Tag Archives: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Chilean Chronicles, Part XXXX: September 11 Countdown Begins

Salvador Allende's leadership of Chile ended abruptly on Sept. 11, 1973.

Salvador Allende’s leadership of Chile ended abruptly on Sept. 11, 1973.

Although in theory all days are equal, in truth some matter more than others.

Some dates, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, evoke images of joy and tradition and connection. (Many non-Christians have a different take of the former, while many Native American have a dim view of the latter.)

But others days are noteworthy for the memories they stir of pain, suffering and destruction.

In our country, December 7, a day that then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy,” is one of those occasions.

So, too, is September 11, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Here in Chile, September 11 is also a day of major national significance.

For it was on that date in 1973 that the Chilean military, headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, ousted democratically-elected Socialist President Salvador Allende and ushered in his 17-year reign.

University of Diego Portales Department Chair Carlos Aldunate made the point during a dinner one of our first weekends in Santiago that Chile has seen similar tensions before in its history.

But the memory that resonates loudest in Chile are the echoes from that fateful day.

The anniversary is a moment of significance every year, and this one promises to be particularly important.

The first and most basic reason for this is that a week from Wednesday will mark 40 years since the Pinochet coup.

There’s something about the passage of a full decade, or decades, that prompts intense revisitation and analysis of key events. (I’m not in the United States at the moment, and can only imagine the frenzy that will build in November around the 50th anniversary of the assassination of 35th President John F. Kennedy.)

The second reason is that November marks the presidential election.

And a third has to do with the personal histories of Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei, the two major presidential candidates, have direct ties to the aftermath of the coup.

These two highly accomplished women have similar military pasts, but very different political visions for the nation.

In 2006, Bachelet became the nation’s first female president. A divorced mother of three children, she served as Defense Minister at the same time as Donald Rumsfeld held that position in the United States.

She is also the daughter of a former Chilean Air Force General.

So, too, is Matthei.

In many ways, the two women share important similarities besides their fathers’ military backgrounds.

The families were close, and the two women were friends as children.

Both grew up in privileged homes, attended elite schools, learned to speak multiple foreign languages and took advanced training in a discipline that requires many years to master. (Bachelet is a certified pediatrician, while Matthei is a classically trained pianist.)

It was during the Pinochet era, though, ushered in by the 1973 coup, that the similarities ended.

Whereas Matthei’s father was part of the junta, Bachelet’s father remained loyal to the constitution and to Allende. Because of that, he was tortured daily at the facility headed by the elder Matthei, even though he personally was not there at the time Bachelet’s torture occurred.

Bachelet and her mother both were tortured as well in the infamous Villa Grimaldi compound where legions of others also were tortured, murdered and disappeared.

Even though she did not break, Bachelet has said that she still grapples with the emotional scars from that experience.

Bachelet has at different points shown compassion for the torturers, saying they carry bags of guilt with them.
When she was elected president, in a gesture of reconciliation, she hugged the elder Matthei and called him “Uncle Fernando.”

Yet, in some ways, the most basic reason that the coup’s anniversary is such a cultural lightning rod is the basic fact that Chile remains a profoundly divided nation, and memory is at the heart of the divide.

I’ll write more about this aspect in the upcoming days.

Tonight, I wanted to signal the deluge of news coverage, television shows, books, conferences, and museum exhibits that have already been published, or will be so during the upcoming week and a half.

Sifting through this flood of material will be my focus during the next 10 days.

This includes a week from Wednesday, when the date that bonds American and Chileans alike in suffering again occurs for the twelfth and fortieth times since the mornings when history in each country was permanently and irrevocably changed.


Sotomayor’s Confirmation, James MacGregor Burns’ Proposal

Historian James MacGregor Burns takes on the Supreme Court's authority in this provocative book.

Historian James MacGregor Burns takes on the Supreme Court’s authority in this provocative book.

Whether talking about her “wise Latina” remark or contending with angry white firefighters, Sonia Sotomayor and her confirmation hearings dominated press coverage this past week.

