Filmmaker Ken Burns has created an absorbing account of the two presidents named Roosevelt, with Franklin’s wife Eleanor as a connection between the two, in a new 14-hour, seven-part PBS series, The Roosevelts. The series, which I previewed in full, premieres this Sunday. Besides being well worth watching, it is informative, biased and uncontroversial.
Anyone who seeks to understand why the United States of America went from extraordinary advancements during the post-Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th century to today’s 21st century decline into economic stagnation and rise of total government control will learn from this in-depth series. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin, Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt, are remarkably similar in propelling the country into war and the welfare state. Their accomplishments, whatever one’s political philosophy, are in fact significant in shaping the nation’s future. They are, as Professor John Lewis taught about FDR, not without positive achievements. Their anti-capitalist mark on America is deep and strong. The Roosevelts illustrates why.
The miniseries begins at 54 Wall Street in Manhattan, where the roots of these two anti-moneymaking presidents, born to inherited wealth, are firmly planted. Soon, Franklin Roosevelt is seen and heard speaking at the unveiling of Thomas Jefferson’s bust at Mount Rushmore on what future generations of Americans will think of and whether future generations will grant the benefit of the doubt that they sought to create “a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.” From here, a historian promptly differentiates between Theodore Roosevelt’s and Thomas Jefferson’s views of government; it’s made clear that Jefferson saw government could only do what was specifically referenced in the Constitution while Teddy Roosevelt thought government could rightly do anything not specifically prohibited by the Constitution. Among the experts interviewed, one of the few who is dubious of the Roosevelts is George Will, who tells the audience that both Roosevelt presidents viewed the Constitution “as a nuisance”.
So, from the outset, it should be clear how these two men shaped the nation. Their overriding morality, altruism—the idea that service to others is man’s highest purpose—permeates their lives, careers and presidencies. As Ken Burns’ collaborator, Roosevelt expert Geoffrey C. Ward says in the premiere: “They put emphasis on helping others.” George Will is among several scholars interviewed. Admirers include MSNBC favorites Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin (who has admitted to plagiarism) and, more objectively, historian David McCullough.
This post is an extensive report and review of each episode in this outstanding series.
Episode 1: Get Action
All the Roosevelts were born in Manhattan. They were born to wealth created by family members who traded in real estate, banking, West Indian sugar and imported plate glass, none of which is explored here. Two branches of the family had summer homes in Hyde Park and Oyster Bay and, on October 27, 1858, Theodore Roosevelt was born. The premiere focuses on the sickly child known later as TR. His father’s inherited wealth bankrolled the elder Roosevelt’s late 19th century philosophy that duty—to society, others, etc.—is the highest virtue. This first episode shows that TR’s father gave most of his time to charity while his son Theodore struggled through infirmaries with fear, which foreshadows that TR became obsessed with overcoming weakness and fear. According to The Roosevelts, TR wondered how his father could fail to fight for the Union during the Civil War.
Young Teddy Roosevelt watched assassinated President Lincoln’s funeral procession in Manhattan. He traveled to Africa. He took lessons in taxidermy, kept live mice in drawers and dead mice in the icebox and he shot a dog for barking when he was angry. In short, his childhood as depicted was dominated by fear, pain, war, death and an abundance of wealth. That TR’s father died days after he was rejected for an appointment to a government post that he apparently wanted very, very badly predisposes the son’s needy, desperate life in politics. TR married (his first wife’s name was Alice) on his birthday, October 27, 1880.
Shortly thereafter, Teddy Roosevelt, who most here admit was probably what would today be called bipolar, dropped out of Columbia Law School and ran and won a seat in New York’s General Assembly as a Republican. He was 23 years old. TR’s election was six days before Franklin Roosevelt was born to Sarah Delano and her husband, James Roosevelt, an Episcopalian conservative Democrat who had been widowed after marriage to his cousin. The Roosevelts alternates throughout the series between TR and FDR, with profile stories about FDR’s wife Eleanor interspersed.
Ambitious TR as politician wasted no time going after capitalists, denouncing Stephen Jay Gould and insistently if artificially forging a persona as a man of the people. His wife and mother died mere hours apart following the birth of a child and, handing his newborn baby over to his sister to raise as her own, TR was again scarred by pain and misery, riding off into the badlands, becoming a rancher and failing at the cattle business. So began in earnest his lifelong commitment to form a hyper-masculine approach to living that became part of his legend.
