Today I am starting a new three-part series comparing the metaphor usage in the speeches of three different US presidents. As you may have heard on the news or read in newspapers or magazines, as soon as President Biden took office this past January, commentators began comparing him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson. All three presidents faced unprecedented economic, political or medical challenges and launched pioneering social programs in efforts to help the American people recover from the calamities. Biden’s recent efforts to get all Americans vaccinated against Covid-19, to get a massive infrastructure bill passed in Congress and to get a child tax-credit for American families have been especially noteworthy. Pundits in the media have often compared Biden’s efforts to FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s and LBJ’s Great Society in the 1950s. The other day, I heard a TV broadcaster refer to Biden as being “Rooseveltian.”
As a linguist, I immediately began to wonder if the similarities among the presidents in trying to solve these social problems would also correlate to similarities in rhetorical strategies and metaphor usage in their speeches. So, I have spent the past several months doing research on the speeches of FDR and LBJ. I have read and analyzed all of FDR’s famous fireside chats along with his four (yes, four!) inaugural addresses and his speech on the Four Freedoms. I also studied all of LBJ’s speeches, inaugural addresses and State of the Union addresses. Then I studied President Biden’s recent speeches. Not surprisingly, I found many similarities in metaphor usage, but I also discovered that each had their own rhetorical strategies and speaking styles.
Today I focus on the speeches of FDR. In subsequent posts, I will analyze the speeches of Johnson and Biden.
Before I share the metaphor analyses, I should provide a brief summary of the historical context of FDR’s presidency. Born into a wealthy and political family in 1882, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the fifth cousin of our 26th president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. After graduating from Harvard law school, he became a New York state senator, the Assistant Secretary to the Navy and later the governor of New York despite being stricken with polio in 1921 and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He successfully ran for president in 1932 and became the 32nd president of the United States. He was reelected three more times (before presidential term limits were established with the 22ndAmendment in 1951) and served as president from 1933 until his death in April 1945.
Roosevelt became president in 1933 during the middle of the greatest economic crisis in US history, now known as the Great Depression. Catastrophic bank failures in 1929 led to the total ruin of the US economy with thousands of business being closed, millions of dollars in personal savings lost, and 25% unemployment. Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was unable to make progress in bringing the country out of the depression. Roosevelt was elected to save the day. He immediately enacted stringent policies on banking regulations, agricultural prices, labor laws and a myriad of other social programs. He also battled with Congress to create pioneering programs which were collectively later named the New Deal, with a bewildering amount of new programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) which provided money to state governments, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) which attempted to control farm prices, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which put millions of unemployed people to work on rural projects, and the Public Works Administration (PWA) which focused on infrastructure projects. He also created government agencies which we may take for granted today, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) which protects personal savings accounts from losses due to bank failures, and of course, the Social Security Act which provides a guaranteed source of income to retired Americans, previously unavailable.
If these crises weren’t already enough for one president to handle, World War II broke out in Europe when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, and then came to our shores, of course, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Thus, while taking care of thousands of issues on the home front, he also had to turn his focus to international war efforts in both Europe and the Pacific. Ironically, the war helped end the Great Depression by putting millions of Americans to work in the war effort.
If he hadn’t been busy enough doing all that, he began a series of radio broadcasts to the American people which became known as his fireside chats. While he is most famous for his line in his first inaugural address, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” he built a great rapport with the American public through his comments in these fireside chats. He was perhaps inspired by his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was equally progressive and was famous for her own radio broadcasts. I had always thought that FDR’s fireside chats were weekly radio programs but they actually occurred only about once every three months. In these addresses, he patiently explained all the steps he was taking to rescue the economy and create these new social programs. I was quite awe-struck reading these speeches. His knowledge of agriculture, industry, banking, military history, etc., was very impressive. There seemed to be no subject on which he was not an expert. It was also clear that he was well respected by the American people. For example, as World War II started, he asked people to buy world maps. Then, in his fireside chats, he asked his listeners to take out their maps and follow along as he explained where “our boys” were fighting in Europe and the Pacific. Apparently, world maps quickly sold out all over the country as his listeners followed along with his descriptions of the war efforts. Sad to say, it’s hard to imagine that kind of loyalty to a president, or knowledge of geography, among Americans today.
