Jeremi Suri: History of American Power | Lex Fridman Podcast #180 | Summary and Q&A

April 29, 2021
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Jeremi Suri: History of American Power | Lex Fridman Podcast #180


FDR was a great leader who had the ability to empathize with people's suffering and unite them through his powerful words.

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Questions & Answers

Q: What made FDR such a great leader?

FDR had the power of empathy and was able to understand and address the needs and concerns of the American people. He utilized his words to inspire hope and create a sense of unity.

Q: How did FDR connect with people from different backgrounds?

FDR had the ability to relate to people's suffering and make them feel understood, regardless of their background. He conveyed a strong sense of common mission and made people feel like they were part of something bigger.

Q: Did FDR face opposition in his efforts to unite the American people during the Great Depression?

Yes, FDR faced criticism and opposition from various groups, including politicians and public figures. However, his ability to communicate effectively and empathetically helped him navigate through these challenges.

Q: Why didn't FDR do more to stop the killing of Jews during World War II?

There is ongoing debate about the actions FDR could have taken to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Some argue that he could have ordered bombings of concentration camps, while others believe that the logistical challenges and political considerations made it difficult for him to intervene directly.

Q: What made FDR such a great leader?

FDR had the power of empathy and was able to understand and address the needs and concerns of the American people. He utilized his words to inspire hope and create a sense of unity.

More Insights

  • FDR's leadership was characterized by his ability to empathize with the suffering of the American people.

  • He used powerful words to inspire hope and create a sense of unity during difficult times.

  • FDR's success as a leader came from his understanding of human nature, his strategic communication skills, and his commitment to a common mission.

  • The power of empathy and storytelling can be effective tools for leaders to connect with people from different backgrounds and unite them.

  • It is important for leaders to ask the right questions and surround themselves with individuals who can challenge their thinking and offer different perspectives.

  • The dynamics of power can be corrupting, and it is essential for leaders to recognize the limitations of their power and prioritize the interests of the people they serve.

  • History can provide valuable lessons to leaders, but they must understand the patterns of change and adapt their strategies accordingly.

  • The success of a leader depends on their ability to articulate the hopes, fears, and aspirations of the people they serve while also addressing the challenges and complexities of the present moment.


In this conversation, historian Jeremy Sury discusses the characteristics of great American presidents, focusing on Abraham Lincoln. He explores how Lincoln gave voice to the voiceless, including African-Americans, slaves, and poor white men. Sury also examines the trajectory of Lincoln's ambition and the meaning of freedom. Additionally, the conversation delves into the power dynamics and politics involved in the presidency, the changes in the role of the presidency over time, and the responsibility of the president in making difficult decisions. Sury provides insights into the importance of studying history, the complexities of power, and the challenges faced by leaders in navigating the demands of their roles.

Questions & Answers

Q: Who does Jeremy Sury think was the greatest president in American history?

According to Sury, the greatest American president was Abraham Lincoln. He attributes this assessment to the fact that Lincoln gave voice to people who had no voice before and turned politics into an art. Lincoln's ability to help people imagine a better world and his commitment to giving voice to both slaves and poor white men made him a unique and influential president.

Q: Who did Lincoln give voice to when he was president?

Lincoln gave voice to a wide range of individuals, including African-Americans, slaves, and immigrants from different parts of Europe and elsewhere who came to the United States seeking opportunities. However, his efforts were not limited to specific groups; he also sought to provide a voice for ordinary American citizens and the Republican Party, which he was a part of, aimed to give voice to poor white men as well.

Q: How did Lincoln's limited educational background influence his ambitions and ideals?

Despite having only two years of formal education, Lincoln's limited educational background did not hinder his ambitions and ideals. Instead, it fueled his desire for success and freedom. Lincoln grew up without many resources, and he strived to be free and independent, which he linked to being compensated for his hard work and having control over his life. His hunger for success and independence shaped his pursuit of self-improvement and his belief in the importance of opportunities for all Americans.

Q: Was Lincoln's ambition driven by a hunger for power?

Lincoln's ambition was more driven by a hunger for success and a desire to escape the poor station he was born into. He also sought freedom and independence, not just in terms of being able to do anything he wanted, but as a means of being secure from being dependent on someone else. Lincoln's childhood experiences and observations of his father treating him poorly may have contributed to his disdain for slavery and his desire for personal independence.

Q: Is there a difference between being an effective public speaker and having power in private one-on-one conversations?

