Excerpt from Ken Burns’ ‘The Roosevelts’ Reveals Everything Wrong With Our Current Political Class’  by Joseph Palermo


Ken Burns’ seven-part PBS series on the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is a remarkable achievement. Burns sheds a poignant new light on the personal and public lives of three monumental figures in 20th Century American history. And in doing so, he illustrates the relative rottenness of the hacks, partisans, and plutocrats who make up the political class that rules America today.

By exploring the lives and times of TR, FDR, and ER Burns shows that in our not-so-distant past the governing institutions of this country were actually responsive to the needs and desires of working-class Americans. This superb and moving portrait is a perfect fit for our times. The utter failure of our current “leaders” is glaring by comparison.

Yes, TR was a warmonger, and FDR signed the order that imprisoned innocent Japanese Americans. There are long lists of both presidents’ failures. But we shouldn’t let those flaws bury the fact that both TR and FDR were not afraid to stand up to big corporations and Wall Street if they viewed their actions as damaging to the country. That alone is probably the biggest difference between those leaders of the early decades of the 20th Century and today.

After thirty years of “supply-side” economics that has left working people still waiting for better times to “trickle down”; eight years of George W. Bush’s misrule that brought us war and recession; the Far-Right ascendency in 2010 that has all but shuttered the federal government in an attempt to destroy Barack Obama; and a Supreme Court that is proudly subservient to every tenet of plutocracy — I think it’s okay to flip on PBS and feel a bit nostalgic for a time when there existed effective politicians who actually gave a damn about the quality of life of the majority of Americans.

Over the past thirty years, Presidents and Congresses have become so subservient to corporations and Wall Street that the two major political parties are all but indistinguishable.

One of the reasons why our politics have become so volatile and opinion polls show over and over again that our people have nothing but contempt for the whole political class in Washington is the widespread recognition that the plutocrats, CEOs, and Wall Street bankers have effectively seized our governing institutions.

Another subtext for our times of the Burns documentary is the reminder that people who come from the richest .01 percent of Americans don’t have to be total assholes. Unlike the Koch Brothers, or the Waltons, or Representative Darrell Issa (the richest man in the House of Representatives) the Roosevelts didn’t feel they had a class interest in keeping their boots on the necks of America’s working people; they strived to uplift them.

And they saw the federal government not as a bazaar of accounts receivable to vacuum up precious tax dollars for the already rich but as a means to improve the lives of the 99 percent.

Have we come to expect perfection in our political leaders?  Why do we allow  corporations and Wall Street and other institutions to take over our country to the point that the 99% is scrambling to throw off the yoke of the oppressors?   Our leaders seem to have little interest in making our lives any easier.  Is this because we can’t pay those leaders the big bucks and the lobbyists and corporate America can?

The Roosevelts was an incredibly interesting series.  It could have very well been Ken Burn’s best documentary since the Civil War.  No one advances  with the notion that any of the three Roosevelts were saints or even close to perfect.  They obviously weren’t.  However, it seems that people of that day were much more inclined to overlook and forgive.   All three appeared to be very concerned with the daily lives of the common man more so than advancement of corporate America.   At no time have Americans had more contempt for the political process than they do now.  Congress has a less than 20 percent approval rating.  That abysmal number seems to put Congress lower than a snake’s belly.  The President (and ones in recent years)  are a little higher in approval but not by a lot.

The Roosevelts were rich and privileged, yet they don’t beat you over the head with their superiority.  Instead, they attempt to become like us.  They try to be normal people with all of their souls.  Can we say the same for Darryl Issa?

44 Thoughts to “The Roosevelts: stark reminder of better times?”

  1. Cargosquid

    And it was FDR’s changes to government that have allowed the current crop to act the way that they do. FDR wanted more power for the government. He got it. And this is the result. FDR did not “attempt” to “become like us.” That family was rich, powerful, and politically connected. The difference is that Americans didn’t care then. Corporate America wasn’t as developed as it is now. But the FDR time was the period when Corporate and Government got in bed with each other, to each other’s benefit. They didn’t want to knock corporate down. The politicians wanted to control them.

