FDR's Prose Crackled with Clarity

By Rob Kyff

May 8, 2019 3 min read

Jill Lepore's new book "These Truths," a delightfully quirky and informative romp through U.S. history, serves up many delicious details and anecdotes. Who knew, for instance, that Teddy Roosevelt wore a ring containing a wisp of Abraham Lincoln's hair?

In one passage about presidential rhetoric, Lepore underscores the importance of clarity in writing. During the first years of the Great Depression, she notes, President Herbert Hoover's ponderous oratory proved ill-suited to rallying Americans. In one radio message, he soberly intoned: "No one with a spark of human sympathy can contemplate unmoved the possibilities of suffering that can crush many of our unfortunate fellow Americans if we shall fail them." Ooof.

By contrast, Hoover's successor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, took a more direct approach. In a speech explaining his New Deal philosophy, he delivered a lofty line furnished by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins: "We are trying to construct a more inclusive society." But he followed it with his own crisp sentence: "We are going to make a country in which no one is left out."

Roosevelt's straightforward prose style also crackled during his first "fireside chat." In this 13-minute radio address, he patiently and calmly reassured panicky Americans who had been frantically withdrawing their money from banks: "I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be ... We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system." The next day, people lined up again — this time, to redeposit their money in banks.

When an aide read Roosevelt a letter from Albert Einstein warning that Nazi Germany was building an atomic bomb, the president at first seemed confused by the letter's technical language. But Roosevelt soon made it clear that he fully grasped the key point. "What you are after is to see that the Nazis don't blow us up," he said. "This requires action." And the Manhattan Project was born.

Nowhere was Roosevelt's succinct eloquence more evident than in his D-Day prayer, delivered via radio on June 6, 1944 — 75 years ago next month. It began, "Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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