A new series beginning on PBS tonight: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. A seven part Ken Burns history marathon it will examine the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Burns is a fairly strident liberal Democrat so it will be interesting to see if FDR and Eleanor are treated as plaster saints, or if we will sight any meaningful analysis of those complex figures.
Theodore Roosevelt was a cousin of Franklin and an uncle to Eleanor. He loomed large over their lives, Theodore acting as conservator of the drunken, suicidal Elliott, his beloved black sheep brother, the father of Eleanor, and Franklin seeking to model himself and his career after his famous fifth cousin. Ironically, the contrasts between Theodore and Franklin are stark. Theodore’s brand of progressive Republicanism was rejected by his party, while Franklin was successful in remodeling the Democrat party into the embodiment of the progressive nostrums of his time. Theodore was an extremely moral man who exercised absolute fidelity to his two wives, his first wife having died on the same day as his mother. Franklin Roosevelt was a precursor of such bounders as JFK, LBJ and Bill Clinton who exercised the moral probity of low rent Casanovas. Theodore Roosevelt, a man made to be a war president, was president in a time of profound peace for the nation; FDR achieved his lasting fame as commander in chief during World War II. Theodore’s political career ended in defeat in 1912, the Grim Reaper preventing a possible resurgence in 1920, Roosevelt having mended political fences with the Republican Party by his constant criticism of Wilson during World War I. FDR knew unprecedented political success as President, setting the dangerous precedent of being elected four times to the office, and only the Grim Reaper ending his grip on the White House.
However, there were also strong similarities. Both men were ardent patriots and, if they lived today, would be derided for their patriotism in some quarters. Both were able to convey a sense of optimism and adventure to the American people. Both were also problem solvers and not inherently ideological, except in their faith that government could be used successfully to solve the problems they confronted. In this they differed from Eleanor, who was an ideological true believer of contemporary liberalism.
In some ways Eleanor is the most significant figure of the trio for our contemporary world. She set the model for those who find personal fulfillment in ideological activism. Her embrace of a laundry list of the “good” causes of her day helped establish the concept that being a good person requires having beliefs that are “politically correct”.
I will be watching the series and I will probably eventually review\critique it.