Though paralyzed from the waist down, the handsome, 50-year-old president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stood to deliver his inaugural address sensing that his first job was to give a panicked people confidence and hope.
Early in the address he spoke these memorable 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."
He followed the ceremonial change of leadership not with photo-ops, symbolic appearances, speeches and statements, but with action. He closed the nation's banks, which by March 3 had run dry of cash.
On Sunday, March 12, 1933, he chose an unusual setting to announce the banks' reopening. Seated before a fake fireplace (soon to be usable on his order) in the oval, bottom-floor Diplomatic Receiving Room, he spoke to the nation in the first of his calm, reassuring "fireside chats."
An interesting, little-known aspect of this means of projecting presidential leadership was not the frequency of fireside chats, but their rarity — a point our talkative incumbent, Barack Obama, might well take to heart.
Roosevelt spoke to the vast radio audience in simple language accessible to the common man:
"It needs no prophet to tell you that when the people find that they can get their money — that they can get it when they want it for all legitimate purposes — the phantom of fear will soon be laid. People will again be glad to have their money where it will be safely taken care of and where they can use it conveniently at any time. I can assure you that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress."
Again in 1933, the president sat at his desk in front of the fireplace to explain his New Deal program that included direct pay for work on public projects, aid to industry, labor, farms, railroads and new regulation of banking and financial industries.
In typically simple language, he explained the failure that made his vast program necessary and its human purpose, purpose first: "The first was relief, because the primary concern of any government dominated by the humane ideals of democracy is the simple principle that in a land of vast resources no one should be permitted to starve.
"Relief was and continues to be our first consideration. It calls for large expenditures and will continue in modified form to do so for a long time to come ... It comes from the paralysis that arose as the after-effect of that unfortunate decade characterized by a mad chase for unearned riches and an unwillingness of leaders in almost every walk of life to look beyond their own schemes and speculations.
"In our administration of relief we follow two principles: First, that direct giving shall, wherever possible, be supplemented by provision for useful and remunerative work and, second, that where families in their existing surroundings will in all human probability never find an opportunity for full self-maintenance, happiness and enjoyment, we will try to give them a new chance in new surroundings."
By 1934, Roosevelt was beset on all sides to an extent greater even than Obama is by his confusing profusion of health-care proposals.
Anti-Roosevelt radio preachers such as Protestant Gerald L.K. Smith and Catholic Father John Coughlin soiled the airwaves with appeals to racism and anti-Semitism that played upon public anxieties.
A truly serious menace was Sen. Huey Long, obsessed with the belief "the people" would elevate him to a kind of dictatorship on a program to confiscate the nation's wealth and give it to the people in the form of a $5,000 income, a house, a car and a radio. The aged would be pensioned.
Long's assassination in 1935 removed that threat, but FDR was frustrated through most of his first term with a Supreme Court, which dismantled the New Deal platform as soon as Congress passed it.
When his first Congress went home, Roosevelt made the first of only two fireside chats that year. He simply asked: Are you better off this year? Have you paid too high a price? Have you lost any liberties or constitutional rights?
He then went on to calmly note the often-vicious opposition:
"A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it 'Fascism', sometimes 'Communism', sometimes 'Regimentation', sometimes 'Socialism'. But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical."
It was the rarity of these intimate chats with the people that gave them their impact, only 30 in the nearly 1,200 days of his presidency — a mark already well exceeded by Obama's penchant for being almost a nightly TV personality.
Obama would be well advised not to compete with the TV chattering classes, rationing his public appearances while the chattering classes asked to the limits of boredom, "Where's Obama?"
Then, when he at last breaks his silence, people will be riveted to their TV sets, as my parents and millions of anxious Americans were, when they huddled around their radios to listen to FDR's fireside chats.