Saturday, September 20, 2014

Watching The Roosevelts

What a real treat it has been this week to watch Ken Burns' typically well done new PBS series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History! The series focuses on three famous and powerful members of the patrician Roosevelt clan, perhaps the closest America has come to genuine aristocracy. Two of them - Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) of the Oyster Bay branch of the family and his younger, 5th cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the Hyde Park branch - served respectively as the 26th (1901-1909) and 32nd (1933-1945) Presidents of the United States. Each of them was in his era the undoubted leader of the progressive wing of his political party (the Republicans in Theodore's case, The Democrats in Franklin's). The third principal figure, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was Theodore's favorite niece, Franklin's wife and First Lady, and a transformative political figure in her own right. The concluding episode, to be aired tonight, will presumably highlight the post-war years when Eleanor occupied the Roosevelt political stage alone.

No other group of individuals - and certainly no other family - occupied a comparable place in the history of the 20th century. History remains, as Saint John XXIII famously said, the greatest of teachers. If nothing else, this series serves as a great history lesson about a major and transformational period in American (and world) history. Of course, the generations that know the least of that history and would benefit the most from learning about it are, I suppose, the ones least likely to be watching. But, if any are, their time has not been wasted! Learning the history of that tumultuous time - what Eleanor, speaking to the 1940 Democratic Convention famously called "no ordinary time" - is imperative for understanding how we got to where we are, appreciating all that the Roosevelts and their political allies accomplished (and also, sadly, what we have since lost). 

But watching The Roosevelts is more than a valuable history lesson. The three Roosevelts it features were intimately involved in the major issues and movements that marked the 20th century and in many ways still mark the 21st. And they were leaders in the perennial American struggle to reclaim American community, to build and strengthen binding ties between and among Americans of different classes, generations, and races and projecting American power to establish a renewed world order to replace the one that destroyed itself in two terrible 20th century wars. It is a commonplace truism - but sadly still very true - that hardly anyone who succeeded them on the political stage, and certainly hardly anyone around now has exemplified political and moral leadership as profoundly and effectively as they did. 

The series is called The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The inner, personal struggles of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor are as much a part of this history as their public and political campaigns and accomplishments. It has long been recognized, for example, the Franklin's protracted personal struggle with polio transformed him in fundamental ways. He was always an attractive extrovert, whose position in society well situated him to be a major and successful political figure. But his paralysis taught him empathy. And who can doubt the part that suffering and struggle played in transforming a charming, old-money aristocrat, who happened to want to be president, into someone who could connect so well with ordinary people and their needs? And who cannot connect the dots that link Eleanor's poor, "ugly-duckling" sense of herself with her lifelong identification with the poor and the put-upon? (Just compare her with her more attractive and in so many other ways more favored cousin Alice!)

The Roosevelts accomplished a lot for America and for Americans. Sadly, so much of what they struggled for continues to have to be fought for now more than 50 years after Eleanor's death.  

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