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How Presidents Lead The Nation Through Crises

AP Photo
President Franklin D. Roosevelt takes the oath of office from Chief Justice Charles E. Hughes at the inauguration, March 4, 1933. At right is Herbert Hoover and behind the president is his eldest son James Roosevelt.

United States presidents have been tested by world crises going back to the days of George Washington – some have measured up better than others.

Two presidential historians join River to River host Ben Kieffer to talk about presidential leadership in trying times. Tim Walch, the retired director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, and Tim Naftali, clinical professor of history and public service at New York University and former director at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, examine presidential visions for survival and recovery in times of crisis throughout U.S. history.

Naftali describes an important trait a sitting president should embody, the power of not speaking more than a president may need to.

“As we go through some of the past crises, we will see the most successful leaders have not always been talking and have chosen those moments on when to speak,” Naftali said. “At a time like this, one of the ways to ensure presidents don’t spread misinformation is to make sure the briefings are from people who are very close to the situation and who are expert in it.”

Naftali added that past briefings, with the country at war, were shared with the American public through The Pentagon. Walch affirmed that every president has had crises to face, but the most important thing the American people have wanted from their presidents is the truth.

“Even if it’s bad,” Walch said. “We can’t gloss things over. Those are hallmarks in times of crises whether it’s war or a public health epidemic.”

Naftali and Walch discussed examples such as Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great Depression and World War II, George W. Bush with 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina and John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crises.       


  • Tim Naftali, author, clinical professor of history and public service at NYU and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
  • Tim Walch, presidential historian and retired director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch 
Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River