The first two hours of Ken Burns’ story on the three Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor — began on Sunday at 8 on PBS. It is running two hours a night over seven nights this week.
The first two hours sagged a little under the celebrity tone and chorus of talking heads. But it is good history. (I wonder how much of TR is taught in schools these days.) The series starts with Theodore who was born in 1858 and ends with Eleanor’s death in 1962. (She was a favorite neice.)
Teddy, as he was affectionately called, lived an energetic, colorful, controversial life. I have long thought of him as our Churchill, a fluent writer and scholar, an orator and actor, a bold and cunning politician, and something of a con. I remember Churchill’s speeches on the radio when I was growing up in Brookline, Mass. His brave words when Britain stood alone in World War II helped save his country and maybe the rest of us as well. My father, who saw TR on the stump, took pleasure in mimicking the great man, recalling such expressions as “DEE-lighted!”
The Roosevelts are described by the makers of the documentary as an American dynasty. To my mind dynasty implies a closely-knit family like the Windsors of Great Britain or the Romanovs of pre-Communist Russia. The Theodore and Franklin branches were fifth cousins and lived in separate worlds: the Teddy Republicans, on Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York; the Franklin clan on the Hudson River at Hyde Park, New York. They were Democrats.
The film picked up pace on Monday as we followed the rise of young Theodore from a pampered, sickly childhood to the champion of the strenuous life. We followed his transformation from patrician to boxer, hunter, and sportsman. When he was president he was a progressive who battled for the poor, and fought the trusts. He also helped make the U.S. a world power in the early 1900s.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the documentary about the amazing three Roosevelts. We learned, almost as an ad lib on Monday night, that TR suffered from asthma all his life, even through the White House years.
This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.