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Roosevelt, Radio and Norman Corwin | October 26, 2014 By Todd Nebel Just as television has played a major role in deciding our next President, especially since 1960, radio, in the 1940's was a major factor in deciding the chosen winner. In particular, the 1944 campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt against Thomas E. Dewey, more than any other election campaign in the 1940's, was determined with the help of the power of radio. In 1944, because of his carefully concealed deteriorating health and his understandable preoccupation with the war effort, President Roosevelt planned to concentrate his fourth Presidential campaign almost exclusively on radio in the final weeks before the election. In June of that year the Republicans had chosen Thomas E. Dewey and John W. Bricker to head their slate. In July, the Democrats had nominated Roosevelt for his fourth term. And Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt's last minute choice for the Vice- President nomination, had proven an acceptable compromise between party factions. While he was well-respected and articulate, Thomas E. Dewey, Governor of New York, was no match for Roosevelt on radio. While he was the most effective radio speaker to run against Roosevelt, Dewey had a tendency to talk over the head of his audience, in a dignified manner. This was contrary to the friendly personalized dialogue in which Roosevelt spoke to each listener in his "Fireside Chats." The campaign of 1944 got off to a slow start with FDR, at the beginning of the contest, seeming almost apathetic. He planned to confine his main efforts to the final weeks, thereby worrying his political advisors.  On the other hand, Dewey's strategy seemed destined to arouse as little attention as possible. He seldom criticized war policies. He did not attack domestic reforms. And he gave the impression that a Dewey administration would carry on with little change in direction but more efficiency and youthful vigor. While most of Dewey's utterances were unexceptional, the campaign produced undercurrents of scandalous rumor and innuendos, which included virtually every member of the large Roosevelt family. At the same time recent appearances and photographs of Roosevelt, who was looking gaunt, gray and sullen, and was also under doctor's orders to lose weight, spurned further rumors of ill health. This aroused the wrath of Roosevelt who suddenly came to life in Tate September by planning five major speeches to answer his critics and prove that he could still take it physically. Not long after, Roosevelt took to battle and delivered the first and probably the best campaign speech of his career — to the Teamsters Union which was broadcast from Washington D.C. on September 23rd. Roosevelt handled the recent scandal mongering in his own inimitable way. "The Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or my sons. No, not content with that they now include my little dog Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks and my family doesn't resent attacks; but Fala does resent them." Rumors about FDR's health persisted throughout the campaign. At one point a reporter told Dewey point blank that FDR was a dying man and Dewey had "an absolute duty" to raise the health issue publicly. In the end, Dewey decided to avoid the issue despite calls from many of his own advisors to go all out and state that FDR was on his deathbed and thereby get all the evidence possible on him. The fact of the matter was that Dewey felt the whole issue could possibly backfire on him if he used it, so he strayed from using the tactic. As the campaign approached the final two weeks the pollsters predicted a close election. The Republicans proposed a series of half hour dramatizations of campaign issues, rather than long dry speeches. However, the networks refused to air them, fearing that listeners used to drama as entertainment would confuse entertainment with news. Dewey and his supporters therefore had to resort to conventional speeches, which they did in the heaviest use of radio in a campaign up to that time. Unbeknownst to the Republicans, the Democrats were thinking along the same lines in their strategy (dramatization of political messages) however, the result achieved came in the form of a new and totally different approach. Late in the summer of 1944, Paul Porter, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, contacted Norman Corwin to ask him to produce a program over all four networks on the eve of the election. Corwin was put off to say the least. He did not see himself as a politician and did not understand what the program would accomplish. Porter then began to explain to Corwin via a memo. He emphasized that the program was to convey a sense of urgency to the voters to get them to the polls. He wanted the focus to be on post-war programs. He saw a need to look to the future and to resume reform plans. Apparently his letter piqued Corwin's interest because Corwin responded with a letter full of program ideas. With approval from the President, who was amazed that Corwin might accomplish so much in one program, Corwin took a leave from CBS where he just finished the "Columbia Presents Conwin" series. Curiously enough, CBS and NBC prohibited dramatization during political messages. Corwin, however, challenged NBC's rule. He proposed a program which would begin with a cast of thousands who would deliver a powerful statement regarding how they were impacted by the war. From soldier to sailor; farmer to union member; World War I veteran to housewife; an industrialist and finally to President Roosevelt with his program message. The second phase of Corwin's program would introduce the "Roosevelt Special" to the audience. As celebrities came to the microphone for a brief message, the orchestra and chorus would provide the locomotive rhythm. The climactic sequence brought the following: Chorus: All aboard for tomorrow! Lucille Ball: This is Lucille Ball. I’m on on this train. Chorus: Vote! Tallulah: This is Tallulah Bankhead. So am I. Chorus: Vote! Joan Bennett: Joan Bennett - for the champ! Chorus: Vote! Irving Berlin: Irving Berlin Mrs. Berlin: and Mrs. Berlin Chorus: For Roosevelt! The list of names went on and on with surprises such as, John Dewey: Dewey - John, not Tom, Philosopher An extraordinary bandwagon effect was created as a result of the program. The Republicans had bought a period of time, coast to coast, immediately following the Democratic finale. The Democrats worried that their galaxy of names would build an audience for the Republican program but this problem was soon solved. The Democratic program ended several minutes early, so the extra time was filled with dreary organ music which suggested to many people that it was time to go to bed. Among politicians this was thought to have been a brilliant move by the Democrats, but it was really something else. The truth was that Jimmy Durante was scheduled to perform a musical number on the Corwin broadcast but had withdrawn at the last moment under sponsor pressure, leaving a gap. So, a Republican sponsor had caused the organ music! Corwin was later told by Paul Porter that some party leaders credited the Democratic finale with over "a million votes." Roosevelt wrote Corwin that he had not been prepared "for the really incredible performance which you so ably organized, The final popular vote was Roosevelt 25,602,505 and Dewey 22,006,278. The electoral vote was 432 to 99. The day after the election, and considering the power radio had on the outcome of the election, NBC and CBS decided to change their policies so this kind of political broadcast would never be heard again. A survey of audience patterns following the election revealed that 38 percent of a population sample felt their votes had been influence by radio whereas only 23 percent felt that they had been influenced by the press. Radio, therefore, had played a major role in determining the outcome of a Presidential race and despite President Roosevelt's death in April, 1945, it would again play a major role, albeit less dramatic, in the Dewey-Truman race of 1948.
   Norman Corwin
President Roosevelt