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FDR and Fearlessness: How the Personal Became the Political

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As I've been traveling around the country talking about fear and fearlessness, I'm frequently asked my opinion of one of the high-points of fearlessness in our country's history: Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous message to a Depression-plagued America that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

It's been quoted so many times since it was first uttered during FDR's first inaugural address in March 1933, it's become almost too familiar -- we hear it without really hearing it. It's become a political cliche, but, like a lot of cliches, it's a cliche because it rings so true. And if ever there were a time in which we need to heed those words, it's now -- when fear is being used to justify torture and the destruction of habeas corpus.

In order to be able to consider FDR's exhortation with fresh ears, I decided to reread some books on FDR, including Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment and Robert Jackson's That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt. These recountings helped put some flesh-and-bones on the famous phrase.

Exploring FDR's life, I was struck by how much his "only thing we have to fear" brio was a product of his own personal fearlessness. It reinforced my belief that we're able to act fearlessly in our public lives to the extent that we have become fearless in our personal lives. By this I mean being able to act despite our fears, and not be stopped by whatever stumbling blocks we hit -- including, in FDR's case, a debilitating bout with polio that paralyzed his body, but only strengthened his spirit.

As FDR said: "If you had spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, after that anything else would seem easy!"

In an essay on Churchill, Isaiah Berlin captured FDR's unflappable character: "Roosevelt stands out principally for his astonishing appetite for life and by his apparently complete freedom from fear of the future; as a man who welcomed the future eagerly as such, and conveyed the feeling that whatever the times might bring, all would be grist for his mill, nothing would be too formidable or crushing to be subdued and used and molded into the building of which he, Roosevelt, and his allies and devoted subordinates would throw themselves into with unheard-of energy and gusto."

FDR's wife Eleanor was similarly struck: "In all the years of my husband's public life, I never once heard him make a remark which indicated than any crisis could not be solved."

And because fearlessness, like fear itself, is contagious, FDR's conviction that he and his fellow Americans could handle whatever challenges came their way ended up infecting -- and buoying -- the entire country. The Great Depression and WW II were certainly legitimate causes of fear, but Roosevelt's mastery of his fear helped inspire millions to do the same. Just imagine how differently the current occupant of the White House would have dealt with these monumental crises -- using them to stifle dissent, gain political and partisan advantage, smear critics, and browbeat a nation into compliance.

Instead of assuring us "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," W would have told us the only way out of the Depression is to waterboard the Constitution, put Lady Liberty in a "stress position," and attach electrodes to the private parts of the Bill of Rights.

To paraphrase FDR, the only things we have to fear are fear itself -- and those who use it for their own shameful purposes.