According to critics, Sotomayor’s comment signaled a tendency to decide cases on the basis of identity politics rather than judicial merit.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who played a prominent role in the hearings and now says that he is leaning toward voting to confirm Sotomayor, initially articulated the concerns of many opponents when he criticized her ideology.

This type of criticism is standard fare for opposing parties: both Chief Justice John Robertsand Justice Samuel Alito are the most recent nominees by a Republican president – in this case, George W. Bush– to have faced the same kind of commentary, only from Democrats.

Still, the judge’s confirmation by the Senate appears highly likely – a decision that would make her the first Latina in the court’s more than 200-year history.

The senatorial vote is authorized in the advise and consent clause in Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

If venerable historian James MacGregor Burns had his way, the Constitution would see significant changes regarding how the Supreme Court conducts its business.

His radical proposal to have the electorate vote on the power of judicial review is just one part of a lively, stimulating and highly readable book, Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Activism and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court.

Now nearing the end of his ninety-first year, Burns opens the book by hearkening back to the day in 1937 when then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unveiled his original “court packing” proposal.  Frustrated with the highest court’s thwarting of key aspects of his New Deal legislation, Roosevelt proposed to add additional justices for those who stayed on the court beyond a certain age.

The proposal, which had been developed without the knowledge of other party leaders, led to a firestorm of controversy and eventually cost Roosevelt much of the political capital he had gained with his first term and resounding electoral victory over Alf Landon in 1936.

Burns, who was a sophomore at Williams College when Roosevelt made his announcement, maintains that such going against the people’s will was hardly a unique or unprecedented occurrence.  Packing the Court traces the history of the court from its inception at the end of the 18th century and finds multiple such instances as well as a long pattern of presidents attempting to nominates justices who they believe will support their views.

The demonstration of a long history of attempted court packing is interesting enough by itself, but is hardly the most engaging feature of Burns’ work.

In a relatively brief survey, Burns reviews the history of many of the court’s key decisions and finds it often has countered moves toward social progress.

Among the more memorable are the Dred Scott decision, which is considered by many to be the nadir of all the court’s verdicts; Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave official sanction to the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that underpinned American apartheid; a series of railroad cases in the late 19th century that enhanced corporate power and diminished workers’ rights;  and Hirabayashi v. U.S., which held that curfews against a group of people were acceptable when the country was at war with the country from which that group originated.

This is to say nothing of Bush v. Gore, which Burns makes clear he considers a completely baseless decision, or Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War.

Burns’ point is that the immunity from accountability after the confirmation hearings, combined with judges’ lifetime tenure, has meant that a small bunch of individuals has ended up taking actions with momentous consequences, even when those decisions are dramatically at odds with the people’s desires.  He notes that this tendency has only increased since 1970, when judges’ tenures have increased from an average of 17 to 26 years.

Part of the value of Burns’ argument is that he does not hew simply to conservative or liberal lines.

While one senses he approves of the substance of many of the decisions issued during the Warren Court, he notes fairly that the trampling of federal, state and local statutes is another example of the same deplorable behavior of judicial activism.

In short, he maintains that justices have moved beyond interpreting rules to creating them.

The source of these creative tendencies is the concept of judicial review-an idea and legal practice developed by John Marshall, whose decisions over three decades greatly enhanced the judicial branch and federal government’s power.

Burns’ book gives us entertaining nuggets on the personalities of many of the nation’s most famous justices, from the cantankerous Felix Frankfurter to the worldly Louis Brandeis.  While painting a respectful picture of Marshall, he does take square aim at the concept of judicial review that he developed and advanced without popular consent.

His final section includes a proposal to restrain the court’s power.  Burns suggests that the president should ignore the court’s verdicts unless the people pass a constitutional amendment officially authorizing the justices to strike down unconstitutional laws.

Burns acknowledges that such an action would occasion strong reaction, up to and including impeachment.  Still, he maintains that such a risk is worth taking to deal squarely with what he sees as the unwarranted expansion of the court’s authority far beyond what the framers initially intended.

