Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History


And the Ken Burns entry for 2014 … gives us fourteen hours over nine episodes, all about the lives of what I think is the most influential family in American history. The complex relationships between the Oyster Bay Roosevelts (Teddy and clan) and the Hyde Park branch (FDR and, by marriage, Eleanor) is explored in depth. We get to know these powerful individuals as people.

I thought I knew a lot about these people but, as usual, Burns showed me much, much more. Particularly about Teddy, who was both a progressive and a war-loving monster. I have to admire him for some of the things he did, but I’m quite sure I would have despised him if I had ever met him, in spite of what everyone agrees was his incredible charisma.

I can’t deny his courage. San Juan Hill may have been a minor battle in a minor war, but it was a lot hairier than I had realized, and TR was in the thick of it, saw some appalling things, and risked his life many times. (And then campaigned hard for a Medal of Honor—which he never got, I’m glad to say—which diminishes him greatly in my estimation. America’s highest military honor is not something you ask for, Teddy, it’s given to you, and usually accepted with a great deal of ambivalence by men who don’t really think of themselves as heroes.)

What I’d really like to have done would be to put him down in the trenches in 1918. Not for a fact-finding tour, but to get him down in the stench, the rats, and gangrene, the gas, the men broken physically and mentally, and see how well he liked war after about a year of that.

But the really great story is, of course, of Franklin and, even more so, of Eleanor. My admiration for her has always been great, and now it’s even greater. As for FDR, he was certainly a great man, the greatest president since Lincoln … and a man with a lot of flaws. He was the right man for his times, and he re-shaped our entire country for the better. But seeing this, I can’t help wondering if Eleanor might have made a better president. … well, probably not, because she was a little too idealistic to make the compromises FDR knew had to be made to get anything done at all. But you can’t help trying to imagine it. Yet another amazing and damn-near-perfect documentary series for the wonderful Ken Burns.