Commentary / World

The right way for leaders to address 'fear itself'

by Cass R. Sunstein

Bloomberg

The coronavirus pandemic has produced several different kinds of crises. It is of course a public health crisis, first and foremost. But it’s also an economic crisis, an international-relations crisis and a crisis of public morale. Fear is widespread and mounting.

The United States has not been here before, but it has been in the vicinity. In some ways, the closest analogy is to the Great Depression. There was no pandemic, of course, but the economic crisis was far worse. And the crisis of public morale, though also much worse, had similar features.

To get a sense of how leaders of all kinds might handle that part of the crisis, we cannot do better than to travel back to March 4, 1933, when U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address.

Roosevelt knew that when a nation is in crisis, a leader needs to speak to people’s hearts, even more than to their minds. He began by emphasizing that a leader’s first responsibility is to one thing above all: the truth. “This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” he said.

He pivoted immediately to emphasize that the truth was no reason for fear: “Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.”

That was the foundation for the most famous sentence of his address: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Roosevelt did not mean to diminish the magnitude of the nation’s challenge. But as someone who had survived polio and lifted himself to the presidency, he knew a lot about terror and its effects. He did not deny the gravity of the situation:

“Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.”

But he added a dose of gratitude: “Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it.”

He emphasized that to get through a terrible time, kindness, cooperation and a willingness to help one another would be essential, and would pay long-term dividends. “These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto, but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men,” he declared.

Roosevelt emphasized the “arduous days that lie before us.” But he promptly added that the nation would face them “in the warm courage of the national unity.” The best word there? “Warm.”

Of the countless initiatives that immediately followed, one of the most noteworthy was Roosevelt’s proclamation suspending all banking transactions from March 6 to March 9. The proclamation was designed to prevent a dangerous run on the banks, by which countless depositers would take out their money.

Roosevelt’s wit and buoyancy were captured in the name he gave for what he ordered: “a bank holiday.”

During and after the Depression, that wit and buoyancy lifted the nation’s spirits. He demonstrated those qualities time and again:

“When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” “If you had spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, after that anything else would seem easy!” “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” “Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.”

Coronavirus is not the Great Depression, but it is becoming a national trauma. Roosevelt knew that in the midst of trauma, a leader has three responsibilities. The first is to tell the truth. The second is to take concrete steps to address both causes and symptoms. The third is to speak directly to “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” — by giving people confidence that their nation “will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper,” and by producing, more than occasionally, a big, bright national smile.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg columnist.

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