Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

February 28, 2013

Roosevelt, Reagan, and You

Nathan Harter
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — The people crave leadership, yet they can turn against it quickly.

Same as it ever was. Maybe we should be grateful the electorate chose to send delegates to Washington D.C. who can’t seem to work together. Let the two sides keep an eye on each other in the Capitol, and while they bicker we keep living our lives out here.

For a long time, I told myself a deadlocked federal government is just where I want them. The less they do, the more freedom the rest of us get to enjoy. One could argue that by routinely electing volatile and stubborn representatives to office, we are saying we are basically happy with the status quo.

Except we aren’t. What gives?

Back in 1932, the people had become downright angry with Herbert Hoover and his economic travails. It took a crisis to unite the voters across the nation to elect a fey candidate who was intentionally silent or vague about what he intended to do as president. Voters also ushered into Congress a majority from the same party as a radical repudiation of the GOP. Voters gave over the keys to the engines of power to Democrats and said, in effect, “Have at it.”

Today, we aren’t thoroughly disgruntled with either party in particular. More precisely, some of us are disgruntled with their guys, and some are disgruntled with our guys. So we just keep sending them back. I interpret this to mean we are fundamentally happy with the gridlock. Since neither party is plainly to blame and things haven’t reached crisis proportions, let the political theater continue.

The Tea Party emerged as a response to this self-perpetuating mockery. It had its own limitations, as any movement does, and it has championed a few leaders who weren’t quite ready for prime time. I wonder, how did the nation know that FDR was ready back in 1932?

The dirty secret is that he was by no means ready with a bushel basket of policies. He opted for experimentation, trying this and that, replacing one program with another, so that the real value of his early years was that at least he was trying. The Supreme Court declared some of his programs unconstitutional. And he freely admitted when programs didn’t work. Historians concede that his busy-ness never did bring us out of the Great Depression. The war did that.

So, what do we want in a time of civic stress? A calming voice with no moral compass who’s willing to aggrandize power for the sake of appearing to be trying awfully hard? There was a president many years later who had been a fan of FDR. This politician set forth three very clear goals and showed little interest in much else. He was even accused of napping and losing interest in the details. Three things.

So, which do we want today? What type of leader do we seek? I curl back over and over in my columns to the same conclusion. We shouldn’t look to Washington for salvation. Let’s cultivate our own leaders, local leaders, people who roll up their sleeves and do the hard business of governing, face-to-face, without teleprompters, drones, and spin doctors.

You know, Confucius used to say that only those who risk making mistakes and learning from them will deserve to become leaders. In our midst, perhaps, the type of leadership we really need is waking up every day, driving our streets, looking out on our world and saying, “Maybe I can help.”