Presidents today have a distinct advantage over their predecessors: they have more men to study about and learn from, both the great and the terrible. Barack Obama can study, in depth, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR. From these men he can learn much more about what makes a President great than could John Adams or Thomas Jefferson. Similarly, he can study James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson and learn about how not to lead a nation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided many benchmarks for his successors to follow. As William Leuchtenburg puts it, “Each of FDR's successors has, in different ways, had to cope with the question of how to comport himself with respect to the Roosevelt tradition.” (Leuchtenburg, 1982, pg. 77) He took over in the hardest of times, which were followed only by perhaps the second hardest of times for Americans. The nation was extremely vulnerable during the entire course of his presidency, and yet he remains almost unanimously one of the three greatest presidents in American history. Many men have had the chance to learn from his successes; what it was that made him great. This analysis will look at two men who assumed the presidency, one in good times and one in bad. One of these men seemed to have studied and learned from Roosevelt, the other seems to have neglected him. One quote that Fred Greenstein makes in his book, The Presidential Difference, is that “The presidency is often described as an office that places superhuman demands on its incumbent.” (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 9) With this as our basis, let us examine the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and how they did or did not follow in the footsteps of the greatest president of their century. One would be hard-pressed to find an educated individual who thought that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not one of the greatest presidents in all of American history. Greenstein obviously believes that he is one of the greatest, based on his statement that “without him American history would have been different.” (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 12) Greenstein goes on to list several characteristics that made him great, and these are the characteristics that ought to be emulated by later Presidents. Greenstein tells a story of Roosevelt talking to his wife about a particular issue, asking her for her advice. When she provided it to him, he disagreed with her. She became “extremely vehement and irritated”, and the argument was ended. The next morning, Roosevelt met with Robert Bingham, Ambassador to London, and was going to discuss with him the same issue which himself and Eleanor were arguing about the night before. Greenstein pens how Eleanor recalled, “I heard Franklin telling Ambassador Bingham to act, not according to the arguments he had given me, but according to the arguments that I had given him!” (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 12) This is just one characteristic of Roosevelt’s greatness: he was willing to listen to the advice of those closest to him. Roosevelt surrounded himself with men that he knew he could listen to and trust, and thus when the time came when he would need to, he could and he did. While this particular example highlights his trust in his wife, Roosevelt would do this with all of cabinet throughout his four-term presidency. Contrast this characteristic of Roosevelt with later President Jimmy Carter. Like Roosevelt, Carter would assume the presidency in a time of particular distress for the American people. Though certainly nowhere near the situation in 1932, Carter inherited a particularly rough economy. Americans were looking for, and needed, a president like Roosevelt and thus one would think that Carter had all the more reason to study and emulate Roosevelt. However, as Greenstein highlights, Carter would, in most every aspect, fail to resemble Roosevelt. Where Roosevelt was more than willing to listen to those around him, Carter consistently refused to do so. While Greenstein uses the story of Eleanor to highlight this characteristic of Roosevelt, he uses an example of a situation in Korea during Carter’s presidency to highlight his failure in this same area. Carter wanted to withdraw American troops from South Korea, which many of his advisors feared would trigger an invasion by bigger and stronger nations. Carter refused to meet with the CIA on the matter, and beyond that, Greenstein says, “Nor did it matter to him that his own national security team was opposed to such a move.” (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 143) Highlighting this feature of Carter more succinctly, Greenstein says that, “He was fixed in his ideas and unwilling to brook disagreement.” (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 142) This aspect of Carter would translate to other arenas as well. Immediately after Carter assumed the presidency he put himself at odds with Tip O’Neal and the Democratic Congress. Emphasizing this failure of Carter’s, Martin Shaffer says that, “President Carter lacked the skills needed for effective leadership of Congress.” (Shaffer, 1995, pg. 288) Here was yet another aspect of Roosevelt that Carter failed to emulate, as Roosevelt understood that to accomplish things, the support of Congress was a must. Ronald Reagan seemed to have taken the lessons of the Roosevelt presidency, as he was quite successful in emulating Roosevelt in the arena of executive compromise. Roosevelt, as we have examined, was a master compromiser. Reagan seemed to have taken this page from Roosevelt’s playbook, understanding the necessity of working with those around you, and being willing to compromise when compromise was necessary. Like Carter and Roosevelt, Greenstein uses a specific example to highlight Reagan’s willingness to compromise with those around him. Speaking of an issue the administration was having with the CIA, Reagan and his staff were at odds with how to address the issue. Greenstein says that Reagan “picked up a pen and began writing, finally reading a compromised wording.” (Greenstein, 2004, pg.. 156) In order to achieve anything as President, one must be willing to listen to those around him and compromise with those in Congress. Roosevelt was a master at this, Carter was a failure, and Reagan seemed to have mastered this as well. There would seem to be another lesson with this as well, and that is to surround yourself with brilliant and experienced advisors in whom you can trust. If you do this, it makes compromise much easier. Reagan, it would seem, studied and learned from Roosevelt while Carter failed. The other facet of presidential leadership that Roosevelt was a master at was communicating with the public. As much as compromise is important, communication with the public may be even more important because it is they who