Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Roosevelts (Florentine Films/Roosevelt Film Project, PBS, c. 2013, aired 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the first episode of Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts last night, and after the fascinating article in the current Harper’s about the political de-fanging of public television — how it’s become basically another outlet for pro-corporate propaganda, with a lot of mainstream political shows that seem daringly liberal only because so much of the rest of the media (particularly talk radio and Fox News) is so outrageously and flamingly reactionary — it’s interesting to watch a program taking two of the liberal icons of the 20th century (three, if you count Eleanor — half of the final episode of the series is about her life and public career after Franklin’s death) and essentially doing a hagiography of them. Charles came home about midway through the first of seven two-hour episodes of this production, and noted that Theodore Roosevelt’s concern for the common man and his attempt to steer the middle course between “mob rule” (i.e., the French-style revolution a lot of people were either hoping for or fearing in the late 19th century as the power of corporate elites became stronger and more oppressive) and the continued domination of society by the rich and economically powerful would have got him denounced today as at best a “RINO” (the “Republican in Name Only” epithet the Tea Party activists like to hurl at GOP’ers who aren’t sufficiently hard-line reactionary for them) and at worst a socialist. (In his independent campaign for President in 1912 — which was actually the beginning of the long-running and now complete purge of liberals and progressives from the Republican Party — Theodore Roosevelt became the first serious Presidential candidate to support national health insurance.) The show attempted to explain away Theodore’s imperialism — essentially treating it the way Jefferson’s hagiographers treat his ownership of slaves, as a nasty but historically understandable blot on an otherwise fine character — when, as Charles pointed out, Theodore’s eagerness to get the U.S. involved in imperialist wars and make this country the world’s dominant military power is the one aspect of his Presidency contemporary Republicans do support and want to emulate.

One thing the show doesn’t get into is Theodore’s open, out-front racism, which I hadn’t really known about until I read James Bradley’s book The Imperial Cruise — which described in detail how much Theodore Roosevelt was a supporter of the master-race crap that was mainstream thought among white Europeans and Americans through the first third of the 20th century until Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, by taking it to its logical extremes, gave it a bad name. The basic idea was that all civilization had come from the Aryan race, and then from a later branch of it called the Teutons, and that master races who were smart conquered countries with inferior populations and slaughtered them all. Master races who weren’t so smart conquered countries with inferior populations, slaughtered the men but had sex with the women — thereby diluting their racial purity and creating “mongrel” offspring that dragged down the quality and “purity” of the master race. Of course this is all a bunch of B.S., but Bradley (who’d written the book Flags of Our Fathers about the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II and then wrote and researched The Imperial Cruise to try to figure out what the hell the U.S. had been doing fighting wars in Asia in the first place) makes a good case that Theodore Roosevelt not only believed it but it was the prime motivation for his imperialism — not his obsession with naval power (interestingly the show, at least so far, hasn’t mentioned the name of Admiral Thayer Mahan, the theorist of sea power and its influence in history whom Theodore met with in the White House and regarded as his principal authority on the issue) or any desire to “liberate” or “civilize” Third World peoples. This first episode deals largely with Theodore’s personal challenges — it’s a Great Man view of history, and a psychotic Great Man view at that, taking the position that the great men of history work out their own personal demons through the actions they take in their public lives — including his boyhood weakness, the deaths of his mother and his first wife on the same day (though he quickly remarried and his second wife was a woman he’d actually dated before he met his first one) and the service in the Spanish-American war (which Burns and his writers take a lot more seriously than Bradley did!) that essentially established his credentials as a real-life action hero and got him elected first governor of New York and then vice-president under William McKinley. The show ends just as Theodore Roosevelt takes the oath of office and becomes President following McKinley’s death. — 9/15/14


