by Robert Morrison
September 25, 2014
Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation punctures some of Ken Burns’s myth-making in the latest PBS series, “The Roosevelts.” As this distinguished economist points out, unemployment throughout the decade of the 1930s averaged an eye-popping 15%. Even as late as 1941, as the country ramped up its defense spending and millions went to work in war industries, the unemployment rate was still 12%. On top of all this, the federal government vastly expanded its reach with a dizzying array of “alphabet soup” agencies — FCC, FDIC, FTC, WPA, PWA, PDQ (oops, that last one is a joke, folks).
Still, this 14-hour infomercial for Big Government Liberalism that bores Steve Moore to tears, I found fascinating. The folks at the government-funded PBS and the National Endowment for the Humanities were hardly going to do a documentary that trashed three of liberalism’s greatest heroes — Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
When we look at this series, however, we note that what the Ken Burns team does not celebrate is “lifestyle liberalism.”
Theodore Roosevelt bids fair to be considered the first “pro-family” president. He fretted about birth rates and divorce rates. He pored over the Census reports. He was sincerely concerned about family life. One of my favorite TR stories has him traveling by train to the West Coast. He stops at every whistle stop. He addresses the farmers who have brought their wives and children to see this “steam locomotive in britches.” He praises their bumper crops of wheat, corn, and soybeans, but most of all, he tells them, it is good to see a bumper crop of bright and healthy children.
Theodore and Edith’s large and bumptious family made the White House a never-ending source of amusement for Americans. When TR’s daughter by his first marriage, Alice, dropped out of school, took up smoking, and began to run with a fast crowd at Newport, the president threw up his hands. “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”
The country chuckled over that typical example of Rooseveltian humor. But behind that jibe was this troubling question: “Mr. President — Whoever said you got to run the country?”
Theodore and his second wife, Edith, were a powerful example of marital fidelity, love, and mutual support. When Theodore, as an ex-president, was shot by a deranged would-be assassin, in the midst of his 1912 “Bull Moose” campaign, it was Edith’s prompt arrival at his Milwaukee hospital room that put everything in order. She fended off overeager well-wishers and importunate politicos. TR survived another decade.
Ken Burns is candid about the pain cause by Franklin Roosevelt’s infidelity to Eleanor.
He might have delved more deeply into this topic had he noted that Eleanor’s closing her bedroom door to her husband, after giving birth to six children, might have had something to do with Franklin’s straying. It’s not an excuse, but it is explanatory.
Closer to the truth may be the fact that Franklin needed, we might even say, craved gentle feminine companionship. Breakfast with Eleanor too often became a Morning Briefing as she gave him his “to do” lists for social uplift projects she found compelling.
Perhaps the best part of this series is the part I least expected: FDR’s religion is front-and-center. When President Roosevelt in August 1941 escaped the prying eyes of the White House correspondents, he was spirited away to a shipboard summit conference with Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. The voyage aboard USS Augusta plowed through the stormy North Atlantic, a seaway infested with menacing German U-Boats.
Roosevelt’s son Elliot goes to meet Churchill in his stateroom on board the battle-scarred warship, HMS Prince of Wales. The son is eager to meet the man who had thrilled the world with his defiant speeches as London braved the “Nozzie” Blitz. “My father says you are the greatest man in the world,” Elliott tells the half-American Churchill. And he adds: “My father is a very religious man.”
Churchill already knows this. British intelligence has briefed the Prime Minister on FDR’s favorite hymns. It is these hymns that Churchill includes in the worship service he has carefully arranged. It is hard to imagine a summit of leaders that would include a Christian worship service today. But FDR is clearly most moved by the sight and sound of 6,000 American and British sailors singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” under the 15-inch guns of Britain’s greatest battleship.
Justice Felix Frankfurter, an FDR appointee to the Supreme Court, was Jewish and a leader of the American Zionist cause. He would tell President Roosevelt that the worship service on board the British battleship was the most thrilling moment for him.
Newsweek editor Jon Meacham adds this vital detail to the Ken Burns documentary: Following that on-deck worship service, the president tells his son: “We are Christian soldiers.” That liberalism’s greatest champion thought and spoke in such terms is amazing.
A few months later, Japan would attack the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor and America would be in the war alongside Churchill’s Britain and that troublesome partner, Josef Stalin’s USSR. Despite enormous pressures to avenge the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt maintained a tight control over U.S. war policy. He correctly directed the bulk of our war effort against Hitler Germany. Fully 85% of all allied war-making went to bringing down this greater menace.
U.S. troops went into battle equipped with the best armament and materièl this powerful nation could provide. Not neglected were their spiritual needs. FDR’s inscription in each pocket New Testament with the Psalms gave his endorsement to Bible-reading and inspiration.
I’m grateful as well for Jon Meacham telling us about FDR’s D-Day Prayer. Not only did the President of the United States lead the nation in prayer, in a White House broadcast that stressed the effort to “preserve our religion” among its liberating goals, Meacham says that the more than one hundred million Americans who heard that broadcast may have constituted the largest prayer meeting in our nation’s history.
Finally, there’s this revealing film clip. FDR’s death at Warm Springs, Georgia, on the eve of victory in World War II brings the untried Harry Truman to the White House on April 12, 1945. Commentators then and since have said: Roosevelt was for the people; Truman was the people. Harry is shown taking the presidential oath. As did George Washington and Abraham Lincoln before him, Harry Truman bends down and kisses the Bible.
Thank you, Ken Burns, for that, too!