FDR’s Press Conferences

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“They tell me that this won’t work” FDR told a shocked group of newsmen in March 1933. The reporters were standing around the president’s desk and they were going to ask him questions, questions that were not prepared in advance. Many an old newsman in that room must have thought this new president was mad. The old president, Hoover, had said indignantly that the President of the United States does not stand around being questioned like a common thief. FDR’s idea worked. It worked for 998 news conferences during the course of little over twelve years in office.

To be sure he had his press secretary and other administration people standing behind his desk to help him answer the reporter’s questions, but these conferences were pure FDR. He answered their questions or he told them he had no news on that subject today; and he bantered with the reporters.

All the conferences are preserved from the original transcripts in a twelve volume set: The Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt. What follows is a few quick stops at FDR’s press conferences beginning with the first.

CONFIDENTIAL

Press Conference #1

At the White House, Executive Offices

March 8, 1933, 10:10 A.M.

(Mr. Young introduced the members of the Press to the President)

THE PRESIDENT: It is a very good to see you all and my hope is that these conferences are going to be merely enlarged editions of the kind of very delightful family conferences I have been holding in Albany for the last four years.

I am told that what I am about to do will become impossible, but I am going to try it. We are not going to have any more written questions and of course while I cannot answer seventy-five or a hundred questions because I simply haven’t got the physical time, I see no reason why I should not talk to you ladies and gentlemen off the record just the way I have been doing in Albany and the way I used to do it in the Navy Department down here. Quite a number of you, I am glad to see, date back to the days of the previous existence which I led in Washington……..

On November 3, 1936, Roosevelt was reelected president by a landslide of 523 electoral votes to Alfred M. Landon’s 8. The Republican won only two states — Maine and Vermont. At a meeting before the election, FDR’s campaign manager Jim Farley predicted that exact outcome and was laughed at by Roosevelt and the others present. At the first press conference after the election reporters asked for the envelope in which the President had placed his predictions.

CONFIDENTIAL

Press Conference #325

Executive Offices of the White House

November 6, 1936, 10:40 A.M.

Q: Nice turnout, wasn’t it? (Referring to reception to the President on his return to Washington)

THE PRESIDENT: Perfectly grand.

Q: What was the occasion of your coming here when you were five years old?

THE PRESIDENT: We spent the winter down here when I was five years old and also when I was six. My father was a great friend of Cleveland’s.

Mr. Donaldson: All in.

THE PRESIDENT: I suppose I should start the conference by saying that I haven’t got any news but I do want to say this: that that reception this morning was perfectly thrilling and I appreciated it enormously. Perfectly grand.

Q: How do you account for that, Mr. President? There are no votes here. (Laughter) THE PRESIDENT: You know, that is an interesting thing. I am told there were more people here in the District that cast votes than ever before in history.

Q: Over a hundred thousand.

Q: Mr. President, have you opened the envelope, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: I have; I did –; I wish you would not ask me the question because I am so far off.

Q: There were a lot of us that were. (Laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: Here it is — there is the original . The first date was January 30, 1936, and I was very careful to put down no names at that time because nobody had been nominated. I figured out a Democratic vote in the Electoral College of 325 and a Republican vote of 206. The next time I wrote on it was June 5, which was about three weeks before the convention, and again I did not put any names down. The Democratic vote in the Electoral College dropped to 315 and the Republican vote had gone up to 216. And then the next time I took it out was August 2, right after I got back from Canada. Then I put down the initials, “F.D.R. 340, A.M.L. 191.” And then, here is the worst of all, on Sunday last, November 1, “F.D.R. 360, A.M.L. 171.” I apologize. (Laughter)

Q: What frightened you?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, just my well known conservative tendencies. (Laughter)

Q: May we quote that?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. ……..

On September 1, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland igniting World War II. Some of names mentioned in the following conference: Mr. Borah was Senator William Borah of Idaho a leading isolationist and a thorn in FDR’s side; Mr. Biddle was Anthony Biddle Ambassador to Poland; Mr. Bullitt was William C. Bullitt Ambassador to France; Mr. Hassett was Bill Hassett a presidential aide.

CONFIDENTIAL

Press Conference #575

Executive Offices of the White House

September 1, 1939

(The Secretary of State, Mr. Hull, was present, also Mr. and Mrs. John Roosevelt.)

THE PRESIDENT: (Addressing Earl Godwin) What time did you get up?

Q: (Mr. Godwin) About 3:00 or 3:15, right after you aroused the nation. Felt like I belonged to the village fire department.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes; you were not the only one.

Q: (Mr.Godwin)I know it. I wonder if anybody got Borah up.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Where is he?

Q: He went to Poland Springs, Maine. (Inaudible)

THE PRESIDENT: What?

Q: Poland Springs, Maine.

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I thought you said Poland. That would have been news. (It was announced that the Press were all in)

THE PRESIDENT: I think a good many of us had a somewhat sleepless night. Bill Hassett has told you of what happened at the White House and State Department, beginning at 2:50 A.M. I think that a word of praise should be said for our Diplomatic Service because, without much question, we were advised of the beginning of the invasion here in Washington as early any other nation. Ambassador Biddle got through by telephone to Bullitt about 2:35 our time and it was a very poor connection and it is a question as to whether any further telephoning is possible between Paris and Warsaw — that we don’t know — and Bullitt began getting through to us at 2:40 and actually did get through at 2:50. As Bill, I think, has told you, the first thing I did was, of course, to call up the Secretary of State and the Under Secretary and the Secretaries of War and Navy and then Bill (Mr. Hassett) got through to the Press Associations within about a minute after that — I do not think he even stopped to dress — and was on the radio within another minute and a half after that.

