On November 4, 1944, three days before the vote, Franklin Roosevelt appeared at a final campaign rally in Boston’s Fenway Park. In the audience was a twenty-three year old army private who would depart the next morning for the European front. Young Albrecht Strauss was among the German refugees, my maternal uncle included, who signed up to fight the man who had robbed their families of both freedom and home and who was murdering millions of fellow Jews. In a letter some months later, Albrecht told his parents, “I had marveled at the magnificent physical endurance that frail body had withstood — and had feared for it. His presence, more than anyone else’s, generated a liberal viewpoint, and at the same time a wise handling of the world’s forces in American politics”. FDR, we now know, would be dead in April. But the “frail body” notwithstanding, like Private Strauss millions of Americans, “marveled at his physical feats”, idolized a president whom they saw as both indispensable and indestructible. He was larger than life, a mythical figure.
Of course Franklin wasn’t the only President Roosevelt. His fifth cousin Theodore preceded him to the White House and was an equally fabled figure. Their story, together with TR’s niece and FDR’s wife Eleanor, was retold again in Ken Burns’ fourteen-hour documentary, The Roosevelts aired last month on PBS. I will come to Eleanor in a future post. For now, let’s consider the two extraordinary outsized men and how their presidencies play against the current American landscape. The Roosevelts were a presidential dynasty — not the first (Adams) and not the last (Bush) — in itself interesting as we contemplate the possibility of the second Clinton in the White House.
The cousins Roosevelt had much in common. They were both charismatic figures that always commanded center stage. They had parallel resumes: Assistant Navy Secretary, Governor of New York and Vice Presidential candidates, TR successfully. They each fathered six children and endured personal adversity. Was there something in the Roosevelt genes that made them succeed, or was it the strong nurturing that ultimately formed each man? Perhaps we can attribute some to the former. but like most of us, more of the latter. Both men had family heroes to emulate including, for Franklin, Theodore the role model upon whose career he fashioned his own.
Comparing presidents is a great American sport. When they are blood relatives there is an added dimension of interest. The Burns documentary lends itself to comparison because it presents these men and their somewhat parallel careers in such close proximity, documented with remarkable film footage. What’s striking to me is, that despite the obvious similarities, how very different they were. Had they not both been Roosevelts, we might not couple them, as did Burns. On the most elemental level, FDR was an only child with a doting, domineering and ever present mother. TR was one of four and had to face competition for his parents’ attention. But more important, these men were of two different generations and, despite both being of the Twentieth Century, they governed in vastly different times. TR certainly faced challenges while in the White House, but they pale in comparison to FDR’s Great Depression and World War II.
Those generational and time differences are often lost when we compare presidents and assess their relative performance. The current occupant of the White House is often measured against Ronald Reagan, especially in how the two confronted our global adversaries. In fact, just like TR and FDR, and despite governing just decades apart, the foreign challenges confronting these more recent presidents are, as suggested by others, effectively apples and oranges. Reagan functioned in the Cold War where he faced an opponent who led a nation state and with whom he could and did engage. Obama faces stateless fanatics with whom any semblance of diplomacy is impossible — different time, very different problem. What the two Roosevelts shared, at least in public, was tremendous self-confidence. That translated into a kind of free spirited and ebullient — both traded on winning smiles and obviously loving the job — leadership. No one inside or outside of government had any doubt about who was in charge on a Roosevelt watch. Their self-confidence was infectious impacting not only how they led, but also how those being led felt about themselves and the country. This was especially remarkable during FDR’s tenure where, if you can call it that, the misery index was often through the roof. I always cringe when we proclaim our country “exceptional”, but there is no question the descriptor can make people feel good, even if in an unrealistic way.
