Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith said Wednesday he often thinks of the country’s sheer panic during the Great Depression and banking crisis as Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933.
People were terrified, and then suddenly a calming voice, more like a teacher, came through on the radio and began to explain his plans for the nation’s banking system in a way the public could easily understand.
“This is a gift that very few leaders ever manage to have,” said Smith, who returned to the Dole Institute of Politics Wednesday evening to argue that Roosevelt should be part of a 20th century Mount Rushmore.
Roosevelt, who led the country during monumental struggles of the Great Depression and World War II, figures to be Smith’s most natural choice for a new Mount Rushmore because he said Roosevelt made his list of top three presidents of all-time. Last month Smith made an argument for Ronald Reagan’s place on the hypothetical presidential monument.
Smith spoke for 90 minutes about Roosevelt’s legacy taking questions from institute director Bill Lacy and from the estimated 320-member crowd.
An overflow room was needed for both the Reagan and Roosevelt talks.
He largely lauded the only man to win four presidential elections and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but Smith also said Roosevelt wasn’t perfect, had his fierce detractors and benefited from not living in a 24-hour news cycle.
Still, he called Roosevelt a pragmatist and mentioned how his economic plans, including the creation of Social Security, helped create a social safety net.
“The debate over the New Deal will go on,” Smith said. “But it will go on in, I think, a very different climate. We can’t afford it.”
Smith, who was the Dole Institute’s first permanent director, will return to discuss his choices of Dwight D. Eisenhower at 7:30 p.m. next Wednesday and Woodrow Wilson at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24.