There is no doubt that TR was accomplished. He wrote books and kept pushing himself into action. As Evan Thomas puts it, “you could say that TR was a slightly crazy, functioning neurotic.” The first episode covers intimate family details. TR’s alcoholic brother Elliott died after TR had him admitted into an insane asylum. He remarried and had more children and, like his father, he believed that he had a moral obligation to put helping others above all else.
Theodore Roosevelt applied this political philosophy with the unbridled ambition for which he held others in business in contempt. As an appointee with the postmasters office, he became more popular with Democrats, including Grover Cleveland, than he ever was with members of his own Republican party. He was appointed to a police commission and promptly closed saloons on Sundays. When 30,000 immigrant workers protested, TR faced them down, which led to a mass exodus of voters to the Democrats. TR’s own GOP boss called him “a bull in a china shop” and it stuck. His stubbornness continued throughout his career and so did the unbounded ambition. TR lobbied William McKinley for a new government position (assistant secretary of the navy) which he got, making a new path toward burnishing a military reputation.
Teddy Roosevelt was, by one commentator’s account here, “the most significant imperialist in American history”. In fact, he gave a speech to the U.S. Naval War College described by one expert as “the most aggressive foreign policy speech in all of American history”. As George Will puts it, “TR liked war” and he was a believer in “the survival of the fittest” and that “might makes right”. The first episode sufficiently establishes that the first President Roosevelt, who railed against capitalism, business and enterprise and charged forth with militarism, was himself an utterly neurotic huckster who railed and rode with rough riders in battles against Spain at Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, aptly depicted here as a reckless charge poorly executed with TR failing to give orders and men being shot all around. Afterwards, Teddy Roosevelt was “reveling in victory and gore” and the battle with Spain over Cuba, sparked by an initiation of force against the U.S.S. Maine, was remembered as “a splendid little war” in which Teddy Roosevelt felt that he’d vindicated his father, evoking George W. Bush waging an altruistic war for the sake of Iraq after his father’s failure to topple a dictator.
Roosevelt ran for governor of New York after being recruited by a power-lusting politician and barnstormed on the campaign after being dubiously introduced as the one who led the charge of San Juan Hill. TR was actually introduced by one of his comrades as the man who “led us like lambs to the slaughter and he will lead you too…” That he was also suspected of “harboring altruistic ideas” and of being “a little loose on questions affecting the right of the man to run his own business in his own way” goes to the core of what we now know about Theodore Roosevelt: that he believed in government intervention, he taxed corporations, he issued new dictates on factories, he seized private land in the Catskills and in the Adirondacks and he did so for government control. In this part, the focus is on the young Teddy Roosevelt, though the child FDR is covered, too, as a coddled momma’s boy in curls who attends an all-boys school and is encouraged to hide, repress and conceal his emotions, keeping bad thoughts to himself. In other words, the boy Franklin Roosevelt is perfectly predisposed to look up to the man Theodore Roosevelt, which he does and will with a singularly enormous impact on American history.
Episode 2: In the Arena
The focus stays on TR, with rare footage of him at McKinley’s funeral following the president’s assassination by an anarchist. Again, George Will is insightful, observing that “it’s from Teddy Roosevelt [that] the American people first get their sense of political excitement from the president.” The first American president to use his personality to inculcate a cult of personality uses it to feed policies based on his scorn for wealth.
One expert interviewed suggests that President Theodore Roosevelt saw government as “a restraining mechanism on runaway capitalism” and that “if the Constitution doesn’t allow that, we’re going to do it anyway.” TR sought to “curb [capitalism’s] worst excesses” according to Ken Burns’ documentary’s second episode. But it names not a single excess of capitalism. Not one. The series’ coverage of his antitrust legislation, which became law and damaged American productivity, forever distorting the free market and condemning future entrepreneurial success to whatever degree capitalism existed, is superficial. The omission of antitrust’s impact on the country – spearheaded by Teddy Roosevelt – is among the worst transgressions by The Roosevelts.
Evidence that TR was obsessed with controlling his public image is abundant. White House photographers were forbidden from shooting President Roosevelt playing tennis, for instance, because he thought voters would perceive tennis as a rich man’s sport. TR insisted on shooting himself on a horse twice for photo opportunities, again to reinforce the image that he was an outdoorsman as against an idle rich president playing tennis. But rather than explore the roots of his charlatanism, TR is treated as the heroic anti-capitalist who forced companies, depicted as evil, to pay higher wages.
Both TR and his young cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, were bred at Harvard, though FDR, it’s illustrated and explained, didn’t fit in at Harvard and wasn’t well liked, one of the series’ key pity points on FDR, who looks weak and lost in every early photograph. Amid the interspersing between the president Theodore and young heir Franklin, there are great American stories about Mark Twain denouncing TR’s imperialism in the Philippine incursion, the building of the Panama Canal and TR’s warped view of what constitutes civilization. What a remarkable influence TR had on fostering the fallacy that the 20th century was an American century, which is in fact the opposite of what’s true.
For her part, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was made to feel ugly by her mother, emerges in the second part. Poor young Eleanor used to be obliged to rub her mother’s forehead, which is how the future first lady apparently learned that the way to be loved was to help others. It’s a wicked idea instilled by an apparently wicked woman, Eleanor’s mother, who called her daughter “granny”. The mind reels at the thought of a girl being raised by such a monster and Eleanor is a terribly sad-looking girl in pictures. Her father, too, was an alcoholic (as were other Roosevelts) who was delusional and, according to this series, she, too, was delusional, asking about being reunited with her pappy in heaven. Raised by her grim, pious grandmother – Eleanor’s mother was uninterested in her daughter – two drunken uncles and an abusive nurse, poor Eleanor appears to have been a seriously neglected and abused child.
Uncle Teddy Roosevelt, whom Eleanor greatly admired, didn’t help but at least offered the girl the sight of a man of action. When he learned that his young relative couldn’t swim, acting in accordance with his own survival of the fittest philosophy, TR threw the homely child into the water. Three years at a girls’ school that emphasized being socially conscious were an escape from the terror for Eleanor. She learned to think for herself there and, later, fell in love with her fifth cousin, Franklin. With TR winning re-election as president after pledging not to run again for another term, and FDR’s mother wedging herself between Franklin and Eleanor, Eleanor found fulfillment in “helping others”. She planned her wedding to Franklin, who also looked up to President Roosevelt, around TR’s attendance and by this time it is clear that the family’s insular dynamic defines the rich Roosevelts’ detachment from the reality of everyday American lives. Befitting an establishment affair, the New York Times called Franklin’s and Eleanor’s wedding “a royal alliance”. Even TR seemed aware of the incestuousness, telling FDR on his wedding day that “there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.”
Franklin Roosevelt sleepwalked and grew hives and, like Teddy, was defined by sickness. Other parallels also evoke the Kennedy clan, which was also wealthy, steeped in the idea of subjugating the individual to the family, collective and others and filled with sick, weak children, and life in the White House with Teddy Roosevelt gets a closer look. Kids, especially male children, were pushed beyond reason, and TR allowed pets to roam everywhere at the White House. It sounds like TR’s White House years were like a Bobby and Ethel Kennedy family rampage of wildness, with a pony being smuggled into a White House elevator, spitballs being lodged against a portrait of George Washington and other acts of abandon. The chaos apparently took a toll on TR’s kids as Alice became the first teenaged girl to grow up in the White House, later smoking, betting on horses, flirting with young men and diverting attention to herself at one of her father’s press conferences.
The rest of this second episode, which explores TR’s interpretation of what it means to be “in the arena” as he famously said, attempts to exonerate TR for his progressivism, which really amounts to a leftist redistribution of wealth. Under TR’s arguably unconstitutional rule, there is an unprecedented continuation of government control of the economy as the Industrial Revolution is incrementally shuttered and closed with the Hepburn Act, the Interstate Commerce Commission and, for first time in American history, granting the rulings of a federal agency the power of law. TR, who was an environmentalist, further championed the Pure Food and Drug Act and totally redefined the role of the state. He signed the Antiquities Act. He created the U.S. forest service. He enacted federal lands preservation without asking permission of Congress. And, for all his claims of being a true progressive, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that he thought it would be thousands of years before the negro would be the intellectual equal of whites.
Meryl Streep as the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt is distracting. She is too affected, as usual, to let the audience merely linger in what Mrs. Roosevelt may have really been like. By all admissions and accounts, Eleanor was a terrible mother and she felt she was to blame for the death of her baby Franklin. But as FDR emerges in this part, running as a Democrat in New York for the state legislature while shrewdly cashing in on his uncle Teddy and siphoning off GOP votes, with Republican TR’s blessing for FDR to run as a Democrat (and actor Paul Giamatti doing TR justice with his famously grand quotation ending in neither victory nor defeat), the true legacy of the Roosevelts – the omnipotent welfare state – begins to take shape.
