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What Ken Burns Doesn't Understand about the Roosevelts

In realizing the “personal” Roosevelts, something of the “public” is lost

Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

It’s now going on six years since the Photoshop wizards at Time outfitted Barack Obama with a gray hat, pince-nez eyeglasses, and cigarette holder and asked whether the president-elect would usher in a “new New Deal.” In 2011, Obama traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas, where Theodore Roosevelt had once called for a “new nationalism,” to make his own call for economic justice. Now, as progressives look toward the future, they contemplate the candidacy of Hillary Clinton—whose political idol is Eleanor Roosevelt. The Roosevelts clearly resonate in our public culture these days, not least because the issues with which they grappled—vast economic inequities above all—are also the defining issues of our own time.

And so the release this week of Ken Burns’s new series, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” is well timed. Over the course of 14 hours, the film interweaves the biographies of its three principal figures—Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt—bringing them vividly to life and revealing with rich complexity their personalities, relationships, and private struggles. In realizing the “personal” Roosevelts, however, something of the “public” Roosevelts is lost. Viewers of the documentary will get a remarkable sense of who these people were as individuals. What they won’t get is a deeper understanding of the Roosevelts’ place in history: of why they wanted to do what they wanted to do and of how they did it; and of what their efforts meant in their own time, and in ours. Perhaps inevitably, this magnificent film misses an opportunity: It tells us who the Roosevelts were, but it does not tell us what makes a Roosevelt.

Courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site
President Theodore Roosevelt with his family, 1903

As a historical documentary film, “The Roosevelts” is a triumph, at least on par with anything in Burns’s oeuvre and a crowning achievement also for writer Geoffrey Ward, whose standing as one of America’s greatest living storytellers it reaffirms.1 The film is symphonic in its attention to detail and its development of themes and variations. The three personalities at the center of the story practically spring from the screen, thanks to a happy marriage of insightful biography and extraordinary archival richness. Ward’s analysis and the inclusion of rare newsreel footage produce what is perhaps the best account to date of what it was like for Franklin Roosevelt to work as a public figure while suffering the immobility wrought by polio. 

Throughout the documentary, the archivists’ work adds valuable texture: Ward’s description of FDR’s difficult adjustment to boarding school—he had rarely been around children his own age—is brought home by a series of historical photos: FDR’s Groton classmates beaming and mugging for the camera, the young Roosevelt inert and forlorn, gazing away from the camera’s eye. Theodore’s manic energy, deriving from inner demons, engaged by the natural and the social worlds, sustained by caffeine (by some accounts he drank a gallon of coffee each day); Eleanor’s almost desperate efforts to make herself useful in the world by being of service to others—each becomes practically visceral.

Yet if the personal Roosevelts are brilliantly three-dimensional, the political Roosevelts are oddly flat. This is partly a product of the film’s almost textbook-like detachment from the urgencies of the present. 2 The United States has spent much of the last two decades, for instance, arguing about how best to reform the odd public-private health insurance scheme that grew up around Franklin Roosevelt’s decision not to include health insurance in the Social Security Act of 1935—an episode “The Roosevelts” skirts past. So too with other policy areas where the New Deal’s legacy is very much with us—gender equality in the economy, the federal government’s role in housing markets, and more.

Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library
Congressmen welcome back President Roosevelt after a fishing trip, 1934.

Consider inequality. To be sure, the “Great Convergence” of the Roosevelt years (and after) was a complex phenomenon. But it also stemmed in part from policies Roosevelt helped to enact: the creation of a social safety net, a strong national regulatory regime, a legal climate favorable to unionization, the vast human investment regime set up by the G.I. Bill, and, not least, the highly progressive taxation scheme established during World War II. (Four months after Pearl Harbor, FDR proposed a one hundred percent tax on income above $25,000; he didn’t get his way with Congress, but the fiscal regime that emerged was far more redistributive than what had been in place before the war.) “The Roosevelts” recognizes the significance of the G.I. Bill only briefly, refers to the Wagner Act’s contribution to labor’s rights but not to the economic effects of mass worker empowerment, and mentions progressive wartime taxation not at all.

In an important sense, the intersection of the progressive legislation of the 1930s and 1940s and the economic trends of the postwar decades created the American middle class as we once knew it. But that’s not the end of the story. As the gap between rich and poor shrank under Roosevelt and his successors, racial inequality grew. One segment of the American working class was permitted to lift itself into middle-class status while another was not. This peculiar phenomenon—the mainsprings of modern American racial inequality—had its roots in the deeply discriminatory nature of the New Deal state. Black workers were systematically excluded from the key social insurance and regulatory programs; they found it difficult to access the G.I. Bill’s benefits, when those benefits were administered locally; the red-lining of residential neighborhoods and government support for Jim Crow suburbanization cut them out of the greatest wealth-building exercise in American history. Franklin Roosevelt was at least complicit in all these policies. Yet if “The Roosevelts”is good evidence, we have not yet truly incorporated this history into our collective memory of FDR’s career.

