FDR: A PRESIDENCY REVEALED
Review by Mark Wiechman
Narrated by Edward Herrmann
Audio: Dolby 2.0
Video: Color, B&W Full Screen
Studio: A&E/History Channel
Features: See review
Length: 200 minutes, two discs
Release Date: July 26, 2005
only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
When I recently visited Orlando I read a wonderful
interview with a former Secret Service agent who guarded FDR for the last
several years of his life. He
said that everyone, including Lyndon Johnson and himself, wept like children
when he died. There was no one who
knew FDR, up close or at a distance, that could deny his courage, personal
strength, and as a friend put it, his “first-rate temperament.”
How easy it would have been for a young patrician stricken
with polio, which was seen as a social curse like leprosy or AIDS, to simply
give up, hiding from the public eye. But
my favorite description of him is the way he made his way to the podium to
accept one of his many nominations: in
obvious pain, using every ounce of strength to raise himself up, he grimaced
with every step. Then, upon
reaching the top, holding his trademark cigarette holder, he beamed with the
most electric smile America would see until JFK, who had medical problems of his
own, ascended a similar platform.
I have always thought it a very dangerous path to examine
past events by modern standards. It usually results in historical revisionism,
particularly when examining World War Two.
It is easy in our century to ask why America or Europe did not do more to
prevent the Holocaust, or why did we used the Atomic Bomb on Japan, and so on.
It is a good exercise to use the information available at
the time to answer these questions and to hopefully learn from it.
On the other hand, as time goes on we are able to look
behind the scenes more than ever and to learn the real reasons why actions are
taken. Sadly, these behind the
scenes investigations usually reveal so much that we would rather have not
known, especially about the marriages and lack of virtue in many politicians and
other figures which were venerated in their day.
This is an extremely well-balanced documentary which pulls
the curtain back and allows an objective examination of FDR’s life and
political career, avoiding the dangerous historical revisionism so prevalent in
school curricula. For example, it
is pointed out by an African-American historian that his farm policies, which
paid farmers to destroy crops and livestock and thus buoy prices, actually
forced thousands of actual workers, mostly African-Americans, to abandon farms
altogether since that money did not trickle down to them.
This spurred northern migration and uprooted thousands of families.
Yet these policies did restore some stability to the farm market and
provide jobs for so many young unemployed men.
Many volumes have been written about FDR’s economic
policies, which may have actually made the economy worse for many people.
Today we are grappling with government programs such as Social Security
which were created in a different era but are difficult to modernize now that we
have become used to them. He was
able to create a bureaucracy and pull the right strings to keep it in line, but
his successors lacked his charm and natural gift for wielding power.
And FDR’s troubled marriage and lack of sensitivity to many problems of
his time, as revealed in this biography, make him seem less than the titan he
was seen as at the time.
But it is often through the most imperfect people that
great things are accomplished. To
me, you can say all you want about generals or sports heroes, but they don’t
have half the guts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
He was a relative of one of the most popular presidents ever, Teddy
Roosevelt, but made a run at politics anyway, and as a Democrat instead of a
Republican at that. At age 39, just
as his star was rising, he was stricken with polio and could barely walk for
most of his life. He fought the
Nazis and the Japanese while unable to walk, though his physical maladies made
him a more compassionate person. This
film even mentions that the Axis leaders openly mocked FDR’s physical
maladies. He even bought Warm
Springs and made it the first rehabilitation hospital of its kind.
He was far from gifted intellectually, and was faced with the worst
economic disaster and most evil war enemies anyone had seen.
Leonard Bernstein once called the 20th Century a “century of
death” and in FDR’s time, it seemed that way.
Yet, he not only did not surrender, but like the other
great lion of his time, Winston Churchill, he demanded victory.
He did not just dream of it, but despite the experiments that went awry,
he never gave up. He did not allow
his fragile body to stop him, and he used his charm and personal strength to
give America hope through his fireside chats.
Whether you admire his build-up of the Federal Government or not, he did
take action. While he may have been
too flexible with the USSR, at least we did maintain an alliance with them to
defeat Germany and keep Britain from crumbling.
Instead of telling America that it needed to change, he helped it
I see an incredible parallel between FDR’s first days and
the first days of Ronald Reagan, despite their opposite approach to
government’s role. Observers used
words such as “inertia” and “hope” and “confidence” to describe
FDR’s first days after had Hoover expressed his firm belief that the economic
problems gripping America were beyond his control.
To be fair, some were, and some were not.
Yet Hoover did practically nothing.
Jimmy Carter actually went one better, blaming Americans themselves for
their “malaise” and chastising them for being materialistic as they watched
their savings go up in smoke and gas stations ran out of gas.
Reagan told people that America was still a great country and that the
government needed to get out of their way.
Reagan and FDR both restored lost hope to America.
This special doesn’t come right out and say this, but anyone growing up
in the 70’s will understand my point.
Very clean and crisp for such old footage, and the segues
from modern full-color interviews back to older footage with its inescapable
artifacts. Tasteful panning and
close-ups bring a modern feel to the brisk narrative.
Likewise, the sound is very smooth and balanced as we have
come to expect from History Channel products.
The second disc contains three individual programs:
Biography: FDR: Years of Crisis;
Biography: FDR: The War Years; and a shorter featurette
History in the Making: FDR. The
first two are in the more well-known format which presents much of the same
material in a more palatable way. The
last one looks closely at his family home in Hyde Park and includes interviews
with those who maintain the home and other historians.
Most striking is a statue made of FDR ten years before he contracted
polio that does not include his legs. While
about 20% of their content is borrowed or paraphrased from the longer first
disc, they are still worth watching, especially to young students.