Getting Intimate With The Roosevelts

Ken Burns’s multipart documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, premiered last night. Damon Root reviews it:

[W]hile the film is clearly pro-Roosevelt in its leanings, it does make room for certain contrarian views. Among The Roosevelts‘ stable of talking heads, for example, is none other than conservative writer George Will, who pops up from time to time to remind viewers that the family’s impact was not always a benevolent one. “Building on the work of the first Roosevelt, the second Roosevelt gave us the idea, the shimmering, glittering idea of the heroic presidency. And with it the hope that complex problems would yield to charisma. This,” Will declares during one episode, “sets the country up for perpetual disappointment.”

But The Roosevelts is by no means a flawless film. For one thing, it sometimes fails to present an accurate picture of the family’s political opponents. Indeed, the film leaves the distinct impression that only reactionaries and fringe loonies ever dissented from the New Deal.

Harvey J. Kaye lodges other criticisms:

[Filmmaker Ken Burns and historian Geoffrey C. Ward] ignore the ways in which working people and the labor movement shaped their “heroes’” thinking and propelled their action. They note TR’s presidential intervention in the 1902 coal strike, but fail to speak of labor’s role in the Socialist and Progressive parties’ prewar battles against Gilded Age capital (labor unionist and Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs is never named).

They emphasize Eleanor’s involvement with the League of Women Voters in the ’20s and her relationship with independent reform-minded women of the day, but barely mention her work with the Women’s Trade Union League. As a consequence, they ignore how her encounters and friendships with East European Jewish women labor organizers of Manhattan’s Lower East Side not only led her to shed the anti-Semitism and racism of her youth (attitudes that are never discussed), but also enabled her to educate FDR to the needs of working families and the politics of industrial and social democracy by bringing those women to Hyde Park to spend time with him.

James Wolcott anticipates later installments:

Compelling as the Teddy Roosevelt saga is, it is for me the set-up, the prolonged prologue, to the true heart of this series, the improbable life and transformative reign of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I will write about the FDR and Eleanor installments as they approach airdate–though I will advise for now that the episode four, “The Storm,” devoted to his crippling attack of polio and his founding of Warm Springs, is the one you should circle most urgently on your calendar–but let me make a prejudice plain: for me, FDR is the greatest man of the twentieth century. Our twin savior, along with Lincoln. You may respectfully or disrespectfully disagree with that. That’s fine. You’re wrong.

And I feel even more convinced, having spent time reading Nigel Hamilton’s The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 and David Kaiser’s No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War, both of which I recommend as fireside reading, even if you lack a fireplace and have to make do with the theatrical illusion of a fan blowing some red strips of paper.

Jeremy Berlin interviews Burns:

[Q.] You call this film “an intimate history,” and it does seem more personal than your previous works. It also gets at a number of still-relevant issues—some of which you alluded to earlier—in an implicit way. Was it hard to reconcile the tone with the topic, or the scale with the scope?

[A.] Not at all. This is the first time we’ve done a long-form, major-length series about individuals, not about things like baseball or jazz or the Civil War. It’s sort of like a Russian novel—taking one family and understanding their interrelationships.

But this isn’t psychobabble or tabloid history. Nor does it neglect the outer events—the Gilded Age, the World War I era, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

They’re all there. But you see them from a less familiar, more interesting perspective than you’re used to.

John Dickerson also speaks with Burns:

Burns is in a great hurry to get people to slow down. He would like them to watch 14-hour documentaries, of course, but also to understand the complexity and tensions at the heart of history. It makes for more meaningful lives, he believes, and a better understanding of events, including the ones unfolding before us in the present.

“We are in a media culture where we are buried in information but we know nothing,” said Burns. “Because of that superficiality, we expect heroes to be perfect, but they’re not. They are a strange combination of strengths and weaknesses.” He points to two of his main characters as examples. “Franklin and Theodore couldn’t get out of the Iowa caucuses [today]. Franklin is too infirm. CNN and Fox would be vying for the worst images of him unlocking the braces, the sweat pouring off his brow, the obvious pain and that kind of pity that it would engender would be political poison. And Theodore is just too hot for the new medium of television. There would be 10 ‘Howard Dean’ moments a day.”

Alyssa Rosenberg agrees that the Roosevelts likely wouldn’t survive modern-day politics:

It is one thing to decry a newly invasive media culture, or the fact that we still demand female politicians meet standards of attractiveness that have nothing to do with the functioning their jobs. But “The Roosevelts” ought to encourage us to think more broadly about what we deny ourselves when we narrow the path that can lead people to public office at any level.

Her bottom line:

In refusing to let politicians be human, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to be seen and to be treated the same way.