Episode 3: The Fire of Life
With TR speaking of the “general right of the community to regulate” human action, the gradual shift of the Roosevelts from Republican to Progressive to Democrat is better understood in part three of the PBS series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
FDR, voiced expertly as always by Edward Herrmann, rides in a 1910 automobile as a candidate for New York’s state senate and he is elected in a sweep of Democrats, as Meryl Streep continues her distracting impression of wife Eleanor’s voice. For his part, TR broke his promise and ran as an independent for another term as president against his friend William Howard Taft in the new Progressive party, championing a woman’s right to vote, the right to form a union and other issues, especially cradle-to-grave welfare statism. In the words of historian Clay Jenkinson: “He believed that the only way to save capitalist America was to have a social democratic gradualist revolution here which we call progressivism.”
Democrats nominated Princeton University academic Woodrow Wilson (voiced by the late Eli Wallach) who said: “nothing new is happening in politics except Mr. [Theodore] Roosevelt who was always new. Being bound by nothing in the heavens above or in the earth below, he is rampant and very diligently employed in splitting his party wide-open so that we Democrats may get in.”
Wilson was right on. It was a devastating blow to the country with Woodrow Wilson winning the presidency with only 42 percent of the vote and Democrats seizing control of the House and Senate as well for the first time in almost two decades, giving Democrats unprecedented control of the American government. TR defeated Taft, but in doing so he assured Wilson the victory that led to a world at war and the modern welfare state. TR, who seemed in spite of his neuroticism and narcissism to be aware of the deep, serious damage to the nation, was depressed after Wilson’s election.
Meanwhile, FDR was being propelled in his rise while running for reelection to the state senate by a power-luster named Louie Howe described here as a “tiny, hideous little man”.
TR the supposedly common man fled in his despair to South America to voyage within proximity to flesh-eating piranhas. His latest adventure expedition ran out of food, with cannibals stalking his party and shooting one of the dogs full of arrows. TR hurt his leg and developed an infection, then encountered falls and rapids, resulting in yet another nature experience catastrophe so bad that they left their canoes and struck out into the rainforest with the idea – again, with TR’s lifelong credo in action – that it was “every man for himself”. TR planned to commit suicide by taking a lethal dose of morphine. They were saved. It is striking that his major charge against capitalism – that it was “the survival of the fittest” and must be controlled by the state – was chronically invoked in how he lived his extravagant, ostentatious and exorbitant lifestyle.
TR was a survivor indeed, managing to live past an assassination attempt and put on trial for libel. And he continued past his failed presidential run to comment on public policy, writing on August 1, 1914 about World War 1, known as the Great War. Wilson, like Obama, was agnostic or pacifistic about foreign affairs and wars, favoring neutrality. But, like Obama, he moved the nation toward folly in war and doubled the defense budget for what he called “preparedness”. By the end of this third part of The Roosevelts, unfortunately, Burns and company fail to establish any real connection between Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt; one gets no real sense of an actual relationship between the two men. If there was none, it ought to have been said and explored. Instead, the question of their relationship is left dangling.
But the Roosevelts’ legacy begins to take root in daily American life. Among President Wilson’s accomplishments thanks to TR’s third-party candidacy, which this documentary calls “Woodrow Wilson’s shrewd political skills”: a new antitrust statute, workmen’s compensation, a ban on child labor, the creation of a Federal Reserve Board, and a Federal Trade Commission.
America’s military involvement in the Great War appears to have liberated the woman Eleanor Roosevelt, who was so moved by the conditions under which U.S. soldiers lived that she raised private funds for their care, an honorable and apparently sincere effort on her part. So, too, was FDR changing due to war. He was deeply influenced by President Wilson during FDR’s seven years as Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy. Finally, as Teddy Roosevelt died at the age of 60 in 1919, Franklin Roosevelt collapsed with double pneumonia. Illness would transform him as it had TR.
Episode 4: The Storm
In 1920, FDR was nominated for the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate with James Cox, visiting the White House and President Wilson who, after a stroke, was feeling “defeated and helpless”. During this campaign, Eleanor grew close to Louie Howe. Cox and Roosevelt lost to the Republicans. As with Teddy, that which was charged against businessmen by a Roosevelt rising in power was practiced by the man lodging the complaint, with FDR speculating on dirigibles and a plot to corner the market on lobsters. He was no better at making money on his own judgment than was Teddy.
Eleanor longed to use her mind and find real work, learning typing and working with suffragettes, the League of Women Voters and continuing her work with the American Red Cross, disappointed that FDR was not the confidant and intimate she had hoped he would become. According to The Roosevelts, Eleanor craved action. Sadly for her, FDR and their marriage, their union would soon suffer from immobility, as FDR first noticed that his legs felt unresponsive on August 10, 1921 after sailing with his wife and kids and running with his sons.
