The Roosevelts: A hagiography

When writer Mark Gauvreau Judge was repeatedly invited to review Ken Burns’s 10-part, 18-and-a-half hour documentary on the history of jazz in 2000, his response was always the same: “I don’t need to see it to write a review. It’s Ken Burns, hippie granola-head and king of the documentary-melodrama, which means we’re in for yet another race-obsessed orgy of political correctness.” (In retrospect, Judge concedes, he was only “half-right.”)

With slight variation necessitated by the differing subject matter, I think Judge’s critique applies almost perfectly to Burns’s current offering, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, written by Burns’s long-time collaborator (and Roosevelt biographer) Geoffrey Ward. And Judge would have been all right, not half-right.

The series can be streamed online here. Part 7 of the 14-hour documentary aired last night. At long last it was over. I’m pasting in the video of Part 5 (1933-1939) so interested readers can easily take a look for themselves.

The documentary covered the lives of Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt in what I found to be the predictably insufferable fashion Judge would have anticipated. Though Franklin Roosevelt died nearly 70 years ago, Burns’s work is not for those in search of cool judgment or historical detachment. The series was a love letter to Progressives, Democrats, and liberals. Part 7 traced FDR’s political heritage to Barack Obama, of course, which means it’s a good thing FDR was good in all his works.

The timing of the series is interesting. Arriving six weeks in advance of the midterm elections, the series allowed PBS to make its in-kind contribution to the Democrats in a big way this year. Those looking for historical detachment or impartial judgment or simply a balanced perspective had best look elsewhere.

The Roosevelts have given rise to a critical literature that is of great assistance in raising issues and rendering judgment beyond hagiography. We did not hear from Amity Shlaes, for example, in the series’ 14 hours (or Jean Yarbrough, or Gene Smiley, or Peter Collier, or Burt Folsom). George Will, whom we did hear from, did not fill the void.

Having written a revisionist history of the Great Depression in which FDR is not the hero, Amity Shlaes was too hot to handle. Amity takes a critical look at the series, however, in the NRO column “Progressives enthroned.”

The Roosevelts leaves us in the realm of hagiography. Seventy years after FDR’s death, it is apparently too soon to ask Burns et al. to strive for a balanced perspective on the Roosevelts. My mom was a teen-age girl who cried when she heard that FDR had died; Ken Burns essentially wants his viewers to retain the perspective of a teen-age girl circa 1945 on the Roosevelts. This is “history” for wide-eyed innocents.

Among the (mostly) positive assessments of the series are reviews by Neal Genzlinger in the New York Times, Robert Lloyd in the Los Angeles Times, and Mason Williams in the New Republic.

Interviewing Burns for a feature occasioned by the documentary, the Wall Street Journal asked what president from our history we would elect today. Burns responded with this mindless takedown of the American people: “I think we could perpetually elect the Warren G. Hardings of the world, not asking the essential questions about honesty and whatever, because they looked the part—they’re out of central casting. And our greatest presidents, thankfully, are not out of central casting. They’re actually themselves.” Burns’s disparagement of the American people certainly applies to our election of the current occupant of the Oval Office, but you can bet that is not what he has in mind with his pseudosophistication that achieves vapid left-wing stupidity.