Ken Burns brings us "The Roosevelts" - warts and all

The new PBS series takes a bittersweet look at this larger-than-life American family and raises a question: Do presidents shape history, or does history shape them?
Crosscut archive image.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933.

The new PBS series takes a bittersweet look at this larger-than-life American family and raises a question: Do presidents shape history, or does history shape them?

"Some of the criticisms of Roosevelt were true. He could be devious, pitted staff and Cabinet members against each other, and sometimes kept you in the dark about what he was thinking. But he sure as hell knew how to be President."
— James Rowe, White House assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Ken Burns' new PBS series The Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor — was particularly instructive for millions of Americans who knew relatively little of these important 20th century figures. I learned more about Theodore Roosevelt than I'd previously known. For those of us who lived through the Franklin-Eleanor years personally, the series served as a sometimes inspiring, other times bittersweet reminder of how things were during the Depression and World War II years.
I thought of Jim Rowe's characterization (above) of Franklin Roosevelt back in the mid-1960s. Rowe  was a prominent D.C. attorney then and advisor to Democratic presidents. I was a young assistant to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Rowe, a mentor, loved to tell stories of the Roosevelt years. "You know, since Roosevelt died I've been bored," he once said.

The series also brought to the fore the fact that determined national leaders, of either political party, can make a real difference when they set their minds to it and, inevitably, made today's leaders seem Lilliputian by comparison.
The challenges met by the Roosevelts during the previous century still are with us today: How to create a stable financial and economic base for our society. How to share prosperity fairly. How to restrain the greed of "economic royalists," as FDR characterized them, while still maintaining private sector incentives which generate growth and jobs. How to lead in the world without becoming a militarized state. How to know the difference between foreign involvements important to our national interest and those which are not. How to work together in our society at those times when crises do not force us to do so.
The world was undergoing radical change at the time of the Roosevelts. Empires were disintegrating. Predatory totalitarian regimes were looming and then taking power in Germany, Japan and Russia. During the Great Depression many in the United States were attracted by totalitarian models of the Left and Right. We were trying domestically to sort out the proper relationship between the public and private sectors and between industry and labor. Minorities and women were just beginning to overcome the discrimination against them. 


If you think politicians are original, think again. Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for a Square Deal, Franklin Roosevelt for a New Deal, Harry Truman for a Fair Deal, John Kennedy championed a New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson a Great Society. The series also reminded us that, in their private and family lives, even the mighty experience the same tensions, disappointments and soap-opera travails as the rest of us.

As is often the case in national political families, TR's and FDR's children had problems growing up and in adulthood. FDR carried on a multi-year relationship with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor's former secretary. Their dalliance was abetted, without Eleanor's knowledge, by their daughter Anna. Eleanor Roosevelt's father was an alcoholic and her mother treated her as an ugly duckling. (Though the photo below shows a lovely, young Eleanor in 1898.)

Crosscut archive image.Theodore Roosevelt, it was clear, was manic-depressive. Early photos of him, even in repose, show him with clenched fists. He felt compelled to constant action and was a compulsive talker and speechmaker. Otherwise, he became depressed. He was a naturalist and conservationist, yet slaughtered great numbers of wildlife on expeditions in the American West and overseas. He was a war lover, finding war energizing and good for a country. He urged his four sons to enlist in World War I and lost one in the conflict.

During TR's presidency, William Howard Taft was his greatest friend and handpicked choice as successor. Yet, restless out of the limelight, TR decided to challenge Taft in the 1912 presidential election and headed a new Bull Moose party. The result: The splintering of the Republican Party and the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson as president. 

Taft was broken by his friend's harsh (and often unwarranted) attacks. Yet TR also espoused a progressive agenda which his cousin, Franklin, later would carry forward. Although he came from a wealthy family, TR had a common touch and an affinity for working people. His trust-busting gained him the enmity of J.P. Morgan and other powerful financiers of the time. (When later FDR took a similar tack, he was denounced as "a traitor to his class.")

Both TR and FDR took on corrupt political leaders of both major parties while serving in the New York state legislature but, later, came to terms with party regulars as their careers proceeded. And both died young: Theodore at 60, Franklin at 63.  

The transforming moment in Franklin Roosevelt's life came at age 40 when he was struck down by polio. Despite lifelong and strenuous attempts at rehabilitation, he was unable to walk without heavy iron braces on his legs. (The public never knew the full extent of his handicap; there was no TV at the time and photographers and filmmakers voluntarily complied with White House rules that the president never be shown laboring with his braces or being lifted from one place to another).

Before his polio FDR was seen as an attractive but somewhat unscrupulous political careerist unsuited for truly high office. His struggle with polio called forth inner strengths which no one knew he possessed. Though often in great pain and fatigued, he adopted a buoyant, upbeat optimism. He never let his pain show, even to his family, and during the Depression and war years his relentless good spirits buoyed the American people.

Roosevelt's radio "fireside chats" were the first use of mass media by a president. He gave speeches in person where previous presidents had merely submitted written documents. As a child growing up in a blue-collar family I saw my parents and our neighbors gather around radios whenever FDR spoke. He was trusted and believed. If you were down or in doubt, FDR's patrician voice helped you to hold on and have faith. (They also listened, via short wave, to hysterical rants from Adolf Hitler, who would take power in Germany at the same time.)