It’s a provocative notion, and one that at the very least merits discussion, if not concerted action.

Some reviewers have criticized Burns for an inconsistent reading of the court’s decisions.  I saw that part of the book as more of an explanation of the intersection between individual justices, their temperament at the time and the questions they had to decide.

After reading Packing the Court, I called Mr. Bradford Wright, my high school U.S. History teacher and himself a nonagenarian.  Sharp as ever, he listened to my description of the work, then said, in essence,

“I haven’t seen that book yet.  It sounds like I should read it.”

You should, too.

Sasha Abramsky exposes hunger in America.


The prolific Sasha Abramsky exposes the widespread trend of hunger in America in this book.

The prolific Sasha Abramsky exposes the widespread trend of hunger in America in this book.



French philosopher Simone Weil’s decision to stop eating during World War II to express her solidarity with the people of occupied France cost her her life.  

Sasha Abramsky is still living, but his passion for food, commitment to social justice, and experiment with a reduced budget have resulted in Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It.  

Breadline USA is the fourth book this decade for the prolific Abramsky, who also writes regularly for Mother Jones and The Nation, among other publications, and one to which he brings a profoundly moral sensibility. 

Abramsky makes it clear from the outset that the hunger he is describing is neither the same as one sees in famine-wracked regions of the world as in 1980s Ethiopia, nor are conditions quite as desperate as they were in Depression-era America.  At the same time, he does show convincingly that the problem is national in scope and encompasses parts of the country that previously had not been affected.  

At one point in the book, for example, Abramsky notes that hunger is Mississippi was first brought to public awareness by senatorial visits by Bobby Kennedy and an expose by Edward Murrow in the late 60s.  Abramsky does so not to denigrate that state’s residents’ long-term suffering, but rather to bring out the problem’s recently expanded scope in other states.

Abramsky offers plenty of data to buttress his assertions and devotes a certain amount of space to discussing the culprits behind the recent spike in “food insecurity”-a bureaucratic doublespeak that he appears to take some relish in dismantling.  Reagan-era policies that reversed much of the social compact forged initially during the New Deal and renewed during Johnson’s tenure as president and the second Bush administration’s actions play a prominent part in this section. 

Well done as these are, though, these sections add comparatively little to our understanding of the current economic crisis. 

Rather, much of Breadline USA’s value lies in its exposing the impact of the downturn on groups like the working poor, people living in states with little public transportation and long distances to travel to work, and seniors living on fixed income.  Abramsky writes compassionately about these people who were already struggling to get by before the economy tanked, but who now live with a dull ache in their stomachs, deep anxiety about the future, wrenching choices between whether to pay for rent or groceries or whether to feed themselves or their children or and, at times, shame about asking for help. 

To his credit, Abramsky moves beyond reporting and puts himself into the mix.  

After a particularly tasty and expensive Mother’s Day meal in Sacramento, puts himself on a budget similar to that earned by  a McDonald’s employee.   A large part of Breadline USA is dedicated to Abramsky’s explaining his budgetary choices, his available food options, and his experiences under his self-imposed regimen.

It is journalism reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed.  

Some may critique Abramsky’s actions on the same grounds as Ehrenreich encountered after the publication of her book: that putting oneself in a situation from which one knows one can leave at any moment is not even close to living in the conditions one is trying to understand.  Others may go further and say that such actions are self-induldgent, or even, presumptuous. 

While I understand this line of reasoning, I disagree.   

To begin, Abramsky enters into his experiment with full acknowledgment that he is attempting to gain a glimpse of comprehension of what others experience, rather than asserting that from his actions he now has a full understanding of American hunger based on lived experience. Beyond the humility with which he conducts himself and writes, Abramsky raises the larger question of whether the attributes one receives are destiny.  

My vote would be that they are not.

Abramsky’s rendering of life under his budget complements the heavy doses of reportage that put many human faces to this problem and connects directly to another of the book’s strengths: his love of food.  