Yes, there is a difference between being an effective public speaker and having power in private one-on-one conversations. In public speaking, a charismatic and charismatic and compelling speech can inspire or move a large audience. In contrast, private one-on-one conversations provide an opportunity for more nuanced persuasion and storytelling. Leaders who excel in one-on-one interactions have the ability to read people, anticipate them, listen effectively, and use storytelling techniques to disarm and navigate conversations for a desired outcome.

Q: What impact can a president have in terms of relationships?

As a president or politician, the most impactful relationships can be those where you have the power to persuade, negotiate, or influence key individuals or groups. By building strong relationships, a president can attract support, direct resources, and rally cooperation towards their goals or policy initiatives. Engaging with leaders of different constituencies, such as labor unions or investment boards, enables the president to address diverse interests and build broader coalitions.

Q: How has the role of the presidency changed throughout history?

The role of the presidency has evolved significantly over time. Some key changes include the president's ability to communicate directly with the public, the heightened scrutiny and judgment presidents face, and the increasing power they possess. Presidents now have the means to communicate directly, bypassing traditional media channels. However, this also increases the burden and expectations placed on presidents to carefully manage their words and actions. Additionally, presidents hold immense power, including the ability to deliver force, make impactful decisions, and influence global affairs, which comes with both benefits and inherent risks.

Q: Can a president initiate assassinations or other secretive actions without the knowledge of the public?

It is possible for a president to make decisions, such as authorizing assassinations or engaging in clandestine activities, without public knowledge or approval. While there are legal limitations and checks on presidential power, secrecy and covert operations have been utilized, particularly in counterterrorism efforts. However, the president's ability to access information and make these decisions is often shaped by those around them, as well as the institutional structures and processes in place.

Q: What characteristics make a leader effective in terms of power and decision-making?

Effective leaders are often individuals who possess the ability to size up others, listen actively, anticipate behaviors, and react strategically. They ask the right questions, have a quickness of thought, and possess an understanding of human nature. The best leaders are often listeners rather than talkers, able to analyze and respond to situations swiftly, and skilled at storytelling that can persuade, disarm, and encourage reflection. They combine emotional intelligence and critical thinking to navigate complex power dynamics and make impactful decisions.

Q: How has the presidency as a concept changed over time?

The presidency as a concept has experienced significant changes over time. It is important to recognize that the office was not always the same as it is today and that the power and expectations attached to the presidency have evolved. Examples of these changes include the president's increased ability to communicate directly with the public, the heightened scrutiny and visibility of the president's actions and personal behavior, and the expansion of powers held by the presidency, such as the ability to engage in military actions. These changes demonstrate the dynamic nature of the presidency in response to historical circumstances and societal demands.

Q: What kind of human does it take to willingly give up power like George Washington did?

George Washington's willingness to relinquish power and his recognition of the power of disinterested statesmanship are notable characteristics. Such individuals often possess self-awareness, sophistication, and an understanding of the influence they have by not craving power. However, giving up power can be challenging due to the seductive nature of the trappings of power. Additionally, the structures and dynamics of a society, as well as institutional pressures, can influence leaders' willingness or ability to relinquish power. The ability to transcend self-interest and prioritize the welfare of the nation or larger purpose may also be defining qualities in leaders who choose to give up power.


Throughout the conversation, several key takeaways emerge. First, Abraham Lincoln is regarded by Jeremy Sury as the greatest American president due to his ability to give voice to those who were voiceless, his skill in turning politics into an art, and his capacity to inspire individuals to imagine a better world. Second, effective leadership encompasses both effective public speaking and skillful private one-on-one conversations. Listening, storytelling, and the ability to anticipate and react strategically are crucial elements of successful interactions. Third, the presidency has changed over time, offering leaders greater ability to communicate directly with the public, subjecting them to increased scrutiny, and endowing them with substantial power. Lastly, leaders who possess self-awareness, strategic thinking, and a commitment to balance and disinterested statesmanship are more likely to relinquish power when appropriate, facilitating the greater good and the stability of their positions in the long run.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • FDR was able to give voice to the suffering of the American people during the Great Depression and unite them through empathy and a sense of common mission.

  • He utilized his power of empathy to connect with people from different backgrounds and make them feel heard and understood.

  • FDR's ability to convey hope and a common purpose through his speeches and actions helped inspire Americans during challenging times.

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