FDR's death was one of those events remembered clearly by those living at the time. On April 12, 1945, I was walking from my Bellingham grade school to the downtown YMCA. My route took me down Cornwall Avenue past Bellingham High School. As I approached the school I saw its American flag at half mast. 

"What happened?" I asked a high schooler walking from the building. 

"President Roosevelt died," he said. 

Rather than proceeding to the YMCA, I took a right turn and walked two blocks to our home. Shortly thereafter my father, a sawmill worker on the waterfront, arrived at the end of his shift. The previous day had been his birthday. Roosevelt had been his hero, a man he always described as "for the little guy" during a three-year strike for unionization at the mill. My dad was a tough guy; that night, however, tears welled in his eyes at the dinner table. 

Later, as an adult, I found myself in the middle of liberal attempts to complete the agenda FDR had begun in his presidency. All the Democratic leaders of the time revered FDR. Senate Majority Leader, Vice President and President Lyndon Johnson regarded FDR as his "daddy." Vice President Hubert Humphrey, my boss during the period, felt likewise. So did Washington Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson and a vast majority of their colleagues in the Senate and House.

If you look back now through documents and speeches from that time, you will see FDR's name cited frequently by all Democratic officeholders and candidates. I drew an assignment on one occasion to write a new Bill of Rights for LBJ, one to supersede FDR's famous Depression-era version. I did a draft, but covered it with a memo suggesting that FDR's version was good enough. In the end, LBJ agreed.

After FDR's death, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to be a force for liberal domestic reform and enlightened internationalism. She remained a power in the Democratic Party and a prime sponsor of Adlai Stevenson's nomination for the presidency in 1952 and 1956. She opposed Senator John Kennedy's nomination in 1960 and wanted Stevenson to have another chance. (Humphrey, at that convention, also was a Stevenson supporter.)

After JFK had decided to offer the vice-presidential nomination to Johnson, his brother Robert Kennedy approached Humphrey and told him his brother would drop LBJ and choose Humphrey instead, if Humphrey would switch from Stevenson and endorse JFK.  Humphrey told me, in later years, that he was prepared to do it but did not "because I was afraid of what my wife and Eleanor Roosevelt would say to me." (Seattle native Pat Baillargeon served for a time as Eleanor's secretary.)

Through good fortune I joined the board of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in the 1970s. It was established to support the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., to make annual Four Freedoms awards to deserving Americans and to undertake public education programs. I served on its executive committee until I left the East Coast.

The Institute presently is chaired by Anna  Roosevelt, granddaughter of Eleanor, whose physical appearance is much like her grandmother's. (Anna was a vice president of Boeing Co. in Chicago until her recent retirement.) In my work with the Institute I got to know Roosevelt family members both on and off the board of directors and frequently visited Hyde Park. 

On one occasion, standing in the Roosevelt family mansion, which is shown frequently on the PBS series, I spoke with Franklin Roosevelt Jr. He pointed to a desk in the corner of the living room. "Over there was where Dad worked on his stamp collection every evening," he said. "One evening, Dad beckoned me over to that desk. I'd had several speeding tickets on Highway 9, which ran past our property, and was waiting for my parents to say something about it. Dad, still looking down at his stamps, said, 'Franklin, your mother tells me I must ask you for your driver's license.' I gave him the license. He would never have done that on his own." 

Like most politicians, FDR preferred to be the bearer only of good news. 

On another occasion, Jimmy Roosevelt Jr., a grandson then active in Democratic politics in Massachussetts, told me he always admired his grandmother. He was aware as a young child, he said, that his grandmother wrote a daily newspaper column entitled "My Day." At the time he thought it was a usual thing to do and presumed that most grandmothers wrote newspaper columns.

There were three large adjoining bedrooms on the mansion's second floor. Franklin and Eleanor occupied separate bedrooms. Between their bedrooms was one belonging to Sarah Delano Roosevelt, FDR's controlling mother.

The Roosevelts were larger-than-life figures in eras of important national transition. Like Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, though, TR and FDR loomed large, in part, because the times demanded it. Would they have been important, or even elected, in quieter eras? In periods of relative well-being and tranquility? Would Lincoln have been great, or even elected, without a Civil War? We never know, before electing them, whether our presidents will be strong or weak, show good judgment or bad when faced with crisis.

Events can change everything. LBJ, when he took office, expected his principal work to be the completion of the New Deal. Instead, he was driven from office by an unforseen widening of the Vietnam War. 

George W. Bush assumed office expecting to preside over a period of "compassionate conservatism" domestically. Instead he was confronted by 9/11 and, then, made an ill-advised intervention in Iraq. 

President Obama foresaw himself enacting health-care and other domestic legislation and extricating the country from dubious offshore commitments. Instead, he faces non-stop challenges from aggressive Islamic Jihadists and from a Russia and China striving to establish themselves as global rivals of the U.S.

TR and FDR both shifted power from local and state governments to the federal government. Both assertively pushed the U.S. into a global leadership role. They hastened the eradication of both formal and informal barriers based on class, ethnicity, race, gender and religion.

In their time, the 20th century was said to be the time of "the common man." In many ways it was. But in the 21st century, we still are grappling with fundamental questions about justice, opportunity and fairness in our society and about our entanglements in the wider world.

If you've not seen the The Roosevelts, please do. It gives us all a better understanding of who we are and where we have come from.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of