The book’s prologue contains vivid descriptions of the heaping portions of lovingly prepared dishes Abramsky received from his grandmother during his childhood in 70s and 80s London.  He talks about the “insane” pleasure of eating-a pleasure that he takes great joy in seeing his son Leo also experience.  Abramsky fleshes out these sensual descriptions of food with a reflection about what food can represent: connection, respect, nurture and love.  

This sensual and personal dimension to Breadline USA gives the work emotional resonance beyond what a simple recitation of fact, comparison with other countries and previous periods in American history, explanation of causes and pointing toward solutions would have accomplished.  Instead, Abramsky weaves this combination of reportage, personal experience and analysis in generally pithy chapters framed by epigraphs from authors ranging from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Weil.  

At times, the transitions feel seamless, while at other points the reader is more aware of the switch back and forth between topics.  It was not clear to me whether this somewhat jarring sensation was an attempt by Abramsky to evoke a feeling similar to hunger’s disorienting impact or whether it was simply the product of producing a book under a very tight deadline. 

This concern aside, Breadline USA does a better job exposing the “hidden scandal” than of proposing solutions to solve the problem.  Abramsky concludes an early chapter about rising fuel costs by advocating a fuel subsidy and spends some time in the conclusion by talking about the need for President Obama to forge a social compact similar to that created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  This section includes a list of fundamental changes that are needed in everything from our systems of worker pay, health insurance and pensions, among others.  As with the analysis of how the nation arrived at the current moment, this part of the book proposes few truly innovative ideas.  

Still, the failure to solve a problem one surfaces should not be a reason to ignore its exposure.  Abramsky deserves praise both for the book’s substance and the creative ways in which he approached a previously little-explored consequence of governmental policies and the economic downturn.  I look forward to reading his earlier works and await his next one, a psychological profile of Obama, with anticipation.

Black History Month: Obama’s Speech and Books About Chicago.

President Obama spoke to the nation last night. Here are some books about black Chicago, his political home.

President Obama spoke to the nation last night. Here are some high-quality books about black Chicago, his political home.

 Last night, President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time.  Standing where presidents before him have stood for centuries, he assured the American people that, despite the current economic crisis, the nation will “emerge stronger than before.”

As has been well-chronicled, Obama’s political roots, his wife Michelle,and much of his cabinet are all from Chicago.  

Carl Sandburg’s City of Big Shoulders has been the backdrop for many fine books by and about black people.  Here are some of the best (My only caveat is that I will not write about books I have already posted on like Mary Pattillo’s Black on the Block, Studs Terkel’s Race, and James Ralph’s Northern Protest):

1. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton.  Funded by money from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, this massive tome by two acclaimed sociologists remains a landmark in the discipline and in its description of how Chicago’s black community formed and was maintained.   It may be hard to remember what a radical act choosing a black neighborhood, the historic Bronzeville district, as a legitmate subject of scholarly inquiry was at the time: Drake and Cayton built from this base to create a masterwork that still speaks to us today. 

2. There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, byAlex Kotlowitz.  I had the great fortune to take a class with Kotlowitz while studying journalism at Northwestern University; the experience gave me a renewed appreciation of the care he gives to each sentence in his work.  This story of two brothers and their mother at the Henry Horner Homes is chockfull of poignant detail.  Kotlowitz’s moral outrage at the conditions in which these and thousands of other families lived throughout the city are the backbone of this compelling work.

3. Native Son, by Richard Wright.  Set on Chicago’s South Side, this tale of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas’ lofty dreams, murder of a young white woman and involvement with Communist Party members committed to his defense is utterly gripping.  Wright’s indictment through Bigger and his initially dim, and ultimately doomed, life prospects is vividly rendered.

4. A Raisin In the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry.  Drawing its title from a Langston Hughes poem, this play tells the story of the Younger’s family’s efforts to leave their dingy apartment and depressing neighborhood and move to a home in a white community moves, inspires and shames at the same time.  Hansberry’s dialogue, the shifts in action and tone, moments of humor and Walter’s gradual emergence into manhood despite white opposition to the move all sweep the viewer away.

