Newsweek's Jonathan Alter has a new book out on the glories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so it's natural that he would be offered an interview on NBC's "Today" to promote it. On Tuesday morning, in the 9 am hour, news anchor Ann Curry helped guide Alter through the promoting:
Curry: "Roosevelt's optimism created what Newsweek columnist and NBC News contributor Jonathan Alter calls the defining moment, "FDR's Hundred Days And The Triumph Of Hope." It also happens to be the title of his new book. Jonathan, pleasure, good morning...."You know Roosevelt calls March '33 his 'rendezvous with destiny.' What made him so good at sparking optimism at a time when there was great depression, really?"
Alter: "You have to, you have to remember this was the bottom. And this was worse than 9/11 for people who remembered it and talked to me about it. If you had put your money in the wrong bank and 10,000 banks went out of business you were done. People now when they say they're broke, they, they say, 'well I've got $5000.' This is like $5 left buried under the mattress. And so when Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, it wasn't true. People actually had a lot to fear about how they were gonna put food on the table. But he was able to create this sense of hope that there was a future and it saved, this is hard for us to believe, but it saved both democracy and capitalism within just a few weeks because at that time dictatorship had a positive connotation and a lot of people wanted it."
Curry: "And he resisted that temptation."
Alter: "Yes he did. And I found a new document that showed that he almost took dictatorial powers. Remember he had just barely escaped assassination a couple of weeks earlier and a lot of people thought he had been saved by God for this purpose of saving the country. He decided not to become a dictator and he substituted his character and his astonishing leadership qualities. This is a book about leadership Ann and I think it's relevant for our, our times now because it's really about what good, great leadership can do when you're in trouble."
From there, they discussed how FDR was the "original Great Communicator," especially his radio "fireside chats." Alter made it sound like Roosevelt caused a radio revolution. In fact, Calvin Coolidge was the first president to really use radio, but since he's been thoroughly demeaned by liberal historians, liberal journalists aren't about to give him credit:
Curry: "You know Oliver Wendell Holmes described him as 'a second class intellect but a first class temperament.'"
Alter: "Absolutely. I mean he was, Winston Churchill described him as like opening a bottle of champagne when, when you met him. But his public temperament is what did him so much good and the country so much good in this period. You know we now take for granted when we see on the Today show when people speak conversationally to the public. When he did that in 1933 with that first fireside chat it was revolutionary. For thousands of years before the invention of the microphone people would shout when they were talking to the public. And, and, and I read, you know, thousands of letters in the Roosevelt Library, they all said the same thing. 'It felt like you were in my living room with me.' They thought it was magic almost. And it totally changed the relationship between public people and private citizens. And all of television and radio now is done conversationally as, as you know and that comes from this speech, this first fireside chat."
Curry: "But where did it, where did it, how did it come to him though? I mean how did he break that mold?"
Alter: "It's a great story."
Curry: "Was it, was it his mother who loved him..."
Curry: "...so intensely. Was it his disability that made him tender?"
Alter: "Well his, his polio and I got a lot in the book about how polio changed him and, and made him a more caring and understanding human being. His mother was critical. His mother Sarah, whose been kind of sideswiped by history and Eleanor obviously was critical and in the case of this speech he actually looked at a workman taking down some scaffolding and he said, 'how can I write a speech that he will understand that can connect with him?' Before that you didn't see that much of that in American politics. They sort of declaimed from on high, you know the tone? And, and he changed the whole tone of American leadership."
As they ended, Alter returned to the point of suggesting that President Bush isn't much of a leader, and that he's not really accountable, and he's surrounded by yes-men.Curry asked the open-ended question: "What lessons can we learn, can our leaders learn from FDR?"
Alter: "Many lesson but one I want to focus on about Eleanor because there's a lot about her in this book is that she was his eyes and ears. And she went around the country with her very close friend who she may or may not have had a romantic relationship with, but the key thing was they gave Roosevelt information about what programs were and were not working. Any effective leader in management, government, anything, they need an accountability process. And Eleanor was able to help him become a great president even though she didn't want to be First Lady."
Curry: "And she wasn't a yes man or a woman and that's the danger in leadership."
Alter: "Exactly, that's, that's critical. She was very reluctant and depressed before they came into office but she came into her own and she helped make him a great president."
Curry: "Alright on that note we have to leave it. Jonathan Alter, interesting, like opening a bottle of champagne and that may well be how people greet your book. You can read an excerpt from The Defining Moment on our Web site at today.msnbc.com."