fdr's path to the presidency -- 8/20/18

Today's selection -- from The President as a Leader by Erwin C. Hargrove. The path to the presidency for Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

"Franklin Roosevelt was a supremely skilled politician and is the exemplar of the good leader of the polity in this book. His highly proficient skills of persuasion were the most important thing about his lead­ership. He knew how to lead by listening and teaching, and then lis­tening and learning more, as he again taught. He could sense what was in people's minds at any given historical moment and articulate plausible remedies for their concerns.

"He was a child of privilege in an old Hudson Valley aristocracy, a background that gave him great self-confidence at the same time that it kept him apart from the money changers of his day, the new business classes. The only child of a doting young mother and an older father, he grew up to expect to be the center of attention; yet, to maintain his pri­vacy in the face of such a smothering love, he kept his thoughts and feelings to himself. At Groton and Harvard, he devoted himself to pop­ularity rather than scholarship. He was editor of the Harvard Crimson and marshal of his graduating class. One biographer describes him at that time: 'The pleasure gained from the sport of maneuvering and manipulation, and the status that came with political prize, held strongest appeal for him. Unwittingly, in these pursuits he took the first stride toward becoming an effective politician.' His co-editor remem­bered that 'in his geniality was a kind of frictionless command.'

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.

"The practice of law in New York City was far too limiting a world for Roosevelt. He once announced to his fellow law clerks that he intended to pick good Democratic years and be, successively, a mem­ber of the New York legislature, Secretary of the Navy, governor of New York, and, with luck, president of the United States. Of course, his distant relative Theodore Roosevelt had followed much the same route, so the path was clear. At the age of thirty-one, in 1913, he became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson's admin­istration, thus placing himself within the sphere of the other great president of the progressive period. In Washington, he developed his knack at getting along with all sorts of people: naval officers, labor leaders, congressmen. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker noticed how FDR educated himself in the arts of conciliation: 'Young Roosevelt is very promising, but I should think that he'd wear himself out in the promiscuous and extended contacts he maintains with people. But as I have observed him, he seems to clarify his ideas and teach himself as he goes along by that very conversational method.'

"Before he was forty, Roosevelt had served in the New York legis­lature, gained experience in the executive branch in Washington for seven years, and been the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1920. He was a rising star. There is general agreement that the sudden onset of polio, which crippled him for life, did not so much alter Roo­sevelt's personality as reinforce his congenital optimism, determina­tion, and ambition. He would not admit the possibility of failure, and although he was terribly depressed at times, he radiated courage and cheer to those around him. All those who worked with him then and in later years noticed a certain serenity with which he faced daily chal­lenges. When asked once if things worried him, he replied, 'If you had spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toes, after that anything else would seem easy.' ...

"In February 1933, a man shot at Roosevelt, who was riding in an open car in Miami, but succeeded in killing Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, who was with the president-elect. FDR was calm and deci­sive, ordering the driver to go immediately to the hospital, paying no attention to his own security, and talking to the wounded man. His calm courage impressed all who saw him."

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Erwin C. Hargrove


The President As A Leader: Appealing to the Better Angels of Our Nature


University of Press Kansas


Copyright 1998 by the University of Press Kansas


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