Eags looks at the POTUS 44 and finds him wanting. The antidote: a healthy dose of Roosevelt (TR, FDR, and Eleanor) to gird the loins of POTUS 44 in his final two years in office. This prescription, while glib, fails to give the color line sufficient importance in 2014. The Roosevelts were ASPs (Anglo-Saxon Protestants) one and all. The POTUS 44 is biracial and has self-defined as an African American. The color line still is killing us in Florida, Missouri, and all points in between (including Austin, TX). The Dumbos/Morons are racists through and through in every state in the Union. The only thing that will erase the color line is the death of the racists. When that happens, cows will fly over the moon. The Roosevelts are not the answer. If this is (fair & balanced) analysis of the national malaise, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Roosevelts To The Rescue
By Timothy Egan
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The Obama presidency is mired in mediocrity, his and ours. Foreign policy is cribbed and cautious, moving along with a deliberative pace our do-it-now society doesn’t tolerate. At home, Obama’s greatest achievements — health care for millions, and raising an economy from the dead while Europe couldn’t get out of the grave — are almost unknown.
He can blame a nut-job Congress, about to get even nuttier and more intransigent with the November elections. He can blame poor communications from his shop, and carnivorous right-wing media that would devour Mother’s Day were Obama to propose it now. But really, how tough does the 44th president have it?
For the answer, Obama should join the rest of the nation in time-traveling later this month when PBS airs a seven-part series on the Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin, and his distant cousin and wife, Eleanor.
What do we know about the Roosevelts? That we have national parks and Social Security because of two patricians with voices and vocabularies that would not pass the average-guy test of today. That historians rank both men among the top five presidents of all time. That the rights of African-Americans and women would not have advanced much at midcentury without a first lady who worried most that she wasn’t loved by anyone.
Panama Canal, dug. Trusts, busted. Great Depression, ended. Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, defeated. Child labor, banished. The tag lines of success are familiar. Less well known, perhaps, is how much both Roosevelt men had to overcome. Their personal hardships would be career-ending for lesser men. And in the face of howling political opposition, the two presidents took a reluctant country to places where it wasn’t yet ready to go.
The lessons for Obama and the rest us pop from the screen in the Ken Burns film “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” his most ambitious and deeply moving documentary since “The Civil War.” (Disclosure: I was featured in a Burns film on the Dust Bowl.)
Barack Obama has written about his own struggles to find his place, after being abandoned by a father he never knew, and missing his peripatetic mother. Consider the Roosevelts, from a family haunted by bouts of “melancholy.” Asthmatic, frail and sickly as a boy, Teddy lost his young wife and his mother on the same day. Franklin was stricken with polio before his 40th birthday. He would never walk again without the aid of others. Steel braces that locked at the knees, and the terror of navigating around a podium, would be routine and painful parts of his days from then on.
Eleanor faced a lifetime of ridicule about her looks, most pointedly from her domineering mother-in-law Sara, who once told her, “If you’d just run a comb through your hair you’d look so much nicer.” Living at the emotional border of her own marriage, she was a presidential nag with a conscience.
The black hole of grief felt by Teddy was filled with new purpose after he left New York for a ranch in the West. Franklin, a sunny-sider and backslapper, developed a deep empathy for people down on their luck after realizing he could not live life without help from others. “Once you’ve spent two years trying to wiggle one toe, everything is in proportion,” he said.
Tragedy, humiliation and loss are the building blocks of these giants, as the Burns story shows. A lifetime of comfort, more often than not, is no path to greatness.
Don’t expect Obama to be a Roosevelt. He doesn’t seem comfortable around strangers or fellow politicians. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, T.R. and F.D.R. were naturals. Obama can deliver a terrific speech and has a first-rate intellect. But making music from the messy notes of politics is not in his character. He’s never learned to use his personal narrative to advance his policies.
But he can learn something from the Roosevelts about the mechanics of politics. The bully pulpit (a term T.R. basically invented) has been in the closet, gathering dust, for most of Obama’s presidency. Teddy loved to call out his enemies. A political pugilist, he sometimes gave 20 speeches a day on behalf of his progressive agenda. When a man fired a shot at him in 1912, he continued to speak for nearly an hour, even with a bullet lodged between his ribs and his shirt bloodied. It was an occupational hazard of the trade, he remarked.
Beyond the outsize personality, T.R. advanced great notions — public land, a right to clean air, water and food, protections for workers, restraints on big business. As a Republican, Teddy was well ahead of his time, and faced strenuous opposition by a reactive coalition that is the modern equivalent of today’s Republican Party.
His Democratic cousin did the same thing with a minimum wage and Social Security (socialism!), and moved an isolationist nation along, gradually, to see that the Nazi war machine had to be stopped. He also never shied from a fight. “They are unanimous in their hate for me,” he said of his opponents in 1936, “and I welcome their hatred.”
Obama’s opponents hate him as well, with the added strain of racism, which makes it hard for him to confront them directly without stirring up things that have nothing to do with his policies.
No moment in politics is frozen. Just in the last few days, Obama has shown that he’s trying to find his way out of a rudderless summer. Thursday’s call with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain to press NATO to confront the Islamic State psychopaths was a small echo of the old Roosevelt-Churchill two-step that helped save the world. ISIS is not Nazi Germany. But it must be crushed.
On Russia, Obama had strong words in Estonia on Wednesday, pledging to back the Baltic States. He should carry these initiatives through the NATO. summit meeting in Wales, and emerge with a long-term strategy. “This is a moment of testing,” he said.
As president, you get only a few real moments of testing — times when the right judgment can make a difference in history. If Obama needs more prodding from the evanescent Roosevelt ghosts, he should remember that both of them died relatively young — T.R. at the age of 60, F.D.R. at 63.
“Death had to take him sleeping,” one politician said of Teddy’s passing, “for if Roosevelt had been awake there would have been a fight.” Ω
[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]
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