05/10/2006 01:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

FDR and Eleanor: Profiles in Leadership -- and Transformation

I've been doing a lot of traveling -- and a lot of reading on planes -- recently. Among the best reads was The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter's new book on FDR. Ostensibly a recounting of the tumultuous first 100 days of FDR's presidency when, according to Alter, "he saved democracy," the book is actually more psychological exploration than political treatise.

As prologue, Alter offers a fascinating look at how FDR's struggles with polio, and his work with other polio victims at the clinic he built in Georgia, helped transform him from patrician "lightweight" to towering leader able to lift the spirits of a nation suffering through both an economic and a psychological Great Depression.

It's a portrait of authentic leadership grounded in experience and conviction rather than focus group-approved positions and soundbytes. Elements sorely missing from today's political landscape.

Being thrust back into the dark days of 1933, and seeing how Roosevelt, by sheer force of will and personality -- and the rhetorical gift that gave us his "nothing to fear but fear itself" inaugural speech and his fireside chats -- revived America, reminded me of a series of conversations I had back in 1999 for a column I wrote about what makes for a great president. Across the board -- and across the political spectrum -- came the same reply: someone who can stir our spirit and, in the words of historian David McCullough, "cause those who follow them to do more than they thought they were capable of."

It was a sentiment echoed by Doris Kearns Goodwin: "The job is not simply to reflect current opinion but to challenge it, move it forward and shape it. The ability to just take a stand and know that you can move the country to that stand is a lost art we need to recapture."

FDR inspired us to plant victory gardens; JFK asked us to ask not; George Bush asked us to go shopping. Here's more from Alter on the difference between FDR and W -- and some intriguing similarities.

FDR's connection to the public was built on empathy. Decades before Bill Clinton, FDR literally felt the pain -- first his own, then America's. And, according to Alter, this defining crisis in his life is what gave him the ability to forge the defining moment of his presidency -- and help get America back on its feet.

"He often thought lazily and superficially," Alter quotes Arthur Schlesinger as saying of FDR. "But he felt profoundly."

Although somewhat in the background, the book also offers some telling insights into the equally amazing transformation of Eleanor Roosevelt from awkward and self-doubting political wife to one of the most beloved public figures in the history of the nation.

When I first started working on my book on fearlessness, I always knew I would include Eleanor Roosevelt. After all, she embodied so many of the qualities I wanted to highlight: courage, passion, self-possession, and a willingness to speak out even when it wasn't popular. But as Jonathan Alter makes clear in his book, she hadn't always been the confident figure we'd all learned about in history class. "Even on the eve of the Inauguration," he writes, "Eleanor, at forty-eight, was still deeply apprehensive about what lay ahead... 'I'm not the sort of person who would be any good at that job,' she told [a friend]. 'I dare say I shall be criticized whatever I do.'"

Indeed, growing up, Eleanor was shy and awkward -- not a very likely leader in the making. But an unhappy and unloved childhood created tremendous reserves of sympathy and concern for others -- particularly the unempowered. It was her passion for confronting the problems of hunger, poverty, unemployment, and racism, and her sense of justice that pushed her to confront, and overcome, her fears and inhibitions -- and make her such a role model for women today.

None of us start out being who we are. Ginger Rogers didn't dance like Ginger Rogers when she first started. And Eleanor Roosevelt had to work to become the leader she became: holding the first press conferences ever conducted by a First Lady, writing a daily column, My Day, that was syndicated in newspapers across the country, and giving lectures and radio broadcasts. All this was anathema to her personality but she didn't let her personal fear of appearing in public stop her from speaking out about what mattered to her. And, in the process, she inspired millions of people and helped change her world.

Blogging on HuffPost last week, Alter held out hope that a similar transformation could be in store for some of those politicians circling the Democratic nomination. There are certainly signs that such a transformation has already happened. With Al Gore. I just watched Gore's global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which will be coming out at the end of the month. And there is a world of difference between the robotic candidate of 2000 and the born again leader of today on display in the movie.

Who knows, if he keeps this up, some future Jonathan Alter may one day write a book about his "Defining Moment."