I watched the second episode of the PBS-TV series The Roosevelts, Ken Burns’ latest production and (despite his tongue-up-the-butthole defense of the Bank of America, his principal corporate sponsor after General Motors went bankrupt and bailed on him) a whirlwind portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency that took the radical (for 2014) position that government regulation of businesses and antitrust enforcement are actually good things. I can readily envision what’s mostly a Roosevelt hagiography calling up all the old criticisms from the Right that PBS is a bastion of liberal thought (and indeed it is if you define the term “liberal” as what it meant in the 1950’s and 1960’s; the odd thing is that almost no Americans are still “liberal” in that sense — most Americans have moved Rightward on economic issues and, to a lesser extent, Leftward on social issues from what the term “liberal” historically meant, and what there is of an economic Left in this country — which there really isn’t, at least not a big enough one to matter — is considerably more radical). The film touches on some of the nastier aspects of T.R.’s presidency and his thought in general, including his typical-for-his-time division of the world into “superior” and “inferior” people (“superior,” predictably, mostly synonymous with “white,” though he was willing to grant the Japanese a sort of “honorary white” status since they had built up an industrial infrastructure and used it to create a military machine that won a war against a white country, Russia) and the astonishing incident in Brownsville, Texas in 1906.

It seems that the mayor and other white officials of Brownsville accused 30 Black soldiers from an all-Black regiment (remember that the U.S. military was strictly segregated until after World War II) of tearing up the town, harassing white women and killing a white bartender, and while the white commander of their unit alibied them and insisted they’d all been on base sleeping when the incidents occurred, Roosevelt countermanded the army’s verdict and ordered not only the 30 accused men but all 167 members of the unit thrown out of the army without pensions. Ken Burns and his writers note that Roosevelt didn’t mention the incident at all in his autobiography. The show periodically cuts away to the early days of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (remember that she was a blood Roosevelt herself and an even closer relative of Theodore than Franklin was — indeed, in the 1970’s TV-movie Eleanor and Franklin there’s a charming scene in which his proposal is dramatized by him asking her, “Mr. Roosevelt would like to ask Miss Roosevelt if she would consent to become Mrs. Roosevelt”) — but these become merely soap-opera relief for the hard-core political story of Theodore’s presidency. And in 2014 the T.R. presidency seems like the stuff of science fiction; despite his urgings that the U.S. maintain a “centrist” position between corporate control and what he called “mob rule,” the idea that a U.S. President — and a Republican at that — would actually use a phrase like “malefactors of great wealth” (today the orthodoxy not only of the Republican Party but much of the Democratic Party as well is that if you have amassed great wealth you have done so through your innate superiority and hard work, and therefore the whole idea that a rich person could be a “malefactor” is a contradiction in terms!), the idea that a President could mediate a labor dispute, treat labor as the rightful equal of capital and seriously address the concentration of corporate power is so far from the U.S. political mainstream as to be literally inconceivable. Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency seems to come less from a different historical era than from a different culture, if not (indeed) from a different planet! — 9/16/14


I turned to PBS for the third episode of The Roosevelts. This one took the story from Theodore Roosevelt’s return from his African safari in 1910 to his attempt to regain the Presidency in 1912 — first as a Republican and then, after the party bosses denied him the nomination (an event of incredible historical significance since it was the first step in the Republican Party’s gradual, generations-long purge of its progressive, liberal and eventually moderate members to become the highly organized, unified extreme Right-wing party it is today), at the head of what was officially termed the Progressive Party but which became known as the Bull Moose Party because T.R. had compared himself to one of those animals in one of those “wild” metaphors of which he was so fond. The show depicted Roosevelt’s defeat in the 1912 election (though he out-polled the incumbent Republican, William Howard Taft, and held the Democratic winner, Woodrow Wilson, to just 42 percent of the popular vote — in some ways the 1912 election was a precursor to the 1992 election, in which a charismatic third-party candidate split the Republican vote and thus allowed Democrat Bill Clinton to win with 43 percent of the vote) as a spirit-crushing blow that was only compounded by an ill-advised trip. He did another expedition, this time in the wilds of Brazil, where he nearly died and his son Kermit had to nurse him back to health — and people who knew him noticed how the experience aged him; though he would only be 60 when he died (peacefully, in his sleep) in January 1919, he already had the look of an old man in those last years (and the newsreel footage shows just how much he’d visibly aged). The show did not mention T.R.’s final political fight; though he died before it became a live issue, in the last two months of his life he was meeting with the Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate to plot the strategy that would ultimately hand President Wilson his last and bitterest political defeat: blocking America’s entry into the League of Nations after World War I.

