Posts Tagged ‘FDR’

Compelling History

“Ugh, history is SOOOO boring!”

I hear ya, eighth grader! It’s not your fault. The fact is, most history writers suck. They may be brilliant historians but, by and large, they are lousy writers.


I had my angle for my post on FDR plotted out before I wrote it. The site in question was FDR’s home, I felt the need to write about who he was rather than what he did. Yet most of my prior reading was on the latter: FDR and the Depression, FDR vs. the courts, FDR  at war, etc. There’s a lot of interesting reading there, but these isolated issues don’t give a full measure of the man. 

I knew what I needed. I needed to sit down & read a book spanning his whole life. Only that would let me understand FDR himself. But let’s be fair: writing a biography of one of history’s great figures is hard enough, but putting it in one volume while covering it well is damned near impossible. The stories of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Napolean, Gandhi, and FDR can’t adequately be covered in one volume. But I did some scrolling through Amazon’s reviews, and I found a book that had good recommendations. “FDR”, by Jean Edward Smith, might meet my need.

So how does one fit a momentous life into one volume? Well, this is my first complaint about Smith’s effort. He took a monumental, perhaps impossible, writing challenge, and wasted the entire first chapter on FDR’s family ancestry: Roosevelt’s wealthy forebears and Dutch family tree. Right off the bat, the book is as boring as the Book of Numbers! Who begat who, from wence did they come. Madness! Why bother with that stuff? It’s not really relevant. Sure, his upbringing is important (his relationship with his mother, Sarah, is crucial), but all that farfle about how his family emigrated to the U.S. and continually married their cousins? Who cares? It’s eating up valuable pages, and by doing it right up front, it’s setting a horrid tone for the book.

Then there’s Smith’s penchant to retroactively drop in characters. Out of nowhere, Smith will bring in a character who, it turns out, knew FDR since college! But wait, he already wrote about those college years.  Why didn’t he mention this person then? No, he drops him in and talks again about the past to bring us up to speed about this one guy and then gets moving along the main path again. This rubber-banding doesn’t happen too frequently (thank goodness) but when it does, it’s certainly annoying.

But here’s the worst part. Smith ends the book abruptly. “FDR died. The end.” No denouement, no nothing. Just “he’s dead.” Not even a wrap-up, or a summation, or an epilogue. Nothing but bibliography. It’s like, in the end, FDR’s life didn’t have any meaning. In reality he got a tombstone and a monument in Washington, but Jean Smith couldn’t be bothered to write another couple of paragraphs about his funeral train or the eulogy delivered by Winston Churchill. Perhaps he was as tired of writing the book as I was of reading it.


History is A STORY. I love history, and historians love history, because it’s a fascinating story. Tell it like one! FDR’s life had all the hallmarks of a great novel: a man of privilege and bearing with a fairy-tale existence, suddenly struck with adversity. A man who learned, from that adversity, to become a leader of a troubled nation. A man who formed a powerful alliance of capitalists, monarchs, tyrants, egotists and soldiers that would go on to defeat the greatest evil of the 20th century and, when all was said and done,  would still remain as perplexed as the rest of us by that elusive thing known as love. What a story! But, sadly, told rather poorly in this case.

In this day and age, no one can go through their professional life with only one set of skills and hope for success. Doctors are learning to be business managers to succeed in their practices. Business managers are learning about databases in order to target their customers. Computer programmers are learning how to be salespeople so they can garner their next consulting gig. And historians need to learn, too. They need to learn how to write, how to craft a narrative. They need to learn about plot, and dialogue, and character development, and how to engender empathy through prose.

This is not to say historians should fabricate or embellish the story. I’m not suggesting they create Twilight: The Yalta Conference. I am suggesting they learn through their studies what narrative exists in the history that’s real, and use good writing to bring it out and make it interesting.

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Charisma is My Dump Stat

Ever since I was a young pup, growing up in the Western Massachusetts confluence of mill towns and dairy farms, people routinely sang the praises of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “He saved the country and the people” was the mantra. If you were a blue-collar worker, FDR was a hero. If you were a farmer, FDR was a hero. If you held degrees in the arts or sciences, FDR was a hero. His name was always spoken with reverence. “He got us out of the Great Depression”. As a kid, I never understood it, but it was taught to me from a very early age. Actually, “taught” may not even be the operative word here, it was almost genetic.

This reverent view was especially held by those who actually lived through the Depression. My grandparents – disinterested in politics otherwise – loved FDR, as did their brothers & sisters, family friends, and others of the same generation. My parents’ generation, mere tweens during the 30’s & 40’s, also spoke lovingly of the man. It’s only now, with my grandparents’ generation is 20 years dead and my parents’ rapidly disappearing, that FDR is receiving critical attention by the general public.

