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An Open Letter to President-Elect Obama

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Dear Mr. President-elect,

Your interest in the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrates an admirable historic consciousness, an awareness that wisdom can be found among those who, like yourself at this moment, are confronted with an immense challenge and responsibility.

But in the many books on your great predecessor, one crucial conversation has erroneously vanished, not just because it was extremely influential on the third inaugural address of President Roosevelt -- and thus on his presidency during the war years that would be so decisive for the future of America and Europe -- but also because it is this specific conversation that is of such importance for our time.

As you compose your first inaugural address, I fervently hope that you will not pass over the exchange of ideas between a great president and a great intellectual in the White House on the chilly morning of January 14, 1941.

War is raging in Europe, the consequences of the Depression are still present, and America is sharply divided about her role in the world. With only a week to go before he is to give his inaugural, Roosevelt consults the European writer and Nobel Prize winner, Thomas Mann. They first met in 1935 when Mann, partly on the advocacy of Roosevelt, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard. Roosevelt appreciated the writer as the intellectual and moral conscience of Europe, while Mann saw the antithesis of Hitler in this American president. Four days before the election Mann wrote in his journal: "Roosevelt's reelection is of the greatest importance for the further course of history. However, the current era makes this unlikely..." As soon as it is clear that, contrary to his expectation, Roosevelt is reelected, he confides in his journal, "This is the first joy, the first victory in more than seven years, which have brought nothing but disappointment and rage." He sends a congratulatory telegram. Two months later, Mann is invited to the White House.

The conversation between Roosevelt and Mann can be reconstructed through Mann's journal notes, two of his lectures in Roosevelt's possession, and the inaugural address itself.

The evening of January 14, 1941 Mann writes in his journal: "Lively conversation. Political-moral vision priority over economy. [...] Gave him a copy of War and Democracy and dedicated it: 'To F.D.R. President of the U.S. and of a coming better world.''' Mann's gift is a twenty-five page booklet. This booklet contains a more detailed treatment of a theme he discussed in February 1938 in 'a coast-to-coast lecture tour of the U.S.A' to an audience of sometimes more than ten thousand Americans: The Coming Victory of Democracy. Mann's arguement in these two lectures can be summarized as follows.

Never should anything of value be taken for granted. America, too, will have to keep reflecting on what democracy really means if she does not want to be lost, as Nazi Germany is lost. Because, in the end, politics has to do with fundamental values, and as democracy is not merely a way of governing and representation, it is a political duty to make society aware that "democracy is that form of government and of society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man." These are big words and Mann is quite aware of how small man can be in "his self-centeredness, cruelty, cowardice, and stupidity." But that is precisely why we must not forget that "The great and honorable in man manifest themselves as art and science, as passion for truth, creation of beauty and the idea of justice." True democracy honors man as a spiritual being, focuses on cultivating human greatness, "It wishes to elevate mankind, to teach it to think, to set it free. It seeks to remove from culture the stamp of privilege and disseminate it among the people -- in a word, it aims at education."

When we forget this, the anti-democratic forces, which are always and everywhere present, will grab for power. To them, human beings are not oriented toward truth, freedom, and justice, but are thoughtless creatures, yearning for physical and material gratification only. They would rather cultivate ignorance than the intellectual life. The anti-democrats do not know what the essence of freedom is. Or freedom is reduced to an exclusively economic phenomenon (Mann: "The perhaps natural egotism of the great private business which at a time of universal conscription insists on its own absolute freedom..."). Or else freedom is threatened by fanatics who do not believe in freedom but rather in "force, high explosive bombs, and bestiality." And this latter danger, the determination to destroy humanity is reinforced by the fact that, when "face to face with fanaticism incarnate, a freedom that through sheer goodness and humane skepticism no longer believes in itself will be irrevocably lost". Nazi Germany is the most harrowing example of anti-democracy but, Mann warns, this force can manifest itself all too readily in the US as well. True democracy can only continue to exist as long as it is an expression of the true ideal of freedom: the cultivation of nobility of spirit, and the determination to defend itself against its deadly enemies.

