05/01/2006 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Lightweight" FDR Should Give Democrats Hope

After appearing on Imus this morning to promote my new book on Franklin D. Roosevelt, I got an angry voicemail from a woman complaining that I agreed too readily with Imus that John McCain compared favorably with FDR. (I mentioned that both had been deepened by suffering). She was probably right. It's simply impossible to know before someone reaches the White House whether he or she has the potential for greatness. FDR was considered a "lightweight" right up until what I call "The Defining Moment"--when he took office amid despair and saved both capitalism and democracy in the space of a few weeks.

Democrats who today despair of finding a leader should take heart from how unpopular FDR was within the party before he became president. In 1932, he was seen as weak and not especially bright, so unprincipled that he was dubbed the "corkscrew candidate" for acting as if the shortest distance between two points was a corkscrew. He flip-flopped on the League of Nations and so straddled the Prohibition issue that he was labeled neither a "wet" nor a "dry" but a "damp." All of the top pundits thought he was the worst possible candidate for the Democrats and a likely loser to Herbert Hoover. The New York delegation to the 1932 Democratic Convention was so opposed to its own governor that his campaign manager, Jim Farley, couldn't even get a seat in the delegation. (Can you imagine the same thing happening to Karl Rove in the 2000 or 2004 Texas delegation?). When he was (barely) nominated for president on the fourth ballot, the galleries booed.

My point is that Democrats who keep saying that the party has no leaders should wait a spell. Maybe Tom Vilsack or Mark Warner or Barack Obama will emerge. Maybe Hillary Clinton or Evan Bayh or John Edwards will show us something new. Maybe someone totally unexpected will show up. We can--and should--make educated guesses about which candidates might make effective leaders; perhaps none of the above will. But great leadership, FDR showed us, is a magic elixir that is nearly impossible to predict.