Ken Burns and the Myth of Theodore Roosevelt

Historians in the News
tags: Ken Burns, Roosevelts



The Roosevelts, a new PBS documentary by director Ken Burns, presents President Theodore Roosevelt as a political superhero. In photo after photo, Burns’s famous pan-and-zoom effect magnifies Roosevelt’s flashing teeth and upraised fist. The reverential narrator hails his fighting spirit and credits him with transforming the role of American government through sheer willpower. “I attack,” an actor blusters, imitating Roosevelt’s patrician cadence, “I attack iniquities.”

Though exciting to watch, Burns’s cinematic homage muddles the history. Roosevelt was a great president and brilliant politician, but he was not the progressive visionary and fearless warrior that Burns lionizes. He governed as a pragmatic centrist and a mediator who preferred backroom deal-making to open warfare. At the time, many of his progressive contemporaries criticized him for excessive caution. The “I attack” quote, for example, came from a 1915 interview in which Roosevelt defended himself from accusations that he had been too conciliatory.

Two Republican titans dominated Congress during Roosevelt’s presidency: Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, a suave associate of J. Pierpont Morgan; and House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon, an irascible reactionary from rural Illinois. Rather than challenge their authority, Roosevelt cooperated with them to accomplish what he could. “Nothing of value is to be expected from ceaseless agitation for radical and extreme legislation,” he reasoned.

Roosevelt’s compromises enabled him to achieve some incremental reforms, but the results were often flawed. Congressional leaders made a show of cooperating and then diluted his initiatives in committee. When he asked Congress to regulate the railroad industry, Senator Aldrich engineered the Elkins Act of 1903, a toothless bill drafted by the general counsel for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Even Roosevelt’s celebrated trust busting exhibits his preference for compromise. Burns’s narrator describes how he proudly defied J. Pierpont Morgan but neglected to mention that he sued far fewer trusts than his conservative successor, William Taft. For the most part, Roosevelt pursued “gentlemen’s agreements” with Morgan and other industrialists in order to avoid litigation. The rapport was so warm that many of them contributed to Roosevelt’s 1904 election campaign. Speaker Cannon remarked, “Roosevelt, business found, had a bark that was considerably worse than his bite, although often his bark was annoying enough.” ...




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