A Free-Market Economist’s Take on Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts”

By now, you’ve probably seen or heard about Ken Burns’ 14-hour documentary on the three most famous Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. I have to confess that I almost didn’t watch it.

There were two reasons for my reluctance. First, I am not a fan of either Teddy or FDR as presidents. The former was guilty of a lust for war and domestic strongman tendencies, and the latter tragically prolonged the Great Depression. Second, I had watched a one-hour preview of the seven-part series and found it almost nauseating in its worshipful tone. Listening to the hostess, one would have thought that America would have remained mired in the 19th century were it not that these three gods had come down from Mount Olympus to show us the way.

Thank goodness I made myself watch the actual documentary. Ken Burns and his writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, steered clear of presenting a mythological hagiography, and instead gave us vivid, insightful, fair-minded biographies of three immensely important, but oh-so-human Americans.

Although America’s history from the late 1800s until Eleanor’s death in 1962 serves as the backdrop to these three larger-than-life biographies, it is crucial to understand that this documentary isn’t a history of America, but of the Roosevelts. Sure, I or any other economist or historian could quibble about the details. For example, when the script says that Teddy never advocated a redistribution of wealth, I could retort: What about his statement, when running for president on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912, “Our aim is to promote prosperity, and then see to its proper division?” Or when the narrator mentions that some businessmen characterized FDR as dictatorial, he could have cited the 1936 Gallup poll showing that 45 percent of Americans believed FDR’s policies could lead to dictatorship or the 1941 Fortune Magazine poll showing that fully 93 percent of employers felt their property rights were under siege and were worried about dictatorship. I never felt, though, that the authors were trying to mislead, manipulate, or propagandize.

Instead, the filmmakers scrupulously strove to present fair, balanced portrayals of their three protagonists. First, they straightforwardly and without sensationalism dealt with the less-than-flattering aspects of their character—Theodore’s compulsive need to be in charge and prove his manhood; Franklin’s need for loyal, adoring female companionship and his “deviousness” (although Geoffrey Ward never quite explains that characterization); and Eleanor’s aloofness as a mother. Also, the documentarians included many of the Roosevelts’ opponents’ criticisms, leaving it to the viewer to decide which side was right on various issues.

“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” shines on at least five levels:

1) It humanizes three individuals who have largely become iconic caricatures. You may not agree with them, but if you can’t find anything to like or admire about these three, you have a heart of stone.

2) For all but dedicated Roosevelt scholars, there is much to learn. I personally gained a new appreciation for FDR’s morale-boosting leadership during World War II, and for Eleanor’s courageous commitment to civil rights for African-Americans.

3) This program provides encouragement and inspiration to anyone who has suffered loss, heartbreak, and trauma, either psychological, such as losing both parents early (Eleanor) or one’s mother and wife on the same day (Theodore) or physical—e.g., FDR’s polio, the severity of which I never understood until seeing this documentary. Whatever you think of the Roosevelts’ politics, it is a triumph for the human race when individuals can survive, thrive, and accomplish much after being dealt harsh blows.

4) The series raises interesting implicit questions about the psychology of presidents. Should we know what makes presidential candidates tick? Certainly it takes a person of special strength of character to be a great president, and often such character is forged in the furnace of shattering experiences, but should we elect someone like Teddy whose manic behavior was driven by a need to escape his demons and to constantly prove that he was strong and manly?

5) Finally, “The Roosevelts” encourages us to think about what kind of president is right for America. What is the right balance between leadership, vision, and values (essential) and power (dangerous) in an American president? Even if a president means well and has good intentions, do the ends justify the means, such as doing an end-run around the Constitution?

I salute Ken Burns for a top-notch, informative, fascinating documentary. And I say that as a free-market economist who has fundamental disagreements with many of the Roosevelts’ economic policies. Watching the documentary was 14 hours well spent.