Across America one Sunday night everybody turned on the radio. A warm, reassuring voice came from the horn of the old Atwater Kent on the living room table. The new president, Franklin Roosevelt, was giving his first fireside chat.
''My friends,'' he began simply, ''I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking. . . .'' It was a timely topic. Every bank in the country was closed.
On Saturday, President Reagan institutes a latter-day series of fireside chats, designed to reach the citizen direct. Just as FDR preceded his first fireside chat with a bigger show -- the inaugural pageant -- so Mr. Reagan waited until his Wednesday prime-time press conference was out of the way, his ninth, before starting the follow-up personal discussions.
FDR talked to the nation during a crisis when the dominant subject was hard times, unemployment, and near-panic. Some problems didn't appear on the surface. He knew that the acid test of the New Deal was recovery. He had made rash promises in his campaign: In a speech at Pittsburgh he promised to reduce the cost of government 25 percent, to achieve ''the one sound foundation of permanent economic recovery -- a complete and honest balancing of the federal budget.'' Now he was president, and he couldn't balance the budget nor did he want to. The national crisis was too big for that.
For a president guiding America, everything depends on inspiring confidence. Since the terrifying events of Oct. 29, 1929, which the New York Times headlined , ''Stocks collapse in 16,410,030-share day,'' President Hoover had regularly promised that prosperity was just around the corner.
Now the unfortunate Hoover was out. Runs had started on various banks, and the new President ordered, March 5, a four-day bank holiday (and an embargo on gold). He sought to reassure the nation. It was all right to tell people that ''the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,'' but they wanted more. They wanted to catch the savor of the President himself. It was before television's time -- but sound had been added to the newsreels in 1927. And now there was radio. There was Will Rogers and H.V. Kaltenborn on the airwaves. And now the new president. . . .
America in 1929 was rich -- or thought it was till the stock market crumbled. A contemporary report from the Brookings Institution described a situation that the nation took for granted but that seems appalling by modern standards: 1 percent of the people, according to Brookings, owned 59 percent of the national wealth; at the other side of the scale, 87 percent owned only 8 percent of the wealth. There was hardly any income tax. Reporters who pointed this out were regarded as rather radical half a century ago.
FDR was wheeled into the Diplomatic Reception Room on the ground floor of the White House, sat at a desk, waved genially at guests and technicians, and for 20 minutes talked into the radio, that first fireside chat, in a warm, reassuring voice. He explained the banking system in simple terms without giving the impression of talking down to listeners. In city living rooms or farm kitchens they felt that he was talking to them direct. He forgot the microphone.
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins watched him: ''His head would nod and his hands would move in simple, natural, comfortable gestures. His face would smile and light up with them.''
The routine became established. He would send someone upstairs for a removable bridge which he disliked wearing but which reduced the sibilances of his voice. The phrase ''My friends'' passed into the political vocabulary.
Can Reagan chat his way into friendship with the nation? There was extraordinary upper-class venom against Roosevelt in his day. But scouts reported that the people around the country all seemed to feel they knew the President personally.