13 FEBRUARY 1942, Page 16


President and Press

The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937-1940. Four vols. (Macmillan. £6 6s.) THE Americans have a spacious way with their Presidents, at any rate their Democratic Presidents. Mr. Ray Stannard Baker dealt with the life and letters of President Roosevelt in eight substantial volumes. President Roosevelt has already attained to nine, each of some 65o pages, and the end is not yet. The present four cover a momentous period, the President's second term of office. They comprise every public address or state- ment, official or unofficial, he ever made in that quadrennium- from Addresses to Congress, the famous Fireside Chats, Uni- versity Addresses, to Greetings to the Conference on the Better Care of Mothers and Babies. History, it may be, will rate as the highest of all in importance the famous " quarantine " speech at Chicago in October, 1937 (I remember puzzling it out in a German evening paper in the streets of Prague), when the Presi- dent began the education of his people in the issues of peace and war by laying down the fundamental doctrine that with war, as with physical disease, the " patient " must be put in quarantine in order to protect the health of the community. From that Mr. Roosevelt moved undeviatingly forward to the commanding position which enabled him, till the storm burst on America itself last December, to give to the democratic States under the Lease-Lend Act and other measures all conceivable assistance .short of war.

Most of the documents assembled in these volumes were, of course, public property already, and while their collection here makes greatly for convenience of record, it adds nothing new to the sum of human knowledge. But one feature of the volumes —a verbatim record of a number of the President's Press Con- ferences—is not only new, but of engrossing interest. The White . House Press Conferences, held regularly twice a week or oftener, are a unique institution, never more conspicuously so than under Mr. Roosevelt. I have personal experience of them only under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Mr. Coolidge's chief aim was to answer every question with the nearest to a monosyllable possible. Mr. Harding's forte was expansive geniality. He was being vigorously canvassed one day about a forthcoming diplomatic appointment of some importance, and after parrying question after question broke out with " You know I do get a lot o' fun out o' you boys. Some o' you could shoot right round a corner." Mr. Roosevelt combines the Harding geniality with a sagacity and seriousness of which his rather deplorable prede- cessor was incapable, and the records here reproduced for the first time give a fascinating picture of those qualities in action. There is a clearly understood distinction between the uses to be made of the President's statements at the conference. They may be " on the record," i.e., quotable textually ; " background,' quotable as fact but not as coming from the President (" in other words, don't bring me into it "); or completely " off the record.' The conferences are not merely friendly, but intimate, functions. The President addresses most of the journalists (of both sexes) by their Christian names—Ulric, Fred,_ John, Doris, May. -Hi, language is conversational in the last degree (" I was saying t the Missus at breakfast this morning . . ."), and he encourage, the same tone in the reporters. The 491st Press Conference. on October 14th, 1938, opens thus: " You look snappy this morn. ing " (referring to .the President's new suit). " I'm not feelinz snappy. I sat up last night hearing the European side of thine, from Ambassador Bullitt." A conference is apt to begin with a remark to the President's secretary, Mr. Stephen Early. " Steve, have I got any news? I don't think I have," and to end with, "You got a mouthful. Better run." When someone, speaking of the restriction on the construction of new highways, asks, "Mr. President, does the ban on the highways include the so-called defense highway proposition, like the parking shoulders?" " Parking shoulders?" "Yes, widening out on the edges, to let the civilians park as the military go by." " You don't mean necking-places? " (Loud laughter.) Often enough, of course the President has to practise what the R.A.F. calls evasion tactics. but that causes him small embarrassment. For example: "Can we take it, then, that your attitude from now on —? " "You can't take anything, Bob. That's an ' if ' question." Or more simply' still :," Now you are becoming ' iffy '." Or quite flatly: m " Have you made up your mind what you are going to do about the Hatch Bill? " " Yes." " Would you care to tell us? " "No."

All this, no doubt, taken by itself, might suggest that the President unduly and unwisely discards all Presidential dignity when he meets the Press. To conclude that would be to judge by completely false standards. Ceremony counts for much less in the United States than here, and the United States is not at all the worse for it. Actually, Mr. Roosevelt has established an admirable and most valuable relationship between himself and the Press. The bulk, of course, of these records is concerned with serious, sometimes even with momentous, statements on questions of public policy. The President defines his standpoint, and the papers, hostile and friendly, can deal with it as they like. They may disagree with him as much as they choose, but they have no possibility of misunderstanding him. And now and then a chance question will evoke from him a spontaneous but quite masterly definition of something as comprehensive as American foreign policy in half a dozen sentences. It would not be,,going too far to speak of it as an ideal relationship between Press and executive in a great democracy. But it does not follow that it could work quite in the same way anywhere but at