DURING this month, which marks the 60th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first "fireside chat," ratings and public opinion polls show overwhelming interest in political-office seekers who continue to find direct ways to reach the public. President Clinton's talk show appearances and town hall meetings - "direct access" descendants of FDR's congenial radio addresses - are as popular today as the fireside chats were in FDR's time.
Radio in the 1930s was as natural a venue for FDR as talk shows were for Mr. Clinton in 1992. Candidate Clinton, of course, worked the circuit just a bit more than FDR. While FDR broadcast only 16 fireside chats during his first eight years in office, Clinton made 40 appearances on the three network morning shows before he was even elected. It seemed like overexposure at the time, but the popularity of candidate appearances was reflected in an increase in television ratings last fall - up 40 percent over
the same period in 1991. "Vox politics" strongly piqued the public interest.
Unlike Clinton's frequent breakfast broadcasts, FDR was keenly aware not to overdo it, a strategy that later paid off. As author Betty Houchin Winfield notes in her book, "FDR and the News Media," by the spring of 1942 the fireside chats were heard late Sunday evenings in nearly 80 percent of all radio homes. Similarly, media monitoring services across the nation charted record requests for transcripts of candidate appearances on talk shows, town hall meetings, and even stump speeches during the '92 camp aign.
IN spite of its public popularity - or perhaps because of it - vox politics has become a growing irritant and increasing preoccupation of the mainstream media. The political press corps resents the intrusion on its turf and can't seem to get over the fact that average Americans can ask above-average questions of their president. Clinton has been annoying the mainstream media for more than a year now with his "direct access" approach. And the press doesn't relish spending the mid-1990s with a president wh o prefers queries from random Americans rather than network correspondents.
Roosevelt wasn't the first president and Clinton won't be the last to employ vox politics. The approach is as compelling in 1993 as it was in 1933. Talk shows and town hall meetings that engage voters directly make the governance of the country seem less removed and the issues more accessible to the public.
Likewise, voters are able to see more of themselves and the issues they care about in the process. It's no surprise that public opinion polls in 1992 showed that the public admired the use of talk shows by presidential candidates and the role talk show hosts played in last year's campaign.
Vox politics is a rare common ground where politics and the public can face-off on their own terms. At best, talk shows and town hall meetings strengthen people's voice in government. At worst, they are entertaining distractions. The only thing we have to fear, as FDR might have said, is not vox politics itself, but "vox et praeterea nihil" - voice and nothing more.