Above Us, Yet Among Us
Great presidents tend to be those who inspire by being who Americans aspire to be, while also seeming to be one of the people. The presidency is an exalted position, to be sure, but getting too used to the high altitude of your lofty pedestal can ensure that one day you will be knocked down from it.
One of our most popular and successful presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was raised in wealthy privilege far beyond anything average Americans could imagine, then or now. And yet, most citizens believed he truly understood their concerns thanks to an uncanny knack for speaking their language. Historians speculate that Roosevelt partly learned this skill in Warm Springs, Georgia, where, to the horror of his rich family, he chose to recuperate from his crippling polio and try to learn to walk again surrounded by lower-class and rural people.
In a letter to his wife, Eleanor, from Warm Springs, FDR wrote of his awakening to the plight of poor people that “rattles my soul.” In a fitting completion of the unique circle of his life, Roosevelt died there at the end of one of the greatest presidencies in American history.
Ronald Reagan was another widely popular president with a common touch despite a glamorous life as a Hollywood actor. In his case, Reagan’s simpatico with average Americans stemmed from a typically middle-class upbringing in Illinois.
Voters should not overdo demanding the common touch if it comes with a lack of other important skills. It is often said during campaigns that a winning candidate is the one with whom most voters would “want to have a beer,” the down-to-earth person who seems most like the rest of us. Putting aside the fact that few Americans are going to ever get such a chance, going too far with such an average standard means that we would end up with a lot of mediocre presidents.
After all, it is unlikely that every average American would make a good president.
Being above us, and yet one of us, is perhaps your toughest challenge, Mr. President, and failing to meet it is a big reason so many of your predecessors left office in shame or regret.
Excerpted from Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do by Helen Thomas and Craig Crawford. Copyright © 2009 by Helen Thomas and Craig Crawford. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.