On Friday, T and I wandered north to Hyde Park, New York, the home of President Franklin Roosevelt. We visited the president’s home and his presidential library and had plenty of time to think about the meaning of leadership in American history.
FDR wasn’t perfect, of course, but comparisons to the current resident of the White House don’t highlight FDR’s imperfections nearly as much as they reveal the vast inadequacies of the current occupant. To read FDR’s descriptions and plans to deal with the Great Depression is to understand that leadership requires both the capacity to develop plans to address national problems and also the ability to express compassion and sympathy that will lead to national courage as we address our shared challenges. FDR always seemed to understand that our problems were collective; that we must look after one another. Instead, Donald Trump is rolling out a budget of tax cuts for the wealthy, an unnecessary wall, and vast weapons increases paid for by cuts to nutritional assistance for children and elderly. Gutting the NEH and the NEA and ignoring the ways in which our privileges demand an active presence in the world isn’t leadership. It’s foolhardy cowardice. Trump’s plan isn’t about compassion or understanding; instead it is a reminder of how far our nation has sunk.
As we walked through the library displays on the years of Roosevelt’s presidency, we listened to selections from his Fireside Chats. Even now, the compassion and concern in his voice is palpable. The comparison to Mr. Trump’s efforts to communicate with the nation is just so disheartening. At times I wasn’t sure which of Trump’s shortfalls was worse: the lack of leadership, the incoherence of his rhetoric, or the complete lack of principles in Trump’s world view. It’s a sorry list of deficits.
FDR’s genius was in his ability to be genuine and sympathetic as he led the nation forward. His definition of the national interest was broad and compassionate and his ability to sustain courage in the nation made us better together. FDR’s policies were driven by genuine concern for the people, not an interest in adulation.
I tell myself there are leaders like FDR in our future. I tell myself that our current divisions are temporary. Four years isn’t such a long time, I think. We can endure and come out the other side of Trump’s reign with a better sense of who we are and who we want to be. I want to have confidence that our history can be a guide to our our future. I live in hope.