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Michael Winship: FDR, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Michael Winship

We thirst for leadership, vision, someone who can speak to us in a way that refuses to avert its eyes from the crisis but shines a light of truth upon the problem, then offers hope and possible solutions.

If this is indeed an economic 9/11, as some have suggested, we need that voice now. Right now. And so far it has yet to be heard. Not from John McCain, Barack Obama or President Bush.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the president stood on a pile of debris with a megaphone and said that the whole world could hear the rescue workers and shared their grief. Soon, words of sorrow degenerated into bumper-sticker rhetoric: Axis of Evil, Wanted Dead or Alive, Mission Accomplished. Nor, at a time when people were ready to do whatever needed to be done, was there a call for national sacrifice. Instead, the president invoked not poets or statesmen past but variations on a T-shirt slogan: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

Over the last two weeks, he has been seen infrequently, and when he has spoken, his words have rung false. This Harvard MBA speaks economics as though he were reading a foreign language phonetically.

The president has seemed underinformed, disconnected and not, you should excuse the word, invested. In his address to the nation last week, he said that the government was blameless for the financial crisis; it had done what it was supposed to do but had been victimized by overseas lenders, greedy banks and Americans taking on more credit than they could carry. As he has done too often before, he tried to make us afraid.

“The government’s top economic experts warn that without immediate action by Congress, America could slip into a financial panic, and a distressing scenario would unfold,” Bush said. “More banks could fail, including some in your community. The stock market would drop even more, which would reduce the value of your retirement account. The value of your home could plummet.”

Contrast what he had to say with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was sworn into office for the first time, in 1933, during the Great Depression. Rather than foster anxiety and panic, FDR proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” despite the fact that 13 million were unemployed, 9 million had lost their savings and a quarter of the banks had closed. Wages had plummeted 60 percent. 

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is the phrase that everyone remembers, but here’s a little bit more of what FDR had to say:

“This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. …

“If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take, but we must give as well.”

Idealism and truth-telling intersected in FDR’s speech. There was no equivocation, no pass-the-buck. But as decades passed, the belief in government as an instrument to advance the common good was rejected.  

Now, like a last-minute, battlefield conversion, the White House has rediscovered the value of government as backstop — not to relieve the misery of the people but the agonized indigestion of financial institutions suffering morbid obesity because they ate too much at the big-shot banquet.

In these bailouts, there is no altruism but cynicism, the same attitude that scorns the Constitution and tramples civil liberties, that uses national tragedy to advance an unrelated global agenda, that doesn’t give a damn as it tries to game and subvert the electoral process because deep down it fundamentally disdains democracy. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

We need solutions, not sound bites or pandering. We need inspiration and hope, not spin or cant. The way things are going, we may have to find it within ourselves. But in the next five weeks, if one of the candidates can discover how to articulate that hope without pandering, can define our national trauma and tell us how to try to make it better without terrifying us, can give us something to believe in without false expectations, he will be our next  president. 

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program “Bill Moyers Journal,” which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.