Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Presidential Race a Lifetime Ago

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the presidential yacht Potomac. The photo is from the FDR Presidential Library and is in the public domain.

I've been reading No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin about President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and their lives on the home front during World War II.

One real stunner struck me in reading the book: in July of 1940, with FDR nearing the end of his second term as president--there was no announced Democratic presidential candidate! Four months before the presidential election, FDR had not yet made it known whether he would run for a third term or not.

Hard to imagine today, isn't it? The party in the White House not sure who the presidential candidate would be as late as July of election year!

FDR, canny fellow that he was, knew whom his party would nominate. FDR. But he didn't tell his party's delegates that.

When the chairman of the Democratic National Committee came to Hyde Park shortly before the convention to find out what Roosevelt intended to do, he was putty in the hands of this extraordinary man.

Across the Atlantic, Hitler had, by this time, subjugated Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and France and appeared ready to invade England. FDR had put the U.S. into full-time war production.

He knew America was unprepared to face Hitler, if he conquered Britain and turned his eyes toward the new world, and FDR was making preparations to lead his country in the war he expected would soon follow.

But what did he say to DNC chairman Jim Farley, when Farley came to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with Roosevelt? "Jim," FDR said, "I don't want to run and I'm going to tell the convention so.  You see I want to come up here," he turned and smiled, indicating the Hyde Park estate where he had grown up.

But when Farley told him that he then urgently needed to tell the party this very thing--that, if nominated he would not run and if elected he would not serve--FDR refused to be quite that unequivocal. "I could not in these times refuse to take the inaugural oath," he said,"Even if I knew I would be dead within thirty days."

In that obtuse way, he made it known to Farley that he expected to be drafted to run for a third term.

So strange it seems to us now and so foreign to the present process we are seeing in America, in which candidates run for president for years and years and years.

Back then, the president spent the evenings working on his stamp collection, whipped up a speech or two to give on the radio, and then sent Eleanor off to the convention to keep the Democratic delegates from getting out of line.

When one looks at history, so many things that were unknown then, seem inevitable to us now: that FDR would serve four terms as president and die in office; that Americans would pull together in the greatest effort of our nation's life and neither flag nor fail (as Churchill so beautifully put it about his own nation); that the Allies would win a decisive victory; and that both Japan and Germany would would end up working beside us in the decades ahead. None of this was knowable.

Except perhaps to Churchill and Roosevelt, who each believed his nation would triumph, and who each believed he was the man to lead his nation to that victory.

Each turned out to be right. They were both great leaders. I wish our present leaders could emulate them, especially in one particular way:

Shorten the campaign season! More campaigning has not produced better leaders.

But then, our present candidates have some very big shoes to fill.

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