Two recent films about America’s greatest presidents since, and along with, George Washington — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt — cannot fail to remind us of the deterioration in the distinction of the presidency. They have received sharply different reviews and taken large, and, in Roosevelt’s case, sometimes scurrilous, liberties with historical facts. It would have been astounding if Steven Spielberg had not produced a boffo performance in recreating America’s greatest statesman, and he did. The script reveals the qualities that made Lincoln one of the most universally admired figures in world history.
The self-made man without chippiness; the very ethical man who was, yet, far from a prude nor above a political ruse; the intellectual autodidact who was subject to moroseness but never without a sense of humor, worn but not altogether exasperated by an impossible wife nor broken by the death of two sons in adolescence, disappointed but never angry at the countless betrayals he endured — all emerge in Daniel Day Lewis’s brilliant performance in the title role. It would be unfair to compare any of his successors to Lincoln, as such a leader is unique and only a very few statesmen in the history of democracy anywhere bear any comparison with him.
In Hyde Park on Hudson, about FDR, Bill Murray, generally known for comic roles, does a commendable job (almost as good as Ralph Bellamy in Sunrise at Campobello), showing how Roosevelt coped with the immense pressures of his office as he pulled the United States out of the Great Depression while World War II threatened, and how he alleviated the additional tensions created by polio, his vulnerability to sinus attacks, his not altogether functional marriage, and his loneliness for affectionate female company. One can only wonder at the equable stoicism, ingenuity, and unshakeable determination with which both presidents shouldered terrible burdens and conducted the country to successful conclusions of the greatest dramas in its post-Revolutionary history.
No country can expect leaders of such stature to arise more frequently than they have in the U.S., but almost all the presidents who were elected shortly after Lincoln and Roosevelt possessed conspicuously impressive qualities of leadership. U. S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield were capable generals and generous-hearted men. Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, though ordinary, were fearlessly honest and decent, and are now well-regarded presidents. Dwight D. Eisenhower is, unjustly, better remembered as a kindly and amiable golfer in the White House than as the uniformly victorious theater commander who received the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in the West, founded the military command of NATO, and, as president, ended the Korean War, stayed out of the Vietnam War, proposed Atoms for Peace and Open Skies, de-escalated the Cold War, and warned of the military-industrial complex. Ronald Reagan was a great president who possessed some of the attributes of Lincoln and Roosevelt. And whatever their shortcomings, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush were very talented men who served the nation with bravery and success in war and peace.
Fortunately, few presidents in the country’s history could have been relied upon to produce the indignities of the Clinton era, the gaucheries of the younger President Bush, or the slippery confrontationalism of the incumbent. Lamentations of this kind are commonplace and it would be unbecoming to dwell on invidious comparisons. I will only repeat my view that the national bug-out on Vietnam and the destruction of the very successful and heavily reelected Nixon presidency over the fatuous issue of Watergate (albeit with the president’s somewhat neurotic cooperation through his mishandling of it) have deterred unknowable numbers of good people from seeking high office and have terribly coarsened and commercialized the political process. This must be a contributing factor to the abstention of the most promising Republicans from last year’s presidential race: Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio.
Given the greatness of their principal subjects and the high drama of their times, there was no need or justification for Lincoln or Hyde Park on Hudson to invent history. Spielberg represents the passage by the House of Representatives of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the session ending in February 1865 as utterly essential to achieve the full enactment of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. To breathe life into this canard, he claims that the peace talks Lincoln had with Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in that month would have been successful if Congress had not not already been committed to the Thirteenth (abolition) Amendment.
This is bunk. The new Congress would easily have adopted the Amendment; there were already more than a million emancipated slaves in Union-occupied Confederate territory, and undoing Emancipation would have been out of the question. The end of slavery was bound to be a condition of readmission of the Confederate states, most of which were then in Union hands. Nor was slavery discussed at the Hampton Roads meeting with Stephens. They never got past the southern insistence on a cease-fire while reentry into the Union was negotiated. (When Lincoln declined to negotiate with “Americans who have taken up arms against [the] government,” and one of Stephens’s colleagues replied that Britain’s King Charles I had, Lincoln responded in his usual laconic way that his “principal recollection of the matter is that King Charles lost his head.”)
Hyde Park on Hudson is set in the visit to the U.S., and specifically to the Roosevelt home, of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (better remembered now as the Queen Mother), in 1939. Roosevelt had a domineering but doting mother, who in 1939 had been a widow for 39 years. The complicated marriage with Eleanor had been launched in 1905 only because Eleanor was a sixth cousin, a Roosevelt (Theodore’s niece), and so was one of the very few people FDR’s mother could not claim wasn’t good enough for her son.
But it was never an entirely real marriage. FDR, as he later did in politics, and ultimately in world affairs, created and managed a balance of power — a state of constant tension between his wife and his mother, which he could manipulate while continuing to enjoy social pleasures, including the company of more vivacious and prettier women than Eleanor, whom he encumbered with six children. (One died in infancy and most of them fled into unsuccessful marriages to escape from the war zone at home between their parents.) By 1939, Roosevelt was seeing a great deal of his cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (played in Roger Michell’s film by Laura Linney with her usual almost Streep-like virtuosity); and his secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, was also constantly around. Both women were unmarried and there has been much speculation on how intimate these relationships became. This film pushes it, with Missy emerging from FDR’s hilltop cottage rebuttoning her blouse as Daisy arrives, and the king and queen observing his return from their bedroom window in the middle of the night. Roosevelt’s medical records survive, and there is no doubt that he retained his sexual powers after the onset of polio in 1921, though the impact of inactive legs might have been inhibiting even to such a confident man.
Hyde Park is pretty explicit in implying that Eleanor was a lesbian. There is no more substance to this allegation than to the feminist confection that Eleanor was a virtual co-president. The only evidence of supposed lesbianism is a letter to one of her lady friends about the pleasure of kissing her dimpled cheek. It is more likely that she was simply asexual after, as she put it, “doing her [maternal] duty.”
As it happens, I own most of the correspondence between Roosevelt and Suckley. There is only one place where there is a hint of physical contact. With Missy, it is more plausible, as relations started earlier, including months on end when they were almost alone on a houseboat Roosevelt used in Florida in the 1920s while he was convalescing from his illness. The film also errs in mentioning his relationship with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd as if it were active in 1939. (It flourished in World War I, ended on a joint ultimatum from FDR’s wife and mother, and was at least partly revived in 1942. Daisy and Lucy were both with him when he died in Georgia in 1945. Missy died in 1944 and FDR named a warship after her.)
In both films, it would have been easy to portray the presidents’ personalities in an accurate context. The Roosevelt film has a little more merit than most critics have allowed, and Lincoln, perhaps, slightly less. But both remind us of the qualities the country needs in its leaders.