What Ken Burns Doesn't Understand about the Roosevelts

Historians in the News
tags: Ken Burns, Roosevelts



... 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. 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...

...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.”




comments powered by Disqus