    Also, I notice that you didn’t hit on the rich, privileged, DEMOCRATS in Congress. The Kochs? Really? And you left out Soros and Buffett?

    1. Those weren’t my words. I selected no one. There are very rich people from both parties out there. Soros and Buffett aren’t in Congress. Nor are the Koch brothers last time I looked, at least not in the flesh, just in influence.

      Actually the Roosevelts did try to give the impression of being like the rest of us even though they clearly were not.

      I don’t suppose you watched the series? There are several ways to look at who was in bed with whom. I walked away from the series with some different perspectives and also feeling a great sense of ambiguity about them. But, unlike you, I see things as both good and bad. You tend to categorize things in a binary fashion.

  2. Rick Bentley

    Great great TV series. I’m 70% of the way through it. (Don’t tell me how it ends).

    I perceive American history, during the past century, as swings back and forth between market-driven ideology and liberalism. I perceive us best served in a sweet spot somewhere between those two dysfunctional extremes. I watch this and I wonder – do right-wingers, some or all, really think America would be a better country if Teddy and Franklin hadn’t aggressively swung us leftwards? Do they think Amewrica would have prospered to the same degree that we did if government hadn’t risen to the challenge of reinventing itself after the industrial revolution? My guess is that we’re all better off.

    1. I think we are better off, regardless of how awkward it was to get there. Have we gone overboard? Perhaps. Issue for another time.

  3. George S. Harris

    I was born the year FDR was sworn into office and by the time I was 6 or perhaps 7, I informed my Mother that I would be glad when I grew up so I would not have to obey anyone but God or Roosevelt.

    I really do believe that despite their great wealth, the FDR Roosevelts really did try to connect with the people. Remember that FDR held two press conferences a week and did “Fireside Chats” to keep the folks informed. While FDR couldn’t get out and walk around with the people, Eleanor did that through all the years of his presidency and for the 10 years after his death. I can’t think of any other president or first lady who had done as much to identify with the common citizen. Some of that is because we have so isolated the president and first lady that it is impossible for them to do a “walk about.” Can you imagine Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush or even Michelle Obama going down into a coal mine to see what is happening with miners or going overseas in wartime to see what is happening with the troops and visiting military hospitals in or near the combat zone?

    For me, FDR belongs right alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents this nation had and to date. Teddy Roosevelt should be there also if for nothing else than the Panama Canal.

    1. Thanks for a much broader perspective than most of us are capable of giving. FDR was dead by the time I came along.

      I think Teddy should be classified one of the greatest just because of the national parks. He saved our greatest national resources from the greed of individuals and corporate America.

  4. Pat.Herve

    cargo – you really need to look at the members of Congress – Koch, Soros, Buffet – none of them.
    Comparing Koch to Soros is like comparing Coke to RC Cola http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2010/09/opensecrets-battle-koch-brothers/

  5. punchak

    @George S. Harris
    I agree with you. I think that Eleanor Roosevelt has been of the greatest
    women the US has produced. She CARED! And she put herself in
    situations no woman, coming from an upper background, has done since.

    Considering her childhood, which was far from common or easy or beautiful,
    she put that behind her, didn’t dwell on the unfairness of it. She
    played the hand she was dealt. Can’t tell you how much I admire
    Eleanor Roosevelt! She bore and raised six children. Her husband
    couldn’t walk, he had a mistress. She coped.
    As a widow, she didn’t sit back and rest, enjoying her pension.
    No, she went out and DID important things.

    Can you imagined the guts it took for her to go the the South and
    mingle with Negroes? Horrors! Talk about courage!

    1. She went into war zones, put up with generals, visited hospital beds with men in all states of health, many with hideous wounds.
      She endured all the sycophant women who had crushes on FDR, had a horrible mother in law and was betrayed by her daughter who knew about the first mistress being at Warm Springs. Still Eleanor pushed on.

