The illustrated four freedoms: FDR, Rockwell, and the margins of the rhetorical presidency.

Author:Kimble, James J.
Position:Franklin D. Roosevelt - Essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

Mr. Lasswell laid especial emphasis upon the Four Freedoms.... He even suggested means to make them more than rhetorical devices.

--Leonard Doob (1942, 8)

On October 17, 2012, a moving dedication ceremony took place on the southern tip of New York City's Roosevelt Island. The occasion featured former President Bill Clinton and a host of other dignitaries--including Mario and Andrew Cuomo, David Dinkins, Michael Bloomberg, and Henry Kissinger--participating in the unveiling of the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) Four Freedoms Park. Speakers and visitors alike marveled at the stunning four-acre site's inspiring design, the product of famed architect Louis Kahn. Against the magnificent backdrop of the urban skyline, FDR's legacy must have seemed as timeless as ever.

Much of the day's program, as one might expect, was dedicated to commemorating a famous passage from FDR's 1941 Annual Message to Congress (1941b), an event that historians routinely refer to as the "Four Freedoms speech." Officials at the park played an audio recording of the passage, which encouraged the master of ceremonies, Tom Brokaw, to offer some historical perspective. At a time of dire international crisis, he suggested, the president had been able to "rally his fellow citizens and the world with a bold statement of the fundamental principles of free men and free women everywhere: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want--a healthy, peacetime life; freedom from fear." FDR's words, Brokaw argued, were monumental in their scope. As the newscaster put it, "on that day and forevermore," the Four Freedoms "defined the aspirations and rights of all." Here, he summarized, "was a very big idea--Four Freedoms" ("Dedication Ceremony" 2012, 13:05-13:54).

Brokaw and his fellow celebrants were not the first to venerate Roosevelt's notion of the Four Freedoms (Bodnar 2010, 103). Indeed, their sentiments joined a long line of public tributes. The new site and its engraved excerpt from the 1941 speech amplified similarly inscribed words at the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC. Other tributes include the Four Freedoms Trail and nearby Monument in Madison, Florida, another Four Freedoms Monument in downtown Evansville, Indiana, the Four Freedoms Memorial at White Chapel cemetery in Troy, Michigan, a prominent mural dedicated to the ideal in Burbank, California, as well as numerous nonprofit groups, schools, and businesses, all with names commemorating FDR's famous phrase. There is even an annual Four Freedoms Award, founded by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

Given the adulation that Roosevelt's ideal of the Four Freedoms continues to receive, even after the concept's seventieth anniversary, it is no surprise to find that scholars still celebrate the 1941 speech in which FDR formally introduced it. Richard E. D. Schwartz, for example, suggests that the Four Freedoms address presented a "grand ... vision" that "specified his ambitions for all the nations of the world" (2005, 214). Philip Harvey contends that it "was probably the most influential speech Roosevelt ever delivered" (2013, 148). Rob Kroes describes its "powerful contribution to American public discourse," a distinction most evident in FDR's famous "rallying cry" that eloquently "called on his countrymen to fulfill an American world mission as he saw it" (1999, 472). That great speech ended, summarizes David M. Kennedy, "with a ringing flourish in which" the president "defined the 'four essential human freedoms' that his policies were ultimately aimed at securing" (2005,469). Given such admiring commentary, it is no wonder that public address scholars Stephen E. Lucas and Martin J. Medhurst recently ranked FDR's 1941 message to Congress as the forty-second most significant speech of the twentieth century (2009).

As it turns out, however, much of the adulation for FDR's timeless ideal and the speech in which he introduced it overlooks a most inconvenient contextual problem: at first, the newly unveiled concept of the Four Freedoms was a critical and popular flop, a high-minded but abstract rhetorical flourish that seemed destined to become little more than a footnote in political history. Consider, for instance, that the New York Times printed the newly minted phrase Lend-Lease 20 times in the week after FDR's Message to Congress; in the same time frame, it failed to print the phrase four freedoms even once. (1) While both the president and his administration tried throughout 1941 and 1942 to interest the press and the public in the idea of the Four Freedoms, something was evidently missing.

