Chapter 6: The Birth of A Political Stereotype
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – “Martin, Barton & Fish” Speech
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – “Fala” Speech
“Blame America firsters,” “tax-and-spenders,” “GOP isolationists,” even extremists; these are just some of the overarching political stereotypes that have come to define American politics – and the two political parties – in the 20th century. Such stereotypes are often the most potent rhetorical devices in the speechwriter’s bag of tricks: and few politicians have used them more effectively than Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Beginning in the 1930s and gathering steam in the 40s Roosevelt hung two political albatrosses around the necks of his Republican opponents, ‘a heartless scourge’ to the working man at home and ‘isolationists’ abroad. Tying his GOP opponent Wendell Willkie to the isolationist triumvirate of Martin, Barton and Fish in 1940 and poking fun at Republicans for attacking his dog Fala four years later Roosevelt was able to use two seminal addresses to brand his political rivals and ensure his third and fourth term.
Facing the prospect of the first Democratic defeat in 20 years at the polls, Harry Truman returned to those shorthand characterizations to attack his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey and the ‘do-nothing 80th Congress.” His legendary whistle stop speeches featured some of the harshest attacks ever unleashed by a sitting President. “Gluttons of privilege,” “puppets of big business,” “bloodsuckers” with offices on Wall Street were just some of the caustic words he threw at his opponents. Riding on the coattails of the political stereotypes that Roosevelet perpetuated, Truman rode these harsh words back to the Oval Office. As Walter Lippman quipped, “It can be said with much justice that of all Roosevelt’s electoral triumphs this one in 1948 is the most impressive.”
But the impact of Truman’s harsh invective cannot be underestimated. It laid the groundwork for the partisan divisions, particularly the odious anti-Communist rantings of Joe McCarthy, that were to emerge in the 1950s. As he and his fellow Democrats were to soon discover, there were limits to the effectiveness of poltical stereotyping.