      During the series I often thought her silly and naïve, but her endurance and force and selflessness always triumphed over those feelings in the end.

  6. Rick Bentley

    I like Eleanor Roosevelt too, more or less. But as far as this narrative of her a victim of Franklin’s infidelities … let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

    The woman was quite obviously gay, and she quite obviously spent her time wandering around with lesbian friends and lovers, leaving her polio-stricken husband to lead his own life, and leaving her children in others’ care while she indulged herself.

  7. Rick Bentley

    I don’t think that FDR had the best luck in the world, marrying a gay woman who didn’t really want to be a mother to their children.

  8. Rick Bentley

    Or maybe she was bisexual. Wikipedia indicates she may have had affairs with a number of men. At any rate … she did what she wanted to do, I wouldn’t cry crocodile tears for her.

  9. Cargosquid

    All three appeared to be very concerned with the daily lives of the common man more so than advancement of corporate America.

    Your words.

    You also chose the words for your article and seem to approve of them.

    My mother was trying to support a family during the depression and under FDR. She couldn’t stand him.

  10. Rick Bentley

    Watching the series, I can see the perspective that communism might have gained a foothold in the US had Teddy and FDR not moved the government closer to the common peoples’ interests. I would imagine this would have been a real possibility.

    1. Communism and socialism were ripe during that time.

      I think that series might have been Ken Burns best.

  11. Rick Bentley

    I was thinking that also. It was as good as any of his others. Civil war, this one, and Prohibition are especially first-rate.

  12. @Rick Bentley
    Oh PUH-leez

    You are assuming a lot. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. I would never fault her over her treatment of FDR. He was a philanderer, or as much of one as is possible when one is paralyzed from the waist down.

    He and Daisy carried on also.

  13. @Cargosquid

    My parents were teenagers during the depression. I don’t know how they felt about him.

    I expect they probably had mixed feelings. FDR did a lot of good that helped many people. He also did some things that people didn’t like. Obviously a lot of people liked him since he was elected 4 times.

  14. Actually, I should have asked why your mother disliked him. She must have been very young during his “reign.”

  15. punchak

    @Rick Bentley
    Interesting to hear a man´s opinion!

  16. Lyssa


    Perhaps those who suffered during the depression and complained about fDR were too young to understand what Hoover had done. “Hooverville” was a term associated with Pres. Hoover.

  17. George S. Harris

    @Rick Bentley: “The woman was quite obviously gay, and she quite obviously spent her time wandering around with lesbian friends and lovers, leaving her polio-stricken husband to lead his own life, and leaving her children in others’ care while she indulged herself.”

    A pretty significant leap. She certainly was a strong feminist but can you honestly say association wit homosexuals implies you are a homosexual? If you, Rick, have homosexual friends, is it fair to say, “You are, ‘quite obviously gay’?” Hmmmmm…

  18. Rick Bentley

    Let’s say that my spouse could barely walk, but became President. Meanwhile, we had 4 or 5 kids to take care of. And after she took office, I went off with a guy on a “road trip” for a month.

    Chances are if that happens I’m gay or bisexual. I’m not assuming she was gay or bi because of who she was friends with. But rather because of her lifestyle and living arrangements. To say nothing of the intense correspondence that exists between her and some women.

    “I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you.” – ER to Lorena Hickock

    “All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday I will be with you, & yet tonite you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it & think “she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!”” – same

    1. And hen there are the letters to the doctor she became friends with towards the end of her life. Seriously. I think she might have been goofy like that. Historians have explored the lesbian theory for decades. Who knows. I don’t think she threw the first punch, is my only point. She was nearly destroyed by his betrayal with Lucy Rutherford, her own personal secretary. I believe she was a very fragile person in many ways. In other ways, she was a rock.

      I would never feel sorry for him where she was concerned though.

  19. Rick Bentley

    (This case is even more obvious that that of Abraham Lincoln!)

