Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Three who changed the world—and us

    The Roosevelts changed the world. From Cuba to a social safety net, to performances on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, life became different because they existed. When they were good, they were very good, and when they were bad, mostly no one paid attention.
    What made Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor figures who shaped the 20th century is the subject of “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” a Ken Burns series running on PBS which began last Sunday and will run all week. In a world of too much information and fre-netic talking heads, the Roosevelts show us what mat-ters, and what doesn’t.
    America’s transformation to a manufacturing econ-omy gave the family wealth and privilege. Between Theodore and Franklin, they held the presidency for 18 of the first 45 years of the 20th century. Teddy’s cousin and Franklin’s wife, Eleanor, was the most influential first lady and one of the most influential women in American history in her own right.
    Teddy Roosevelt’s legend includes an apocryphal story about him refusing to shoot a bear chained to a post. The humane and noble act was memorialized by a “teddy” bear, the first-ever stuffed animal toy. That story, however, leaves out the detail that Teddy did not spare the bear, but had one of his guides shoot it. The hunting party then ate it. In fact, Teddy was driven to kill animals and enemies in war with a passion border-ing on blood lust.
    Theodore and Franklin came to power at least partly because the personal and political were more clearly delineated in their time. Certainly, political opponents were not above vicious caricatures and per-sonal attacks, but personal lives were off-limits be-cause the only thing of interest to voters was public performance.
    In their public-service hearts, all three Roosevelts were, as one of Franklin’s detractors said, “Traitors to their class.” They believed in the value of ordinary people and that government could, and should, level the playing field as a counterbalance to the power of corporations if capitalism was to succeed. “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a govern-ment frozen in the ice of its own indifference,” Frank-lin said in his 1936 presidential re-nomination speech.
    Catch the remainder of this remarkable series. You will learn details you did not know, and you will learn a great deal about the issues that still divide races, economic classes and political philosophies at the core of the American system.

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