The show also annoyingly treated the Zimmermann Telegram (ostensibly an offer from the German foreign minister to the government of Mexico to return California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico to Mexico after the war if Mexico would enter World War I on the German side; really — as Barbara Tuchman documented decades ago — a fake concocted by the British Secret Service to get the U.S. into the war on their side) as if it were authentic, and it noted Theodore’s own pathetic attempt to get into combat in World War I the way he famously had launched his political career by fighting in the Spanish-American War in 1898. It also noted the heavy-duty burden on his sons, all of whom enlisted and one, Quentin, was killed when his plane was shot down in a multi-plane melée with German aircraft. The show paralleled Franklin Roosevelt’s career as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (under Josephus Daniels, the moralistic prude who ordered New Orleans’ red-light Storyville district closed when the U.S. entered the war, an event of monumental importance in the history of jazz because it forced a lot of New Orleans’ musicians to flee the city and head north to Chicago or, in some cases, west to L.A. where Prohibition, another idiocy Daniels supported and Ken Burns has made a film about, was going to open up more opportunities for jazz musicians to work), his marriage to Eleanor and his affair with her secretary, Lucy Mercer, but so far the parts of the film dealing with Franklin have been considerably less interesting and, as I noted yesterday, basically provided “soap-opera relief” from the political history of T.R. One quibble I’d have is why Ken Burns didn’t use any of the recordings that exist of Theodore Roosevelt’s actual voice; though he cast voice actors as all three of the major Roosevelts (Paul Giamatti as Theodore, Edward Herrmann as Franklin and Meryl Streep as Eleanor — the same actress playing Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher? The mind reels! Yes, Streep is an incredibly versatile performer, equaled among female movie stars in the sheer range of her talents only by Barbara Stanwyck, but still … !) he did include the sound clips of Franklin’s real-life speeches — but why not use the records of T.R. that exist? A few years ago Ward Marston put out a collection of the recordings of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan (and there had been enough of a market for these things “in the day” that in 1908 the Edison company had advertised, “No matter how the [Taft vs. Bryan] election turns out, we will have records by the new President”), so it’s not like these things haven’t been documented or preserved. With all the accounts of T.R.’s power as a stump speaker it would have been nice to hear what his voice really sounded like! — 9/17/14


I watched the fourth part of the Ken Burns TV mini-series The Roosevelts on PBS; written by Burns’ usual collaborator, Geoffrey C. Ward, this episode, “The Storm,” dealt with Franklin Roosevelt’s contracting polio in 1921 (I noted the irony that he probably got it from swimming with his children in the waters off Campobello Island, though how he got hit by the viral bullet and his kids dodged it is just one of the mysteries) and his long, slow struggle to regain as much of the use of his muscles as he could (which wasn’t much; the show included the diagrams of his muscle function made by his doctors and showed that all the excruciating courses of physical therapy and exercise he went on had almost no benefit — some of his muscles got better, some got worse, most remained pretty much the same) and also rebuild his political career, including getting elected governor of New York in 1928 (in defiance of a national Republican landslide — Roosevelt’s predecessor as New York governor, Al Smith, couldn’t even carry his home state as the Democratic Presidential nominee) and winning the Presidential nomination, and a landslide election victory, in 1932 after the Depression had devastated the economy for the past three years. It was a whirlwind presentation and, as in previous episodes, the political material was far more interesting than the soap-opera stuff (though it was interesting how Roosevelt hired a journalist to do an “investigation” of his health and place it as an article in Liberty magazine in 1931 to reassure doubtful voters that he’d be up to the job of President), and the subplot of Eleanor Roosevelt building her own political career while Franklin was invalided (including making friends with at least two relatively “out,” at least by 1920’s standards, Lesbian couples) was utterly fascinating — she saw Franklin’s election as governor and then as President as disappointments in that she’d have to wind up back in his shadow instead of pursuing her own ambitions and making the case for women in politics in general. — 9/18/14


