Thursday, June 12, 2014

Won't You Let Me Take You On a Sea Cruise?

Frank Bruni wrote a piece in the New York Times the other day, urging politicians to seek more solitude:
Take more time away. Spend more time alone. Trade the speechifying for solitude, which no longer gets anything close to the veneration it’s due, not just in politics but across many walks of life.
It’s in solitude that much of the sharpest thinking is done and many of the best ideas are hatched.
Coincidentally, I was reading about how FDR came up with the Lend-Lease program to aid Britain before the United States entered World War II, which makes Bruni's point perfectly.

Film title from an earlier FDR cruise,
from an FDR Library archival film
After winning his unprecedented third term the previous month, on December 2, 1940, FDR set off aboard the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa for a two-week cruise in the Caribbean.

Now, try to imagine the indignation today if Barack Obama slipped away from Washington (without any notice, no less!) for a two-week sea cruise.

FDR's cruise was not hidden, but rather
filmed for use in Navy recruiting
Not only did FDR not hesitate to take a vacation, he also did pretend it was a "working" vacation. He took a few close friends and advisors, and according to David Kaiser in his fine new book, No End Save Victory, they "spent the two weeks fishing, playing poker, sunning themselves and watching movies in the evening." Though the White House tried to portray it as a base-inspection tour, FDR "boasted proudly after his return that he did not read any of the working papers he had brought with him."

FDR fishing during a February 1940 southern cruise
That did not mean, however, that this was unproductive time.

FDR did read at least one item of business, what Winston Churchill called one of the most important letters he ever wrote--an appeal for the United States to drop its "cash and carry" requirement on aid to Britain because Britain no longer had the cash to pay.

Churchill later wrote:
Harry Hopkins [one of FDR's companions on the trip] told me later that Mr Roosevelt read and re-read this letter as he sat alone on his deck chair, and that for two days he did not seem to have reached any clear conclusion. He was plunged in intense thought, and brooded silently.
Hopkins said:
I didn't know for quite awhile what he was thinking about, but then--I began to get the idea that he was refueling, the way he so often does when he seems to be resting and care-free. So I didn't ask him any questions. Then, one evening, he suddenly came out with it--the whole program.
Two things are key here--FDR's own understanding that he needed to occasionally "refuel" in order to do his job well, and the understanding of his close friend and advisor Hopkins that FDR needed to be left alone to think. He allowed his boss the time to brood silently.

Could there be a better riposte to today's obsession with being busy for the sake of being busy, meeting for the sake of meeting? None of us bear the tremendous burdens that FDR had at the time--a world war to navigate the nation through--yet we are so prone to exaggerate our own importance and pose as too busy to "waste" time.

FDR was wiser. There was nothing wasteful about his sea cruise vacation. It was an investment, and one that paid off for the entire world.

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