I find this utterly fascinating. Sure, pundits & partisans would complain about the economics of the New Deal and the court packing scandal, but FDR had to be dead 60 years before the common man started questioning his Presidency and leadership. That’s almost three generations! I can’t think of anyone short of George Washington and perhaps Thomas Jefferson who escaped such criticism for so long. The people of FDR’s time had to basically die before public opinion turned against him. Today, we decry the previous loser the day after Election Day.

How in the world does this happen? How is it even remotely possible that any leader can earn such true devotion amongst his people? His wasn’t based on fear, nor was it based on indoctrination (contrary to right-wing conspiracy theorists). The devotion FDR enjoyed was real, and true, and long-lasting. This is the real story of FDR: not the impact of his policies but the power of his charisma. Utterly fascinating!

I have many flaws. Perhaps the most striking one is my near-total lack of charisma. I’m not particularly likable, and have virtually no leadership skills. I couldn’t convince people to escape from a burning building. If I was at a picnic and implored people to not eat the botulism-tainted potato salad, a score of ambulances would be needed to cart away the doubled-over masses. To me, strong & genuine leadership qualities are as alien as an iPhone to Neanderthals. That is why I find FDR so fascinating. His charisma is akin to string theory: practically unknowable.

Here’s my own take on why Roosevelt inspired such devotion: he had the “perfect storm” of confidence, communication, competence, and empathy. His family, especially his mother, Sara, gave him a good education and instilled in him a measure of self-confidence absolutely required of a good leader. FDR was a great communicator. His speeches are the stuff of legend and they were delivered, not as oratory, but as conversation, meaning they were genuine. Was FDR competent? Sure, you could say his policies weren’t necessarily wise, but he got them done. People respect people who get things done, action is rewarded far greater than thought or bearing. And FDR did accomplish an awful lot in his 12 years as President.

So that leaves empathy. Empathy is the capacity to care about your fellow human being: to see, understand and relate to other people and their troubles. In the beginning, FDR (like most bluebloods) didn’t have much in the way of empathy. He was “upper crust”, raised in the bubble of Hudson Valley prestige and private school. He was not fit to lead the U.S., at least not in a manner to receive such a tremendous amount of public adulation. But something happened that gave him the empathy he needed to be one of the top five Presidents in history. That something? Polio. To alleviate the pain of polio (or perhaps Guillain-Barre syndrome), FDR would visit Warm Springs, Georgia. There he’d meet poor farmers and others trying to live in impoverished conditions. It’s there he learned to empathize with the common man, and where he gained the final skill required to be a strong leader.

It’s both sad and relieving that presidents like FDR are far and few between. On the one hand, we could certainly use more competence in our nation’s capitol. We are certainly sick and tired of politico-speak (the near opposite of  good communication). And empathy? If there’s a skill that’s dead in Washington, it’s empathy. That’s why our government is failing us, that’s why Congress has minute approval ratings, why our President — like the one before him — barely holds 50%, why no one trusts the courts and dissatisfaction rules the land.

But on the other hand, imagine what leaders like FDR can do. He inspired such huge devotion, devotion that lasted for decades, can you imagine what would have happened if he wasn’t an honorable man? Well, carnage, that’s what. If history has taught us anything, it’s “beware the charismatic man.” It’s the people who inspire loyalty and devotion in others who are the most dangerous.

We got lucky with FDR. We may not be so lucky with the next one.

[I did not own a camera when I visited Hyde Park. All photos are in the public domain and pulled from various sources, including those links given below].



Home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site

FDR Presidential Library and Museum

FDR’s Ties to Georgia (University of Georgia site)

American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches

Google map to FDR’s home

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What Is Leadership?

A walk through the maze of walls comprising FDR National Memorial is a welcome, quiet respite from the crowds at the National Mall in Washington, DC. The memorial’s design is interesting: it’s a series of four small plazas, each representing one term of FDRs presidency. He served 12 years in the nation’s highest office, longer than anyone ever before, since, or seemingly forever (thanks to the 22nd Amendment).

I don’t think you can doubt that those were the hardest twelve years in this nation’s existence. The Great Depression was the deepest economic catastrophe this nation has ever seen, and the Great War was the biggest geopolitical conflict the world has ever seen. These were tremendous challenges, and spawned tremendous change in this country. One steered us towards military power and global influence, the other steered us towards progressivism and social justice. In today’s highly polarized political environment, you probably think one is good, and one is bad (which is which depends totally on your point of view). Regardless, those twelve years undoubtedly shifted the path of the United States for at least 65 years, and perhaps more (depending on how we weather the current terrorist, economic, and environmental crises).

