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Could we accept a new FDR?

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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.


In this summer of President Obama's discontent and America's discontent with Obama, it is easy to wax nostalgic for the jaunty, upbeat president who lived here.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had all the qualities that these days detractors find wanting in their president: He was gregarious and optimistic, engaged and cheerful, folksy when he wanted to be and ferociously determined when he had to be.

Yet as I wandered through the Roosevelt estate, I found myself as struck by the difference in the worlds each president had (or has) to navigate as between the presidents themselves.

No visit to the Roosevelt estate is complete without a tour of Val-Kill, the cozy home a couple of miles from the main house that became Eleanor Roosevelt's primary residence. And a mile farther up the mountain is Top Cottage, the house that Franklin designed as a getaway from Eleanor, his mother, Sara, and anyone else he wanted to leave behind.

Imagine what journalists would make of this today if we were questioning Roosevelt's press secretary, Stephen Early.

Excuse me, Steve, but can you tell us at which house Mrs. Roosevelt spent last night? Can you tell us how many nights she's spent at the main house? Has she been there at all this vacation, Steve? Steve?

It was in 1918 that Eleanor discovered Franklin's love letters with another woman. Franklin and Eleanor never again lived as husband and wife.

And when Franklin came down with polio in 1921, he and his family went to extraordinary lengths to hide the seriousness of his illness. Only a handful of photographs in the library show FDR in a wheelchair. Franklin at first refused to accept that he could not beat the disease and then apparently resolved to reconquer the world without the ability to walk.

Steve, can you tell us if the candidate ever suffered from depression? When are you going to release those medical records, Steve? Steve, why can't we set up our cameras behind the podium?

We live in an era that is more accepting of disability but still dubious about vulnerability and foibles in a leader. In a world that second-guesses every politician's decisions on an almost minute-by-minute basis, would Roosevelt have made it as far as the governor's race in 1928? Would he have tried?

I put both questions to Richard Moe, author of the recently published “Roosevelt's Second Act,” an account of the president's decision to seek a third term.

Moe responded in an email: “I have no doubt that someone who had many of FDR's characteristics and abilities — to pick strong people, to see the core of an issue, to make bold decisions and to articulate them compellingly — could prevail today. In fact I think many people are hungering for his kind of leadership.

“At critical times in our history the American people have usually known it when it was offered to them and have responded to it. Despite all of the dysfunctionality of today's politics, I think they will again.”

I hope Moe is right. Fortified by his optimism, I was ready to leave Hyde Park and plunge back into our great national debate on whether Obama had allowed enough minutes to elapse between his latest press conference and his latest round of golf.

Fred Hiatt is editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

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