Episode five of The Roosevelts, called “The Rising Road,” dealt with the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and touched on topics like Eleanor Roosevelt’s intimate friendship with Lorena Hickox (whom she called “Hic” when she wrote her), though filmmaker Ken Burns and his writer, Geoffrey C. Ward (who oddly actually appears as a talking-head in the film as well as doing the overall script which actor Peter Coyote narrated) are predictably coy about just how intimate they were. What’s most fascinating about this film is that as late as 2014, with American politics being dominated by a rejection of “Big Government” and much of the ideology of the Roosevelt years, this show presents Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency much as it would have done if it had been made in 1964, with the New Deal depicted as pretty much a done deal instead of what it’s looking like now — a brief interruption in a history of a country that for the most part has preached self-reliance and “rugged individualism” (a phrase I hadn’t realized until recently was actually coined by FDR’s immediate predecessor as President, Herbert Hoover) and rejected the whole idea that was central to FDR’s politics in general and his response to the Depression in particular: that each person has at least some responsibility to all other people and it’s up to society as a whole to step in and help people when circumstances beyond their control make them unable to help themselves. Even George F. Will, whose appearance among the talking-heads on this program might have led one to expect he’d be the voice of Right-wing contrarianism questioning not only whether FDR’s policies were moral but whether they were effective (a growing body of Right-wing revisionist literature, notably Amity Shlaes’ book The Forgotten Man, which according to her Wikipedia page “argues that both Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted economic policies that were counterproductive, prolonged the Great Depression, and established the modern entitlement trap,” says outright that Hoover’s Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, was right when he said the Depression ought to be allowed to run its course without any help from government whatever), instead pretty much joins in the chorus of praise, albeit with a few mild caveats.

It’s surprising to hear Will, of all people, describe Franklin Roosevelt as the most important President of the 20th Century — people of his political persuasion usually give that honor to Ronald Reagan, and one can certainly make a case that Reagan (who was a New Deal Democrat during FDR’s Presidency until the destructive jurisdiction squabbles among the Hollywood unions in the late 1940’s, at least according to his own account, “conservatized” him) was the most important President of the second half of the 20th century, as FDR was of its first half. Not that the Right-wing reaction to the New Deal (and to some of the reforms pursued earlier by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — as an earlier episode of The Roosevelts pointed out, it was the Hepburn Act to regulate railroad rates, signed into law by T.R., that first gave federal agencies the power to make “rules,” i.e. to write legislation without Congressional involvement except for the option to vote them up or down after the fact, a power that’s been key to expanding the reach and scope of the U.S. federal government) has been complete; Reagan may have come into office pledging to abolish the Department of Education and radically shrink the federal government, but today there are more Cabinet positions than there were in 1981 and some of them (notably the Department of Homeland Security) were created on the “watch” of Republican Presidents. But at this late date the idea that a President of the United States from either major party would so vividly and staunchly attack “economic royalists” (or, as T.R. had called them, “malefactors of great wealth”) seems, in John Woo’s words about the Geneva Conventions, “obsolete and quaint.” The whole idea that the government has any obligation whatsoever to individual citizens to help them out of economic jams is quickly being relegated to the history books; the ruling orthodoxy of today is the Libertarian idea that we are all on our own, and that taxing the rich to help the not-so-rich is penalizing the “makers” to benefit the “takers” and is therefore not only bad public policy but downright immoral. Certainly one of the major accomplishments of the Franklin Roosevelt administration — the 1935 passage of the Wagner Act that guaranteed the rights of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively — has become virtually a dead letter today; private-sector union membership has dropped to less than 7 percent of the workforce and if it weren’t for the labor movement’s success in organizing government workers (itself under vicious and unrelenting attack by Right-wingers determined to smash this last remaining bastion of organized labor in the U.S.) there basically wouldn’t be a labor movement in this country anymore. And though Social Security and its Lyndon Johnson-era derivative, Medicare, still exist and pay benefits to millions of Americans, they too are on the Right-wing chopping block and their days are probably numbered; once the Republicans gain full control of the federal government again (and that’s not a matter of if, but when) they will no doubt implement the full agenda of the American Legislative Exchange Council and privatize Social Security, Medicare and what’s left of the social safety net FDR and his supporters thought would be permanent. The other side of The Roosevelts that rankles, besides its blithe assumption that FDR’s changes were an ongoing part of American life and unlikely to be undone (which, as I said, would have been a perfectly reasonable assumption for a documentary made in 1964 but seems increasingly tenuous today), is its enthusiastic endorsement of the “Great Man” theory of history.

