March of Dimes

Elvis Presley receives his polio inoculation to promote vaccination; 1956

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, January 3, 2018. The New Year, the same as the old. By that I mean to note only that President Trump, back from his Mar-a-Lago vacation, is tweeting again, much to the consternation of his critics.

This date in history is a reminder that the presidential bully pulpit can be employed in all kinds of ways, some of them bipartisan, even altruistic. Eighty years ago today, Franklin Roosevelt officially re-incorporated his charity, formerly the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, as The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

You may know it simply as the “March of Dimes.”

Every modern American president, not just Donald Trump, becomes fixed on the idea of bypassing the mass media, particularly the White House press corps. The idea is that they can take their message directly to the American people. Trump has Twitter, Barack Obama commandeered the official White House website, Richard Nixon gave interviews to less jaded local television reporters — that kind of thing.

Presidents often embrace the latest technology in this quest, which is why Harry Truman gave the first televised presidential address from the White House when only 44,000 American households had TV sets. Some 40 million radios were in use, however, which explains why FDR’s “fireside chats” had such impact. One young Democrat from the Midwest, called “Dutch” Reagan, was a dedicated listener to those speeches, and when he became president he brought them back, launching a retro weekly Saturday radio address from the White House.

Reagan, who had been a radio announcer, a film star, and — like the current president — a television host, liked to say that the camera doesn’t lie. This isn’t always true, but the larger implication of Reagan’s point is that those who take to the airwaves in search of unfiltered communication are running a risk: Much of the public might not like what is sees and hears. This observation is particularly salient today, as the 45th U.S. president is demonstrating with his controversial tweets.

But if Ronald Reagan was the Luke Skywalker of presidential communication, Franklin Roosevelt was the Obi-Wan Kenobi, as FDR’s war on childhood diseases demonstrated. Although it hasn’t been eradicated in parts of Asia and Africa, polio has been gone from the U.S. since 1979. But in the early 20th century, this viral illness was a frightful scourge, especially for parents. Its symptoms can be mild: Most humans who contracted polio never knew it. In other cases, it led to difficulty breathing, paralysis, even death. It usually struck children, though Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 39 years old when he was infected — and it cost him the use of his legs.

It didn’t slow his career, and one of the few concessions FDR made to his condition was publicly championing research efforts into polio and other childhood illnesses. Beginning in 1934, Roosevelt used the occasion of his birthday to raise money for this cause, primarily from wealthy donors at an annual Presidential Birthday Ball for Crippled Children.

The chief executive who blazed trails in the use of mass communications soon realized he could reach millions, instead of mere hundreds, of potential donors by taking to the airwaves. And so, in the autumn of 1937, Roosevelt announced the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. He turned to Hollywood allies to devise a nationwide radio appeal. On November 22 of that year, a small group of them met at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in the offices of John Considine, to discuss the campaign. Among those present was impresario Eddie Cantor, a former vaudevillian who was a popular comedian, actor, and singer.

It was Cantor who suggested that national radio programs be asked to donate 30 seconds of their time to raise funds, Cantor who suggested that the money be sent directly to the White House, and Cantor who ad-libbed, “We could call it the ‘March of Dimes.'”

This was a pun, immediately recognizable to those in the room, based on a popular newsreel called “The March of Time.” It was also a quip too catchy to ignore, and by the time the NFIP was incorporated, it was destined to be known by the other name.

The first March of Dimes appeals were aired over the radio in late January 1938.

“The March of Dimes will enable all persons, even the children, to show our president that they are with him in this battle against this disease,” Cantor proclaimed. “Nearly everyone can send in a dime, or several dimes. However, it takes only ten dimes to make a dollar and if a million people send only one dime, the total will be $100,000.”

The estimate proved conservative. By the president’s birthday — January 30 — more than 2.5 million dimes had been sent to the White House. FDR took to the airwaves himself to express gratitude.

“During the past few days, bags of mail have been coming, literally by the truck load, to the White House,” he said. “Yesterday between forty and fifty thousand letters came to the mail room of the White House. Today an even greater number. … In all the envelopes are dimes and quarters and even dollar bills. Gifts from grownups and children — mostly from children who want to help other children to get well.

“It is glorious to have one’s birthday associated with a work like this,” Roosevelt added. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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