‘He is at once God and their intimate friend,” wrote journalist Martha Gellhorn back in the 1930s of President Franklin Roosevelt. The quote comes from The Roosevelts, the new Ken Burns documentary that PBS airs this month. But the term “documentary” doesn’t do The Roosevelts justice. “Extravaganza” is more like it: In not one but 14 lavish hours, the series covers two great presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, who served in the first decade of the last century, and Franklin Roosevelt, who led our nation through the Great Depression and to victory in World War II. In his use of the plural, Burns correctly includes a third Roosevelt: Eleanor, who as first lady also affected policy, along with her spouse.
The contention of The Roosevelts is a plausible one: that this New York family altered the presidency forever, converting the office from a near-ceremonial post into one of near-regal responsibility for domestic policy. The Roosevelts both favored active progressivism and denied that any other presidential posture could do the trick. What “26” and “32” hoped, as one of the commenters in the film, George F. Will, notes, was that “the role of the central government from now on [would be] to secure the well-being of the American people.”
The Roosevelts commences by establishing a pathetic picture of the presidency pre-Roosevelt: a timid office in which passive politicians served through “mere negation,” as Theodore Roosevelt referred to it, busying themselves with post-office oversight and coming out to lead as chief executive only for war. Then came the fateful day anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot William McKinley and his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, came to the office. “Get action” was the new president’s motto. The change in style first became apparent at the White House: The Roosevelts and their six children did not so much move in as occupy the place in a loud clatter of toys and ponies.
Next Roosevelt proceeded to activate the presidency itself, his “bully pulpit.” Abroad, TR moved more boldly than previous executives. “I took Panama and let Congress debate that later” was the way the president later explained the U.S. seizure of Panama by proxy. On the domestic front Roosevelt proved likewise brash, ready to reform where others had hesitated. The Interstate Commerce Commission had been in existence since 1887. The Sherman Act had been on the books since 1890 but scarcely constrained two great industries, coal and railroading. Roosevelt turned paper statutes into substantial weapons, and also saw to passage the Elkins Act and the Hepburn Act, which gave the government the power to impose price controls on the burgeoning rail sector. The first prosecutorial president, TR initiated multiple antitrust actions against railroads and other companies. To be sure, TR told colleagues that he would prosecute only “bad” trusts, not “good” ones, but of course only the administration knew which was which.
In Burns’s telling, it was Franklin Roosevelt, TR’s distant cousin, who next picked up the baton. Having trained first as Navy assistant secretary and then as vice-presidential candidate in 1920, Franklin now raised his sights to the higher goal of the White House. Just as FDR was preparing to leap onto the stage of national politics, polio crippled him. Remarkably, Roosevelt surmounted personal tragedy and ran successfully for governor of what was, at least in terms of electoral votes, the California of the day, New York. Then came the Great Depression.
“Our greatest primary task is to put people to work,” the new president declared. With his New Deal, Roosevelt created a whole row of Obamacares, from the National Recovery Administration to the Tennessee Valley Authority, to assume management of vast sectors of the economy. FDR’s justification for this government expansion was one TR had used: that businesses had failed the economy. And if business did not appear sufficiently dark, he would paint it so. While still campaigning, FDR assaulted business leaders by name, railing against “the hand of the Ishmaels and the Insulls, whose hand is against every man’s.” Later FDR would assail “princes of property.” If the president’s rhetoric evoked TR’s claim to a clergyman’s authority, that was intended: “I want to be a preaching president.”