This "Sunday Corner" piece is written by our
oft-time correspondent, Lee Liberman
Geoffrey C. Ward, historian and writer (above, left), and produced and directed by Ken Burns (above, right), who once again manages to make old stories come alive. The PBS series premiered on September 14, the anniversary of vice-president TR's ascension to the presidency on the assassination of President William McKinley, September 14, 1901.
Twentieth century Roosevelts, rich and patrician, were imbued with doing good that took the form of advocacy for more/better government and social policy. TR's was the Gilded Age of robber barons, boss politics, and income inequality; the efforts of all three Roosevelts to right the imbalance changed the relationship between government and people. The bold Roosevelts deserve Shakespearean treatment to convey the liveliness of their place on the stage, but Ken Burns and his minions do an engaging job in documentary form.
Ayn Rand-imbued Republicans) and his robust leadership of the US role in WWII from his command post in a wheelchair, a polio victim at 39. We know that his wife Eleanor's liberal feminist and civil rights politics continued beyond her husband's death until her own in 1962, advancing human rights and the birth of the United Nations. But more hidden in the veil of history is the manic, whirlwind dynamism of Teddy Roosevelt (above).
Senator Elizabeth Warren served up a TR trust-busting moment in our own gilded age of income inequality when she excoriated deregulation of a few big banks recently. TR (1858-1919) is interesting now because his Roosevelt branch was thoroughly Republican, yet TR was radically progressive -- he believed that government was needed to manage the modern industrial state, regulate Wall St and corporate corruption, and help the needy. His Bull Moose platform created the base upon which his Democratic cousin FDR later built the New Deal.
The first Roosevelts came to New York from Holland in 1644 and every subsequent generation was born in Manhattan, building their fortunes in banking, sugar, real estate, manufacturing. TR came along in 1858 --asthmatic, sickly, and inclined to depression. His father counseled 'action' to offset weakness and ill health (life itself is an ongoing battle -- you must make your body). TR took the advice and lived in a constant storm of mental and physical action -- booklearning, writing, speech-making, perpetual athletics, and extreme adventuring were his means to "get action," "be sane". (If there is one flaw in the Ken Burns ensemble, it's Paul Giamatti voicing TR. Giamatti calls to mind the sober John Adams he played in the 2008 HBO miniseries, his voice lacks the robust, urgently active personality of Teddy.)
TR gradually gained respect of the locals as a cattle rancher and used total physical immersion to dispel his grief. "Black care rarely sits behind a rider who is fast enough," he wrote. The time in the West helped him transcend loss, shed Northeast trappings and, he believed, made him the man who could be president. His coiled fist, shown below, trademarked his tightly wound ambition.
Following Eleanor's discovery of Franklin's attachment to her personal secretary, Lucy Mercer, the first couple renegotiated their relationship; their domestic spheres grew more separate while they remained politically conjoined -- as one imagines royal and upper class unions made for political reasons. Franklin had long relationships with women in his employ for whom he was their only cause. Eleanor sought companionship with men and like-minded feminist women, including one much reported relationship with a woman reporter who lived in the White House for a time. Still the first couple presented a united front.
The oldest member of the D Day invasion was General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, the son of TR, who died a month later of a massive heart attack and was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. TR's pilot son Quentin was shot down and killed during WWI. FDR's son Elliot flew 300 missions in WWII. Yet the Roosevelts were hammered in the press as much as our own leaders. Nepotism was one charge and snipers accused Eleanor of wasting money on her progressive causes. Accusations of communism/socialism dogged them. Bad-mouthing has its own notorious tradition even enveloping the Roosevelts whom most now revere as icons.
FDR, a smoker with a heart condition, died of a cerebral hemorrhage after his 4th election to the presidency in 1945 leaving Harry Truman at the helm. TR died in his sleep in his bed in 1919 of an embolism, having aged beyond his years after an expedition on the Amazon. Eleanor died in 1962 of TB and other ailments, having been a delegate and instrumental in the creation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Harry Truman called her the First Lady of the World.
here. Available on disc and sure to be rebroadcast, Ken Burns' The Roosevelts is likely to receive notice during the coming awards season.