Franklin had an advantage over Teddy. His cousin had tested the waters of governance and provided lessons to be learned. Both men are generally ranked in the top ten of US presidents, but FDR is ranked higher in part I think because he had to perform, and did, in far more challenging times. These were great leaders. What made them, most especially Franklin, so? Two things: first, the ability to make tough decisions and second, to communicate those decisions to the public. It wasn’t Reagan but Franklin who was, hands down, the great communicator of the American presidency. Between 1933 and 1944 he delivered twenty-seven “fireside chats”, radio talks in which he came figuratively and literally into America’s living room. I was far too young to understand the import of what he said, but a picture of my family sitting “around the radio” and listening is etched into my early childhood memories. And that coming into the living room was something unique to the radio age, a voice heard probably having greater impact than any of the television visuals that have now become so common as to be indistinguishable. A voice without an image has transcending power because it evokes larger-than-life imagination, one consistent with FDR’s personality.
If comparing Obama and Reagan can be characterized as apples and oranges, then certainly measuring any contemporary chief executive against FDR is especially difficult, if not unfair. Even so, it’s hard to watch Ken Burns’ documentary without being struck at how leadership-impoverished is our contemporary political scene. To be sure FDR faced some partisans who hated him as much, perhaps even more, than many of our modern presidents, including Barack Obama. He didn’t live in a time when a president’s popularity temperature was taken virtually on the hour. But the fact remains that few, if any, of his successors had even close to his leadership ability. Barack Obama is blessed with great oratorical skills, perhaps ones that can hold their own against FDR. But somehow he has been unable to come into our living rooms to explain his decisions and give us the sense that he is personally communicating with us. It will take some time and perspective to understand that deficiency, but we can get some hint from the nick name given him by staff in 2008: No drama Obama. If FDR, and for that matter TR, was anything, it was full throat drama. Obama, even six years in, is seen as aloof, his heart nowhere to be found on his sleeve. He presents two contrasting, even conflicting, images; the skillful campaigner who at the same time seems to dislike the political game. FDR loved it all, the politics and the governing. He relished sharing cocktail hour with others and, even in 1944 when he was dying, couldn’t resist going out on the stump, making that final speech at Fenway. Will history judge Obama harshly? It’s far too early to know, but lacking TR and FDR’s special spark may account for his lousy poll numbers as we head into the coming election.
Albrecht Strauss returned home, earned a PhD in English Literature and went on to a distinguished academic career as both a gifted teacher and Johnson scholar. An emeritus professor at UNC Chapel Hill and neighbor, our lives were brought together by a mutual friend on the day after his 90th birthday. We have become good friends and, despite a difference in age, have found much in common. Like my mother and two older siblings, Strauss was born in Berlin. And like my parents, who came to America to escape Hitler, his academic parents settled here in the late 1930s. Our early conversations revealed friends and acquaintances in common — six degrees of separation. Both of our parents came here as fully formed adults who had to build totally new lives in America, function with a new language and adapt professionally and socially to a new world. Franklin Roosevelt, despite his early reluctance to enter the war, was their hero.
The April 13, 1945 letter recounting Albrecht’s memory of FDR’s campaign speech was actually devoted to his death. He wrote:
I am stunned by the news of the President’s death. The surprise of it! And its significance for the future! The War is won to be sure - but someone else might have handled that purely technical part with equal efficiency. Where this great man excelled was in diplomacy, in understanding and grasping international problems – and in the days ahead when he would be needed most. One has to revise one’s entire thinking about the future – and there is a proportionate decrease in hope and confidence. Two men who had the most liberal grasp of foreign affairs, Willkie and Roosevelt, are dead – and there is no one to take their place. Certainly, Churchill lacks this breadth of vision – and anyhow, his main interest in preservation of the Empire, not the welfare of humanity.
Private Strauss was 23 and, as with us, contemporary assessments are not always the most accurate. Nonetheless, it’s quite an astounding and insightful statement by someone so young and such a new American. Does it reflect an idolized and idealized president? Absolutely, but as a contemporaneous reflection of how Americans felt at this loss and about this man, it was remarkably spot-on. Would that any of our contemporary leaders could engender such words, such sentiment much less have them stand up well against more retrospective assessments. Where are the “Roosevelts” when we need them so?