Anyway, as I write this essay about FDR, I find myself reflecting not on these matters of politics and FDR’s rewriting of the American resumé. Instead I find myself reflecting on a quality that even his enemies agree FDR had in spades: leadership.

I like to think I know a lot of things. More accurately, I like to think I’m capable of knowing a lot of things. If I put my mind to it, I can read and research and question and experiment and try most things, and come to a pretty solid understanding. But if there’s one thing that eludes me, and will continue to elude me to the end of my days, it’s leadership. I’ve worked and played under some great leaders, whether it was the farmers I worked for as a boy or teachers I’ve learned from in college or team captains on the playing field, but never understood how they were effective leaders. I’ve also tried to act as a leader, take charge of a situation or a group or a team, and failed poorly at every opportunity. I can’t even get a group of co-workers to meet up for Happy Hour (unless, of course, I’m buying). I think I recognize leadership when I see it, but I can’t quantify it, or define it, or explain how some people have it and others don’t, and in no way at all can I replicate it.

Is it charisma? Charisma seems to attract a following but, by itself, can’t sustain one. Followers, at least the smart ones, will flee in the face of failure, and then all you’re left with are the sycophants, the incapable, and the unstable.

Is it believing in people? Maybe, because people will gravitate towards those who put trust in them. But, again, by itself it’s not leadership. Face it, some folks are not worthy of trust. Good leaders have to always be on the lookout for that knife in the back.

Is it determination? The pharaohs were determined to make their great pyramids, but I doubt the slaves who labored under then would call them “leaders”.

Is it understanding humanity? Maybe, possibly, probably. That would explain why I’m so horrible at it, for I often fail to understand that complicated topic. A lot of good leaders started in the trenches with the troops, or on the assembly line, or playing shortstop. They work with folks and understand folks and then lead folks. But FDR was one of the bluest of blue-bloods. He was born into privilege and stayed there, yet still was inspiring to the country.

Maybe (as lame as it sounds) it’s just something you’re born with, like blue eyes or a musical ear or general athleticism. I do suspect it’s something that is not easily taught in a seminar or gained from reading a book. The few books on “leadership” I’ve come across read like leavings of the the rest of those infinite number of monkeys who didn’t write the complete works of William Shakespeare. Corporate America is full of three-day seminars on the topic, but Corporate America as of late is full of terrible leaders who’ve made terrible decisions and led their companies and countries to ruin. I’ve seen good leaders in the corporations I’ve worked in, but these were also folks who didn’t learn how to lead at some symposium. These folks had it in their genetic makeup long before they completed their first job application.

There is one thing I do know about leadership: I know what it is not. Leadership is not authority, and if there’s one thing I abhor, it’s authority without leadership. There are folks who use their power, earned or appointed, to bully or brag or taunt or inflame or bloviate or take their underlings down in the misery or failure of their own incompetence. These aren’t leaders, they are petty fools. Authority may be a handy thing in a leader’s toolkit, but it is not leadership and must not be confused with leadership.

Looking back at FDR’s legacy, it’s easy to see he had both authority and leadership. It’s not just because we won the war against Nazi aggression and Japanese imperialism, it’s not just because we emerged from dark times stronger and more powerful than ever before, and it’s not just because we kept our dominant position for about 60 years after his death while moving forward on his grand vision. It’s because, at the end, for a couple of generations after his death, millions of Americans respected and revered the man. If you had talked to anyone from that era, most of whom are now dead or dying, you’d have heard reverence in their voice. They respected the man, felt motivated by his radio broadcasts, felt inspired by his iconic rhetoric. This generation of Americans, called by some The Greatest Generation, really loved the guy and carried themselves forward in life inspired by his leadership. There are few Presidents, past or present, who inspired the masses during their terms in a way that FDR did.

Nowadays, right-wingers and Libertarians tear apart FDR’s legacy, and I can sympathize. It seems that the progressive agenda, taken too far, acts more like an albatross than an eagle. It seems to weigh us down instead of making us soar. Or maybe we’re just doing it wrong, I don’t know if I can say either with certainty. I can say that, regardless of whether FDRs legacy has helped or hurt this country, he was a strong and effective leader and probably the most inspiring President within his own time. The people who were there would have told you so. Some of them are still out there: find one and ask.

[Archival pictures on this post courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. I don’t have many specific photos of the FDR Memorial, but you’re welcome to peruse my copyrighted photos of Washington, DC here.]



Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

The Wilson Center Essays on Leadership

Google map to FDR Memorial

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