elect you, rather than the Legislative Branch. Public communication was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s strongest suits, so much so that he may very well be the best in history in this regard. Greenstein says several things of Roosevelt’s abilities in public communication, even specifically addressing what later Presidents should do. He says that, “they could scarcely do better than to immerse themselves in his record, reading his addresses, listening to recordings of them, and studying his public presentation of self.” (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 22) It would seem that Greenstein is suggesting that if later Presidents do these things, then their image and relationship with the public will be quite good, and as we will see in the case of Carter and Reagan, this would prove to be true. Greenstein’s greatest testament to Roosevelt’s speaking abilities comes from his quote that, “As a communicator, Roosevelt is to later Presidents what Mozart and Beethoven have been to their successors…endlessly inspiring.” (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 22) Just as a pianist diligently studies and practices Mozart and Beethoven, so should a presidential hopeful do to Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s ability to inspire passion into the public, to put them at ease, and to instill in them confidence in their leader, should be studied and rehearsed as much as the pianist does Mozart. As we will see, again Carter would fail and Reagan would succeed. It is almost unanimously agreed upon that Carter was one of the worst public speakers, not because of the content of his speeches but more so because of his delivery of them. Greenstein addresses this failure of Carter’s very well when he says that “The overall tone of Carter’s communications is well captured by the title of a widely read article by his former speechwriter…they were “passionless”. (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 140) Passionless speeches, especially in hard economic times, are one of the fastest ways to be unemployed if you are the president. If the only thing that Carter had done differently in his presidency was emulate Roosevelt in this manner, who knows how his public image and historical record might look today and in time. Speaking directly to this facet of Carter’s presidency, Martin Shaffer “places the blame on Carter's ineffective attempts at public persuasion” for his failed presidency. (Shaffer, 1995, pg. 288) Carter already had one strike against him by not being willing to compromise with those around him, a necessity for presidential success, but he ensured himself failure by combining that with terrible public communication. Reagan, on the other hand, was extremely successful in the arena of public communication. After all, it is this facet of his personality that he is most remembered and loved for as president. Known as “The Great Communicator”, Greenstein stresses that Reagan was indeed very good at communicating with the public and with his advisors. He says that Reagan was consistently “…carrying off his rhetorical responsibilities with a virtuosity exceeded only by FDR.” (Greenstein, 2004, pg. 155) As highly as Greenstein spoke of Roosevelt, this speaks very highly of Reagan’s communicative abilities. Reagan seemed to have felt very comfortable in his role as President, enjoying it even. Reagan was so supremely confident of his oratory abilities, that he could do and say things that no other man could get away with. Author Betty Glad addresses this aspect of Reagan when she says that, “Sometimes he shoots from the hip, even when he does not have adequate information to back him up.” (Glad, 1983, pg. 65) This confidence carried over into the ears of those listening to him; the American public. Like Roosevelt, Reagan, no matter what the situation at hand, even an assassination attempt on his life, could immediately ease the public with his outstanding communication. This optimism is something that Carter severely lacked, at least in his demeanor before the public. The need for good communication was even more important for Carter, given the economic situation of America at the time of his ascendancy to the Presidency. Reagan, on the other hand, stepped into office at perhaps just the right time. As one author puts it, “The reality is that Reagan came along at a unique moment in history, a time when the country was exhausted from the perceived liberal excesses of the '60s and '70s and ready for a short breather, especially one delivered with Reagan's trademark optimism and sunniness.” (Drum, 2006, pg. 19) “Carter, the technocrat from Georgia, failed to inspire the elements of the FDR coalition…in good part because he was so far removed from the Roosevelt tradition in spirit and substance.” (Leuchtenburg, 1982, pg. 93) The public image of Jimmy Carter would likely be much different if only he had imitated Roosevelt in just these two areas. He could have accomplished so much more while he was in office if he was willing to compromise with Congress and with his advisors. He could have been looked upon so much more favorably after his departure from office if only he had been better in communicating with the public. He could have possibly even be elected to a second term if he had done both of these things. Ronald Reagan learned from Roosevelt in both of these arenas of presidential politics, and he is considered by many to be a top ten president because of it. Some men, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, are worth studying for multiple reasons. Future presidents should learn from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that the fastest way to failure is to fail in studying these great presidents and the fastest way to success in successfully studying and resembling them.
Drum, Kevin. (2006, March). George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan. Washington Monthly. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0603.drum.html
Glad, Betty. (1983). Black-and-White Thinking: Ronald Reagan’s Approach to Foreign Policy. Political Psychology, Vol. 4, No. 1, pgs. 33-76. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3791173
Greenstein, Fred I. (2004). The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style From FDR to George W. Bush. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
Leuchtenburg, William E. (1982). The Legacy of FDR. The Wilson Quarterly (1976 - ), Vol. 6, No. 2, pgs. 77-93. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40256266
Shaffer, Martin B. (1995). An Aerial Photograph of Presidential Leadership: President Carter’s National Energy Plan Revisited. Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2, pgs. 287-299. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27551423
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My collection of personal papers written over the years