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Our recent unprecedented misuse of the word “unprecedented” finally got to me. I am both a word geek and history freak, and although our stay-at-home orders are extraordinary, this moment is not unprecedented. Humanity has faced pandemics and global crises before. Looking for a different narrative, I pulled Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time off my shelf.
Goodwin’s book is huge, and I tend to buy big, long books like hers with great intentions and then let them molder until something jolts me into action. COVID-19 gave me the needed jolt, along with plenty of time. The book is about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the home front during World War II.
What did I learn?
- None of it was easy. FDR was a master politician and dedicated himself to uniting disparate factions in the fight against Nazism and Fascism. Before the war, America was dominated by America First Isolationists (yes, that’s what they called themselves), who felt the oceans and borders provided adequate security. The army had half a million soldiers using equipment from World War I. Germany had been disarmed following the Great War, so its five million plus soldiers had brand new equipment. Getting the Isolationists to embrace preparing for a war they thought was not our concern was next to impossible. After the war began, Roosevelt had to contend with the outsized personalities of Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, who had radically different ideas of what the post-war world should look like. Roosevelt charmed and inspired Republicans and Democrats, business and labor, rich and poor, men and women, blacks and whites, Churchill and Stalin, and many others to unite and work together. Modern politics is all about dividing rather than uniting. I lament this.
- America had huge blind spots. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party included blatantly racist Southerners, whom he coddled because he needed votes to get legislation passed. The military was segregated. Roosevelt listened to racist fear-mongers and authorized the relocation camps for Japanese-American citizens, the legacy of which tarnishes the accomplishment of winning the war. Most business and manufacturing leaders were overtly sexist and had to be cajoled into accepting women workers. Anti-Semitism kept Jewish refugees out of the country before and during the war, dooming innocent masses to Hitler’s Death Camps. Similarly, one might ask, how does COVID-19 reveal parts of our society we’d rather not look at?
- The President managed the crisis by 1) commanding the facts and 2) unifying the nation behind his trusted voice. Every American had a role to play in winning World War II. Some were citizen soldiers, but many more participated by converting businesses into war munitions factories, and then millions of women took jobs in those factories. Everyone participated in things like aluminum and rubber drives, and everyone was touched by the rationing of common goods like coffee and gasoline. We, on the other hand, are asked to help by staying home and being passive, and are struggling mightily with that request.
- Eleanor Roosevelt had an “already-not-yet” vision of America as a democracy that rivals top missiologists’ thinking about the Kingdom of God. Democracy meant equality, and in her opinion that was an aspirational goal far from reality. She was an indefatigable champion for the poor, people of color, women, and any underdog. She believed the war wasn’t worth winning if it didn’t usher in a more just society. She consistently challenged her husband to do more.
- Government wasn’t the problem. Government fixed problems. People that worked for the government had credibility. Roosevelt is the symbol of “big government,” but business thrived working in partnership with the government under his leadership. Instead of birthing socialism, America birthed its middle class, lifting millions out of poverty.
- FDR often spoke as a teacher rather than orator. During one fireside chat he requested everyone get out a world map while he systematically explained the geography of where the war was being fought. He had mastered world geography from his beloved hobby of stamp collecting. Why don’t we elect stamp collectors anymore?
- Before I tell you about Roosevelt’s address to the nation on the night of D-Day, take a moment to imagine what sort of speech Hitler might have given if his troops had landed on American shores. Roosevelt’s “speech” wasn’t a speech at all, but a heartfelt prayer, asking God to give strength to our soldiers, comfort for those at home who would be facing loss, and asking for “faith in Thee, faith in our sons, faith in each other, faith in our united crusade.”
- FDR’s rise to become president after being paralyzed from polio shows his remarkable resolve and dedication. However, he hid his disability, thinking the public wouldn’t vote for him if they knew he used a wheelchair. I wish he’d been more open. One occasion when he let his disability be seen is notable. He was visiting a hospital ward for soldiers who’d lost limbs. He wheeled himself from bed to bed, taking time to visit with each soldier, hoping that the full vision of his own damaged body would be of some help to them.
- When FDR was elected, he was a vibrant leader but the nation was very ill. By the end of his presidency, the nation was vibrant and he was very ill. Like Lincoln and Wilson, who also led during all-encompassing wars, the struggle cost Roosevelt his life. Upon his death, Republican Senator Robert Taft, perhaps “the” Republican of the day, called FDR the “greatest figure of our time,” and said, “he literally worked himself to death in the service of the American people.”
Goodwin’s book is timeless and I had a wonderful journey reading it during this crisis. I am left wondering why our times don’t produce similar selfless, inspiring leaders.
Max DePree wrote the first job of a leader is to define reality, the last is to say thank you, and in-between the leader becomes a servant and a debtor. How well have our leaders defined reality during this crisis? How well have they served the common good? “Leaders,” he says, “don’t inflict pain, they bear pain.” Is that being modeled anywhere?
DePree’s second book says the artful leader’s voice matches their touch. I have refrained from using the name Donald Trump in this essay, but here I am compelled to direct my comparison with FDR squarely at Trump. There is a huge disconnect between what our President says and what the government actually does. There are people in the federal government sincerely trying to contain the pandemic. There is also the sideshow of Trump running for reelection. His strategy is to refuse to accept responsibility, blame the virus on China and the World Health Organization, and blame the recession on Democratic governors. Trump is a master at exploiting divisive cultural and racial fault lines and has found a current of anger and frustration to tap into, pandemic be damned. We live in a surreal time, when, for me at least, the path to remaining upbeat and positive is to try my best not to pay attention to what our President says. Are you okay with that? I am not.
We could use people like Franklin and Eleanor again.