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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

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Film ***1/2

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 survive.

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. 

Video **1/2

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.

Audio ***

Likewise, the sound is very smooth and balanced as we have come to expect from History Channel products.

Features ***1/2

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. 

Summary :

FDR gets the excellent well-balanced and fast-paced history from the History Channel, avoiding the temptation of historical revisionism while allowing us to get to know the imperfect yet fearless FDR, one of the pivotal figures of human history.

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