The success of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History highlights the people behind the policies that reshaped America.
As the CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, I am reminded almost daily about the very personal connection people feel to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The extraordinary critical acclaim for the new Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History makes it clear just how widespread that feeling is.
But it also prompts me to consider why, in an age when politicians are vilified and Congress’s approval rating hovers around 14 percent, political figures from almost a century ago are being rediscovered and embraced as heroes.
Part of the answer, of course, is the film’s unique portrayal of the Roosevelts. Burns and his writing partner, Geoffrey Ward (also a proud Trustee of the FDR Presidential Library, which we support here at the Roosevelt Institute), have crafted a narrative that combines grand actors on the world stage with a very grounded depiction of the Roosevelts as people with hopes, fears, and demons to overcome. Although the film has received some criticism for focusing too much on personality and glossing over policy, the knowledge that such momentous change was not won effortlessly by remote historical figures but achieved by individuals who faced complex external and internal struggles should serve as a powerful inspiration to everyone working in politics today.
Another part of the answer is that the Roosevelts were, in fact, uniquely bold figures in American history. Franklin and Eleanor combined two things that are notoriously tough to bring together: big ideas and action. They had the ability to get things done, to experiment and tinker and move things around until they worked. Franklin set a north star, grounded in progressive values, for massive reforms to America’s corporations and banks; labor law and protections; and the social safety net. Eleanor’s boldness extended to the world stage, where she was a leader in the creation of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to the most difficult intersections of race and class in mid-century America.
Along the way, they made mistakes – sometimes profound ones. (It is deeply meaningful to me, personally, that Eleanor pressured Franklin strongly to oppose the internment of Japanese Americans.) But when they succeeded, as they often did, they did so in ways that permanently reshaped the country and the world for the better.
In today’s politics, broken promises are accepted with weary resignation, and weak compromises are often viewed as the best we can hope for. Just imagine the popularity of a president today who could lead a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps: enacted only 32 days after FDR’s inauguration, the program ultimately employed 2.5 million young men in more than 4,500 rural camps nationwide, planting 3 billion trees that remain integral to our landscape today. And imagine how much more confidence we would have if we saw in our elected officials FDR’s kind of political leadership, which, over the course of his presidency, drove the design and implementation of hundreds of solutions to deep systemic problems, from Social Security and Glass-Steagall to the Federal Music Project. These big ideas not only worked (mostly), but also persuaded the country to believe that talk would lead to action and action would lead to results.
And finally, I think a big part of the answer, also captured in Burns’s film, lies in what Roosevelt Institute Board Chair Anna Eleanor Roosevelt has called her grandfather’s “journey from patrician to American,” which is often forgotten in lionizing portrayals of FDR. The Roosevelts were born into a very wealthy family, but for his own post-presidency, FDR had envisioned a move to his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, the small rural town where, in the 1920s, he first found some improvement from the polio that afflicted him as a young man. The home he designed for himself in Warm Springs was modest, just six rooms – mostly a big porch. The most powerful man in the world dreamed of a life as a farmer that would allow him to spend time with his neighbors – a refreshing thought at a time when the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street has never spun faster.
Some have called Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt “traitors to their class.” As arresting a phrase as that is, it is more even more compelling to think about them another way: as examples that even the most privileged can learn and grow through their flaws and truly devote themselves to the common good. At the Roosevelt Institute, where we dedicate our time to the kinds of big, transformative economic and social policies that will further FDR and ER’s legacy today, we also need to pause to remind ourselves that it was the Roosevelts as human beings that made their big ideas come to life.
Felicia Wong is President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaWongRI.