The Roosevelts is Ken Burns at his best. A PBS mini-series spanning 14 hours, it portrays the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt through their many trials and triumphs.
Though from two branches of a vibrant, if flawed, American family, they were all Roosevelts by birth. Theodore was Eleanor’s uncle and a fifth cousin of Franklin. Eleanor and Franklin were fifth cousins once removed.
Each of them overcame adversity to achieve great heights of success and influence. Teddy suffered from acute asthma and other disabilities as a child but became president of the United States at the age of 42, the youngest person ever to achieve that position. FDR contracted polio when he was 39 and never again stood or walked unaided; he nevertheless was elected president four times, the only person ever to be elected more than twice.
Eleanor, the daughter of an unappreciative mother and an alcoholic father, was orphaned at the age of 10 but became widely recognized on her own merit as the most powerful woman in the world.
Teddy, a Republican, and Franklin, a Democrat, shared a dominant belief in government’s role to guide the nation and improve the lives of its people. Their personalities, however, were different.
Theodore attacked every venture with energy and passion. He was indefatigable, and listeners often said they were exhausted simply after hearing him speak.
As vice president, TR succeeded to the presidency in Sept.,1901 upon the assassination of President William McKinley. He was the first to use the term “bully pulpit” to describe the use of the president’s power to influence public opinion. And he used it effectively to break up powerful business trusts, secure the enactment of widespread reform legislation and carry out an aggressive foreign policy.
Franklin Roosevelt, like Theodore, was born into wealth and privilege. After briefly practicing law, his interest quickly turned to public service. Also like his cousin, he served as assistant secretary of the Navy and New York governor before becoming president.
Unlike Teddy, FDR used charm, wit, oratory, and sometimes cunning to persuade and lead. Embodying his 1932 campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” he preached optimism and strength in the midst of the hardship and pain of the Great Depression. His “fireside chats” and biweekly meetings with reporters in his office were powerful means of communicating with the American people.
FDR led the nation during the most severe economic collapse and greatest foreign war in its history. Though not universally praised, his progressive domestic policies and allied leadership in World War II established the United States as the leader of the free world.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt endured neglectful and abusive parents, a controlling mother-in-law and her husband’s infidelities but accomplished much in her life. She was FDR’s adviser and unofficial representative in many situations. Most of all, she worked tirelessly for minorities, the poor, the disadvantaged and social justice. As one of the five original American delegates to the United Nations, she was singularly responsible for the drafting and unanimous passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her work did not cease when she was no longer First Lady, only with her death in 1962.
These lives and the tumultuous times in which they lived are brilliantly portrayed in The Roosevelts.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.