For a filmmaker like Ken Burns who in his earlier movies (particularly his epics on the Civil War and World War II) has been so powerful and moving in bringing to life the ordinary people who were involved in momentous historical events, it’s surprising to see him depict Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt basically as colossi who bestrode the U.S., bringing enlightened public policy and a sense of mutual obligation despite the pettifogging objections of busybodies both on the Left and the Right. While I think some of my Leftist friends who call FDR a reactionary who was forced to the Left by mass public demonstrations overstate the case the other way, the fact remains that in the 1930’s there was a mass Left of a size the U.S. had seen only once before (in the 1890’s) and hasn’t seen since, and it did put pressure on the U.S. government to act considerably more radically than it would have otherwise. The Roosevelts only briefly mentions California activist Dr. Francis Townsend, who offered a pension plan for people over 60 that even progressive economists thought was impractical and would bankrupt the country, but I’ve long felt that Social Security owes its existence more to Dr. Townsend than any other single individual — because it was the great popularity of his plan and the likelihood that the people could force its adoption that led the Roosevelt administration to come up with a more workable alternative that would accomplish much the same thing. One thing The Roosevelts is honest about is that the 1937 recession came about largely due to FDR’s and his advisors’ budget hawkery — Roosevelt had attacked Herbert Hoover in 1932 for running budget deficits and FDR remained an advocate of balanced budgets all his life, someone who thought that as soon as the emergencies of the Depression and World War II were over the government should go back to running in the black — this recession turns up in Shlaes’ book and other Right-wing sources as evidence that the New Deal was a failure — and this film depicts the economy as expanding again in 1938 and 1939 once at least some of the public-works money started flowing again. The Roosevelts is a tale of triumph for a man and an ideology — the man remains a compelling historical figure but the ideology is pretty worn out by now; today’s Washington gridlock is between a Republican Party at least rhetorically determined to wipe out the New Deal and its progeny and tear them root and branch from the fabric of American governance, a Democratic Party desperately protecting what’s left of the New Deal and the Great Society without offering any new ideas, a fired-up mass movement of the Right demanding even more evisceration of the social safety net and even lower taxes and less regulation of business and the rich — and virtually no mass Left at all! — 9/19/14


Part six of The Roosevelts, “The Common Cause,” took the story of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency from 1939 (and the beginning of World War II in Europe, a struggle Roosevelt knew the U.S. would someday have to enter on the side of Britain but, with a large majority of the country committed to isolationism, he had to proceed gingerly and involve the U.S. in the war on Britain’s side in baby steps — first cash-and-carry arms purchases, then the famous exchange of 50 destroyers for Caribbean bases, then Lend-Lease) to 1944. Somewhat surprisingly it did not carry FDR’s story to his fourth term and his death, though it did end with the diagnosis of congestive heart disease (which is what finally killed him at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia at age 63). With — as Roosevelt himself put it — “Dr. Win-the-War” taking over from “Dr. New Deal,” this episode — especially once the U.S. actually entered the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (the program showed the typescript of Roosevelt’s speech calling that “a date which will live in infamy,” and it was interesting that he had crossed out something milder in the original text and wrote “infamy” in by hand) — didn’t seem quite so ideologically dated as the previous one about the New Deal had, to the point where George F. Will, of all people, called Social Security a basic redefinition of the contract the American government had with its citizens. (And Will, of course, is part of a Right-wing movement committed to undoing that change and returning us to the days when you were old, disabled or otherwise unemployable, you were on your own.) This episode traversed much more familiar ground, especially since director Ken Burns had already done World War II in a considerably better epic series that focused on a handful of ordinary servicemembers and their families — and while one asked, “Why them?,” after a while, a show like Burns’ The War is a necessary corrective to one like The Roosevelts that pretty much describes history as being made by a bunch of old white men in rooms who make decisions for the rest of us. One quirky thing about the war episode of The Roosevelts is how much of it is in color — we tend to think of World War II as a black-and-white war but Kodachrome film was readily available and extensively used to film battles for documentary movies (notably John Ford’s The Battle of Midway, which is all-color) as well as ceremonial occasions involving both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Kudos are also in order to Burns for making Eleanor an integral part of the story even long after she and Franklin had ceased to have an intimate relationship; they remained a working partnership, and while this film somehow missed the incredible story of Marian Anderson’s concert in Washington, D.C. (the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent out their concert hall for a performance by an African-American — whereupon Eleanor Roosevelt announced that she would host the concert and it would take place on the White House steps), it did make clear that Eleanor was considerably more committed to civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular than her husband was, at least in part because she didn’t have to worry about winning the votes of racist Southern Democrats first for the New Deal programs (many of which were either segregated or completely restricted to whites for that reason) and then for the war.

