Like millions of Americans, I spent two hours every evening last week in front of the television, mesmerised by the latest work of master-documentarian Ken Burns, a seven-part epic about the political family that, more than any other in US history, changed this country.
Not the first father-son presidential combination, of John and Quincy Adams, in the first decades of the 19th century. Nor their late-20th- and early-21st-century counterparts, George H W and George W Bush. Not the Clintons (at least not yet), and not even the Kennedys, encrusted in legend.
I refer to the Roosevelts, or more exactly a trio of them: Theodore and his fifth cousin Franklin, who between them occupied the White House for almost 20 of the first 45 years of the last century, and F D R’s wife, Eleanor – who happened to be not just T R’s favourite niece, but the most consequential First Lady the United States has ever seen.
A library’s-worth of books has been written, and many television programmes and films made, about one or other of the three. None to my recollection, however, has treated the Roosevelts as a single story. Maybe the omission reflects the fact that T R was a Republican and F D R a Democrat: ne’er the two parties can meet, in today’s polarised America.
Burns’s masterstroke, in compiling his series, is to grasp that their backgrounds, careers and, most importantly, their politics, were remarkably similar. Both future presidents served beforehand as assistant secretary of the navy and governor of New York. Franklin adopted Theodore as a role model. Their differing party identifications may have divided the two branches of the family, but their politics were similarly progressive: both fought for ordinary people and the working man – battered by giant corporations in Theodore’s case, and by the Great Depression when F D R came to power. Between them, they engineered reforms that shape the US to this day. And, as the country still struggles with the aftermath of a more recent financial and economic crash, and inequalities of wealth approach record levels, you can’t help thinking: if only America could produce a Roosevelt today.
Once again, the US is trying to bring an overweening financial industry under control. Indeed, the repeal, under Clinton, of the Glass-Steagall Act, part of F D R’s 1933 reforms that separated retail and investment banking, was a contributing factor to the 2008 crash. Once again, efforts are under way to protect consumers, an enterprise begun by the first President Roosevelt more than a century ago. Once again, money dictates US politics; and, once again, powerful lobby groups seem to carry all before them.
You can’t believe that Theodore, for all his warmongering instincts, and penchant for slaughtering wild creatures, would not have confronted today’s mighty National Rifle Association, to inject a modicum of common sense into the country’s gun laws. As for money in politics, J P Morgan and other Wall Street financiers were furious that F D R could not be controlled, for all the funds they had given his campaign. They saw him as a class traitor; there were even tales of a “business plot”, seeking a bloodless coup to remove an inconvenient president.
But could a Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt be elected now? In the 1930s, the journalist H L Mencken wrote that “The Roosevelt family is completely superhuman. No member of it ever becomes tired.” Burns’s achievement is to make the oft-mythologised Roosevelts only too human. He lays bare the weaknesses of these two great reforming leaders: the self-centredness of both men, their shortcomings as parents; the depressions that would grip the belligerent and reckless T R; the polio that ravaged F D R, not to mention his affairs, his general deviousness and manipulativeness.
Back then, thanks to a respectful press, these shortcomings could be kept quiet. But no longer. Such self-censorship ended in the 1960s, with the media’s embarrassment at the blind eye it had turned upon the health problems and serial infidelities of John F Kennedy. Today every presidential imperfection is dissected by reporters and bloggers, trumpeted by a 24/7 news cycle and the internet.
The most inspiring, indeed almost unbelievable, part of the documentary is how F D R overcame the polio that paralysed him from the waist down. Most of us would be crushed and broken by it, but he was reborn. His daily trials, including the ordeal of simply standing up, served both to give him a personal understanding of the problems of others, and to reinforce his optimism, the belief that nothing fate threw at you could not be overcome.
Today such a condition would disqualify one of America’s very greatest presidents from even thinking about public office. His health would be the subject of endless questions, the prize would go to the footage that showed him in his most drained and agonising moment. As for T R, his manic energy and forthright nature would surely have seen him self-destruct; if not on TV, then in a surreptitious iPhone clip flashed to every corner of the earth.
In purely political terms, moreover, both Roosevelts are representatives of a breed now all but extinct: the privileged and well-born North-easterner with a sense of noblesse oblige and public service –the Wasp if you like – whose last consequential specimen was the first President Bush. Today they are about as rare as “One Nation” Conservatives in Britain.
Heaven knows, the dysfunctional US system needs a shake-up. But the crucial difference between then and now is the perception of government. The Roosevelts were big government incarnate, and the people loved them for it. Theodore trailblazed for Franklin; the former’s Square Deal developed into F D R’s New Deal, with its vast public works and the creation of social security. Now activist government is, by definition, suspect. Watch Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts and weep. We will not see their like again.Reuse content