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Lincoln, Roosevelt Presidencies Offer Lessons for Obama

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.

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  • 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.