By John Schappi
My TV viewing is very limited—the PBS NewsHour, the Redskins (excuse the dirty word) football, and a local morning show for the weather report. I didn't even watch Downton Abbey!
But I was mesmerized by Ken Burns' documentary, “The Roosevelts.”
I was especially interested to see how TR, FDR, and Eleanor handled their final years. Eleanor came off looking much better than the boys. Here's my take:
Theodore Roosevelt: a quest for glory
For some reason, TR never interested me very much. In an effort to learn more, a year ago I started reading David McCullough's National Book Award winner “Mornings on Horseback.” The biography explains how the young Theodore Roosevelt transformed himself from a sickly boy into the vigorous man who would become a war hero and ultimately president of the United States.
McCullough is a terrific historian and writer, but his books are too long for my limited attention span these days. The first several hundred pages of the TR biography describe his early years of incredible affluence. I got so turned off that I stopped reading.
My regard for TR would have been higher if I'd kept reading to learn how this wealthy patrician became a crusader for progressive reforms, radical for the times. His conservation efforts resulted in the creation of several National Parks, a few of which I visited during a 2011 auto tour of California and the Pacific Northwest.
I didn't like TR's apparent self-aggrandizement, and the way he constructed his heroic image. In his quest for personal glory, he often endangered the lives of others. The charge up Cuba's San Juan Hill is just one well-known example. I would add his trip up the Amazon River with his son Kermit towards the end of his life.
As I watched the show, it seemed that TR's later years were dominated by his search for a heroic ending to his life.
FDR: a controversial final year
The final episodes in the documentary were particularly interesting; they dealt with times I remember. I was born in May, 1929. My dad lost his job that winter after the October stock market crash that signaled the start of the Great Depression.
My earliest political memory is a dinner-table argument I had with my father about FDR. My dad hated him.
I've mentioned the role serendipity has played in my life. I graduated high school in 1945, the year the war ended. I didn't have to serve in the war, but I benefited greatly from entering the business world just as the postwar economic boom got underway.
The documentary talks about the 1944 GI Bill, our biggest and most successful government "give-away" program ever. It provided government assistance to returning soldiers to attend college or training schools, start businesses and buy homes. Last year, I wrote how this law transformed America by creating a new middle class.
It was sad to watch the documentary's coverage of FDR's final years. He ran for re-election to a fourth term in 1944. The photos and newsreels clearly show him as a dying man. I thought FDR put his own interests ahead of the country's when he decided to run again.
America, Britain and the Soviet Union were about to decide the shape of the postwar world as the great conflict wound down.
Roosevelt was inaugurated for his fourth term in January, 1945. He died in April. Victory in Europe came in May. In August, the Pacific War ended as the Japanese surrendered after the U.S. dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I just finished reading Paul Johnson's “Churchill” (only 168 pages long). Churchill and Roosevelt worked closely together in the lead-up to America's entry into the war in December 1941...and even more so later.
But Johnson describes Churchill's dealings with Roosevelt toward the end of the war this way:
Much of his imaginative energy was spent trying to get the sick Roosevelt to do the sensible thing. "No lover," he said, "ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt."
The death of FDR, however painful to Churchill, came as a relief, especially as Harry S. Truman, brisk, decisive and much better informed on strategy, proved infinitely easier to deal with.
In the Burns documentary, historian William Leuchtenburg recalls that when a friend called to tell him that FDR had died, his immediate reaction was "Oh my God, Truman!" I had the identical conversation when a friend called me with the news. I'll bet there were many similar conversations across the country.
Truman, a little-known senator from Missouri, got the nomination for vice president in the 1944 Democratic convention because Henry Wallace—then FDR's vice president—was widely disliked.
FDR never paid much attention to Truman, who became president unaware that the U.S. was building an atom bomb. In the business world, it's often said that a CEO's most important job is to groom his successor. FDR certainly failed that test.
I still think of FDR as a great man and a great president. But his final year tarnishes that image for me.
Eleanor Roosevelt: a life enriched by friendship
After Franklin's death, Eleanor Roosevelt maintained a visible, active life in national and international politics. Appointed in 1945 by Truman as a member of the American delegation to the United Nations, she became chair of the committee that produced the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She wrote books, and frequent columns in newspapers and magazines. Until she died, Eleanor remained an influential member of the Democratic Party.
The documentary shows that Eleanor always made time to develop warm, intimate friendships that enriched her final years. One of her closest relationships was with Lorena Hickok, a former Associated Press reporter who would eventually live in the White House, vacation with Eleanor, and become one of her closest confidants. Whether the two women were friends or lovers has been the subject of intense speculation. I'm with Eleanor's granddaughter, Nina Gibson, who gave this assessment on the program:
“I have no idea whether Lorena Hickok had a sexual relationship with my grandmother—and my feeling about that is, who cares?”
Although she considered herself awkward and homely, Eleanor had a warmth and openness that nurtured these close relationships. In later years, Eleanor fell deeply in love with her physician David Gurewitsch, 20 years her junior. "What I have in the few years I have left is yours before it is anyone else's," she wrote him. "My whole heart is yours."
A few years before she died, Eleanor purchased a townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side with Gurewitsch and his bride.
Eleanor's intimate friendships and her public activities enriched her final years.
“Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.”—Eleanor Roosevelt