion and oppose an unjust war according to his conscience. That, much more than his speed and skill with his fists, makes him a real and venerable American.

Source: All facts in this obit not generally known come from Robert Lipsyte, “The Champ Who Transcended Boxing,” New York Times, Sunday, June 5, 2016, at A1.

Every geezer my age had a parent (or two) who listened to FDR’s Fireside Chats. At the time, they were a striking innovation: direct talks by the President of the United States, speaking solo, to his people, over the then-new electronic medium of radio. They came in the depths of the Depression, amidst its vast unemployment, bread lines, dislocation of families, and fear of the rising Hitlerian horror in Europe. They gave our people hope for their future and cemented FDR’s place in the hearts of his people.

What happened last night was not, strictly speaking, a “fireside chat.” That’s why the words are in quotes. It was a short interview followed by a “town-hall meeting” of selected citizens, moderated by PBS anchor and Washington Week host Gwen Ifill and starring the President. But it served the same purpose. It put the President in direct touch with his people, in a very special way.

The President has a reputation as a brilliant orator, and rightly so. But a prepared speech is quite different from a fireside chat. First of all, it’s on a subject chosen by the President. It’s not necessarily what’s on people’s minds; it’s what’s on his mind.

More important, a prepared speech or address is necessarily a formal affair, worked over and revised well in advance. It’s especially so when delivered by a President who taught law for ten years and is renowned for the quality of his writing and his professorial delivery.

Unfortunately, professorial pontification doesn’t work too well with people who never went to college. No matter how eloquent it sounds and how apt the words, it reeks of artifice. It’s nothing like a heart-to-heart, man-to-man talk.

That’s what made FDR’s Fireside Chats so effective. Although they, too, were prepared, they sounded more intimate and more direct than any traditional public address. Gwen’s “town-hall meeting” went one better. The president’s apparently impromptu answers to questions were less polished and refined than his speeches. But they left his command of facts, his humor and his empathy—his character!—on clear display.

The highlight of the hour was a question posed by a tough-looking white guy from a painter’s union [set the timer at 46:20]. Why, he asked, had the Administration admitted 79,000 Syrian refugees, and was trying to admit “tens of thousands” more, some of whom might be terrorists, when our cities are fully of homeless veterans?

It was a classic bash-the-President non-sequitur, based on bogus “facts,” of the kind that Fox, Rush and the other talk-radio blowhards pose many times a day. What, pray tell, does succor for hapless Syrian refugees have to do with homeless veterans? Can’t the richest, most powerful country in the world walk and chew gum at the same time?

But the President answered kindly, patiently and simply. First, he pointed out that we Yanks have neither admitted nor planned to admit anything like “tens of thousands” of Syrians. The President is trying to admit several thousand, while Canada (a much smaller country) has admitted 25,000 and Germany half a million. Next, he outlined the steps his Administration has taken to stamp out homelessness among veterans, and the additional steps our cities have taken. (He also noted that it’s much easier for terrorists to come in under EU passports, on automatic visas, than as refugees, who endure months of rigorous vetting and investigation.) Finally, he pointed out that making or subsidizing homes for veterans is a matter of money, and that Congress, which appropriates it, hasn’t done so. Instead, the House, which has the constitutional duty to propose funding, has preferred to save the money or keep the issue alive to beat up the President.

At the end of his answer, the President asked the questioner whether he was a veteran. “No,” he answered, “but I support the troops.” The exchange left the viewer wondering whether yet another chicken-hawk was using false patriotism as a political cudgel.

Maybe the exchange was scripted. If so, the scripting was a beautiful job. But it didn’t seem so. Anyway, the exchange managed, far better than any analytic dissection, to show how illogical, mean-spirited and hypocritical that line of reasoning was. And it did all that in about three minutes, in a way that any voter could understand.

There was much, much more in the hour-long town-hall meeting. There was serious discussion of the economy, economic insecurity, Obamacare, and the costs of health-care insurance. There was even some discussion of the “bathroom wars” over transgender kids. In all of it, the President showed his trademark command of essential facts, a calm, measured and reassuring delivery, humility, and empathy. In a perhaps artificial but yet informal setting, he seemed human and approachable—the kind of guy like Dubya that voters might want to have a beer with, but infinitely better informed, more intelligent, and more understanding,

Whose was this brilliant idea? I don’t know. Was it Gwen’s, an anonymous producer’s or the President’s himself? It might well have been Gwen’s. She seems to like town-hall meetings, and she’s done a lot of them. But one gets tired of hearing “ordinary people” with little education or polish mouth off. When they ask what’s on their minds and the President answers, it’s a different story.

“Better late than never” is a common refrain. But this time it applies with a certain melancholy. Had the President done one of these town halls every month—or every three months—during his presidency, how much higher might his popularity be today? How much more protected might he have been from the opposition, often rising to the level of hatred, that has dogged his presidency from the day Mitch joined Rush in declaring his failure their chief goal?

Maybe strong supporters like me might not have had to write a thank-you note to reminds ourselves how extraordinarily effective a president Obama has been, let alone against the most mindless and treasonous opposition of our lifetimes.

One thing is clear. Technology does not make good human communication; it can only assist it. No Web page, social medium or prepared YouTube video can replicate an informal (even if scripted) interaction between a leader and his people. No prepared speech can match the calm, human, confident and reassuring reply of a president to real worries of his people, just as nothing could match the then-president’s Fireside Chats in the 1930s.

It’s the human element that matters, not the technology. The technology is the medium, not the message. If it was Gwen who rediscovered that basic idea, she deserves a Pulitzer Prize and the thanks of a grateful nation.

And her discovery should repeat itself, at least once a month, while the President remains in office. It might just chip away at the scandalous and unthinking popular support for the Unqualified One, and return our national politics to a semblance of normalcy.



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