Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2005 / 7 Kislev, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Advice for a President | When a president of the United States finds himself in choppy waters, usually during his second term, there may be no end to the all-too-candid advice he starts getting from friends and foes, bystanders and passersby, talk-show hosts and just plain concerned citizens. Not to mention the professional kibitzers known as newspaper columnists.

Well, sure. Advice costs little. Ambrose Bierce, the archetype of the cynical American newspaperman, defined advice as the smallest coin in current circulation.

You'll know this president is worried when he starts conferring with certified sages of American politics like the Bakers (James and Howard) or quick-fix artists like Al Haig and Dick Morris. Then there's David Gergen, who tends to show up at the bedside of ailing presidencies like the Angel of Death. You'll know W. has become desperate when he puts out a call for Mr. Gergen — like a drowning man clutching at an anvil.

Here's the most remarkable aspect of this tidal wave of unsolicited advice: Some of it may be pretty good.

Consider the suggestion of John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said George W. Bush ought to follow the course of another wartime president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and start giving the American public periodic updates on the war — the way FDR did in his famous Fireside Chats.

Instead this president mainly repeats old assurances that are no longer as assuring. And then moves on to some other topic.

If this war is as important as the president contends, and it is, why not devote the bully pulpit every president commands to the defining issue of this presidency — and of our time?

It will take more than Fireside Chats to reverse the slump in American morale on the home front, but they would do for a start.

This president and commander-in-chief has the perfect forum for such periodic reports to the people — his weekly radio address every Saturday.

Franklin Roosevelt gave Fireside Chats that left Americans feeling they'd just had a personal briefing by the commander-in-chief. But he didn't stop there. He found a couple of prominent members of the opposition who shared his concern about the spread of fascism (Frank Knox and Henry Stimson) and appointed them to his Cabinet, just as Winston Churchill had formed a government of national unity in Great Britain.

If this president expects bipartisan support in wartime, where is the bipartisanship in his administration? Where are the Democrats in his war cabinet? Would Joe Lieberman or Sam Nunn be interested in a new job?

FDR put his domestic program on hold for the duration. Once the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, he announced that Dr. Win-the-War had replaced Dr. New Deal.

Where today is the confiding tone, the underlying confidence, and the good cheer that, despite all the setbacks, marked FDR's Fireside Chats?

That happy warrior conveyed the same indomitable spirit whether he was confronting the Depression or the Axis. He understood that the decisive factor in any war is the national will. And he never missed a chance to express and restore it.

Here, for example, is Franklin Roosevelt explaining why this country must not withdraw from the world, great as that temptation might be at disheartening times:

"Those Americans who believed that we could live under the illusion of isolationism wanted the American eagle to imitate the tactics of the ostrich. 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. I know I speak for the mass of the American people when I say that we reject the turtle policy and will continue increasingly the policy of carrying the war to the enemy in distant lands and distant waters — as far away as possible from our own home grounds." — Fireside Chat No. 20, Feb. 23, 1942.

Where is that kind of presidential spirit today? Instead, we get a series of set pieces — formal addresses complete with applause lines before carefully selected audiences. When it comes to communicating with the American people, no number of campaign rallies can match a quiet talk with the American people.

What's needed now is not more PR but some adult conversation. And no surrogate can get the president's message across — not generals in uniform or his tough-talking vice president. Some things require a personal touch, as Franklin Roosevelt well understood.

The country needs to hear from the president and commander-in-chief himself — candidly, confidently, personally and regularly. Like on Saturday mornings. It's time Dr. Win the War replaced Dr. Politics as Usual.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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