“The fog of despair hung over the land. One out of every four American workers lacked a job. Factories that had once darkened the skies with smoke stood ghostly and silent, like extinct volcanoes. In October the New York City Health Department had reported that over one-fifth of the pupils in public schools were suffering from malnutrition. . . .Hunger marchers, pinched and bitter, were parading cold streets in New York and Chicago. . . .” This is Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s description of America in 1933, in his magisterial The Crisis of the Old Order: a nation in crisis – suffering, demoralized, self-doubting, angry.
Being a former history teacher, I’ve been thinking about the Great Depression of the 1930s in recent weeks as the magnitude of our country’s double-barreled health and financial crisis becomes more evident – and more frightening – by the day. In such unsettled times, there is a pressing need for what I call “Energizers-in-Chief” who meet the twin challenges of education and inspiration. On the one hand, people naturally hunger for explanation and explication. They crave understanding: of the forces at work in the crisis, and of the extent of the danger they are in. On the other, they crave hope – that resolute, capable leadership will bring the ordeal to an end.
The most obvious candidate for Energizer-in-Chief is our national chief executive. Arguably the most famous Energizer-in-Chief on the national stage in our country’s history, Franklin D. Roosevelt donned the mantle of a crippled nation’s Energizer-in-Chief soon after taking the oath of office. Opening his inaugural address with the solemn words “This is a day of national consecration,” FDR went on to paint in grim detail an honest picture of our country’s economic apocalypse and to explain its underpinnings and root causes. Then he offered a demoralized people hope, saying that they need fear only “fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror,” and pledging action on several fronts.
There is no way our national chief executive can be expected to carry the burden of energizing the nation alone. We should never forget that in perilous times like these, we sorely need Energizers-in-Chief not only on the national stage but at all levels: governors, mayors, the superintendents of public school districts, the CEOs of public transit systems and nonprofit and for-profit corporations. It is not possible to have too much accurate, pertinent information about the nature of our current health and economic crises, or too much hope that well-designed, capably executed solutions will ultimately carry the day. Every leader reading this blog can – and must – become an Energizer-in-Chief in her respective sphere – educating and inspiring colleagues and employees – if well-being is to be restored within the reasonably near future.