Doctors were mystified, until infantile paralysis, a mysterious virus that attacked the nervous system, was diagnosed by a specialist from Boston when FDR was 39. What would become known as polio drove Franklin and Eleanor apart and the fourth episode begins sympathetically to outline his extramarital affairs, with considerably less scrutiny of Eleanor’s relationships, so whispers of lesbianism are more or less hushed here. As scofflaw FDR defies Prohibition with ample drinks of rum on his houseboat, falling for his secretary Missy, the series also ignores the question of how his tremendously demanding health care was obtained and paid for. Instead, The Roosevelts, with simpering Doris Kearns Goodwin waxing about how FDR’s polio connected him to the common man, mythologizes the diseased man, pointing out that he placed Al Smith’s name in nomination for president in 1924 at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden while on crutches.
But the Roosevelts’ petty actions and manipulations are covered, too, with Eleanor emerging as a ruthless and deceptive politician in maligning Ted Roosevelt, TR’s son, who remained a Republican and denounced FDR’s philosophy of big government. So, too, are pictures of FDR’s skinny legs during trips to the town he purchased in Georgia with two thirds of his inheritance money, though he never made money on turning the town into what he called Warm Springs, a resort for those afflicted with polio. As Franklin traveled south to Georgia to oversee the remaking of this town, his pet project, FDR built Eleanor a cottage for what would essentially become a sisterhood haven. They built separate lives in what was essentially from thereafter a sham marriage.
Eleanor, who favored the government’s ban on alcohol, Prohibition, ignored her children and The Roosevelts depicts a miserable home for a brood of unhappy, dysfunctional children. Anna, the oldest, married early to escape. In the Roosevelts’ lives, as with TR, politics and the relentless pursuit of power came before work, family and a proper home life, though of course it isn’t presented quite that way. FDR was put up as a shadow candidate by Al Smith for governor of New York in 1928, a position his cousin Teddy had held, and he narrowly won despite the Republican landslide. As the government economic intervention set forth by his cousin TR, Wilson and others distorted what was left of capitalism and led to the Great Depression, FDR as governor of New York “championed public power”, a euphemism for welfare statism, created the temporary emergency relief administration – “the first state agency in the country to provide public relief for the unemployed” – and did so “not as a matter of public charity but as a matter of social duty”. In 1930, FDR was re-elected governor by 735,000 votes. It was an overwhelming endorsement of the welfare state.
The Roosevelts does show all of this in basic, factual terms and through good storytelling, as Ken Burns is an accomplished storyteller who knows how to integrate themes, facts and lifetimes. He doesn’t hide the fact the FDR secretly bought off a journalist for an article in Liberty magazine that conspired to mislead the reader and falsely depict FDR as being in perfect health – the breach of journalistic ethics extended to having a doctor declare FDR “physically fit” and, preposterously and through benefit of deceptive public relations, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was introduced in 1932 to the Democratic National Convention as “the incarnation of Thomas Jefferson”. TR had offered Americans a “square deal” once in Chicago. FDR now offered what he called a new deal. Both redound to government control of economics and industry. Everyone already knows what happened next but it’s no less compelling as history on television: FDR was elected president of the United States. Probably few know that he promptly went on a 12-day fishing trip in the Caribbean Sea on his friend Vincent Astor’s yacht – the deception that the Roosevelts were the friends of the common man continued – and, with rare film footage on display, an Italian who hated the rich attempted to assassinate FDR in Miami upon FDR’s return, wounding five including the mayor of Chicago. As this episode ends, Mrs. Roosevelt writes that the nation’s economy was so bad that “people were desperate to be told what to do”. There is no doubt that the one who had been groomed through a lifelong moral education in the ethics of altruism would be willing to tell them.
Episode 5: The Rising Road
George Will in the first episode of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History to address the longest presidency in American history, refers to FDR as a change agent for the relationship of the individual to the state. As he puts it, Franklin Roosevelt, when “once asked for his philosophy…said he was a Christian and a Democrat and that was all.”
