Lessons The Roosevelts Taught Us
What Happened to Leadership in America?
I do not profess to be a political pundit or an historian by any stretch of the imagination; however, I am an educated American citizen and I have lived through sixty years of this great country’s history. Normally, I stick to topics I know much about when I am moved to write, but this time I was moved by something bigger than myself. Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary called “The Roosevelts” is fresh in my mind as I type. I just sat through six days- two hours each night- learning the history of one of the greatest political families in America. I learned more about my country through this documentary than I ever learned in my American history high school and college classes combined. My tears at the end of this series red-flagged emotions that touch my soul about being American. I find myself asking, “What has changed to make America so divided in the face of adversity?” I think this documentary clarified a few truths for me.
We no longer allow our leaders to make mistakes before they rally for the common good. Both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were very flawed men privately who showed by their passions for this country that we, as Americans, needed to trust them. Bi-partisan politics were put aside to let these presidents do their job. Of course, WWI and WWII were direct threats to our well-being and it was easy to stand behind our leaders in those circumstances. But what this documentary showed me was that these men didn’t pander to the populace when they made the decisions they knew to be right. Teddy attacked the Panama Canal project with a resolve never seen before; he wouldn’t take no for an answer from either side. His vigorous campaign to protect National Park land for generations to come wasn’t thwarted by private industry. Franklin Delano took us out of the Great Depression with the New Deal that put men, women and minorities back to work. He was thought to be way over his head, but his skeptics stepped aside because they trusted his judgment.
Conversely, modern presidents are torn from limb to limb before they even get their projects out the door. Obama’s administration found and killed Osama Bin Laden, reformed our defunct health care system to make it affordable for the common man, and is now faced with dismantling ISIS, a clear and imminent threat to Democracy. However, to a majority of America he has done nothing. Maybe he is partially to blame for not reaching out to the common man like Franklin’s fireside chats or Teddy’s train trips to greet the common folk across America. (I also understand that since John and Bobby Kennedys’ and Dr. King’s assassinations, we do need to keep our leaders more protected; and, the digital age attempts to keep them at the forefront of our lives via social media.) But where has the rallying spirit for our leaders, from either party, gone? We saw only a bit of it with Ronald Reagan when he stepped up to bail out the economy and pushed back the Soviets, but his trickle-down theory didn’t work in the end. After that, he was quickly denounced in the media to just being that man who was losing his mind. I guess I grew up when presidents like Jimmy Carter, George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. were eviscerated by the media. These presidents became cartoonish characters rather than charismatic leaders. Was it their fault, our fault, or both? I cried after the “The Roosevelts” ended because I yearn for a time when we can all stand behind the ideals of our Democracy and support our leaders, no matter what our partisan politics look like.
Modern Leaders Don’t Like to Ruffle Feathers. Do you think Teddy, Franklin, and even Eleanor cared what people thought when they stood on their pulpits passionately educating the masses about what was good for America? Not a bit. They never wavered, nor backed down when it came to The United Nations guidelines, civil rights issues, tax structures, public programs or war efforts. They kept their positions strong in the face of adversity and admitted their mistakes if a program failed. I don’t have to tell you, the readers, about all the campaign promises not kept when a modern president gets into office. Somehow, what recent presidents tend to do is to back-peddle what they stood for before they took office to appease large industries and compelling lobbyists who manage to guide them when they take the helm.
I know I am completely simplifying larger, more complex issues in a considerably more complex world. However, while I was wiping away my tears after experiencing this new documentary “The Roosevelts” I had to ask myself why I was so moved. After reading what I wrote, I know the answer. I desperately want America to stand as one like we used to when we trusted our Constitution and believed in our unalienable rights. We need to get back to a time when we stand behind our president, Democratic or Republican, to do what’s right for all free peoples of the world.