May 18, 2020
By Arthur H. Gunther III
One of the enforced benefits of this time of the virus — sitting at home — can be good for you even though you might want to be out gallivanting. For example, watching PBS. You are the adult student in your living-room classroom, and what you might have not looked at before, or done so only in pieces by flipping channels, you now give attention, albeit helped by that glass of wine.
Into the Roosevelt series for some Thursday evenings on PBS, we are reminded of the utter necessity of presidential leadership in deeply challenging times. Or what happens with no leadership, as has also happened. Is happening.
Teddy Roosevelt, thrust into the place he soon called the “White House” rather than the “Executive Mansion,” itself a telling move about rejecting privilege, the man went far beyond anything assassinated William McKinley would have done. Trust-busting, a bold move against endemic greed, the “Square Deal” protecting consumers, the environment and the pocketbook, and building the Panama Canal were major accomplishments.
Foremost, though, was the attitude that the people, potential rough-riders themselves, could climb any mountain and progress. That boosted pre-World War American confidence and growth. Leadership, yes.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, fifth cousin to TR, offered the “New Deal,” arguably influenced by wife Eleanor’s undying, unswerving humanitarian concerns and also devised by the brilliant “Brain Trust” the president assembled. Yet it was fatherly FDR, in “Fireside Chats” and constant reassuring speeches, who emotionally supported a nation and its people in depression and a world war. His four terms would change the economic and social direction of the United States, mostly in the positive. Leadership, yes.
You can argue for and against one or both Roosevelts, TR a progressive Republican and FDR a moderate Democrat who was a solution-seeker deeply influenced by Eleanor and others. They both had warts, and each pushed presidential authority to some extreme. What you cannot deny in either presidency is their leadership, envisioned by the founding fathers, who also devised that there should be no king, and that should one begin to build a throne, be proven a wannabe dictator or show no leadership, that the voters, the courts or the impeachment/trial process could boot the person in a full, enthusiastic kick. Repudiation in full, as with Richard Nixon.
Today, in the time of virus, which is becoming a wake-up metaphor for ever-existing but in recent decades heightened greed, ignorance, official incompetence and prejudice, it will be a turning point this November if citizens truly see their duty and vote. There is forever in these United States a meanness born of prejudice and a sense of superiority, going beyond political persuasion. In 1930, that mindset said publicly, “Poverty is good for the soul, it will harden you.” In 1944, as selfless Eleanor Roosevelt flew to WWII combat zones, that attitude criticized her for using government airplanes. Today it is blaming all our ills on the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless and immigrants fleeing dictatorships and conditions we have supported. And the blame is cover for more greed, more prejudice.
If this virus does anything positive, it must inoculate some of us against utter disregard for selected humanity.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. firstname.lastname@example.org