Video: FDR's lessons for the presidency

By Newsweek, special contributor to "Hardball"

On “Hardball” Thursday night, Chris Matthews and I talked about leadership and Franklin Roosevelt. In my new book, “THE DEFINING MOMENT: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,”  I argue that FDR’s astonishing leadership saved both capitalism and democracy in a few short weeks in 1933. Will we see his likes again? My argument is that we will—that in the same way FDR was considered a “lightweight” before becoming president, someone else will come along with unrecognized leadership abilities that help us confront modern-day problems. Here are the three things to look for as we try to identify that person:

Everyone claims to have vision, but few do. Without it, as FDR said in his famous inaugural address, quoting Scripture, “the people perish.” Roosevelt did not make detailed long-term plans. He improvised and relied on instinct to the point that some critics found him feckless. None of the particulars of his New Deal programs mattered much to him, a lesson many later liberals never understood. But he always had an overall sense of direction, in his case, a progressive direction. If his vision could be summed up in one word, it would be “security”—“not only physical security but economic security, social security, moral security.”

It’s obviously essential to be able to communicate one’s vision, and the person who does it best has the best chance of being elected president. Once in the office, it’s an ongoing requirement. Great communicators like FDR are skilled at both reading prepared speeches and speaking off-the-cuff. The “Fireside Chats” were revolutionary in 1933—the first time in human history that a leader, with the help of technology (radio), addressed his people as individuals, not a crowd. He pioneered the conversation tone we now take for granted. The response to the first radio speech was so overwhelming that FDR had to hire 50 people to answer the mail. (Herbert Hoover had needed just one). The good news for would-be leaders is that improving one’s reading of prepared texts can be learned. John F. Kennedy, for instance, began the 1960 campaign as a not-terribly-good speaker. Bill Clinton bombed at the 1988 convention, just four years before being elected. Extemporaneous skills are more in-born. FDR, who held two press conferences a week, was obviously a master here as well.

A great vision and good communications aren’t enough. Effective leaders must execute their vision. That takes not just experience and knowledge but a commitment to the highest standards of performance. If a leader puts loyalty ahead of performance, he will fail every time. If he reacts defensively to criticism rather than making mid-course corrections, he will fail. FDR had both great knowledge about how government works (from his World War I days as a bureaucrat at the navy department) and a supple, open-minded temperament that kept him flexible and responsive. “Second-class intellect, first-class temperament,” was how Oliver Wendell Holmes famously described him.

My own feeling is that President Bush has two out of three of the above. He has a vision, whether one likes it or not, and he has communicated it well, particularly in the days after 9/11. But Bush has had great trouble executing it. This is not unusual. In any business or non-profit, it’s extremely rare to find leaders who excel at all three. If they do, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they will be successful, even if they don’t immediately solve every problem. The United States didn’t emerge from the Depression until World War II, seven years after FDR came to office. But his mastery of vision, communications and execution were such that he restored hope and earned a place as one of the greatest leaders of all time.

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