    1. I think the Abe Lincoln thing is a crock.

  20. Rick Bentley

    Moon, I’m arguing against this interpretation that she was a victim of Franklin’s infidelities.

    She was a cold woman. She was not warm. She was not feminine. At some point in that marriage, she realized that she was attracted to women, and went off to live with women.

    I see him as more a victim than her. It’s not as if his infidelity caused her to become gay or bi. Or to not want to be a hands-on mother. That’s who she was. Presumably to both their surprise.

  21. Rick Bentley

    Strike “she was not feminine”, that’s a stupid remark. Wish I could edit that out.

    Meant to say something like “she was not interested in the traditional roles a wife plays”, like say helping your invalid husband to get around.

    1. Ok, that is more acceptable.

      She should have pushed the old buzzard down the stairs. I like your new wording better. Her invalid husband had all sorts of help. Really she wasn’t needed. I think she started off as a traditional wife and grew into herself. Personal growth vs the role others think we should play.

      At the same time, I often thought she sounded simply silly. Her voice over was Meryl Streep. I was amazed.

  22. Rick Bentley

    When you say the Lincoln thing was a crock, are you going so far as to assert that he was definitely NOT attracted to men?

  23. Rick Bentley

    I think that Eleanor Roosevelt was a good person, especially on race issues, but not much of a wife.

  24. middleman

    Man, all that that woman accomplished, and we’re hung up on her sexual orientation. Aren’t we voluntarily doing the “look over there-shiny object” thing that keeps us from addressing problems?

    Whatever personal relationships she had, we badly need more like her. She was FDR’s moral conscience and made a huge difference in the world. Bring on the cold, gay, bisexual, nontraditional women!

  25. Censored bybvbl

    @Rick Bentley

    I’ll stick my neck out here, not having watched the series yet, and say that many women, wealthy or not, are not what many people would consider doting wives and mothers. They were in their childbearing years when birth control wasn’t widely available and perhaps weren’t prepared to be Harriet Homemakers. I don’t think a single woman/wife on our block in the Fifties was a warm family-oriented person. Betty Draper comes to mind as a descriptor instead.

  26. Cargosquid

    I like Eleanor. She was great! But then, she wasn’t in charge of making over American society and growing progressive government.

    But she was a great moral force.

    1. Why didn’t your mother like FDR?

  27. Cargosquid

    Because he was a socialist. He sought to increase more power of the government at the expense of liberties. And he was an incompetent when trying to end the Depression. He spent all that money and seized that much power for nothing.

    1. In your eyes, everyone is an incompetent when it comes to ending a depression.

      Interestingly enough, he kept a lot of folks alive during the depression. I guess that is irrelevant? I don’t think one person can end a depression. I think he helped ride it out.

      I also think anyone to the left of you is a socialist, in your eyes.

      Back to why your mother didn’t like him…

  28. George S. Harris

    I am convinced Bentley doesn’t know a feminist from Shinola. If they don’t fit his little proscribed pattern of a woman then they must be queer. Maybe it takes one to know one.

  29. middleman

    Cargosquid :
    Because he was a socialist. He sought to increase more power of the government at the expense of liberties. And he was an incompetent when trying to end the Depression. He spent all that money and seized that much power for nothing.

    Cargo, please tell us which liberties FDR took from us.

  30. Rick Bentley

    “Man, all that that woman accomplished, and we’re hung up on her sexual orientation.”

    I was responding to this sentiment that she was a victim of Franklin’s infidelities. I think that’s a naive way to look at their relationship. I like the woman and think she was a very good First Lady.

    “If they don’t fit his little proscribed pattern of a woman then they must be queer. Maybe it takes one to know one.”

    A. Nobody under 60 uses that word anymore. B. Nobody under 60 thinks quite like that anymore.

  31. Rick Bentley

    But, George, my boyfriend is quite offended by that remark.

  32. middleman

    Where’s Cargo? I still want to know what liberties FDR took from us as he expanded the power of the government. If you make a statement like that, you must have examples, right?

    1. Finding film footage to permanently scar me for life.

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