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.
“Advice columnist” is not a role that is usually listed under Eleanor Roosevelt’s long list of achievements, but for over 20 years she wrote a popular write-in column, first for Ladies Home Journal and then McCall’s magazine.
Roosevelt wasn’t especially witty or psychologically acute in the role; unlike many of today’s inspirational “life coaches,” Roosevelt didn’t invite her readers to accompany her on extended journeys of introspection.
Indeed, when a questioner wrote in 1944 asking what the president said to her when he proposed, Roosevelt firmly drew the curtains over that intimate subject by replying,
Every year, thousands of visitors tour the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, the home of the former United States first lady. Two decades prior to its conversion into a residence the building served as the factory for Val-Kill Industries, a furniture manufacturing business opened by Roosevelt and three partners.
Future U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt purchased property that would eventually become Val-Kill in 1911. The family initially used the site for picnics and a respite from the constant activity at their Springwood estate.
It was at one of the picnics that the concept of creating small industries to benefit local farmers during winter months and economic downturns was discussed.