Imagine a world like this: millions of people lose billions of dollars in the stock market; 25 percent of all workers, and 37 percent of all non-farm workers are unemployed; 50 percent of minority workers become unemployed, causing a decline of property ownership from 30 percent to 5 percent; homelessness increases; families load up their remaining possessions in whatever vehicle they have and set out looking for work; banks, in an attempt to remain solvent, demand cash payments on loans, causing millions to default; nearly one-half of the banks are insolvent and therefore close, losing their depositors’ money; 40 percent of all farms in just one state are foreclosed; because of the expense of operating them, schools close, or they shorten the school day and school year; and the Gross National Product has been reduced to half its previous high of a few years earlier.
At this moment a new President addresses the people and in part says:
“… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” (My italics)
No doubt you guessed, if you didn’t already know, that the dystopian conditions described above actually existed on March 4, 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office and became America’s 32nd President.
The above quote appears in the first paragraph of Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address. The remainder of this lengthy Address recognized and validated the reality that most people knew. He spoke about the causes of what was to be known in history as the Great Depression, citing “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers…”; and “the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.”
After he said that the money changers had fled from their “high seats” in the temple of our civilization, he says, “We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we (italics mine) apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
After discussing his approach to deal with the Depression, an approach that will become the reality of the New Deal, he concluded his remarks with these two paragraphs:
“We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life.
We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.” (All italics mine)
Or imagine this world: we’ve been at war for years at a cost pf thousands of lives, destroyed millions of dollars, to prosecute the war cost millions of dollars more. There has never been such great divisions in our country as existed at this point. The people are restless, fearful, and their future is uncertain. And the country’s leader is not held in high regard.
And then came one of the costliest battles in the country’s history, a battle the ended with thousands of its citizens killed and thousands more wounded. Shortly after the conclusion of this battle, the following words were said:
“ It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Italics mine)
As you know doubt know, the great and costly battle was fought at Gettysburg and these simple words were spoken by the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
I picked these two presidents, both considered two of the best presidents that our nation has had, to make a point. Disagree if you must about what they stood for or what they did, but you have to admit that the power of their words, spoken at different time, at different occasions, and under different conditions, are remarkably similar in tone.
These are leaders in the truest sense of that title. I have italicized several words in each speech to draw your attention to the first essential attribute of a leader – inclusion. Neither Roosevelt or Lincoln separated themselves from those they sought to lead. Rather, by there remarks, the leader is one of the lead. Their leadership is inclusive, “we face arduous days…” and “it is for us…” The leader is never in front of those they lead but walk beside them. The leader never sidesteps a burden but helps carry the burden. In both examples of leadership, it is never about the “I” but instead about the “we”.
Both leaders elevate and exalt the values of the nation that they lead. Both speak of eternal national values, “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy…” and ” government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” They do not challenge the virtues of democracy, which were under assault from without and within, but embraced them, stood for them, and defended them. They did so, not because they wanted to, but because they were placed in the positions of leadership, as a reflection of the will of those who elevated them to leadership, as custodians of those values, keeping them in tact for transference to those who come after them.
Both knew that the high office was not theirs, but was the people’s office bestowed upon these presidents to use in service to the nation as a whole. Roosevelt refers to his election as a “gift;” and Lincoln reminded us that “The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people.” The people are of the leader, and the leader is of the those he leads. There is no separation or distance between the two.
Finally, when Harry Truman left office in 1953, he was happy to go home and resume life as an “ordinary citizen.” In fact, his post-presidential autobiography was titled “Mr. Citizen.” Another example that the leader is part of those he leads.
So what are we to make of these examples in contemplation of the difference between leader and hero? Perhaps Part III will pull it all together.