Without further ado, here are a few notes on the rhetorical strategies and metaphor usage in FDR’s speeches. As usual, the examples which follow are presented in quotation marks. Each metaphor will be highlighted in italics, but note that the italics are mine, not in the original. Also, in the interest of accurate citation, I have made efforts to note from which speech of which president each metaphor was used. I was lucky enough to find a book containing all of the fireside chats. You may find a link for it here. For example, a metaphor from Roosevelt’s fireside chat on April 28, 1935, would be marked as R-FC-4/28/35. A metaphor from his third inaugural address would be listed simply as R-IA#3. These inaugural addresses are short documents that can easily be found online.
Given that FDR is famous for his fireside chats and having a close rapport with the American public, I wondered if this colloquial rhetorical style would correlate to use of proverbs, slang or analogies in a folksy manner of speaking. I was not surprised to find many such examples.
Analogies, Proverbs and Slang
In one brilliant section of prose, he compares the three branches of government to three horses plowing a field. Apparently, he had been criticized in the media for trying to control Congress, when he was actually trying to get them to do their job. Thus, he offered this lengthy analogy.
Example: “Last Thursday I described the American form of government as a three horse team provided by the Constitution to the American people so that their field might be plowed. The three horses are, of course, the three branches of government—the Congress, the Executive and the courts. Two of the horses are pulling in unison today; the third is not. Those who have intimated that the President of the United States is trying to drive that team, overlook the simple fact that the President, as Chief Executive, is himself one of the three horses.
It is the American people themselves who are in the driver’s seat.
It is the American people themselves who want the furrow plowed.
It is the American people themselves who expect the third horse to pull in unison with the other two.” (R-FC-3/9/37)
He also used proverbs such as killing two birds with one stone several times in his speeches. For instance,
Example: “In creating this civilian conservation corps we are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.” (R-FC-5/7/33)
Roosevelt also used a few colorful slang terms that seem very amusing in the context of the serious issues he was constantly dealing with. For instance, he often complained about corrupt politicians or business leaders who were trying to cheat the government. He referred to these people as chiselers or black sheep.
Example: “There are chiselers in every walk of life; there are those in every industry who are guilty of unfair practices; every profession has its black sheep…” (R-FC- 4/8/35)
He also had a few choice words for ignorant people who were in denial about the reality of the brutality of war. He bluntly referred to these people as cheerful idiots.
Example: “There have always been cheerful idiots in this country who believed that there would be no more war for us, if everybody in America would only return to their homes and lock their front doors behind them.” (R-FC-12/24/43)
Beyond these unusual expressions, FDR used a wide variety of the metaphors I often describe in this blog. In keeping with his folksy communication style, he often used terms from farming or industry to describe his government policies.
FDR often referred to the workings of government as machinery. In his very first fireside chat, he described his efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression as such. Later he used the same term to describe how the government was increasing funding for the war effort. He later described the victories at D-Day as a hammer blow to the Nazis.
Example: “We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system…” (R-FC-3/12/33)
Example: “The machinery to carry out this act of the Congress was put into effect within twelve hours after the bill was signed.” (R-FC-10/12/42)
Example: “And on the west—the hammer blow which struck the coast of France last week [the D-Day invasion] last Tuesday morning, less than a week ago, was the culmination of careful planning and strenuous preparation.” (R-FC- 6/23/44)
Roosevelt liked using terms from farming techniques to describe some of his policies. I already provided the example of three horses plowing a field. Additionally, as I mentioned, he commonly explained complex financial or military strategies to the public in his fireside chats and he was confident that they could sift the wheat from the chaff, or that they understood what he was saying.
Example: “The overwhelming majority of people in this country know how to sift the wheat from the chaff in what they hear and what they read.” (R-FC-4/28/35-45)
Roosevelt also used a few colorful animal metaphors. He described the Nazi U-boats as rattlesnakes and argued for preemptive strikes against them. This was surprising to read as this was from a speech in September 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor. He also makes a clever turn on the idea of the bald eagle as an American symbol of speed and power, as compared to the slowness of a turtle. In his final inaugural address, after being dragged into World War II, he claims that he has learned the lesson that Americans cannot live like ostriches or dogs in a manger.
Example: “But when you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.
These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.” (R-FC-9/11/41)
Example: “Now, many of those same people, afraid that we may be sticking our necks out, want our national bird to be turned into a turtle. But we prefer to retain the eagle as it is—flying high and striking hard.
…we reject the turtle policy…” (R-FC-2/23/42)
Example: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.” (R-IA#4)
Nature & Natural Disasters
Roosevelt also uses several significant metaphors of nature. He describes the Great Depression in terms of frozen assets and withered leaves of industry. One of the most powerful forces in nature is that of a flood. In a beautifully written extended metaphorical passage, he compares the efforts of the United Nations in defeating the Nazis to countries building levees to hold off flood waters.
