Friday, September 19, 2014


There's one more episode to go in Ken Burns' new PBS documentary series THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY. But I can't wait to say that this is the best thing Burns has done since the Civil War documentary that made him rightfully famous.

It's a seven part series on the lives and interconnectedness of these three historic and related figures, Theodore, his niece Eleanor and their cousin Franklin (she and FDR were fifth cousins). I'm a history buff and thought I knew a lot about these three, and I did, but the revelations in this documentary have still startled me.

And Burns' style in this is often very understated, so that these revelations are not made a lot of, just dropped as another fact and then the narrative moves on. The actors voicing the various characters, and Peter Coyote's overall narration, are impeccably well matched to the task at hand, as is the writing and editing. Just a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.

I feel connected in a way to these three historic figures like no others, at least not ones that played such significant roles on the world stage and at crucial moments in the history of the USA and often the rest of the world. My father was a nine-year-old newsboy in 1908 when Taft came to New Jersey to campaign and decided to shake the little ragged Irish immigrants' kid's hand for the reporters.

For the rest of his life when my father shook someone's hand for the first time, or most people's, he'd say: "Shake the hand that shook the hand of President Taft in 1908 on Scotland Road in South Orange, New Jersey." I knew Taft succeeded Teddy Roosevelt and that Roosevelt was Taft's friend and supported him during that campaign but then turned against him in the next one. Because my father told me that.

By the time I was a kid my father was a politician too, working for the Democratic machine of Essex County New Jersey and called himself an FDR Democrat. FDR was a hero to him and to most of my clan when I was born during World War Two in which my two oldest brothers served. He was my hero as a boy as well, and in the history books we read in my Catholic grammar school which back then depicted FDR, Churchill and Stalin as the leaders who won that war, Stalin even affectionately referred to as "Uncle Joe" until new textbooks in the 1950s revised that perspective.

So through my old man I felt I had a connection to both Teddy and FDR. But Eleanor was all mine, or mine and my mother's. Eleanor Roosevelt seemed to be talking directly to me on the radio and in newsreels. Because, despite her upper crust accent, her sentiments and her causes were already mine as a boy, she shared my empathy and even identification with all sorts of oppressed and downtrodden and discriminated against people. She was my personal hero, and despite what most saw as her homely looks, I had a boyhood crush on her because of her mind and her courage in speaking it.

Myabe that's why at several points in the stories of the extraordinary lives of these three iconic figures, I found my eyes tearing up, overwhelmed by the way they overcame their own challenges and suffering partly by committing themselves to alleviating the suffering of others—despite their wealth and backgrounds which could have given them much easier lives had they fallen back on money and privilege. We could use some examples like them now.


JenW said...

Beautifully written. I can picture your father, from the photos you have posted, doing that handshake...And it's clear how your parents have inspired you and planted those very important seeds- where your quest for knowledge, fairness, justice and immeasurable character traits of compassion and responsibility originated. We could use some examples like THEM now.

Lally said...

Good point(s) Jen, thanks...

AlamedaTom said...

I've been recording all of the episodes and just got around to watching the first last night. Even with only one episode under my belt I am totally into it. I can't quite agree (yet) that it is the best Burns offering since The Civil War. Lurking in between is the wonderful "Baseball," (1994) which has as much history and drama as you could wish for. I just recently watched it again and I still love it.

~ Willy

Lally said...

I hear ya Willy, and everything Burns has done has been terrific, but the baseball one just wasn't as compelling for me, but then neither is baseball...and the jazz one had great moments but missed some stuff and the ending years were lackluster in choices and presentation etc. ...but for me, this Roosevelt doc has been totally compelling from the first shot to every one thereafter...