Eleanor Roosevelt is an American icon. In her time, she was a progressive, but as Mary Jo Binker points out in the introduction to her new book, “If You Ask Me,” the term “progressive” has changed with the times.
The book is a compilation of Roosevelt’s advice columns, ranging topics from etiquette to war and peace. It’s a delightful look back at a pivotal chapter in American history, and much of the timeless advice is just as applicable to our present chapter as it was then.
On politics, Roosevelt believed in positive rights, such as the right to a job, good wages, education, health care, and so on. She chaired the UN drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is fundamentally different from the U.S. Constitution, which only secures negative rights, meaning it limits government’s interference in our freedoms.
Franklin D. Roosevelt at his townhouse in Manhattan surrounded by family members on Nov. 9, 1932, after he won the presidency in a landslide election. On either side of him, from left to right: Sara Delano Roosevelt, his mother; James Roosevelt, his son; and Anna Eleanor Dall, his daughter. —Photo Credit: Associated Press
“He” was a middle-aged man, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The place was the library in the Manhattan townhouse where he struggled to regain the use of his body — by literally crawling on the floor — after he was all but paralyzed by polio in 1921, when he was nearing 40.
Ms. Goodwin was there because of something that happened years later: Roosevelt sold the townhouse to Hunter College for $50,000. On Tuesday, during a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the moment the Roosevelts handed over the keys, Jennifer J. Raab, the president of Hunter, called it “surely the real estate bargain of the 20th century.” (Maybe, maybe not. That amount, in today’s dollars, would be $726,000, far less than a townhouse on the Upper East Side would probably go for now. One in the next block is on the market for $24.5 million, according to the real estate site Trulia.) …
An October 2018 report, Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, indicated that poor national leadership and our political polarization were main concerns. Our recent midterm election offers little hope that the two problems will diminish. Thus, we ask ourselves, “What type of political leadership is now needed? Who might furnish it? Trump supporters might answer Trumpian and Trump. But most of us seek a better answer.
In a recent New York Times op ed—“What Kind of Democrat Can Beat Trump in 2020?”— columnist Frank Bruni cited various opinion-givers and answers. Two of the former were past Obama chief strategist David Axelrod and onetime Nebraska Senator and Governor Bob Kerry. Both agreed, in Axelrod’s words, “that there’s a market out there for a more unifying figure.”
In the Preface to his almost 700 page book, presidential historian Robert Dallek tells us why he wrote it: “to remind people, especially a younger generation with limited knowledge of American history, of what great presidential leadership looks like.” In his Epilogue he sums up his conclusions. He considers FDR one of our three greatest presidents, along with Washington and Lincoln. (An aggregate of polls rating our best and worst presidents agrees with him.) Having written previous books on Truman, Nixon, Kennedy, L. Johnson, and Reagan, Dallek knows more than a little about presidential qualities.
He believes that “Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms—Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, unemployment insurance, the National Labor Relations Board, the legitimization of labor unions, the Rural Electrification Administration, the many dams and other conservation projects, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which provided for minimum wages and maximum hours, to cite just some of the most memorable domestic programs—were giant steps in humanizing the American industrial system.” Although Dallek mentions that FDR’s conservation legacy was “as great of that of his cousin Theodore,” readers desiring to know more about this subject should consult historian Douglas Brinkley’s two long books, one on each of the Roosevelt presidents’ conservation accomplishments.
Q:The title of your book is Leadership: In Turbulent Times. Is it about today?
DKG: Yes, in a very real sense Leadership: In Turbulent Times is about today. Using history as my guide, I sought to shine a spotlight on the absence of leadership in our country today through the analysis and examples of leaders from the past whose actions and intentions established a standard by which to judge and emulate genuine leadership. The study and stories of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson setforth a template of shared purpose, collaboration, compromise, and civility—the best of our collective identity in times of trouble. We ignore history at our peril, for without heartening examples of leadership from the past we fall prey to accepting our current climate of uncivil, frenetic polarization as the norm.The great protection for our democratic system, Lincoln counseled, was to “read of and recount” the stories of our country’s history, to rededicate ourselves to the ideals of our founding fathers. Through Leadership: In Turbulent Times, I hope I’ve provided a touchstone, a roadmap, for leaders and citizens alike.
Q: How do those times compare to today?
DKG: I am often asked: “Are these the worst of times?” We are living in turbulent times, certainly, but the worst of times—no.
When Lincoln took office, the House was not only divided, it was on fire. The country had split in two. A Civil War that would leave 600,000 soldiers dead was about to begin.