Barack Obama

Visualizing the Four Essential Freedoms – Then and Now

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

The inspirational words of President Roosevelt in 1941 about core American values fell largely on deaf ears as the nation was still trying to climb out of a deep recession. Two years later, America’s painter Norman Rockwell made Roosevelt’s words something people could remember. [Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections]

As war ravaged Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in 1941 that extolled what he called “four essential freedoms” –  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He gave a better-known speech later that year after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

FDR’s powerful and aspirational message about a postwar world might have been lost in historical dust except for four remarkable paintings by America’s painter Norman Rockwell that turned the message into tangible imagery.

On their 75th anniversary, the Rockwell paintings are going on tour, along with subsequent depictions of Roosevelt’s four freedoms, including works by artists who put their own modern twist on what those freedoms mean – or may not mean.

Rockwell wrote in his autobiography he was inspired to create the paintings by FDR’s lofty ideals and by watching a citizen at a Vermont town meeting espousing an unpopular view. His paintings give life to both the ideals and the humanity of FDR’s words.

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The Rockwell paintings are a prime example of how abstract thoughts can be translated into pictures with an impact. The paintings appeared one by one over four weeks in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. They captured the imagination of Americans at a time when the outcome of the war was far from decided.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

Rockwell’s original paintings capturing FDR’s inspirational words have continued to stimulate artists who have reimagined what FDR’s words mean in the world we inhabit today.

"One of Rockwell's most remarkable aspects was that he could paint across such a wide spectrum of subjects," Norman Rockwell Museum Director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said in an interview with The Berkshire Eagle. "`Four Freedoms' are among his most enduring masterpieces."

In the past week, the nation has witnessed in the memorials to the late Senator John McCain a procession of symbolic acts to underscore core views that McCain held dear – honor, principle and respect. His memorial also reminded Americans of the value of civil dialogue and considered compromise.

At a time that former President Obama noted in his eulogy of McCain when political discourse has become “small, mean and petty,” McCain’s last act was to put on a how to extol American bedrock values embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. His orchestrated memorials could have the same effect as Rockwell’s paintings.

"These paintings remind us to ask ourselves, what freedoms are we prepared to stand for today?" Norton Moffatt said. "All of these questions are uppermost in people's minds today – how far should government go to keep us safe and potentially tread on the rights and freedoms of an open society that our democracy is built on."

Rockwell’s paintings “gave people something to remember,” the Smithsonian reported. It resonated because the people living out the four freedoms were ordinary Americans.

Rockwell’s paintings have inspired newer generations of interpretations of the four freedoms, ones that show faces of diversity and contemporary applications, like the photograph of the family table where the grandfather is taking a selfie and the children are tuned into their devices. They also reflect the marginalization some Americans feel regarding their freedoms, such as the painting that depicts an African-American man cast a worried look out the window as his wife tucks away their two children. The man is holding a newspaper with a headline about a black man who died after being strangled by police.

The original Rockwell paintings and their re-imagined descendants with modern visual messaging betray a trait of the American democracy the original and new art celebrate – the intergenerational exchange of ideas. While the words may have grown stale, the images remain vibrant, certainly vibrant enough to continue to stir debate and modern imitation and reinvention. 

Roosevelt and Rockwell would undoubtedly be delighted. So would McCain.

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Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling

Look for Bright Spots, Not Red Lines

President Obama and his red line has proven once again the truth of the parental maxim, "Be prepared to carry through on the threat you make."

Parents frequently threaten a child with a timeout or, later, taking away their smart phone or curbing driving privileges. Be careful what you threaten. Some times, many times, children will test you. If you don't follow through on your threatened punishment, the child knows he or she can push the limits with impunity.

That's the logic Obama used in warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons in his battle to retain power. Now that Assad by all appearances has tested Obama and his red line, Obama faces the politically awkward choice of administering a military spanking. The President is in a box of his own making.

Business leaders frequently paint themselves into a similar corner. They make threats about layoffs or even shutting down and moving elsewhere, only later to back down.

The lesson is to bite your tongue when you feel a threat ready to pop out. There are smarter ways to handle touchy situations.

It may be too late for Obama to retract his red line and try something else, but here are some suggestions you might use:

1. Listen

Before threatening, try listening to opponents and see if you can detect areas of agreement or concerns you can alleviate. The act of getting off your high horse and talking directly to people is disarming. Even if some opponents remain abusive, stay clam and stress you are there to listen and learn. Your opponents will get the message.

2. Collaborate

Another tried-and-true way to disarm opponents is to recommend some sort of collaboration. This could be on a community project that would be funded if your proposal is approved or it could be a study of potential impacts. It may even take the form of mediation. Getting you and your opponents around a common table is a way for you to assess the mettle of your opponents and to build a basic level of trust.

3. Innovate

People may be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if they see a greater good. One way to offer up a greater good is to innovate. Maybe it is an innovative community engagement process. Or an innovative community investment. Accompanying your project with an an innovative element could turn potential opponents into dedicated advocates.

4. Communicate

Once you have engaged opponents, keep talking. Don't let your communications lapses become pauses that breed doubt and suspicion. Think of communication as the proof of your transparency. Tell the truth and tell it often.

5. Execute

Nothing builds trust more, even amid lingering disagreement, than diligent follow-through. Do what you say. Do it on time. If in doubt, do it more than you promised. Nobody ever gets mad when you do more than say you will do. But you give opponents opportunity on a platter when you don't do what you say.

Leave the red lines to someone else. Instead find the bright spots and cultivate them.

Redeeming an Offensive Tweet

It is hard to imagine a more embarrassing or insensitive tweet than the one posted by someone at KitchenAid during this week's presidential debate. And it would be hard to top the quick, firm and smart response by the person who manages the KitchenAid brand.

During comments by President Obama where he mentioned his grandmother, this appeared on the @KitchenAidUSA Twitter feed: "Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! 'She died 3 days b4 he became president'. #nbcpolitics"

As reported by Michael Sebastian of PR Daily, the tweet ignited an online firestorm — and a swift apology from Cynthia Soledad, head of the KitchenAid brand. She tweeted:

"I would like to personally apologize to President @BarackObama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier. It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won't be tweeting for us anymore. That said, I take full responsibility for my team. Thank you for hearing me out."

Soledad also tweeted individual media outlets that commented on the "offensive tweet," asking them for an off-line, on-the-record conversation about the incident.

Because the response was immediate and decisive, the damage was controlled. By today, there was a tweet on the KitchenAid Twitter feed about a faulty blender, not a smart-ass tweeter.