Morning Joe | February 18, 2013
>>> welcome back to " morning joe ." here with us now from washington , the former speaker of the house and former republican presidential candidate , newt gingrich . mr. speaker, obviously a historian, former and present.
>> happy presidents ' day.
>> give me your list of three greatest presidents . who are the three greatest presidents in u.s. history ?
>> well, i think you probably have to say washington because he really was the father of the country . lincoln because without him the union probably would have collapsed. and franklin delano roosevelt , who was the leader of the country during the second world war . his 12 years are an extraordinary achievement.
>> talk about roosevelt 's 12 years. here was a guy that when he was first elected in 1932 , a lot of people thought he was a dilettante, he had -- until obviously he was stricken by polio that he might not be deep enough for the job, he might not be up for the job. yet, my mother in rural georgia 12 years later when he died, they thought the world was going to come to an end. my mom said fdr was king. he was remarkable, he saved us.
>> well, i think first of all, the quote you're alluding to by walter lipman, who was the leading call lead ing columnist of a man said he's a real nice man but has no qualifications to be president. that was pretty rapidly wiped out by his ability. let's be clear. roosevelt was devious. she was duplicitous. people often said that if you had a choice between a correct route and a crooked route, he always took the crooked route. i think part of that was being bound in a wheelchair. on the other hand, he had enormous firmness of purpose. he was naturally optimistic. remember, this is a man who was in a wheelchair at a time when almost nobody in a wheelchair has a public life . he wheels himself to the presidency. he is deliberately optimistic, even after pearl harbor . and that optimism infects the country. i think the roosevelt optimism is in some ways as important as any single program because it reminded us that america is a great country, that we can do great things, and as he himself said in 1933 , we have nothing to fear but fear itself . it was an extraordinary psychological achievement.
>> so three of the great presidents of the 20th century , and i think most historians would agree, would roosevelt , eisenhower , and lincoln . you talk about fdr being duplicitous. people that knew fdr were the first to admit, those closest to him, they never really got to know him. eisenhower , we've had a spate of eisenhower biographies. maybe eisenhower even admitted you can't get to the essence of ike. he's too hard to figure out. and reagan, the same. even nancy has said she didn't penetrate ronald reagan at all times. what is it about these three great presidents that were elusi elusive, even to those closest to them?
>> well, i did a documentary about ronald reagan called "running with destiny." in 90 minutes , you see from the outside how extraordinarily effective he is, but you're right. you can't quite penetrate the core of him. he's consistently optimistic, as eisenhower was. in eisenhower 's case, when they had their first meting after the german counterattack in the battle of the bulge , he said to his senior commanders, i want no frowns, no worries. we should have nothing but smiles. the germans have come out in the open. we now have a chance to defeat them. this willful optimism is a key part of successful leaders. the world is big and scary. having a leader who gives you energy and pulls you together as a team because they see a better future is an extraordinarily key part of who they are.
>> and of course, while you were saying that, we were showing pictures of fdr along with winston churchhill , another man optimistic in the most bleak of times. in 1940 , literally saved western civilization by willing the british people to do something many of the british people may have doubted in 1940 they could do.
>> you could make an argument churchill is the single most important figure in the 1940s . that very brief period, a lesser person would have crumbled. britain would have accepted a truce with nazi germany . we would be living today in a remarkably different world.
>> i think historians 500 years from now, if they were still studying what happened in the 20th century , will go back to 1940 and see what winston churchill did and that will stand out as one of the great examples of leadership of our time.
>> well, and i do think it's worth looking back, which is why i'm teaching this class at newt university about washington . i think washington is in some ways the least studied of our great presidents , parr stially because he wasn't much of a writer and his wife martha described his personal correspondence. the world was formed around him from 1775 until 1796 . it's easy to forget how much he really was the father of the country and how much we today owe our institutions and our attitudes to washington 's nobility and washington 's belief in the ability of people to govern themselves.
>> we always overlook washington . it's another guy who was hard to penetrate.
>> there's an enigmatic quality to them. you think about lincoln , we've seen with the film. there was a book a few years about written about lincoln as a depressive. you think about these leaders who were profoundly optimistic in their public persona. many of them kind of tortured by various demons. all of them presenting these puzzles. it's like why they make such great subjects for biographies. people are still trying to penetrate lincoln , still trying to figure out jefferson, still trying to figure out who these guys were. they're not simple men.
>> ask reagan's poor official biographer who just made a fool of himself. he had to make things up. poor edmond morris.
>> decided to write a " lord of the rings " kind of fantasy book .
>> decided to make things up. unbelievable. mark?
>> mr. speaker, can i ask you to use your historical so i think ryan will become the center of gravity in talking about how you can try to solve these problems. i would say second that there's a great opportunity here for the house republicans in particular to understand that the pentagon and the intelligence community need to be thoroughly overhauled. that instead of fearing the sequester, this is a great moment to hold a series of hearings, bring in all the past secretaries of defense and ask them to lay out what they would do to make the pentagon manageable and what they would do to make the intelligence community manageable. and didn't trap them and mire them down in huge volumes of bureaucracy and paperwork, i think you could run a better pentagon for less money. but that would be the bargain.
>> when you think of the great presidents of our time, and you think of what they were able to do by offering the public hope, and you think about the president now, and you think about all the folks in washington now where their greatest challenge is not offering hope but in many ways taking things away, how do you square that circle?
>> well, first of all, i'm enormously hopeful. i think it's a huge mistake to be negative about the future, and i think it's a sign of how everybody in washington is sucked into talking about trivia, and let me give you an example. i was fascinated recently to have a chance to talk with sebastian thrune, who is the engineer at google who is developing a engineless car. california, nevada make it legal to have a car without a driver. if you get to a high-quality driverless car , the degree for example, for elderly people with vision problems, you liberate their lives. the degree to which you reduce the cost of accidents, you take away 90 percent of current accident rates, you just had a revolution in cost and quality for the american system . but thrune is a remarkable figure. he had a class online, 151,000 students sign up worldwide, and the top stanford student was number 441 on the finals, there were that many quality people taking the course. his goal is to reduce tuition by 90%. you can look up udacity and google it. governor jerry brown just picked them to have a joint venture with san jose state . they're capping it at 300 students in phase one. we talk about a america, students optimistic, only 0%. that's the beginning of a positive future.
>> newt gingrich , thank you very much. happy president's day. good luck with your live class at newt u this flid on george washington .
>> at mount vernon . again, gorge washington is one of the least understood presidents , but no doubt --
>> coming up former southeastern adviser to president obama , david axelrod . you're watching " morning joe " brewed