Guest Blog: My Grandfather’s Leadership

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the Roosevelt Institute Board of Directors

“The only thing we have to fear, is, fear itself. My grandfather spoke those words with metal braces wrapped around his polio virus-paralyzed legs during his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, almost 90 years ago! At that moment America faced its greatest challenge since the Civil War, an economic depression that threatened the very future of the country.  Unemployment at 25%. Foreclosures on farms and homes skyrocketing. Desperate people storming banks to get their money. More than 1,000 banks had failed in the previous weeks and people were literally starving in the streets. Fear of a complete economic collapse was visceral and widespread.

As President Roosevelt stood there on the Capitol’s steps he projected a calm confidence and an unshakeable belief in the American experiment. His understanding of the situation was revealed in just eight words – “The Nation asks for action – and action now.” On his first day in office FDR acted, declaring a “Bank Holiday” and closing every bank in America.

Eight days later he broadcast his first Fireside Chat, announcing that certain banks would reopen the following day. He assured the nation “it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress.” His words were so effective, his confidence so contagious, that when the banks opened millions of dollars flowed back into the system and the immediate crisis was ended.

My grandfather and his administration spent the next 100 days rewriting the rules for how our country was run, passing 13 major laws and building a new framework for American democracy known as the New Deal – creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, the TVA, and the Security and Exchange commission. The New Deal also brought us minimum wage, the 40 hour work week, social security and strict new child labor laws.  

Three years later, on June 26th, 1936 during the Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt spoke from his heart.  Although the depression still haunted the country, the situation had improved dramatically. But much more needed to be done, and the shadow of war loomed on the horizon.  His words that day have come to define his legacy – the greatest generation.

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

A rendezvous with destiny. There can be no doubt that today, THIS generation now faces a rendezvous with destiny, and we can learn much from both FDR”s words and his actions. Despite facing extraordinary crises, first the Great Depression and then World War II, FDR never lost faith, never doubted the outcome, never questioned the ability of the American people to rise to any challenge.

FDR delivered another Fireside Chat on February 23rd,1942, during the darkest days of World War II. Once again his voice speaks to us through the years.

 “Here are three high purposes for every American:

1. We shall not stop work for a single day. If any dispute arises we shall keep on working while the dispute is solved by mediation, or conciliation or arbitration – until the war is won.”

Today that means funding research at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control – institutions owned by the public.

“2. We shall not demand special gains or special privileges or special advantages for any one group or occupation. “

Today that means corporations and the 1% shall not benefit over the rest of the population.

“3. We shall give up conveniences and modify the routine of our lives if our country asks us to do so. We will do it cheerfully, remembering that the common enemy seeks to destroy every home and every freedom in every part of our land.” 

Today that means thinking of the public good, not just ourselves.

“In time of crisis when the future is in the balance, we come to understand, with full recognition and devotion, what this nation is and what we owe to it. 

The task that we Americans now face will test us to the uttermost. Never before have we been called upon for such a prodigious effort. Never before have we had so little time in which to do so much. “

Today this means each of us needs to lead – in our families, our nuclear groups, our communities, at the ballot box – and we need to expect selfless leadership from elected officials.

My grandfather spent the final years of his life leading the Allied nations in war and ensuring the victory, and a lasting peace. And it has lasted for 75 years. The day before he died FDR completed a draft of a speech he would never get to deliver. His final words  can guide us today.

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.“

Today that means focusing on the public good – our shared economy, our public health, the robust education of all our nation’s children, our commitment to one another as a nation, not just as individuals. We have extraordinary tools that we didn’t have in the 1930s and ‘40s. We need leadership – of the FDR variety – to use those tools to strengthen our country in the face of a challenge that seeks to drive us apart.

We Can Do It!