You Don't Have To Be President To Have Power

An early champion of civil rights and a lifelong defender of the less fortunate, she has made a difference in the lives of millions of ordinary Americans. She knew what it took as she sat across from the man she found too young and too brash to lead.
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The day before this year's Democratic National Convention, I visited the home of perhaps the most powerful woman in America. For most of her adult life, this woman had a front
row seat on history.

An early champion of civil rights and a lifelong defender of the less fortunate, she has made a difference in the lives of millions of ordinary Americans. Presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens, even dictators came to her doorstep -- the back doorstep actually, and the same way I entered the house -- to seek her counsel and wisdom.

According to one telling story, when her own candidate lost his bid for the presidential nomination, the winning Democratic nominee came to this very living room and asked for her endorsement. Sitting in the wingtip chair across a small circular table, she found the man "too young, too brash," according to someone who knows, a "disaster waiting to happen" to the country.

She knew what it took to lead the nation. She herself had been First Lady. After a stern and difficult discussion about the issues facing the country, she endorsed the ambitious young man and pledged to help build a Democratic Party coalition.

Here at Valkill in the Hudson River Valley, at the private refuge and the only place she truly considered home, on this perfect summer afternoon before the convention, I wondered what it took for this brilliant, driven woman to pledge her support to John F. Kennedy, a man she felt was not the best person for the job. She had wanted Adlai Stevenson.

This was a woman, after all, whose husband had been elected president four times and, had things been different, many believed she may have been the first female chief executive of the United States.

But that was not to be Eleanor Roosevelt's destiny. Though she never held the highest office in the land she lived her life with passion and purpose; and perhaps wielded more power than many presidents. After her stint as First Lady, she went on to become the first representative to the newly-formed United Nations. She helped draft the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," a document that she believed would help "prevent human misery rather than avenge it."

Eleanor Roosevelt never got to be president of the United States though she may have been the most qualified at the time to occupy that office. "We make our own history," she said. "It is more intelligent to hope than not to hope, to try rather than not to try. Nothing is achieved by the person who says it can't be done."

Once, when the KKK put a $25,000 bounty on her head, when First Ladies didn't have Secret Service protection, she drove alone to Little Rock, Arkansas to march for civil rights. "Courage is more exhilarating than fear," she said.

The most powerful woman in America knew that you don't have to be president to bring about change you believe in.

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