“I want to be a preaching president, like my cousin Theodore,” FDR said. He practiced what he preached, delivering his first fireside chat on banks and declaring that “capitalism was saved in eight days.” Ushering in a flurry of government controls, he further sought to “dictate the gold value of the dollar”. In FDR’s first 100 days, he fundamentally transformed the nation, solidifying the idea in the culture that the proper role of government is to control people’s money, lives and actions, and embedding this notion that government controls saved the United States of America and its economy and put Americans back to work. It was a total breach of the idea of free enterprise as free enterprise. Laissez-faire capitalism was dead. George Will makes the point that dictatorship did not have the bad connotation then that it does now; a little bit of fascism was reassuring to Americans, though again he doesn’t phrase it as such. “Some of [FDR’s] laws would be thrown out by the courts and some of the laws would be counterproductive” though unfortunately, the series declines to name a single one.
Eleanor held weekly press conferences, allowing only female reporters because, she reasoned, only men could attend her husband’s presidential press conferences, and wrote a syndicated newspaper column called My Day. Eleanor’s relationship with Hick, short for Lorena Hickok, is never seriously examined other than to avoid calling it an affair, though Hick moved into her own room in the White House, which also imposed strict rules that no one could photograph President Roosevelt struggling with his handicap. Film taken by tourists was confiscated by the Secret Service. The only word that comes to mind when watching these transgressions against freedom of the press and freedom of speech and private property rights is conspiracy, though again the PBS documentary avoids casting judgment on the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Another minor irritation is the series’ use of the term “African Americans” during a time in history when that term was not used, such as when describing a pet state-sponsored housing project led by Eleanor Roosevelt that purposely kept blacks out. Leftist bias is evident in citation of J.P. Morgan’s cry – “goddamn all Roosevelts!” – without regard to his achievements and how he was affected by FDR’s policies. Additionally, the series neglects to mention, when his place in history comes up, that Father Coughlin hated Jews.
But The Roosevelts is not thoroughly biased throughout, and the 1935 Supreme Court decision invalidating FDR’s NRA which is described as “already understood to be a failure”, is covered. So is the fact that FDR proposed new taxes on the wealthy, created Social Security and a National Labor Relations Board and imposed so-called collective bargaining regulations. True to Roosevelt family form, while he’s making his second Democratic Party nomination acceptance speech, railing against what he calls “economic royalists”, his own sons are cashing in as cronies of government favoritism. FDR also spoke of nothing to fear but fear itself, of course, and he gave a sense of leadership during the country’s darkest days. He spoke in those folksy narratives on radio of having a “rendezvous with destiny”, a phrase Ronald Reagan would later adopt in his own folksy way, and, like Reagan, FDR asked the public: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
In exchange, according to this fifth episode, Franklin Roosevelt was deified by the American people like no other previous president. In examining his popular re-elections, The Roosevelts never considers let alone acknowledges that FDR was winning elections based on the false proposition of putting the country on the dole, which less than a hundred years later would ensnare the nation in trillions of dollars of debt, and even causes of small but significant events, such as the presidential inaugurations being moved by FDR to January 20th, are ignored here and there. Many major advancements, successes and failures and each major family intimacy known by scholars are included. For example, Roosevelt’s wicked and un-American proposal to pack the Supreme Court is well covered. But there’s nothing here about Communist and Soviet infiltration of the Roosevelt administration, which was philosophically friendly to the Communist ideals, though Doris Kearns Goodwin admits that FDR held that government bears “the collective responsibility of the people to people in need”.
The fifth episode shifts focus to Hitler, not even exactly Nazi Germany, without a single mention of the role of the state and its relationship to the individual. Referring to World War 2, which looms during the years covered, Eleanor Roosevelt wisely observes that “anyone who thinks must think of the next war as suicide.” During the end credits, Burns and company feature powerful footage of Mount Rushmore being built. Edward Herrmann as the voice of FDR is excellent.
Episode 6: The Common Cause 1939 to 1944
As Hitler invades Europe and FDR schemes to push America into war, proposing an end to an embargo on the false promise that it would help keep the U.S. out of war, FDR also deceives in order to put himself into yet another Democratic presidential nomination, having Harry Hopkins move to put his name into draft nomination at the 1940 Chicago Democratic National Convention where it was later determined that a Chicago superintendent of sewers nominated FDR from the basement. This time, FDR nominated leftist Henry Wallace as his vice-presidential choice. In Chicago, Eleanor was the first First Lady to address a convention.