5.Making the Second Ghetto: Chicago, Race and Housing, 1940-1960, by Arnold Hirsch.  This book can provide a deeper appreciation of the Youngers’ context if read in conjunction with A Raisin In the Sun.  Hirsch shows how the city’s elite and residents worked together when the U.S. Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kramer declared the enforcement of racial restrictive covenants unconstitutional.  Neighborhood responses varied from outright hostility and violence in neighborhoods like Englewood, to, in one of the most interesting chapters, Hyde Park and Kenwood’s establishment of a commission to “manage” integration so that black people would feel welcomed even as their numbers would remain somewhat limited. 

6. A Fire on the Prairie, by Gary Rivlin.  Former 43rd Ward Alderman Martin Oberman’s objections notwithstanding, this is the definitive account of Harold Washington’s groundbreaking mayoral victory in 1983-a victory that was spearheaded in part by Obama strategist David Axelrod.  A former writer for the Chicago Reader, Rivlin blends a keen eye for detail with his obvious political sympathies to create what some Australians call “a cracking yarn.”

7. The Man Who Beat Clout City, by Robert McClory.  Former priest and South Boulevard neighbor Bob McClory tells the story of Renault Robinson, a young black policeman who endures all kinds of abuse on his way to forming the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League.  I will devote an entire post to this book before month’s end, and wanted to mention it here as an engaging, informative and well-written read.

Stephanie Behne on another FDR biography

Stephanie Behne shares her thoughts about a new FDR biography.

Stephanie Behne shares her thoughts about a new FDR biography.

Chicago Reporter intern, dedicated mother and wife, and emerging career changer Stephanie Behne posted the following in response to a recent post about President Obama and a biography about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by James MacGregor Burns  (Again, the added links are mine):

“I, too, am a little envious of your ability to feast on books. But I’m chomping on a good one now, the Brands biography of FDR you mentioned, Traitor to His Class. I’m just a little over halfway through, but there’s so much in the 430 something pages I read so far, I should mention a couple things while I still remember them!

Brands’ book is reminiscent of Burns, it sounds like, in showing FDR’s true talent as the consummate politician. Congenial, even charming, he not only won the average person over personally but had the ability to reach out and create a sense of understanding with his radio audience, too. A fine use of the technology of the times, really, to further his own political aims. But people responded to him in person, too, so is that so wrong? Politics and technology–sound like anybody we know today?

Another strategy that FDR used that stuck with me was when he’d put rivals together to work out issues, while he mostly stayed out of the way. One example was workers and union reps during the establishment of the NRA and the “planned economy.” Amazingly, it worked over and over with different people and agreements reached to fulfill a variety of political goals.

I could go on and on. FDR and his battle with his polio diagnosis was compelling in Brands’ hands. Roosevelt’s extraordinary handling of the crisis and establishing a sort of a rehab spa for polio victims from across America in Warm Springs, GA–at his expense, he brought them there and encouraged and exercised right alongside of them–was a surprisingly inspiring section. For a period of several years, he recuperated, strengthened, and entertained wonderfully, even fishing, boating and driving a hand-controlled car around the countryside on his own and with groups of friends regularly. In letters, he reported feeling better than he ever had in his life!

Brands goes on to say of FDR: “…for years afterward he credited his experience in Georgia with providing insight into this aspect or that of politics, economics, or the American dream.”

Also, too, there are many striking similarities to our new 44th president, aside from the shrewd use of technology, that it would take at least another comment space to mention them.”

Terrific post, Stephanie! I look forward to borrowing the Brands book after you finish it!

Everyone else, keep the comments coming!


Obama’s Challenge, the Use and Limits of History.

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address; a book by Neustadt and May could help him think about history's uses and perils.

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address; a book by Neustadt and May could help him think about history’s uses and perils.

Now, the work begins.

After a memorable day in which he weathered Chief Justice John Roberts’ fumbling of the presidential oath, danced with his wife Michelle to the Etta James tune “At Last” crooned by Grammy Award-winning singer Beyonce; and attended all 10 inaugural balls, Barack Obama wakes up today as America’s first black president.

