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The Missing Piece in ‘The Roosevelts’

Lately, I’ve been wishing the U.S. had a present-day FDR who would push through a ‘New Deal’ for us. So I was eager to begin watching Ken Burn’s new PBS documentary The Roosevelts; An Intimate History. I am thoroughly enjoying it, and coming to understand much more about that period of American history.

The Roosevelts – An Intimate History

The focus is on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, and how each overcame personal hardships. In the process they grew in strength and moral fiber. Though the Roosevelt clan was as close to American aristocracy as you could get, as leaders, these three individuals consistently championed the American people over corporate entities.

Still, I noticed that Bank of America helped to sponsor the The Roosevelts. In addition,  I am aware that PBS has bowed to the will of big sponsors in the past. So I could not help but wonder, what may this historical documentary about the famous three Roosevelts… be leaving out?

The Labor Movement Is Missing

Coming across Harvey J. Kaye’s piece on The Roosevelts in The Daily Beast, I found out what is missing. Basically, Kaye says that the documentary ignores the Labor Movement.

[FDR] become the most vibrant political figure in the nation who would, in Burns’ words, ‘expertly manage two of the three greatest crises in American history, the Depression and the Second World War.’

Absolutely true. And yet Burns’s words also sadly signal what he and [writer/collaborator Geoffrey C.] Ward fail to grasp…. FDR didn’t just ‘manage the crises.’ He led and engaged Americans in overcoming them. No, it was even more than that. Like Teddy (after whom he modeled himself), FDR knew his history and even more than TR grasped what made American history special, indeed exceptional: That in the face of crises, Americans at their best do not simply try to defend and sustain American democratic life.  They fight to enhance it. It was that knowledge and belief that encouraged FDR to say in the midst of the Great Depression that it ‘is time for the country to become fairly radical for a generation.’ And together, though not always in tandem, that is exactly what he and his fellow citizens did in the ’30s when, in contrast to what transpired in Central Europe, they launched a democratic revolution of recovery, reconstruction, and reform.

Still, we cannot leave it at that.  What we need to recognize is that history—and here we are not helped very much by this documentary—is not made by presidents alone, however much they have Eleanor Roosevelt encouraging and cajoling them. Indeed, great presidents themselves are made by great citizens, citizens who mobilize and push them to go beyond even what they themselves may have progressively envisioned.

Washington was pushed to fight for independence by citizens-to-be who, inspired by Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, were determined to liberate themselves from the British empire and monarchy and govern themselves as Americans. Lincoln was compelled to turn the Civil War into a struggle for emancipation by African-American slaves determined to liberate themselves from their Southern masters and become free Americans. And FDR was propelled to harness the powers of democratic government and subject business to public regulation, improve the nation’s public infrastructure and environment, create Social Security, expand educational opportunities, and empower workers to organize unions by the struggles and demands of working people determined to redeem and renew America’s promise.

Yes, Burns and Ward have produced an Intimate History that deftly weaves together the personal and the political. However, as much they remind us of the great progressive achievements of TR, ER, and FDR, Burns and Ward have not produced the democratic history that we so need, now especially.

They ignore the ways in which working people and the labor movement shaped their ‘heroes’’ thinking and propelled their action. They note TR’s presidential intervention in the 1902 coal strike, but fail to speak of labor’s role in the Socialist and Progressive parties’ prewar battles against Gilded Age capital (labor unionist and Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs is never named).

They emphasize Eleanor’s involvement with the League of Women Voters in the ’20s and her relationship with independent reform-minded women of the day, but barely mention her work with the Women’s Trade Union League. As a consequence, they ignore how her encounters and friendships with East European Jewish women labor organizers of Manhattan’s Lower East Side not only led her to shed the anti-Semitism and racism of her youth (attitudes that are never discussed), but also enabled her to educate FDR to the needs of working families and the politics of industrial and social democracy by bringing those women to Hyde Park to spend time with him.

And though Burns and Ward do clearly note how black labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement persuaded FDR to order the opening of war-industry employment to African Americans in 1941, they make no reference to labor’s role in propelling FDR to victory in 1936, 1940, and 1944. They say nothing about how labor pushed FDR to embrace Senator Robert Wagner’s National Labor Relations Act, which in turn positioned the federal government to bolster the AFL’s and, especially, the new CIO’s organizing efforts. Nor is anything said about the labor movement inspiring FDR to proclaim the Four Freedoms and call for an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans (in fact, we never hear about the great labor leaders such as the Mineworkers’ John Lewis, the Clothing Workers’ Sidney Hillman, or the Autoworkers’ Walter Reuther, the last of whom ER reportedly yearned to see run for president one day).  Ignoring labor and working people, Burns and Ward miss out on producing the history—even the ‘intimate history’—we could use today.

Harvey J. Kay, The Daily Beast 

What About a New ‘New Deal’ Today?

America needs a new ‘New Deal’ today. We may not have a strong Labor Movement to goad our leaders into action. But we do have different groups that are applying pressure, as Kaye puts it, for ‘enhanced’ change.

  • We have state-level organizations fighting to amend the Constitution in a way that will break the hold big money has on our political system.
  • We have activists marching and protesting to halt climate change and promote climate justice.
  • We have the proverbial ‘little guys’, McDonald’s workers, striving to build an effective voice on labor issues.

These groups and people, as well as others, are goading our leaders today. And they are becoming better organized, and more influential, by the month.

They. We. Are spurring a new ‘New Deal’.

So, get into The Roosevelts. But remember, even brilliant leaders like them, needed direction from The People.

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About The Author

JoAnn Chateau

JoAnn Chateau likes progressive politics and loves the canines. She writes fiction about an alpha Bichon named Chester, and his friends–with a dash of humor and a dab of poli-sci. JoAnn worked professionally in the Psychology and Information Science fields. Retired now, she enjoys the creative life.

1 Comment

  1. obscureecho

    The modern progressive movement lacks a powerful leader such as Roosevelt that will lead the nation toward progress. I wish the President were that leader, but he is far too introverted and submissive to his political enemies to really lead the movement. Our pluralist political atmosphere also contributes to this prevention of progress. The right and left constantly quarrel on public policy. I think it shows that sometimes you need someone like Roosevelt who has come from immense wealth, but will fight diligently for all of America, especially the working class.

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