Example: “…the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side…” (R-IA#1)
Example: “Today, in the same kind of community effort, only very much larger, the United Nations and their peoples have kept the levees of civilization high enough to prevent the floods of aggression and barbarism and wholesale murder from engulfing us all. The flood has been raging for four years. At last we are beginning to gain on it; but the waters have not receded enough for us to relax our sweating work with the sand bags. In this war bond campaign we are filling bags and placing them against the flood—bags which are essential if we are to stand off the ugly torrent which is trying to sweep us all away.” (R-FC-9/8/43)
It is very common in English for speakers to compare abstract processes to physical buildings. Thus we have commonly used metaphors such as foundations, pillars or simply to build something. In one of his first fireside chats, FDR compares his new economic policies to a granite building. Later he describes the Civilian Conservation Corps as a temple of recovery. In his speech on the “Four Freedoms” he describes the foundations of a healthy democracy. In one of his discussions of the advancement of the Japanese armies during World War II, he describes them as knocking on the gatesof the Australia and New Zealand.
Example: “We have built a granite foundation in a period of confusion.” (R-FC-7/24/33)
Example: “Our progress out of the depression is obvious. But that is not all that you and I mean by the new order of things. Our pledge was not merely to do a patchwork job with secondhand materials. By using the new materials of social justice we have undertaken to erect on the old foundations a more enduring structure for the better use of future generations.” (R-IA#2)
Example: “For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.” (R-Four Freedoms)
Example: The Civilian Conservation Corps is a “temple of recovery” – “We are building, stone by stone, the columns of which will support that habitation. Those columns are many in number and though, for a moment the progress of one column may disturb the progress on the pillar next to it, the work on all of them must proceed without let or hindrance.” (R-FC-10/23/33)
Example: “Japan was in control of the western Aleutian Islands; and in the South Pacific was knocking at the gates of Australia and New Zealand—and was also threatening India.” (R-FC-6/23/44)
Politicians often describe a country as if it is a person. In his third inaugural address, Roosevelt writes a tour de force description of the United States as a person with a body, mind and faith.
Example: “A nation, like a person, has a body–a body that must be fed and clothed and housed, invigorated and rested, in a manner that measures up to the objectives of our time.
A nation, like a person, has a mind–a mind that must be kept informed and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and the needs of its neighbors–all the other nations that live within the narrowing circle of the world.
And a nation, like a person, has something deeper, something more permanent, something larger than the sum of all its parts. It is that something which matters most to its future–which calls forth the most sacred guarding of its present.
It is a thing for which we find it difficult–even impossible–to hit upon a single, simple word.
And yet we all understand what it is–the spirit–the faith of America. It is the product of centuries. It was born in the multitudes of those who came from many lands–some of high degree, but mostly plain people, who sought here, early and late, to find freedom more freely.” (R-IA#3)
Another common set of metaphors used by politicians is when they compare the political progress on some issue as going down a road or crossing a bridge. Roosevelt also uses these journey metaphors. He describes progress on controlling farm prices as taking steps and being headed in the right direction while his administration was creating all government agencies step by step and affirming that the American people did not want to go backwards. Finally, as early as 1942, he was already confident that the Nazis and Italians would lose the war since their peoples had gone down the bitter road to defeat.
Example: “My aim in taking this step is to establish and maintain continuous control.”
“…we are on our way and we are headed in the right direction.” (R-FC-10/23/33).
Example: “Step by step we have created all the government agencies necessary…” (R-FC-9/30/34)
Example: “…the electorate of America wants no backward steps taken.” (R-FC-4/14/38)
Example: “With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.
Shall we pause now and turn our back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way? For ‘each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.’” (R-IA#2)
Example: “In the German and Italian peoples themselves there is a growing conviction that the cause of Nazism and Fascism is hopeless—that their political and military leaders have led them down the bitter road which leads not to world conquest but to final defeat.” (R-FC-4/28/42)
There are dozens of other interesting examples of metaphors in FDR’s speeches but space does not allow me to cover them all. Clearly, President Roosevelt was a master communicator and effectively used specific rhetorical strategies and common metaphors to get his points across to the American people while dealing with two of the greatest crises of the 20th century—the Great Depression and World War II.
Stay tuned for more fascinating figurative language in the analyses of the speeches of Lyndon Baines Johnson.