Character and Courage

Published: September 19, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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“I’ll tell you,” Franklin Roosevelt once told a friend during the toughest years of his presidency, “at night when I lay my head on my pillow, and it is often pretty late, and I think of the things that have come before me during the day and the decisions that I have made, I say to myself — well, I have done the best I could and turn over and go to sleep.”

That’s how historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes one of several moments in the book Character Above All, a collection of essays about presidential courage and character.

“With this simple story,” writes Goodwin, “Roosevelt provides the key to understanding the essence of his presidency, for no factor was more important to his leadership than his absolute confidence in himself and in the American people.

“ ‘I think,’ Eleanor Roosevelt observed, ‘probably the thing that took most courage in his life was his mastery and his meeting of polio. I never heard him complain.’ And though anyone remembering how athletic and strong he had been as a young man could not fail to realize what a terrific battle must have gone on within him, ‘he just accepted it as one of those things that was given you as discipline in life…’

“What is more,” Goodwin says, “Roosevelt had a remarkable capacity to transmit his internal strength to others, to allow, as White House counsel Sam Rosenman observed, the men and women who came to Washington during the New Deal ‘to begin to feel it and take part in it, to rejoice in it– and to return it tenfold by their own confidence.’

“[Labor Secretary] Frances Perkins claimed that ‘his capacity to inspire and encourage those around him to do tough, confused and practically impossible jobs was without dispute.’ Like everyone else, she said, she ‘came away from an interview with the president feeling better not because he had solved any problems,’ but because he had somehow made her feel more cheerful, more determined, stronger than she had felt when she went into the room. ‘I have never known a man who gave one a greater sense of security,’ Eleanor said. ‘I never heard him say there was a problem that he thought it was impossible for human beings to solve.’

“So it was in 1933, when in the midst of the worst days of the Depression that the new President was able to communicate his own strength and assurance to a badly frightened people. In his first inaugural, Collier’s magazine reported, the new President did not delude himself as to the difficulties that lay before him, and yet he was serenely confident of the outcome…. Within days of the inauguration, historian William Leuchtenburg noted, ‘the spirit of the country seemed markedly changed; a feeling of hope had been reborn.’……

“Closely linked to Roosevelt’s confidence was his willingness to try everything. He never seemed to lose his faith that the right solution to a vexing problem would eventually turn up. When he made up his mind to do something, Eleanor said, he did it to the best of his ability, but if it went sour, he simply started in all over again and did something else. He never spent time repining. ‘He recognized the difficulties and often said that, while he did not know the answer, he was completely confident that there was an answer and that one had to try until one either found it for himself or got it from someone else.’

“ ‘I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,’ Roosevelt liked to say. ‘What I seek is the highest possible batting average.’ His mind was almost always flexible and hospitable to new ideas, the writer John Gunther once observed. ‘He was one of those persons with the good luck to grow up slowly.’ Until the end of his days, he was always fresh, youthful in mind and receptive to experiment. ‘Remember, Eleanor once told a friend, ‘the nicest men in the world are those who always keep something of the little boy in them.’ That, she emphasized, was Franklin’s strength.

“During the Depression Roosevelt tried one economic cure after another–heavy spending, public works, direct relief, the NRA Codes, the Blue Eagle campaigns, regulation of industry, restrictions on spending. ‘He understood,’ Garry Wills noted, ‘the importance of psychology–the people have to have the courage to keep seeking a cure, no matter what the cure is. Those who wanted ideological consistency or even policy coherence were rightly exasperated with Roosevelt. He switched economic plans as often as he changed treatments for polio.’

“And while the New Deal did not overcome the Depression–it took [World War II] to fully mobilize the economy–the multiplicity of government programs kept the people going, and in the process preserved the system of democracy at a time when so many other countries in similar despair were turning to fascism or communism.”

How Roosevelt continued to press forward in the face of a massive economic downturn to find the right answers for the recovery of the nation should be a lesson revisited by all those in Washington who wish to demonstrate the highest integrity.

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