October 5, 2014
by Bob Velez
If you missed the newest offering by documentarian of all things American, Ken Burns, you missed an epic story arc that encompassed the political careers of two presidents and one incredibly powerful woman whose efforts are still being felt around the world today. It covered over one hundred years of American history and blended together a story of three lives marked by tragedy, heartache, exhilaration, success, failure, sickness, depression, joy, and a host of other human experiences that many of us have come to – or will have to – endure. It sounds trite to say that it is a truly American story; a story of individuals who overcame massive obstacles to make a mark on our country and the world. ‘The Roosevelts: An Intimate History’ was a comprehensive look at the lives of three historical figures who, in their own individual ways, inspired millions of Americans in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and whose significance in the American experience has remained and will remain for, I believe, centuries to come.
While I encourage fans of documentaries and history to see this monument to the American spirit, I want to warn you ahead of time: if you are a follower of today’s politics and an optimist for what can be in our country, you may find yourself sitting in sackcloth and ashes and rending your garments lamenting the leadership – or lack thereof – that is on full display in Springfield and the nation’s Capitol. Its hard to avoid the deluge of negative advertising that has infected local television broadcasts informing us that candidates running for office are self-interested, devious harbingers of doom who are eager to abscond with your vote (and your tax dollars) while feathering their nest and wielding political power to destroy lives and/or America. Of course there are also the ads that show those same politicians as Mr. or Ms. Everyman/Everywoman who are humbly offering their service to the fine citizens of our country. Are they a brood of vipers or friends to the common man? I suspect that most of the politicians of today exist in a space on neither extreme, but I can’t say I would mention any of their names in the same breath as the Roosevelts.
Despite coming from a family of significant means, Teddy, Eleanor, and Franklin D. Roosevelt did indeed embrace the plight of the common man. Whether we speak of Teddy and his battles against the business trusts with a stranglehold on American commerce wringing every last drop of labor from the workers while paying barely subsistence wages (no, Wal-Mart wasn’t around in Teddy’s day), Eleanor fighting for universal human rights for all in spite of being on the receiving end of regular death threats, or FDR flexing government muscle to put millions of Americans back to work in hopes of stemming the human despair that had crippled us after three years of a Great Depression, their efforts to meet the material and emotional needs of our fellow Americans at times of incredible challenge in our country simply have no equal in today’s political environment. Where are the leaders who can stir within us the desire to do big things simply because we can? Is there a politician willing to tell us the truth that exists in the cliché “we all do better when we ALL do better”? Who will proudly proclaim that we really ARE all in this together and that our collective will – also known as ‘government’ – is not a punchline or deserving of scorn in the name of liberty and individualism?
No, I’m not a Commie. Nor do I believe that the means of production should rest exclusively in the hands of the proletariat. But I do believe that the interests of the American people should be placed ahead of the unfettered pursuit of profit-by-any-means-necessary. I do believe that the American spirit which built the Panama Canal and the Tennessee Valley Authority and helped win two World Wars exists and can be channeled once again to do big things for regular citizens.
One of the great things about Burns’ work is that instead of showing the main characters as legends whose characters are impossible to impugn, he chooses instead to pay particular attention to their flaws; the things that made them human. Even the loftiest of optimists do not expect to find mythical superheroes in Washington D.C. able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and right all the wrongs that ail us as a society. But are we foolish dreamers to yearn for a Roosevelt in our time?
I’d like to think that there exists now or shall exist sometime in the very near future one or more Roosevelts who make their way into public service; who view politics and government not as something to apologize for but as a sacred trust in deed, not just word. Who will embody and embrace the spirit of Teddy, Eleanor, and Franklin? Maybe its you, Dear Reader, who will become such a man or woman of our time.