With war coming under his steady drive, FDR initiated the military draft, which would be ended a few decades later by a Republican. At the time, it must be noted as this documentary does, the U.S. military was smaller or the same as Romania’s; the U.S. was the world’s 18th largest army. When America went to war, FDR did not consult Congress. In fact, the deception extends to the Lend Lease Act as deliberately, calculatedly drawing the U.S. into world war. George Will, always the voice of reason in the series, points out that FDR promised that young Americans would not be sent into any foreign war to die, a pledge made in Boston – yet he knew they would. He was re-elected to a third term against Wendell Willkie.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s deception was widely practiced in government and accepted in the press. White House operators had orders to connect calls from one of his former mistresses, Lucy Rutherford, and he also carried on affairs with Missy LeHand and his cousin, Daisy. FDR loved knowing secrets that no one else knew, and, when he met with Winston Churchill on August 9, 1941, it is impossible to tell from the scant data presented in The Roosevelts whether he possessed any knowledge of the impending attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. This was to me a surprising gap in the otherwise thorough chronology in the series. So much has been written and examined about FDR, Pearl Harbor and World War 2 that the filmmakers may have decided to assume a wider context of knowledge on the part of the audience but it strikes me as an oversight. There are gaps in FDR’s personal life, too. Nothing is said for instance about his smoking.
The Great Depression came to an end amid FDR’s war machine, itself an interesting fact that deserves deeper examination and has parallels to our own times. The country’s horrible and unjust internment of people from Japan and Americans who were initially Japanese gets short attention, too, with a line from Eleanor: “I recognize it has to be done.” But to her credit, Eleanor Roosevelt also lobbied FDR to undo the internment camps and urged him to admit Jews as refugees from Nazi Germany.
Other pieces of history are also revealing. The Roosevelts lied about cause of death after Kermit Roosevelt’s suicide. They told his mother it was a heart attack. Seeing pictures of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and FDR meeting for the first time in Teheran, Iran, is interesting for many reasons that are now relevant in the wake of the new Islamic caliphate and post-Soviet Russian aggression in the region, though again there’s very short attention given to this crucial alliance between the nation based on individual rights and the world’s worst slave state. Upon his return from Iran, FDR is diagnosed with congestive heart failure; he is told by doctors that his heart is dangerously large and that he suffers from severe hypertension. He was asked to cut his cigarette smoking in half. Of course, everyone was sworn to secrecy and the Roosevelts are about nothing as a family if not about keeping secrets. The Roosevelt administration lied to the press, falsely reporting that FDR was afflicted with bronchitis.
The degree to which the Roosevelts lie, deceive and manipulate the press, the public and their own family is staggering. That this deceptive family was empowered to reshape the U.S. economy and impose massive new government controls while driving and plunging the nation into war over and over during the course of 50 years is astonishing given today’s context. The Roosevelts offers a potent counterpoint to those who claim that the notion of government conspiracies is itself preposterous and that the American government merits total obedience. Viewers who go by reason, not faith, in matters of the state – such as the NSA, TSA and ObamaCare – will gain value from watching this incredible series.
Episode 7: A Strong and Active Faith
Opening with footage of kamikaze pilots and the war between America and Japan in the Pacific Ocean, and making reference to World War 2 as “the greatest cataclysm in history” (really?), the seventh and final episode of The Roosevelts begins with the final years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. The astonishing legacy continues with increased impact on today’s lives and times as the series reports and explores Eleanor’s dream of having the United Nations, the GI bill of rights, which like FDR’s “four freedoms” severely redefined man’s rights, and FDR replacing Henry Wallace as his vice-presidential pick with Harry Truman, with whom FDR barely met and then only for photo opportunities. He would run again, for the last time, and win, defeating Republican Thomas Dewey.
The last series episode rightly focuses on faith, as FDR accepts his party’s nomination aboard a railroad car in San Diego, pledging to make “another world war impossible … within the foreseeable future.” The Roosevelts suggests that FDR did not tell Truman about his Manhattan project. Accounting for the fourth and final Roosevelt administration, material here covers the Battle of the Bulge, FDR’s fourth inaugural speech – he declared that “civilization always has an upward trend” – and the historic meeting at Yalta, where FDR’s daughter Anna accompanied FDR and wrote that her father’s heart condition is worse than thought “and of course we can tell no one”. Her words are read as FDR is seen puffing on a cigarette at Yalta and followed by intellectual Jon Meacham whitewashing FDR on ceding to Soviet Communism at the Yalta conference, emboldening Stalin.
In FDR’s last State of the Union address, in 1945, he proclaimed: “We have made a good start on the road to peace.” But America would be in a proxy war with the Soviets and Communist Chinese within five years and not much later mired in Vietnam. Again, in the last chance to address a serious historical question, the series is silent on whether and to what extent Communists were in his administration. Conversely, the series skips any real mention or evaluation of FDR’s unifying and leading the nation during wartime. However, FDR watched the movie Wilson, a romanticized depiction of his intellectual mentor, Woodrow Wilson, with Winston Churchill. At least the series subtitle, An Intimate History, does indicate a more personal approach to the Roosevelts.
