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Lincoln, Roosevelt Presidencies Offer Lessons for Obama

November 27, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt both took office during times of crisis, and their leadership may provide President-elect Barack Obama with some insight into the road ahead. Authors with new biographies of Lincoln and FDR examine what Mr. Obama may learn from presidents past.

JEFFREY BROWN: An ongoing crisis with months to go before the new president takes office. As the nation prepares for Barack Obama, the experiences of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are regularly cited, including by the president-elect himself, who says he’s reading up even as he names his new team and prepares his policies.

We’ve invited the authors of two new biographies of these former presidents to talk about then and now. Harold Holzer is the author of “Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter.” He’s co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and, in his other life, senior vice president at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

And H.W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Well, Harold Holzer, you wrote on a very specific period that is, of course, quite pertinent right now. Why focus on those few months in Lincoln’s life?

HAROLD HOLZER, Author, “Lincoln-President-Elect”: Well, I think they were undervalued. I think they have been undervalued by historians. I think they’re the great Achilles’ heel in Lincoln’s otherwise sterling reputation, this prevailing idea that he was a docile president-elect who just dawdled away the hours while the secession crisis magnified.

I took a look at the private correspondence and the conversations that Lincoln had during this period and found, in fact, that he did quite a bit, if not to prevent the union from fracturing, at least to preventing slavery from expanding and perpetuating.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bill Brands, as with Lincoln, there are many books on Roosevelt. What specifically were you after?

H.W. BRANDS, Author, “Traitor to His Class”: I wanted to figure out how this son of privilege became the champion of the ordinary man and woman in America.

Roosevelt was born wealthy. He had everything that wealth could buy and everything that opportunity could give. But he became in certain respects the most radical populist ever to occupy the White House. And I wanted to see how that came about.

FDR, Lincoln transitions hard

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, that happened -- the crisis he stepped into is the one that's often cited as the best comparison with right now, the Great Depression, right? So how did it manifest itself?

H.W. BRANDS: Well, circumstances now are looking eerily like the circumstances in 1932 and 1933. When Roosevelt was elected, the economy was at the bottom of the depression. Probably 25 percent of Americans were out of work. The financial system was in freefall. There was a clear repudiation of the status quo that is in Roosevelt's election.

And Roosevelt had four months to figure out what he could do between then and the inauguration. It was a very difficult transition, probably one of the most difficult in American history.

JEFFREY BROWN: Harold Holzer, what comparison, what jumps out at you? The secession was a different sort of crisis at that time, but people are looking back to those few months as key to thinking about now. What -- what jumps out at you?

HAROLD HOLZER: Well, the notion of gridlock, of political factions not being able to get along, which obviously reached the boiling point in the Lincoln era, is something that Sen. Obama has cited as a rationale for a different approach to government.

Obviously, it's a different time. Red state-blue state divisions are not the same as gray state-blue state divisions. And, of course, half of the country chose not even to recognize Abraham Lincoln's election, but to react as if it hadn't occurred, while half of the people in the states that did accept it had voted for someone else.

So it was -- there was none of the universal celebration of Lincoln's election that took place. It's the confrontation of division, the healing, the unifying, actually, that Lincoln did later in his term that I think Sen. Obama is looking to inciting now.

Obama deliberately studied Lincoln

JEFFREY BROWN: And just to stay with you, how do you compare how the president-elect, -elects are behaving then and now? I mean, even this week, it's interesting to see President-elect Obama calling a daily press conference, bringing out his new team, trying to be proactive, even as he says, "We only have one president at a time."

HAROLD HOLZER: Well, of course, the media focus is so much more intense now that it's almost unavoidable. Lincoln certainly did not do any public statements, but, of course, he hadn't campaigned for president, either.

And yet there are things that Sen. Obama is doing that are so eerily like Lincoln, it's as if he's got a playbook that he's -- and it's a very good playbook -- that he's referring to.

I mean, he is considering the senator from New York whom he defeated for the nomination as his secretary of state, as Lincoln did with Seward.

He even went back for a pilgrimage to the woman who raised him for a final goodbye, as Lincoln did, when he went to see his step-mother a few days before leaving for Washington, again, the last time he would see her. That sense of taking renewal from his roots was very important to Lincoln.

And both of them are reading the works of former presidents in crisis. Lincoln read Andrew Jackson's protests against nullification, just as Sen. Obama is reading Abraham Lincoln. So the arc of the presidency continues.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bill Brands, if Barack Obama is reading about Franklin Roosevelt now, are there things he should avoid, you know, things he should learn, that he should avoid doing, especially in these few months?

H.W. BRANDS: Despite the efforts at cooperation, there is a definite difference in philosophy between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. And there will certainly be an effort by the Bush administration to preserve as much of that philosophy as possible.

And Barack Obama would be well advised -- assuming that he intends to take things in a different direction -- to avoid making any commitments. He's absolutely right. There's only one president at a time. He can get his team together, and he can get his plans together, but he's really not going to get anything done on his own authority until he's sworn in.

Deep historical parallels resonate

JEFFREY BROWN: It's probably a dangerous question to a historian, but do you think there's almost a danger -- Harold Holzer, start with you -- in reading too much into the comparisons, overdoing it, overplaying it?

HAROLD HOLZER: I mean, in the case of Lincoln, I think not. This is really, in a large way, the culmination or at least a giant step toward completing the unfinished work that Abraham Lincoln spoke about at Gettysburg.

The very notion that an African-American has been elected president of the United States fulfills those parts of the American dream that were unfulfilled. So I think it's a magnificent moment and one that we should embrace as long as our honeymoon can last with a new president.

JEFFREY BROWN: And same question to you, to end, H.W. Brands, what do you think?

H.W. BRANDS: President-elect Obama can take comfort from the fact that the recession that the country seems to be entering will almost certainly not get as deep and severe as the Great Depression of the 1930s, in large part because of the reforms that Roosevelt and the New Deal Congress put into place.

And I think he can take a lesson from Roosevelt's example in connecting with the American people at an emotional level as soon as he became president. Roosevelt took charge very quickly.

And one of the first things he did, after just five days in office, was to deliver the first of his fireside chats, in which he reached over the heads of Congress and over parties and made an emotional appeal to the American people, saying that everything that we've done, everything that we've started will only work if we have the support of the American people.

So he made Americans part of his administration, and his administration benefited enormously from that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, H.W. Brands on Roosevelt and Harold Holzer on Lincoln, thank you both very much.

HAROLD HOLZER: Thank you, Jeff.

H.W. BRANDS: My pleasure.