[Viewpoint] FDR isn’t that easy to emulateFranklin Delano Roosevelt fought against the Great Depression and the wartime crisis, and he succeeded. The legacy of his leadership is a perfect drama. It contains scenes of reform, change, courage, challenge, communication and persuasion. They are the key traits of a leadership. He is always listed at the top when people rank great American presidents.
Benchmarking his leadership is a repeated trend, and Korea is not an exception. In the early days of his presidency, Kim Dae-jung showcased his similarities to Roosevelt. Kim said he was fighting the foreign exchange crisis like Roosevelt had with the Great Depression. He also said they both had disabled legs and were eloquent public speakers.
President Lee Myung-bak’s biweekly radio address is also inspired by Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Liberal independent Ahn Cheol-soo also made Roosevelt a role model. “Roosevelt strongly pushed forward the New Deal amid the enormous crisis of the Great Depression and World War II and rebuilt the economy and led a victory in the war,” Ahn wrote in his latest book, “Ahn Cheol-soo’s Thoughts.”
Ahn’s remark is nothing extraordinary. It’s a textbook answer. But it contains a critical factual error. The error is in the part that Roosevelt strongly pushed forward the New Deal and rebuilt the economy.
The Great Depression drove the United States into suffering and despair. Roosevelt inspired the people to have will and hope to overcome the crisis. But the New Deal failed to fight the Great Depression. What actually resolved the economic crisis was going to war. The boom in the defense industry resolved the slow economy and unemployment.
The image and the reality of the New Deal are very different, and Ahn was wrong about it. It shows a superficial understanding of Roosevelt.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum portrays the New Deal leadership. It is located in Hyde Park, New York, about two hours drive from Manhattan. The museum displays various data and artifacts on the New Deal’s merits and demerits as well as its controversy.
One of the exhibited items said the export demands linked to the war and the increased government spending led to complete employment in the U.S. economy. This shows the limits of the New Deal.
The museum explains the factors of the Roosevelt leadership: his gifted political sense and skills, refined language and communication, sense of political timing, characteristics as a maverick, and understanding of power.
And they work together like gears. Just mimicking one part won’t give the same effect. That’s why benchmarking Roosevelt is difficult.
President Lee gave 95 biweekly radio addresses every other Monday. But none of them are memorable because Lee has not mastered the relationship between politics and language. Roosevelt developed his own language, and his words inspired Americans to join in the advancement of history. Roosevelt’s language is addictive and powerful. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” is a classic example of his language.
In the era of the Great Depression in the 1930s, politicians were subject to derision. But Roosevelt didn’t try to appease people, because politics were the tool to overcome the crisis. Policies can be implemented only when bills are approved in Congress. Roosevelt was from a prestigious family, but he stood up for the working-class and the underprivileged. He used politics as the channel to realize social justice and compassion.
Roosevelt was a political genius. He knew that the true stage of persuasion and communication was politics. The New Deal was a program to remodel the country, but it faced controversy for being a leftist, socialist project. The New Deal, however, was possible because of Roosevelt’s masterful political powers.
He joined politics at the age of 28 as a member of the Senate. He faced tough scrutiny and grew tough by himself. Roosevelt was a prepared president.
President Roh Moo-hyun had a similar idea about verifying a president’s qualifications. Roh stressed strongly that a candidate must be scrutinized and win trust by going through difficulties in the political arena.
Ahn has spoken about his lack of political experience. “I made many mistakes when I became a CEO,” he said. “But I have never repeated the same mistakes and learned from them. After I became a professor, I was not really good at giving lectures .?.?. but I improved and I became the professor whose lectures were rated the best at the graduate school of Kaist.” The remarks are Ahn’s reply to the concerns that he may not be able to perform the role of a president because he lacks political experience.
A president, however, is uniquely different from a CEO of a start-up or a professor. A mistake that a president makes is different from that made by a CEO or a professor. A mistake by a president is critical. In the world of the president, not even a minor glitch is accepted. No small mistake in state affairs can be recovered easily. A small misstep can be deadly to the working class.
Ahn’s experience is very different from the serious nature of a president’s position. His remarks are inadequate in demonstrating his ability to run a country.
The Roosevelt leadership is attractive for many to emulate. But the benchmarking process requires a deep understanding of Roosevelt’s politics. If not, the remarks will be awkward and clumsy.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Park Bo-gyoon