The film also makes the point that it wasn’t at all clear FDR could have got the U.S. Congress to declare war against Germany if Hitler hadn’t declared war on us first, though the case it makes against the oft-repeated notion that FDR knew in advance that the Pearl Harbor attack was going to happen and let it occur because he needed a casus belli to overcome American isolationism and get us fighting is pretty lame, focused mainly on the fact that as Assistant Secretary of the Navy he had laid the keep for the U.S.S. Arizona himself and had paternalistic feelings towards the battleship fleet and therefore would not have let it be destroyed. There are other, better arguments on both sides of this controversy — which historian John Toland took both sides on at different points, rejecting the Roosevelt-knew idea in his book The Rising Sun and accepting it in Infamy, written a decade later. My own view is that the U.S. missed advance warning of Pearl Harbor in 1941 for the same reason it missed advance warning of the 9/11 attacks 60 years later: all the information needed to put it together that the attacks were about to occur existed somewhere in government intelligence agencies, but it was so diffused among different government agencies that weren’t communicating with each other that no one was able to put it together correctly. Another point the show made was that there were three major candidates for the Republican nomination in 1940, two of whom were heavy-duty isolationists — but the Republicans actually nominated the third one, Wendell Willkie, who totally agreed with FDR that World War II was a struggle for basic human freedoms worldwide and the U.S. would therefore have to get involved in it on the Allied side. This was ironically depicted in a cartoon by the British artist David Low, who drew the U.S. Presidential campaign of 1940 with adjacent posters reading “Vote for Roosevelt and a Black Eye for Hitler” and “Vote for Willkie and a Kick in the Pants for Hitler.” It’s ironic that in that regard the 1940 campaign anticipated that of 1968, in which despite a growing sentiment among U.S. voters that the Viet Nam war was unwinnable and we should get out, both major parties nominated pro-war candidates and therefore the American people didn’t have a real choice on the issue. It also mentioned that when Roosevelt was pushing the first peacetime U.S. military draft through Congress, he got an unexpected boost from Willkie, who came out for it publicly while Roosevelt was still publicly uncommitted but privately lobbying Congress — and all of a sudden it was a lot harder for Congressional Republicans to oppose the draft when their party’s Presidential standard-bearer was for it. The show also detailed the compromises FDR had to make, essentially shelving his domestic reform agenda (he quietly let the Congress kill the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, though one could have made a case that with so many jobs being created by war production they were simply no longer needed), and at least hints he’d made his peace with the big capitalists he’d once denounced as “economic royalists” and abandoned any further interest in redistributing wealth and income.

And yet Roosevelt had publicly proclaimed the “Four Freedoms” — not only freedom of speech and freedom of religion but “freedom from want” (i.e., economic desperation) and “freedom from fear” (i.e., more wars) — and in a little-remembered speech in late 1944 he called for an “Economic Bill of Rights” that would have been an even more sweeping redefinition of the American social contract and the relationship between our people and our government than anything FDR actually achieved in office. FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” speech has been seized on recently by modern-day progressives anxious to establish an historical antecedent for the politics of the Occupy movement and its attack on corporate power and rising inequality of wealth and income — though as I’ve noted in previous comments on The Roosevelts, the ideological tide in this country has so dramatically shifted in the direction of Libertarianism that talk of an economic bill of rights that would guarantee every person “freedom from want” has become as “obsolete and quaint” as the Geneva Conventions about treating prisoners of war. Today American politics is dominated by the ideology both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt opposed (with quite a bit of pressure on them from below — specifically from well-organized mass Left movements of a type that no longer exists in the U.S.): the idea that rich people are that way because they are intellectually and morally superior; that taxing the rich for the benefit of the not-so-rich is “slavery” and “theft”; that the decisions of “The Market” as to how wealth and income are distributed are inherently the correct ones, and any attempt to interfere with them will only make matters worse; and that if people are unemployed or poor it’s their own damned fault for being shiftless, lazy and unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Not that everyone — or even a majority — of Americans necessarily believe all that (if they did, Mitt Romney would have won the 2012 Presidential election in a landslide), but at least partly because of the increasing influence of the corporate media and its ability to crowd out any challenge to the view that government = oppression and “the private sector” = freedom (even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which partially funded Ken Burns’ program along with the Bank of America, doesn’t dare call itself a public agency; rather, it uses the bizarre circumlocution, “A private corporation funded by the American people”), at least some form of Libertarianism has become the default position of American politics and, if it can be challenged at all, the challenge is a lot more difficult than it was for previous generations of Leftists in the 1890’s, the 1930’s or even the 1960’s. — 9/20/14


