Moments of Crisis and The Historian's Curse

Times like these remind me that being a historian is both a curse and a blessing.

A blessing because I love my work. A curse because in any situation, my historian's brain automatically takes the Long View of the Big Picture: Where are the roots of this current moment? How will historians fifty years from now assess this moment? All of which, I'm here to tell you, only exacerbates my gloom and anxiety.

Anyway, history is much on my mind -- The New Deal of the 1930s, of course. American refusal to acknowledge the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1970s. The way in which Viet Nam and Watergate eroded Americans' trust in government, so that 30, 40 years later, most Americans refer to elected leaders as "them," forgetting, apparently that WE are our government.

So that now, at a moment when Americans need leadership, they are least likely to turn to elected officials to provide it.

And of course, I've been thinking about Franklin Roosevelt. When FDR took office in the midst of a economic disaster, he committed himself and his administration to two major courses of action.

First, he and his team of advisors tossed out the rules and used their imaginations to develop plans for extricating the nation from its crisis. They faced an unprecedented global and national crisis. The old rules/methods simply didn't apply. Not everything FDR's team tried worked. But they understood that what mattered most was doing something, anything.

Second, FDR understood that nothing would work unless Americans were willing to share in the gamble, and they would only follow his lead if they understood what was happening, and why he was doing what he did. It's easy to look back on his fireside chats as some quaint relic of a by-gone radio era, but they had an enormous emotional and psychological impact.

FDR made sure that Americans knew that people in Washington were working hard to create solutions to huge problems. That fostered trust, and trust, in turn, translated into a willingness to cooperate with FDR's projects and plans. (*1)

Put another way, FDR provided leadership. That word gets thrown around a lot these days, usually covered in mud. So much so that most of us have stopped listening. But leaders are good things, especially in times of crisis. Leaders step to the front and take the first step into the unknown. Great leaders create an atmosphere in which people will follow, trust, and believe. (*2) People WILL rise to the occasion -- if they trust the leader, and if they have hope.

I don't know how the rest of the country feels, but I'm worried, more so than I've ever been in my life. But I'm also ready to do what needs to be done.

So: any leaders out there?


*1: Yes, I understand that many Americans hated FDR, among them my grandmother who railed against him until the day she died in 1979.

*2: Yes, leaders can be evil. Adolph Hitler provided extraordinary leadership, rising to power at a moment when Germans were desperate and wanted someone to take the first step.