Six days after his conversation with Thomas Mann, President Roosevelt begins his third inaugural address with the observation that it is important for the Americans "to rediscover what we are and what we may be. If we do not, we risk the real peril of inaction." This, he continues, is all the more important because there are those who claim that democracy no longer has a future. However, that is not true. Not only were matters dealt with democratically in difficult times ("We acted quickly, boldly, decisively"), but there is also "a better understanding that life's ideals are measured in other than material things." The fact that America is able to survive her crisis is, in fact, due to democracy. Democracy is not dying and must not die, "as it is the most humane, the most advanced and in the end most unconquerable of all forms of human society." What is fundamental is the awareness that: "A nation, like a person, has something deeper, something more permanent, something larger than the sum of all its parts. It is that something which matters most to its future -- which calls forth the most sacred guarding of its present. [...] We all understand what it is -- the spirit -- the faith of America." That spirit has always been an ideal of freedom and this freedom must never be reduced to a merely economic phenomenon: "The hope of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved poverty or self-serving wealth." We must build a society that is safe and offers everyone an opportunity. However: "It is not enough to clothe and feed the body of this Nation, and instruct and inform its mind. For there is also the spirit. And of the three, the greatest is the spirit." America will manage to survive her crisis and will set the example for the rest of the world if she remains true to her spirit, true to the true democracy, true to what George Washington proclaimed the destiny of America to be in his first inaugural address: "The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty [...] entrusted to the hands of the American people." That is why, as Roosevelt concludes his address: "Our purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy. For this we muster the spirit of America, and the faith of America."

Thus President Roosevelt eloquently articulated the content of a conversation that Thomas Mann summarized that same evening as: "Lively conversation. Political-moral vision priority over economy."

Mr. President-elect, the problems and challenges that confront you are undoubtedly no fewer than those of President Roosevelt. Neither is there any doubt that you will have to act and, like President Roosevelt you will "act quickly, boldly, decisively." But the historic conversation in the White House of 14 January 1941 teaches us that there can be no doubt either that mere economic and policy actions are insufficient. In the spirit of Roosevelt, Thomas Mann warned after the war that "no conference, technical measure, or juridical institution, nor even a world government, can possibly bring the new society one step closer if it is not preceded by a different spiritual climate, a new receptivity to the nobility of spirit".

The wisdom that President Roosevelt and Thomas Mann bestow on us is that America will survive the present crisis but only if the awareness prevails that the true spirit of America, the true democracy, is none other than "that form of government and of society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man."

It is an awareness that has been forgotten for too long.

For too long we have been hearing that "It's the economy, stupid!" or "country first," and we have forgotten that the hallmark of a civilized society is human dignity for all.

For too long there has been a culture of money and there never would have been a financial crisis had we not forgotten the wise words of the philosopher Socrates: "My very dear friend... Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul."

For too long there has been a culture of total ignorance and anti-intellectualism, and we have forgotten what Mann said in America as early as 1938: "In a democracy which does not respect the intellectual life and is not guided by it, demagogy has free play and the level of national life is depressed to that of the ignorant and uncultivated."

For too long education has been discussed in terms of 'useful' and 'practical,' and we have forgotten that the liberal arts are there to help us express our emotions, articulate our experiences; that true liberal education is there to liberate us from stupidity, prejudice, blind desire, and thus helps us to live in truth and cultivate our soul.

For too long the danger of fanatics who hate the true democracy has been underestimated.

Mr. President Elect, the mere fact that you have been elected is a hopeful indication that the spiritual climate is changing. That the young have played a decisive role in your election is an equally hopeful sign. But the true change, the only change that can offer us a real prospect of a better world to come is a renewed awareness of the true meaning of one word only: freedom.

I am writing you in the hope that an unjustly forgotten conversation of long ago and the example of a great president will be an inspiration to you and encourage you to place your presidency, too, in the renewed conquest and defense of that freedom and the nobility of spirit without which it cannot exist.

I wish you great courage and wisdom for the years to come.

Yours sincerely,

Rob Riemen

Author of Nobility of Spirit. A Forgotten Ideal (Yale University Press)