Yesterday inauguration was drenched in historical symbol and substance.

Obama referred repeatedly to the past in his inaugural address and placed his hand on the same bible that Abraham Lincoln had used close to 150 years earlier.

At different points, Obama invoked immigrants’ journeys to America from distant shores, the hardships of slavery, military sacrifice in Concord, Gettysburg and Khe Sanh.

He cited the strength of previous generations in meeting daunting challenges like fascism and communism.

“We are the keepers of this legacy,”  Obama proclaimed.

Today, he begins, with other elected officials and the public, to work to maintain and advance that noble legacy.

But, while doing so, Obama would do well to consider previous presidents’ uses of history to positive and negative effect.

The late Harvard professor Richard Neustadt and his colleague Ernest May tackle this subject in an illuminating book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.

Published in the mid 80s, the book arose out of the professors’ classes at the Kennedy School of Government.

During their courses Neustadt and May would examine prior presidents’ decisions with an eye toward evaluating how they thought of, and used, the past to guide their weighty decisions.

It is a decidedly mixed record.

The book begins with the success of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the saving of Social Security during the 1980s, but also covers a wide range of fiascos from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to the false call in 1976 of an impending flu epidemic to a series of missteps during the Carter Administration.

In many cases, the authors argue, a more thoughtful use of history based in a combination of analysis, close examination of analogies used to understand the present situation, the leaders’ placing themselves in the other person’s or organization’s position, and officials’ thinking about themselves as part of a time stream, a bridge between the past and present, could have made a difference.

Neustadt and May explain their method in concrete and unfolding details that are continually amplified by concrete examples.  The authors suggest that leaders identify what is known, unknown and presumed, then explore the likenesses and differences between previous events and the current moment.

An examination of the presumptions driving the action should be next so as to uncover possibly inaccurate assessments of the situation and likely outcomes that should follow.  From there, leaders should try to understand other individuals involved in the situation in part by mapping their life experiences as well as those of the organizations to which they belong – in essence, heeding the Native American injunction not to judge a man until one has walked a mile in his moccasins.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, leaders should think about their actions in the present as part of an historical stream in which the present bridges from the past to the future.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had this quality on domestic issues, the authors say, but less so on foreign concerns.  Lyndon Baines Johnson had this sensibility on race issues because of his childhood experiences in segregated Texas, but lacked it in the War in Vietnam.

Neustadt and May admit that this method is neither a panacea nor a recipe for transformation -at one point they compare someone who applies it to a baseball player who may raise his average from a mediocre .250 to a slightly better .265 – but they do believe it can make a positive difference and help decision makers avoid the Kennedy complaint at the moment of  disaster in the Bay of Pigs: “How could I have been so stupid!”

Now, it is Obama’s turn to lead us during a seemingly endless and worsening series of challenges.

History will judge his actions, and the closing of his inaugural addressed suggested that he, at least yesterday, thought in Neustadt and May’s time stream.

In this excerpt Obama links his family’s journey to the nation’s creed and diversity before connecting George Washington’s words to a huddled band of soldiers in a desperate hour to what we may someday say to our grandchildren:

“This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).’

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Delivered before a throng of 1 million people more at the Washington Mall, these lofty words will now need to be matched by Obama’s individual and our collective action to be given life and meaning.

The work begins today.

Obama’s Inauguration, FDR’s Lessons


Today is Obama's inauguration; he could learn from a book about FDR by James MacGregor Burns.

Today is Obama's inauguration; he could learn from a book about FDR by James MacGregor Burns.

In a few short hours, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. will be sworn in as our 44th president.

The success of his campaign, the significance of his election and the manner he has handled his transition all have been the subject of intense scrutiny and endless analysis.

Now, his moment is here.

In the assembling of his cabinet and during the four-day buildup to his inauguration, Obama has paid explicit tribute to Abraham Lincoln, another lawyer from Illinois elected to the land’s highest political office during enormously trying times.