“Let us move forward with strong and active faith.” These were FDR’s last written words. He died in the presence of Lucy Rutherford, one of his mistresses, in Warm Springs, Georgia.
With Meryl Streep croaking in broken, sing-songy syntax almost like Yoda as the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt, grieving for her husband and urging that one ought to “…adapt your life as it happens to be”, the roundup on FDR’s staggering effects after four presidential terms unspools: President Kennedy used FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps as the forerunner to his Peace Corps, President Carter opened his 1976 campaign in Warm Springs, Georgia. President Clinton said that, when his father died, he thought he was “going to Roosevelt” rather than to heaven. President Obama refers again and again, even before his election as president in 2008, to FDR’s New Deal. In fact, TARP, stimulus, Medicare, ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley, Kassebaum-Kennedy, the HMO Act, bailouts, the FCC and other major advancements of government controlled speech, industry and economy are seeded by Franklin Roosevelt, who was inextricably influenced by Theodore Roosevelt. FDR’s and the Roosevelts’ impact on the country and its war victory but, in particular, its decline, is made clear in this remarkable series.
But the personal, intimate narrative that a man can be a leader who becomes, as Professor Lewis warned in an interview with me before he died, regarded by the many as a deity makes an even stronger impression in The Roosevelts. Though Teddy Roosevelt initiated this now-common cult of personality in the presidency, which Obama shrewdly used to get elected, FDR was brilliant in his manipulation of media, the public and state.
He went by Papa and one of the experts in this final episode says that, when Franklin Roosevelt died, he felt like his father died. Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying that FDR was his “daddy”. The idea of a paternalistic Big Government that dictates your life from start to finish is the legacy of FDR. This brand of familialism – the insular, the secretive and almost incestuous subculture of the mentally ill, drunk, suicidal Roosevelt family – runs deep in modern American culture. Oddly, though not surprisingly, it is the part of Eleanor Roosevelt – an icon of the strong, independent-minded, modern woman; the forerunner to iconic, alluring and popular American-adored women of the mind such as Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher – to break free from the mold.
Though it’s true that “she lived to meet the needs of others” and that “she needed to be needed”, as experts report in this last episode, and she was depressed and almost driven to suicide by her children, Eleanor Roosevelt was her own person. She opposed the new Democrat senator John Kennedy in his 1960 presidential bid as inexperienced toward the end of her life, though she ultimately backed him. Eleanor thought JFK was too close to Joe Kennedy and likely to cut corners. Eleanor was an early advocate of Israel. She backed a bill that barred parochial schools from the federal government and was denounced as anti-Catholic by Cardinal Francis Spellman. She was a leftist and she visited Vladimir Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, too. But she took ideas seriously and, after President Truman asked her to be a delegate to the first meeting of the United Nations in London, The Roosevelts features footage of her at the UN (pictured here) demanding that “man must have freedom”. Eleanor Roosevelt died at age 78 in 1962.
The notion that the Roosevelts were a cheerful family in touch with the common man does not come through in this rich, complex and interesting television miniseries. Judging by The Roosevelts, they were jaunty and determined and they tried to appear as though they were seeking connection with the common man. But I do not think they were sincere. I lost track of the number of homes the Roosevelts owned and expensive pet projects they pursued, often at taxpayer expense, and not a single Roosevelt seems to have taken the common pursuit of productiveness and making money seriously, though they certainly expended enormous energy opposing and crippling those who do.
In the end, I am left with what I regard as their greatest legacy: the deification of the politician. As one participant says upon the death of a Roosevelt: “I couldn’t believe the traffic lights were still working”. There, in a sentence, a sincerely expressed thought by an American, is an indication of the real power of accepting the idea that a leader of the state controls reality, action and life. This is something to think about, especially now.
For reference purposes, program advisers for The Roosevelts include Sarah Botstein, Doris Kearns Goodwin, H.W. Brands, Clay Jenkinson, Alan Brinkley, William E. Leuchtenburg, John Milton Cooper Jr., Jon Margolis, Dayton Duncan, Lynn Novick, Julie Dunfey, Bernard A. Weisberger, Gerald Early, Beau Willimon and David Woolner. The Roosevelts will air in seven consecutive 2-hour episodes on PBS stations starting September 14 through September 20, from 8pm to 10 pm ET each night. PBS offers the entire 14-hour series online starting September 15.