Jon Meacham: What Presidential Leadership Means

Roundup: Talking About History

Jon Meacham, in Newsweek (1- 20-05):

The inauguration was a quiet affair. Sixty years ago this week, on Jan. 20, 1945—a cold Saturday in Washington—Europe had been at war for nearly six years, America for just over three. Three months away from death (he privately remarked that he felt like "boiled owl" much of the time), Franklin Roosevelt decided the fewer the festivities, the better.

There was no parade (the military was overseas), and so little chicken in the salad at lunch that most guests could be forgiven for thinking they were eating a celery dish. After taking the oath on the South Portico of the White House—one of the last times he ever stood, his steel braces locked in place—FDR delivered what has become an unjustly obscure fourth Inaugural Address, one long overshadowed by the majestic 1933 speech in which he told America that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

To understand the 21st century, however, Roosevelt's 1945 Inaugural is essential reading, an encapsulation of his conviction that politics and leadership are not clinical but human enterprises, America an unfinished experiment, the world a neighborhood with friends and foes close at hand.

"Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet," he said that day. "But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy." Engagement, not isolation or hesitancy, was the right road ahead. "We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent upon the well-being of other nations, far away ... We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that 'the only way to have a friend is to be one'."

As George W. Bush begins his second term this week, he finds himself pursuing causes Roosevelt defined as quintessentially American: the spread, by force if necessary, of democracy abroad and the management of a complex federal government at home. A history major at Yale and a reader of serious popular biographies (from James MacGregor Burns to Michael Beschloss to William Manchester), Bush enjoys emblems and themes from the past. There are busts of Churchill and Eisenhower and portraits of Washington and Lincoln in his Oval Office; Bush particularly likes to refer to the bronze Churchill, evoking the prime minister as the archetypal soldier of steel. "He knew what he believed," Bush has said of Churchill, "and he really kind of went after it in a way that seemed liked a Texan to me."

He went after it. With his swaggering syntax, Bush is talking about leadership, about the way in which great men define the direction of the age and then mobilize others to follow until the race is done. The president likes boldness; the question for history, naturally, will be whether his bold course leaves us better off than we would have been if we had taken a different path.

Leadership is one of those words that make some people feel the way Justice Potter Stewart did when he weighed the term "pornography": he knew it when he saw it. It is true that masterstrokes are often not seen as such until long afterward, and that winning strategies—no matter how thin the margin of victory—are hailed as works of genius even if they very nearly fail. After reading a profile in which an aide of his was described as "coruscatingly brilliant," John Kennedy remarked, "Those guys should never forget, 50,000 votes the other way and we'd all be coruscatingly stupid."...

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