The last episode of The Roosevelts was called “A Strong and Active Faith” — the title taken from the last letter Franklin Roosevelt ever wrote — and though the PBS description had suggested it would be a program dealing with Eleanor Roosevelt during the 17 ½ years after Franklin’s death, that was only the last hour of it — the first hour dealt with the final year of FDR’s life, including his final re-election campaign (against Governor Tom Dewey of New York — ironic that the 1944 election for President was between two former governors of the same state! — who also famously ran against Harry Truman in 1948, and though it wasn’t strictly within the purview of this show Ken Burns couldn’t resist including the famous photo from 1948 of Truman, freshly elected to the Presidency in his own right, holding the paper with the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”), the closing months of World War II, FDR’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945 and the subsequent conclusion of the war in the total victory and “unconditional surrender” FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin had insisted on. Ken Burns and his writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, went into full myth-buster status on Yalta, insisting that though President Roosevelt was physically weak during the conference his mind was still sound and he did not give away Eastern Europe to Stalin out of his incapacity, as decades of Right-wing mythology has had it. Indeed, Burns and Ward make it clear that Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was basically a done deal well before World War II ended; the Red Army had conquered those countries back from Hitler and the only way the U.S. could have dislodged them was to have gone to war with the Soviet Union immediately after World War II concluded.

Certainly this part of the story begs the question of how the rest of the 1940’s and the 1950’s might have been different had Roosevelt lived to fill out his fourth term — just as the timing of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination just four days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox makes one wonder whether he would have handled Reconstruction better than Andrew Johnson did and whether Lincoln either would or could have “bound up the nation’s wounds” in such a way as to ease the bitterness of the former Confederates while still securing full civil rights and legal equality for the freed slaves. In Roosevelt’s case the what-if’s include not only what would have happened if he had survived but also what would have happened if he hadn’t been forced to dump Henry Wallace from the vice-presidency and replace him with a nominee of the Democratic Convention, who turned out to be Harry Truman; FDR had been persuaded to let Wallace go because his political advisors had convinced him he couldn’t win the election with Wallace on the ticket, and there’s a story that the night of the election, as the returns came in and he won his narrowest — but still comfortable — victory, he looked at the numbers and said, “See, I could have won with Wallace on the ticket.” Had either FDR lived or Wallace, not Truman, succeeded him, there might not have been a Cold War — though it’s possible that Wallace, running either as Roosevelt’s immediate successor or as his heir apparent in 1948, would have lost and the Republicans would have taken a hard anti-Soviet line and instead of a Cold War there might well have been a hot one. It’s the sort of counter-factual historical speculation that has fueled a few good novels and a whole lot of bad ones — what if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? What if the Nazis had won World War II? Or — one I’d be particularly interested in — what if Alexander Hamilton had won the biggest battle he lost at the Constitutional Convention and had the U.S. President elected for life?

