As the recently proposed massive financial bailout plan apparently needs and awaits a rescue itself, we are now witnessing the all-too-familiar practice of political posturing. Lou Grant, the curmudgeon television producer played by Ed Asner, who ruled the newsroom on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, once remarked that, “leadership is the art of delegating blame.” If that is true, then we have no leadership shortage in Washington these days.
But of course, it is not true. Leadership is about taking ownership, responsibility, and the initiative. This is why leadership and politics make the strangest of bedfellows; there is no natural affinity.
History, though, has shown that politicians can actually get away with saying much without doing much of anything. In fact, smart politicians have practiced this kind of cynical gamesmanship for quite sometime. Even so-called great leaders, those with names that have become synonymous with recovery, healing, and change, were skilled in the art of politically motivated non-commitment.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was master of the method.
When John F. Kennedy was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, the path to victory wound through the country roads of West Virginia. It was his first real test – especially about whether or not his Catholicism would be an issue. He went head to head against Hubert Humphrey and he won. Two things brought about that victory: his father’s money and the presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. It was a magic name. The people still saw FDR as a savior, and any connection with the great man was enough to win a vote.
Of course, now we know – we really do – that Mr. Roosevelt really did not do all that much to lastingly solve problems and may, in fact, have prolonged the Great Depression. But stubborn things like facts have always fought uphill battles against myth-driven hero worship.
Real leaders take risks. They understand that they cannot actually claim credit for something that works out, unless they are prepared to accept blame when it doesn’t. Mr. McCain alluded to this in his first debate with Mr. Obama – citing those two notes written by General Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day in 1944. Ike knew a thing or two about stakes.
Politicians, in contrast to authentic leaders, are all about the credit – but tend to head for the hills when there is the possibility of blame. President Kennedy talked in the days after the Bay of Pigs fiasco about how victory has many fathers, while defeat is an orphan. Rare is the politician who can step up and admit a mistake (by the way, Mr. Kennedy’s approval numbers soared after his moment of candor – people actually respond favorably to that kind of transparency).
FDR was the master of keeping his distance from risky situations. And possibly his playbook is being studied today. If so, we may all be in harm’s way.
Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in November of 1932 by nearly 12 million votes. The economy was, of course, the overriding issue. Since October of 1929, the nation (and the world) had increasingly languished in what had always before been called a panic. Hoover thought the word “panic” sent the wrong political message, so he saw to it that the more benign term (so he thought) “depression” would be widely used to describe the situation.
FDR out-campaigned Hoover – he had the moment and the message. He promised that happy days would be in the land again. People voted for that. Understandably.
Much is made of Roosevelt’s first 100 days in the White House, and his frenetic legislative agenda designed to address the crisis and calm the nation’s fears. This period is still seen today as the benchmark for presidential leadership in a crisis.
But often overlooked is what FDR did, or better didn’t do, during the four months between his election in November and the inauguration, which took place back then on March 4th.
In his largely complimentary book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alter concedes that a recovery of sorts, already underway in 1932, was negatively impacted by the election:
“If Roosevelt’s election did not by itself halt recovery, it clearly contributed to a period of drift that worsened a grim economic situation. Uncertainty over what the new president might do shook confidence. The following year, FDR’s agricultural secretary, Henry Wallace, concluded in an economic report that the economy had been recovering slightly in the fall of 1932, but that the ‘long interval’ between the election and the Inauguration ‘proved unsettling to business’ and was an important factor in impending recovery.”
One issue that rocked the already enfeebled economy had to do with the repayment (or lack thereof) of Great War debt to us by Britain and France. Hoover had earlier granted those nations a one-year moratorium, but they had payments due to us by December 15, 1932. Just days after the election, our former and eventual allies announced that they wanted to miss that payment. This news rocked the nation.
Herbert Hoover reached out to Franklin Roosevelt for help. We would call this “bi-partisanship” today. We might even expect it. We might think that politicians – even opponents – could put country first and work the problem.
Hoover and FDR did meet on November 22nd, but it was clear that the president-elect did not want to help his predecessor or, for that matter, the country. The next day, he told reporters, “it’s not my baby.” He basically saw the issue as a problem for Hoover and the lame duck Congress.
Franklin Roosevelt was determined to do nothing to help Herbert Hoover, even if that meant the worsening of the economic crisis. If things got worse, then so be it – he would be more of a hero when he turned it all around. As Alter suggests:
“He understood that the lower Hoover and the country slid, the better he would look upon assuming office. This theatrical and psychological insight was essential to his conjuring act when he finally took the oath.”
There were, in fact, several attempts – always initiated by Hoover – to bring the popular president-elect into processes dealing with the economy. But Roosevelt clearly had no interest in participating.
Even men who would eventually serve FDR with distinction as part of his inner circle were perplexed and disturbed by the president-elect’s passivity and seeming inability to understand the issues. Henry Stimson, who would eventually serve in Roosevelt’s cabinet, was “contemptuous of Roosevelt’s failure to comprehend the subtleties” of dealing with the debt repayment issue.
Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran, who would become a Roosevelt troubleshooter, was “angry and dismayed” about FDR’s unwillingness to partner with Hoover during the crisis, adding, “Roosevelt seemed a villainous fool to me.”
In February, less than a month before he would take the oath of office, Franklin Roosevelt basked in the Caribbean sun during a twelve-day cruise on Vincent Astor’s massive 263-foot yacht (one of the largest in the world). This, while at home, banks were closing in record numbers. The president reached out to the president-elect again and again. Still Roosevelt would not work with Hoover or do anything to help.
Raymond Moley was an original member of Roosevelt’s famed “brain trust.” He also wrote much of the president’s first inaugural address. He later broke with FDR. During correspondence years later with Herbert Hoover, Moley wrote:
“I feel when you [Hoover] asked him [FDR] on February 18th to cooperate in the banking situation that he either did not realize how serious the situation was or that he preferred to have conditions deteriorate and gain for himself the entire credit for the rescue operation.”
The rest is legendary, of course. Franklin Roosevelt told us that we had nothing to fear except “fear itself.” And everyone lived happily ever after.
The problem with that scenario is that the Great Depression did not go away after being attacked by Roosevelt’s alphabet-soup initiatives. In fact, his policies grew the government – as opposed to growing the economy – and undermined business. The truth of the matter is that FDR prolonged the crisis and saw to it that the country would take a long time to turn around.
I think the lesson for us today is that we need to fear those who, in times of crisis, seem to have an aversion to political risk.