How is it possible, then, that FDR's phrase ended up becoming so prominent that it continues to receive fervent emotional commemorations all these years later? The aim of this article is to offer a rhetorical accounting of that profound transformation. Fundamentally, my approach draws on Edwin Black's observation that many great rhetorical moments chart a sort of "career," starting out rather humbly "as an amorphy of inchoate ideas within the mind of an author." Over time, he continues, an idea destined for rhetorical greatness "somehow takes hold; it endures; it survives controversy and the vicissitudes of fashion; in time it achieves, as the Gettysburg Address has, an iconic status" (Black 1994, 21-22). The trajectory of such a career is apparently indirect, its path a stark contrast to the implicit, popular assumption that presidential rhetoric typically has immediate and measurable effects on an audience. (2)

The reanimation of FDR's Four Freedoms is a particularly intriguing instance of such a trajectory because it involved an unexpected but vital boost from the artistic world. As I will show, it was not until the Saturday Evening Post unveiled Normal Rockwell's four oil-on-canvas interpretations of the Four Freedoms in early 1943--more than two years after the president's address--that the phrase finally shifted from a floundering, abstract ideal into an instantly recognizable American narrative. As one citizen at the time contended, it had been the creative work of "artist Norman Rockwell" that finally "breathed the breath of life into 'The Four Freedoms'" (O'Kelly 1943, 1). (3)

Rockwell was not a government spokesperson, nor was he associated with the administration in any meaningful way. Yet his contribution to the rhetorical career of the president's Four Freedoms--not to mention the concept's veneration even today--turns out to be a useful starting point for considering the ways in which presidential rhetoric and parallel texts convolve. As Robert Asen points out, "the meaning and significance of what presidents say in their speeches may be understood as arising," at least occasionally, from their "connection with other presidential and nonpresidential discourses" (2011, 753). In what follows, I affirm this viewpoint. Specifically, I conclude that the remarkable contribution of Rockwell's Four Freedoms to FDR's Four Freedoms suggests that an adequate conceptualization of the rhetorical presidency requires continual scrutiny of interdependent rhetorical texts that emerge from outside the White House itself.

In support of this view, I begin by examining the initial failure of FDR's Four Freedoms, from the ideal's debut in the Message to Congress to the White House's increasingly erratic attempts to popularize it throughout 1941 and early 1942. In a second section, I turn to the struggle over the administration's official Four Freedoms pamphlet to demonstrate how the government's initial diegetic approach to domestic propaganda offers a rationale for the failure of FDR's phrase to capture the public's imagination on its own merits. Finally, I examine the impact of Rockwell's 1943 interpretations, focusing on the images' invocation of a mimetic approach as the primary means of repackaging the president's abstract, ill-defined perspective on the Four Freedoms into one more accessible and meaningful to Americans on the home front.

The Four Flops

The presidential election of 1940 was an obvious watershed moment in the tone of FDR's international rhetoric. While the passionate split between interventionists and isolationists had muted the president's approach during the campaign, successfully securing the White House for a third term allowed his more belligerent side to emerge with much greater frequency (Casey 2001, 38). In an Armistice Day address at Arlington Cemetery, for example, the president condemned the world's "modern dictators or modern oligarchs," expressing hope that "the very people under their iron heels will, themselves, rebel" (Roosevelt 1941a, 570). By the end of December, with Britain desperately fighting for survival in the skies over London, the president was using one of his famous fireside chats to portray to his radio listeners the "undeniable threat" of the Axis powers. "The United States," he told Americans, "has no right or reason to encourage talk of peace" with those "European and Asiatic war-makers" (Roosevelt 1941c, 634, 635).

The 1941 Message to Congress, taking place just a week after the fireside chat, was an obvious continuation of this combative rhetorical arc (Kimble 2008, 67). With the Lend-Lease bill soon to make its debut on Capitol Hill, the president was ready to elaborate on the international situation as never before. He did so in a most dramatic fashion. Using colorful and provocative language, he portrayed the Axis powers as "assailants" (Roosevelt 1941b, 664) and "conquerors" (Roosevelt 1941b, 665) who were involved in "treachery" and in league with "secret agents and their dupes" (Roosevelt 1941b, 666), their aim the snuffing out of "the whole pattern of democratic life" (Roosevelt 1941b, 664). The United States, in contrast, represented "the justice of morality" and supported "the rights and dignity of all nations, large and small" (Roosevelt 1941b, 666). The entire scenario, argued the president, was a...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP