I am sure that many of our readers watched all or parts of the historic movie on the Roosevelt family shown in a weeklong series on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) during September. It revealed the public accomplishments and private lives of this extraordinary family that shaped American policy during the first half of the 19th Century and thereby created the foundation of our modern American culture.
For me, the most significant point in the entire series occurred during the Washington funeral ceremony for Franklin Delano Roosevelt when a reporter interviewed a man in the crowd who was clearly overcome by the event. She asked him if he had known President Roosevelt: “No”, he replied, “but he knew me.” This single exchange summed up the extraordinary success of FDR—he really did understand the American people whom he served as leader for almost thirteen years during arguably the most tumultuous times in American history.
With some notable exceptions, the presidents of this country have tended to emerge from wealthy families who could afford the best universities and social relationships for their children. FDR was no exception. He was educated in private schools and Harvard University, achieving a law degree which enabled him to provide advisory services to the wealthy families of New York City. Marriage to his cousin Eleanor further enhanced the strong aristocratic family relationship. Many men of his background carried their family elitism into distinguished political leadership positions and focused political policy decisions on preserving the interests of equally rich friends and associates. But, not FDR! From his earliest elected positions in New York State, he exhibited a genuine interest in the “working class” and supported legislation that improved their lives. Although he continued to dress in aristocratic fashion and speak with a voice of the well- educated, his actions always favored those constituents of less privileged upbringing.
The author of this biographical movie attributed FDR’s so-called liberal behavior to his strong-willed mother and to his equally strong-willed wife. Others claim that his affliction with polio at the age of 39 caused him to be more sensitive to the handicapped, both physical and cultural. But, whatever the cause, FDR’s popularity through four presidential elections was linked to his sincere interest in, and understanding of, the needs and desires of all his constituents.
Those of us in the business of creating homes and communities for Americans of diverse heritage could benefit from the FDR leadership style. Too many of us rely upon personal experiences and backgrounds for design decisions that affect the environment for many decades in future. Many do not succeed. But those that are guided by genuine knowledge and preferences of their consumers frequently achieve significant business success. They take care to understand the current and future home buyers and they contribute better homes and social environments based upon the same consumer knowledge that drove FDR to the heights of leadership.