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Gilding The Wall

Listening to FDR’s Fireside Chats as the border wall debate rages on

On a Tuesday earlier this month, I walked out of jail and drove until my car ran out of gas and died a mile from my house in a crowded Boston intersection. This happened not for lack of access to fuel or money to buy it with—or even because I had failed to notice that the gas light had been on for the past sixty miles—but because I was so genuinely moved by what the president of the United States was saying to me.

“The administration and the Congress,” the president assured me, “are not proceeding in any haphazard fashion in this task of government. Each of our steps has a definite relationship to every other step.”

I was listening in to the White House basement in 1935, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat down for a Fireside Chat to assure the American radio-listening public of the virtue and efficacy of the Social Security Act. His voice was calm, steady, conversational.

In typical Chat style, FDR acknowledged the complexity of the issues of the day in the plain language and patrician tones that would guide the nation through some of its worst bona fide emergencies: the nadir of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler in Europe, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the height of a completely new kind of global conflict. The Chats were also a soft sell for wartime principles of collective thought, organizing, and sacrifice—even while, as novelist Saul Bellow would write years later, “he was saving the country for capitalism.”

I was compelled to listen to FDR’s Fireside Chats on my drive home from visiting an immigrant client in ICE custody because I needed to remember what a president was supposed to sound like.

I was compelled to listen through an entire playlist of Fireside Chats on my drive home from visiting an immigrant client in ICE custody because Donald Trump was scheduled later that evening for his first address from the Oval Office in two years and I needed to remember what a president was supposed to sound like.

But just as much, I needed a push out of the grey, liminal state I often drift into after even a few minutes with clients in ICE custody.

“Deportation,” the young Honduran man had told me moments before in clear, simple Spanish, “will be a death sentence.” I have heard these words so many times in the past thirteen years, but have never become inured to them. These stories come from places of not only individual national crises, but a long slow international emergency that has spread throughout Central America after well over a century of American meddling.

Trump’s Oval Office address was hyped as a likely presidential declaration of national emergency on the Southern border. But it wasn’t that, or anything else of consequence. It was an extended flat-four remix of his infamous Trump Tower campaign kickoff, with a new concern-trolling baseline and the rhetorical EQ tweaked to push “they’re bringing crime, they’re bringing drugs, they’re rapists” into a distorted overdrive. (“Some, I assume, are good people” was cut from the mix years ago.) Phrases like “crisis of the heart” (“and of the soul!”) and “humanitarian crisis” were dutifully included, but immediately followed by “killing, beheading, and dismembering.” The whole thing was more rant than Chat, more WTF than FDR.

Two days after the speech, Trump traveled to Texas for a Potemkin law enforcement summit with a room full of involuntarily-unpaid CBP officers looking on. He seemed entirely at home sitting behind tables piled high with guns, drugs, and cash, a Make-A-Wish kid playing Scarface for the day.

But the whole show amounted to little more than to a longform refutation of Trump’s own efforts to elevate a few thousand families seeking asylum to a CRISIS AT THE BORDER. The drugs and cash on the table in front of him had almost all been intercepted in commercial vehicles attempting to legally cross at ports of entry. The AK-47 featured in the center of the frame had been seized in the U.S. in the car of a driver on his way into Mexico. Photos of a tunnel discovered under one of the existing border fence’s most secure stretches near McAllen, Texas were introduced as evidence of the urgent need for more (and more durable) above-ground barriers—presumably along the lines of the design that NBC News was reporting that day could be easily bested with a consumer-grade power saw.

The actual legal, procedural, and political realities of building any portion of a wall under the guise of a “national emergency” present a towering logistical barrier unto themselves. They would require exercises (and plain abuses) of executive powers unseen in this country since the Civil War not only to somehow pass the alleged immediate need for heightened border security as an “emergency,” but to use that power to pilfer billions designated by Congress to Puerto Rico and other disaster relief and hundreds of thousands of acres from American deed-holders by eminent domain. (The mass litigation from these land takings alone could easily grind on well beyond Trump’s natural lifetime.)

“If ever there was a time to subordinate individual or group selfishness to the national good,” FDR intoned in his final State of the Union address, “that time is now.”

Declaration of a national emergency would also inevitably require government attorneys defending the immediate legal challenges against these seizures to specifically argue that this “emergency” rose to the statutorily-mandated level of one that “requires use of the armed forces” to the point that the military could be authorized to build it. Like the man said: Very legal. Very cool.

The president of the United States of America has, Constitutionally speaking, only one job. Per Article II, Section 3, the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” (Although Section 3 includes a series of “shalls,” this duty is the only one that a literal reading of this provision would absolutely require any given president to do during the course of any given term.)

This mandatory act of executive communication may have been inspired by the Queen’s Speech, an annual sort of State of the Kingdom address in the British Parliament with which the colonial drafters of the Constitution would have been well familiar. But by the grace of God and the quirks of a parliamentary democracy with no written constitution, the Queen merely delivers the Queen’s Speech from the throne in the House of Lords. It is written for her by the elected government.

“If ever there was a time to subordinate individual or group selfishness to the national good,” FDR intoned in his final State of the Union address (delivered in the form of a Fireside Chat from the White House) seventy-five years ago, “that time is now.”

If only. Even before Nancy Pelosi threatened to postpone the event, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House had a contingency plan for the man solely responsible for the ongoing national hostage crisis to give an unprecedented mid-shutdown State of the Union, originally scheduled for today.  There is a visceral wrongness to this; not just that plans to prolong the agony for federal employees and others depending on the good order of the polity could be so casually made, but that someone who has so needlessly disturbed the Union’s state would be allowed the floor at all. It is an affront on the magnitude of your wife’s kidnapper appearing at the wedding anniversary party you have proceeded to host in her absence to deliver a toast in which he blames you for allowing him to kidnap her.

Saul Bellow was a natural FDR skeptic (“he was very smooth, and one couldn’t be careful enough”), but also could not gainsay the natural power of his “superb use of the radio.” He described an unforgettable walk through Chicago during a summer evening Fireside Chat, with the sound of the president’s uninterrupted voice coming from cars parked bumper to bumper, Americans of every description lingering in respectful silence to hear what their president had to say to them.

“You had some sense,” Bellow wrote, “of the weight of the troubles that made them so attentive, the ponderable fact, the one common element (Roosevelt), on which so many unknowns could agree. But just as memorable to me, perhaps, was to learn how long clover flowers could hold their color in the dusk.”