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Great Leadership in a Time of Crisis

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The importance of leveling with the public as directly as possible had seen America through depression and World War II in Kennedy’s youth. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who served in Kennedy’s White House as a special assistant, wrote compellingly of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first hundred days in “The Coming of the New Deal,” the second volume of his Age of Roosevelt trilogy. In the gloom of the Great Depression — the unemployment rate was 25 percent as Roosevelt took office — the 32nd president was reassuring but far from Panglossian. Yes, the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, Roosevelt said in his First Inaugural — but he also said that he might require wartime executive powers as if we had been “invaded by a foreign foe.” The crowd on the East Front of the Capitol roared its approval; it was, Eleanor Roosevelt recalled, the audience’s “biggest demonstration” during the speech. Nobody could say he wasn’t being straightforward.

The next morning, he went to work. The pace was dizzying, for good reason. “The machinery for sheltering and feeding the unemployed was breaking down everywhere under the growing burden,” Schlesinger wrote. “And a few hours before, in the early morning before the inauguration, every bank in America had locked its doors. It was now not just a matter of staving off hunger. It was a matter of seeing whether a representative democracy could conquer economic collapse. It was a matter of staving off violence, even (at least some so thought) revolution.”

Roosevelt declared a bank holiday and ordered his team to come up with answers — quickly. Officials had “forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats,” Raymond Moley, a Roosevelt adviser, recalled. “We were just a bunch of men trying to save the banking system.” Armed with expert policy provisions, Roosevelt spoke to the nation on the radio. He dictated his remarks to his secretary, Grace Tully, looking, Schlesinger wrote, “at a blank wall, trying to visualize the individuals he was seeking to help: a mason at work on a new building, a girl behind a counter, a man repairing an automobile, a farmer in his field, all of them saying, ‘Our money is in the Poughkeepsie bank, and what is this all about?’” Will Rogers was so impressed with the result that he said Roosevelt had “made everybody understand it, even the bankers.”

Clarity and candor are essential in crises — and so is generosity of spirit. John Lukacs’s “Five Days in London: May 1940” details the crucial period in which Winston Churchill, the new prime minister, consolidated his hitherto unsteady grip on power and shut down the possibility of negotiating with Adolf Hitler. “Then and there,” Lukacs wrote, Churchill “saved Britain, and Europe and Western civilization.” In legend, the story of 1940 is uncomplicated: Churchill, as Edward R. Murrow observed, mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, and once the fighting was over light triumphed over darkness.

The reality was very different. Churchill, who came to the pinnacle on May 10, 1940, was widely regarded as unstable, melodramatic and overly fond of strong drink. But he understood Hitler in a way many others in power in Britain did not, and he knew, too, that the survival of all that he loved required a nuanced exercise of political skill and a great measure of personal magnanimity. Locked in debate in the War Cabinet with Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary who favored talks with the Axis, Churchill benefited enormously from the support of the former prime minister Neville Chamberlain, whom he had personally cultivated after years of ferocious disputes over the rise of the Third Reich. When Churchill flew to France on May 16, he’d written Chamberlain, “Neville, please mind the shop!”


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