What does a dead, rich, privileged white male have to teach modern America? If he’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt, quite a lot!
No one could have been more privileged than FDR, who was born to wealth, social position, and an open pathway to success. A character in an Evelyn Waugh novel remarks, “Only the rich realize the gulf that separates them from the poor,” and in 1882 (the year of FDR’s birth) that gulf was far more vast than it is now. Of course, today’s ultra-rich can buy more things, and far fancier things, than the rest of us can. But thanks to the democratization of American society, pretty much everyone today has access to education, communication, entertainment, personal transport, and good health that ordinary Americans in the 19th century simply lacked.
Being “privileged” could not prevent FDR from contracting polio in 1922. Yes, he could afford the best medical care, but it could not restore the use of his legs. In an era when a disabled person was considered a social outcast, Franklin Roosevelt was determined to present himself as strong and fully capable of leadership. He willed himself to “walk” using heavy leg braces, a cane, and the strong arm of a son or aide. To deliver a speech, he used his well-developed upper body to hold himself at a rostrum — often with only one hand, so the other could be used to wave or gesture. He never wanted to be seen in a wheelchair, at the time the very symbol of weakness. Photographers covering the White House were strictly forbidden to take pictures of the president in a wheelchair or being helped to his feet, and the Secret Service confiscated the film of those who didn’t get (or ignored) these instructions.
FDR was also blessed with tremendous good looks and charm. Another Waugh character says, “Those who have charm don’t really need brains.” FDR was plenty smart, but it was his personality that carried him beyond the family estate on the Hudson to the presidency. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said FDR had “a second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament.” FDR used his charm to put others at ease—those who might be concerned for his physical condition; those who had lost jobs, homes, and farms during the Great Depression; and those who worried for the future of the nation and its freedoms during the Second World War. It was said Roosevelt “radiated confidence”, and the United States needed a great deal of it during the 1930s and ‘40s.
Charm alone might have made Franklin Roosevelt president. But it was his experience with polio, refusing to let it defeat him and giving him empathy for the suffering of others that made him a leader.
Real Leaders, Real People: Overcoming Obstacles on the Path to Leadership meets on Tuesdays at 10:00 beginning October 15. Chase Untermeyer is a graduate of Harvard and served in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam. He was a Texas state representative; an assistant secretary of the Navy under President Reagan; director of Presidential Personnel and director of the Voice of America under President George H.W. Bush; and U.S. ambassador to Qatar under George W. Bush.