As I viewed Ken Burns compelling series about the Roosevelts, the comparisons with modern politics soon became evident: the attacks on FDR (read: Obama) as a socialist, communist, dictator and king; the steeled resistance of the industrialists to converting to a wartime production line, fearing loss of profits; the Republican opposition to labor unions, Social Security, minimum wage and other safety nets for a nation mired in the Great Depression.
Does the equation ever change?
The heroics were particularly dramatic with Franklin, whose legacy will be that of one of America’s greatest presidents. Pained and limited by more than 10 pounds of steel pressing against his polio-stricken legs, he maintained a can-do optimistic tone in his fireside chats and countless personal appearances that earned him four terms to the disgust of his bitterest enemies. He connected with the commoners, or as one of the voices so eloquently told us in one of the episodes: “I didn’t know him. But he knew me.”
He was, his critics asserted, a “traitor to his class” – quite a stretch, I”d say, for a leader whose playing field must embrace the poorest of the poor who were far more plentiful than the clubby rich stiffs.
From coal miners to the Dust Bowl victims to black Americans who were denied so much of their country, FDR rose to their needs. And then, driven by the disaster at Pearl Harbor, he successfully led a tattered nation in regaining its equilibrium in destroying Hitler and the Japanese warlords. That’s not my version of history. That’s history, so well revealed by the Burns’ series. Only the smallest of minds set against FDR will quibble.
And Eleanor, who suffered pain from her husband’s longtime affair with Lucy Mercer. But she soldiered on as one of history’s great social reformers. (Shouldn’t her enormous contribution to humanity be somehow recognized in a Rushmore setting?)
Still, if you were to look for a common denominator between the Roosevelt era and today’s cheapies on Capitol Hill, check the attacks (Swiftboating!) on Elliott Roosevelt, the Roosevelts’ oldest son, an Air Force general who flew 300 combat missions who was targeted by his enemies at home. Unlike that of the conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, Elliott’s military uniform was the real thing.
Meanwhile, during those 14 hours of a memorable documentary, one other notable fact stood out: In contrast to FDR’s efforts for the hurting underclass, there was House Speaker John Boehner, today’s conscience of the Republican class, damning the unemployed in his speech to a conservative group.
He said, “this idea that has been born, maybe out of the economy over the last couple years, that you know, I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this, I think I’d rather just sit around. This is a very sick idea for our country.”
No, John. You and your party are a very sick idea for this country. You have no chance of Ken Burns doing a half-hour on your assumed greatness.
Correction: this article originally appeared under a different author. We have corrected the mistake. Sorry Abe!