Perhaps more important than its reluctance to engage with the issues of the hour, however, is what The Roosevelts’ strictly biographical vision does to our understanding of its principal characters’ impacts on their own times, and their enduring value in ours.  The three Roosevelts command our attention, the film tells us, above all because they were “great leaders.” How did they become great leaders? The film’s essential answer is that they each passed through what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls “trials of fire”; each vanquished fear in his or her own life: Theodore, a fear that the physical infirmities of his youth would prevent him from living the strenuous life he valued; Eleanor, a fear grounded in her own phenomenally difficult childhood that she would be unloved, and perhaps was notworthy of love; Franklin, the fears that the life he had envisioned had vanished suddenly when he lost his ability to walk. They were all “wounded people,” Ward notes; they had learned through their own experience that things could be overcome and that it was therefore worth trying to help people to overcome things. And they were strong, Kearns Goodwin notes, because circumstances had forced them to become so. 

This all strikes me as fundamentally correct. But how much does it really tell us? The concept of “strength” might help us to understand the Roosevelts’ determination to get things done, and their resilience in the face of adversity. But it does not tell us much about the substance of their ambitions, about why they wanted certain things to get done and not others. It tells us still less about why they were able to get things done. To answer these questions, we need to go beyond biography and place the Roosevelts in historical context. Intellectually, they were products of their times. Their assumptions about the “role of government” were typical rather than extraordinary, drawing from a class-specific sense of noblesse oblige but also from the intellectual currents of the Progressive Era, which envisioned government as an extension of the community itself, and hence an appropriate instrument for providing the goods and services necessary for communities to thrive. The policies they envisioned as solutions to social problems built upon a transnational network of policy thinkers trying to address the social costs of capitalist development. 

Politically, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were essentially moderate reformers—men who instinctively stood, as Labor Secretary Frances Perkins once said of FDR, just “a little left of center.” But where was the center? Here, too, historical context is vital. The socialists, labor radicals, and anarchists of the Progressive Era; the agrarian radicals, Huey Longs, Popular Fronters, and above all the reborn labor movement of the 1930s; and the civil rights and human rights advocates of the Depression years, wartime, and after—all of these groups shifted American politics to the left, pulling the centrists with them. The two President Roosevelts, both fundamentally conservative in the original sense, became vigorous progressive reformers in part because a mobilized public had reshaped what it meant to be “moderate.” Eleanor Roosevelt, for her part, stood to the reformers’ left, demanding that they live up to their promises and professed ideals.

When it comes to their achievements, these, too, can only be grasped when placed in context. Contemporaries of Franklin Roosevelt’s frequently remarked upon the “Roosevelt luck,” and indeed FDR’s good fortune was remarkable: rarely have circumstances aligned as to create an environment so conducive to bold government action. He came to power at the absolute trough of the economic cycle, just as the American economy was poised to rebound strongly, if inconsistently. He took office at a moment when the old order had been entirely discredited, and with huge Democratic majorities in Congress, he faced relatively minimal opposition for the remainder of his first term. A new technology, the radio, allowed him to inject his own personality into the heart of American culture—and to take credit for his administration’s accomplishments. More perversely, the fact that America writ large had not yet formed any meaningful commitment to racial justice allowed Roosevelt to off-load some of the “costs” of his agenda onto Black people and communities. A charismatic leader, Weber tells us, is one who is treated as endowed with exceptional powers. FDR’s charisma derived in large part from the fact that circumstances outside his control had enabled him to do things most presidents cannot. 

All this matters because a deeply contextualized history of the Roosevelts affords us a more realistic notion of how American democracy works. The unspoken assumption behind a focus on the Roosevelts’ “strength,” after all, is that “strength” (or “character” generally) in our public officials is what it takes to have a successful government and a successful country: if only our leaders were stronger, or spoke more convincingly, or had greater empathy. . . . But such a personalization of politics is ultimately an exercise in wishful thinking, allowing us to avoid the hard, dispiriting work required to fix complicated institutional problems and counteract well-organized, powerful interests. It invites us, as George Will notes perceptively in episode five, to believe that complex problems will yield to simple solutions—a recipe for disappointment and disillusion.

Burns and Ward’s The Roosevelts merits attention for its craftsmanship and its exquisite recapturing of the Roosevelts’ inner and personal lives. Yet, in attributing the Roosevelts’ public success to their private struggles, it creates an incomplete portrait of how the Roosevelts helped transform American politics and government. That broader history deserves our attention, too, not only that we might draw lessons—positive and negative—about how to meet the challenges common to both our times, but also that we might better understand what it will really take to preserve for our own descendants, as FDR once put it, “a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.”

  1. Ward, long Burns’s essential collaborator, is also a preeminent biographer of Franklin Roosevelt; consequently, his presence is more visible in "The Roosevelts" than in the pair’s prior films.

  2. This disengagement stems in part from the filmmakers’ lack of interest in recent academic scholarship; pace Nicholas Kristof, the academy (at least that part of it that studies American politics ca. 1901–1962) is much more engaged with issues of contemporary concern than those outside the ivory tower—or so this particular bit of evidence would suggest.