I do not believe at this particular time of this very critical period in the World’s history that there is anything which I can say except to ask for full cooperation of the Press throughout the country in sticking as closely as possible to facts. Of course that will be the best thing for our own Nation and, I think, for civilization.

Q: (Mr. Phelps Adams) I think probably what is uppermost in the minds of all the American people today is, “Can we stay out?” Would you like to make any comment at this time on that situation?

THE PRESIDENT: Only this, that I not only sincerly hope so but I believe we can and that every effort will be made by the Administration to do so.

Q: May we make that a direct quote?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. ……..

The conference following the attack on Pearl Harbor reflected the new security measures put in place at the White House due to the war. Mr. Early was Stephen Early the president’s press secretary.

CONFIDENTIAL

Press Conference #790

Executive Office of the President

December 9, 1941 — 4:10 P.M.

(This is the first War Press Conference)

Mr. Early: Tremendous conference.

THE PRESIDENT: They will get damned little.

Mr. Early: Tremendous numbers. It’s all right.

Q: How are you, Mr. President?

Q: How are you, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, fine. There’s darn little news, except that I haven’t finished my speech.

Q: It’s going to be pretty late?

THE PRESIDENT: Pretty nearly finished though. That’s old stuff (Indicating typed sheets before him). That’s the third draft. I am now completing the fifth copy.

MISS MAY CRAIG: You’ve got a new system out there.

THE PRESIDENT: What?

MISS MAY CRAIG: A new system out there. Its going to take a long time to get in.

THE PRESIDENT: What’s that? What do you have to do? Have they frisked you? (Laughter)

MISS MAY CRAIG: Practically.

THE PRESIDENT: Now May, I don’t think that’s nice.

MISS MAY CRAIG: They did Fred Hale once.

THE PRESIDENT: I will have to hire a female Secret Service agent around here to do the frisking.

MISS MAY CRAIG: Remember the time they frisked Senator Hale at a reception?

THE PRESIDENT: Terribly funny.

MISS MAY CRAIG: He never got over it.

THE PRESIDENT: He never got over it.

MISS MAY CRAIG: The sacred Hale person.

THE PRESIDENT: He was here before you and I were born. (pause here as newspapermen continue to file in)

MR. DONALDSON: All in.

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think I have anything on operations. I think — I don’t know whether you have had this before. There was an attack this morning on Clark Field in the Philippines, resulting in some officer and soldier casualties; and General MacArthur is trying to get further information. That was early this morning.

Q: Have you talked with General MacArthur, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Not personally on the telephone. He has been telephoning two or three times to the Chief of Staff. …..

Finally, here is the conclusion of FDR’s press conference #820 on April 21, 1942, a few days after the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. The President drops one of his most famous lines referring to Shangri-La the mythical valley in Tibet mentioned in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon……

THE PRESIDENT: Are there any what?

Q: Comments that you can make, on any of the recent developments in the Southern Pacific?

THE PRESIDENT: No. I don’t think so, except I can suggest that people shouldn’t believe what they read in certain papers.

Mr. F. PERKINS: How about the — the — the — the story about the bombing of Tokyo?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the only thing I can think of is — on that — you know occasionally I have a few people in to dinner, and generally in the middle of dinner some — I know she isn’t — it isn’t an individual, it’s just a generic term — some “sweet young thing” says, “Mr. President, couldn’t you tell us about so and so?”

Well, the other night this “sweet young thing” in the middle of supper said, “Mr. President, couldn’t you tell us about the bombing? Where did those planes start from and go to?” And I said, “Yes. I think the time has now come to tell you. They came from our new secret base at Shangri-La!” (Laughter)

And she believed it! (More laughter)

Q: Mr. President, is this the same young lady you talked about — ( Loud laughter interrupted)

THE PRESIDENT: No. This is a generic term. It happens to be a woman.

MISS MAY CRAIG: Is it always feminine? (Laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: What?

MISS MAY CRAIG: Is it always feminine? (Loud Laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: Now May, why did you ask me that?

MISS MAY CRAIG: I wondered.

THE PRESIDENT: I call it a “sweet young thing.” Now when I talk about manpower that includes the women, and when I talk about a “sweet young thing,” that includes young men. (Again loud laughter)

Q: Do you have those kind of men —

MR. EARLY: (Interposing) In the House? (Meaning the White House) (More loud laughter)

THE PRESIDENT: (To Mr. Romagna) What did he say?

MR. ROMAGNA: In the House. (The President laughed heartily)

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, and the Senate too. (More loud laughter)

MR. F. PERKINS: Would you care to go so far, Mr. President, as to admit that this Japanese —

THE PRESIDENT: (Interposing) Wait a minute — wait a minute. “The President Admits” — there’s the headline. (Laughter) Go ahead now.

MR F. PERKINS: Would you care to go so far as to confirm the truth of the Japanese reports that Tokyo was bombed?

THE PRESIDENT: No. I couldn’t even do that. I am depending on Japanese reports very largely. (Laughter)

MR. F. PERKINS: Mr. President, is there any reason to doubt the report of the Chilean ambassador to Chile — (Laughter) — Japan, that there was a bombing?

THE PRESIDENT: The killing of what? (More Laughter)

MR. F. PERKINS: The report of the Chilean ambassador to his own government that Japan was bombed?

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t know. That didn’t get to me yet.

Q: Thank you, Mr. President.

Q: Thank you, Mr. President.

MR. EARLY: (To the newspapermen as they filed out) Sweet little things! (Laughter)

Q: Steve, does he mean to imply that Fred Perkins is a sweet little thing? (Continued laughter)

And so it went for 998 press conferences over twelve years. Nothing like that could ever go on in the Washington of today.