That’s an especially relevant one for FDR not only because he’s the closest we’ve ever had (or ever will, unless the 22nd Amendment — a typical piece of Republican short-sightedness put in after FDR’s death; Eisenhower and Reagan could easily have won third terms if they’d been eligible to run for them — is repealed) to a President for life, but also, as one of the talking heads on this show commented, Roosevelt pursued Jeffersonian aims with Hamiltonian methods. The greatest single legacy of the Roosevelt presidency — here we should probably say the Roosevelt presidencies, since as this show noted it was Theodore Roosevelt with the Hepburn Act, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to regulate railroad rates, who first created the “rule-making” power by which federal agencies can essentially write “rules,” regulations that not only have the force of law but basically are laws, without the involvement of Congress — was not so much the pursuit of greater economic and social equality (which has been steadily reversed for the last 43 years) as the vast expansion of the powers of government in general and the federal government in particular. The increased power of government is something every president since FDR has used for his[1] own purposes, whether their ideological bent and intent has been similar to FDR’s or (as in the case of Reagan and both Bushes, the second one especially) quite the opposite. While I would have hoped that the program would have laid Franklin Roosevelt to rest at the end of episode six and devoted the full final episode to Eleanor and the years of her widowhood, the hour we did get on her post-Franklin life indicated her importance as a worldwide activist and in particular her shepherding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through the United Nations, first to a special committee that was assigned to draft it and then through the full General Assembly, in 1948. The Universal Declaration makes fascinating reading today because a lot of the countries that signed on to it were not following its principles and had no intention of ever doing so — and that includes the U.S., which has never fully taken seriously the provisions of Articles 22 through 25 —

Article 22.

  • Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

  • Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
— and in various international fora since 1948 we’ve actively opposed attempts to include the kinds of economic rights described in these four sections (and, before Franklin Roosevelt’s death, in the call for an “Economic Bill of Rights” he made in his 1944 State of the Union address). The U.S. position on these issues has gone back to what it was before the Roosevelts, before the Progressive Era and before the mass Lefts of the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s organized to question capitalism and “The Market”’s allocations of wealth, income and resources. I’ve read specific conservative critiques of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech to the effect that while the first two “Freedoms” (freedom of speech and freedom of religion) are legitimately within the purview of government because they represent constraints on government power, the last two (“freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”) are illegitimate because they call on government to take affirmative action (to use a phrase that later acquired a more specific and itself controversy-inducing meaning) to guarantee things to people, or as a Libertarian would say, to give things to people that are not within government’s right to give. Mitt Romney’s references to the 47 percent of Americans who were going to vote against him because they expected government to “give” them things — and his repetition of that after he lost — indicate how much the Libertarian ideology has become part and parcel of the Republican party, and the overall tenor of political debate in this country at least since 1980 has indicated how much that ideology has seeped into the Democratic party as well, especially without a mass Left to put countervailing pressure on the political system as a whole and the Democratic party in particular.

One point made in The Roosevelts is that Franklin Roosevelt had to do a lot of compromising with entrenched interests to get the Social Security Act and the other New Deal programs through Congress, and therefore the wishful whines of some American progressives for a leader like FDR or Lyndon Johnson who would just sweep away Congressional resistance and “get things done” are off-base. What that doesn’t take into account is that what we’re really wishing for is a President who would expend the kind of political capital FDR or LBJ did in pushing for social legislation — and that wish is based on us achieving something we haven’t been able to do since the early 1970’s: to build a truly mass Left movement in the U.S. that would pressure Democratic politicians to push beyond what they thought would be the bounds of political realism. The biggest criticism I would make of The Roosevelts as a film is that it didn’t really delve into the interplay between what both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt did (or tried to do) in office and the pressure put on them from below by the mass Left movements of their time — instead it depicted both men as loftily dispensing progressive wisdom from above, undeterred by the pettifogging objections from both Left and Right — an odd foray into the “Great Man” view of history for Ken Burns, who in his previous films (the ones on the Civil War and World War II in particular) has been especially good at showing ordinary people and how they both shaped and were shaped by great historical events. I’d have liked to see more about how the social movements of the times shaped the Roosevelt presidencies and put pressure on both Theodore and Franklin to be more radical than they would have been otherwise — maybe a movie like that would have helped teach the remnants of an American Left the lost art of doing electoral activism and direct action in tandem, as the Left did in the 1930’s and the 1960’s and the Right has done so effectively through the Tea Party throughout Obama’s administration — but otherwise The Roosevelts as a whole is an interesting documentary that hopefully should whet the viewer’s appetite for more information and knowledge about these very interesting people and what they did (and were pressured to do) for America and the progressive side of its ideals. — 9/21/14

[1] — So far, of course, it’s always been “his.” Maybe after 2016 we’ll be able to add “or her”!