Obama has visited the Lincoln Memorial with his family and has emulated Lincoln in pulling together what author Doris Kearns Goodwin called ‘A Team of Rivals’ to advise him.

He also might do well to consider the example of another president with whom he share personal  and political similarities and who also entered the presidency under daunting, if not overwhelming, circumstances: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Both men were lawyers educated at Harvard and Columbia universities with genial personalities.  Both were married to tall, formidable women who were occasionally pilloried for speaking her mind. 

Both ran against older Republican candidates honored for their previous national service.  Both men were criticized for thin prior records of elected positions and for running on optimistic and excessively vague messages of change. 

Both men won, and proceeded to assemble cabinets full of Ivy League talent.

Seventy-six years ago today, Roosevelt stood before a nation in the grips of the Great Depression and told Americans famously that they had nothing to ‘fear but fear itself.’

The speech began a flurry of activity during the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s tenure; the collection of government-sponsored programs  that emerged became known as the New Deal.

Always a staple of biographers, Roosevelt is the subject of two recent books that I have not yet read: The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, by Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter and A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by historian H.W. Brands.

Obama would also do well to consider Williams College emeritus proessor James Macgregor Burns’  Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox.

The first political biography of Roosevelt-it was published in 1956-The Lion and the Fox takes its title from a quote by fabled Renaissance political adviser Niccolo Macchiavelli

The message is clear: in order to accomplish the work of government, a prince must act at different times like a lion or a fox.

Burns skillfully takes the reader through the arc of Roosevelt’s career, from his childhood, from which he emerged with his trademark jaunty confidence, through his battle with polio, which fortified his spirit, through his unprecedented and never to be matched four elections to the presidency (In part influenced by Roosevelt’s repeat elections, our elected leaders passed in 1951 the 22nd Amendment that limits a president to two elected terms after assuming office.).

The book is at its best when showing how smoothly Roosevelt moved between constituencies, communicating weekly with the public in his fireside chats, cajoling and encouraging at times, blithely ignoring opponents at others and continually displaying uncanny instincts of the public’s mood. 

Burns also demonstrates how Roosevelt was a master of listening amiably, seeming to agree with the other person who was talking with in reality committing himself to no concrete action.  This flexiblity and opportunism could prove infuriating to opponents, and, according to Burns, proved to be an advantage in mobilizing during a crisis.

The Lion and the Fox is not a work of hagiography, though.  

Burns spends extensive time in the book talking about how Roosevelt, after winning a landslide victory in 1936 that confirmed the Democrats’ political dominance for decades, overreached the following year. 

In an act that can fairly be called political hubris, he channeled the frustration he felt at an oppositional Supreme Court into what became known as the ‘court packing’ plan.   

The proposal consisted of the president’s ability to appoint additional judges to the court when sitting judges reached the age of 70 1/2 years.  If passed, the court could have grown from its generally standard size of nine judges to as many as 15.

The reaction was swift and strongly negative. 

Roosevelt squandered much of his valuable political capital in a draining and ultimately unsuccessful fight that culminated in his defeat.  

Without the onset of World War II, which began when Adolf Hitler’s army stormed through Poland on September 1, 1939, it is not apparent whether Roosevelt would have won a third term.

Of course, both the German blitzkrieg and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor both happened, and Americans chose Roosevelt to lead them through arguably one of the most difficult times in its history. 

A grateful nation was on the verge of victory when Roosevelt collapsed and died in April 1945, almost exactly 80 years after Lincoln was assassinated.

Burns ends the book with Roosevelt’s death and brief reflections on the study of political leadership.  Richly detailed and balanced in its assessment of one of America’s towering figures, The Liox and the Fox is both engaging and informative. 

Obama supporters looking for comfort as their man tackles a massive set of obstacles-an economy in shambles, two wars and a warming planet are only three of the biggest-should take heed from Burns’ work.

Despite Roosevelt’s repeated efforts at stimulating the economy through the First and Second New Deals, America only truly emerged from the Great Depression after it entered the war during his third term.

Obama, at most, will have two.

The nation and the world awaits his speech and subsequent actions.