20th century leaders and their lessons for today

(CBS News) Caged in one of the most partisan periods in political history, lawmakers today could learn a thing or two from 20th century leaders, a panel of presidential authors agreed today on "Face the Nation."

The ongoing "sequester mess" that unfolded out of Washington's gridlock "seems like such a small problem when you read what [Winston] Churchill was dealing with in those early days," Bob Schieffer opined on the former British prime minister. Indeed, agreed Paul Reid, who finished the third edition William Manchester's Winston Churchill biography "The Last Lion," saying Churchill's work ethic is a model template for lawmakers today.

"'Action this day,' he used to stamp on memos," Reid said of Churchill. "He believed in action every day, all day."

As Churchill championed against a Nazi Germany, added Lynne Olson, author of "Those Angry Days," he faced a U.S. government that was even more divided than it is today.

"We think about Vietnam; we think about McCarthyism," she said. "But I think that period before the war, before World War II, was even more divisive: The interventionists versus the isolationists. The country was incredibly polarized, incredibly divided politically. Washington was kind of like now - it was a real snake pit."

Engaged through much of his presidency in an unbridled rivalry with renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "this is going to be a dirty fight," Olson continued. "And he helped kind of make it that way."

Roosevelt himself could have taken a cue from one of his predecessors, suggested Amity Shlaes, author of a new biography on Calvin Coolidge. The 30th president, she said, stands as a reminder that "a politician may serve uncynically and still win."

"Coolidge cut the budget over and over again because he thought it was good for the economy," Shlaes said. "Now politicians say that's not possible - you always have to give the voter something. The voters knew it might be better for the economy if the government cut back, and they saw Coolidge doing it, which was painful - painful for him, too - but he did. He left a budget smaller than he found it.

"...This is a different kind of leader," she continued. "'Silent Cal' led by refraining. He was our great refrainer. He did by not doing and holding government back, often. So Washington didn't know what to make of him."

Lessons can also come from the unlikeliest of past leaders, said Jeffrey Frank, whose book "Ike and Dick" examined the strained relationship between Dwight D. Eisenhower and his vice president Richard Nixon.

Whereas Eisenhower was "a five-star general and exuded five-star generalness," commanding respect and authority by simply showing up, Frank said, Nixon - not yet the disgraced former president - was "a real striver." Actively involved in the civil rights movement, he continued, Nixon held a surprising sense of "idealism when it came to America's destiny in the world."

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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