‘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 got what they wanted. With the partial exception of Ronald Reagan, no chief executive since has dared to suggest that the economy might simply run itself. As the years have passed, the demand for progressive reform and federal oversight has only increased, especially when financial markets have turned. Citizens now expect, even demand, economic rescue from any chief executive. To demur and call for a reduced presidency would be to invite ridicule or worse.
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.”
Reasonably enough, the American people responded with deep gratitude. World War II brought not only triumph over Hitler but also the ultimate confirmation of the Roosevelt family’s leadership. FDR served as commander-in-chief; his son James flew combat missions. General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. led the Fourth Infantry Division as it landed at Utah Beach.
Absent, however, from the compelling footage is any display of the negative consequences of Rooseveltian action. The premise of Theodore Roosevelt’s trustbusting was that business was too strong. The opposite turned out to be true when, bullied by TR, the railroads promptly collapsed in the Panic of 1907. In the end it fell to TR’s very target, J. P. Morgan, to organize the rescue on Wall Street.
The documentary also neglects to mention that the economy of the early 1920s proved likewise fragile — casualty, in part, to President Woodrow Wilson’s fortification of TR’s progressive policies. Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge poured their own energy into halting the expansion of an imperial presidency and sustaining the authority of the states. This endeavor, anti-progressive, also won approbation: In 1920, the Harding-Coolidge ticket beat Cox-Roosevelt. The result of the Harding-Coolidge style of presidency was genuine and enormous prosperity. The 1920s saw the arrival of automobiles, indoor toilets, and the very radios that FDR would later use so effectively to his advantage. Joblessness dropped; the number of new patents soared. TR had enjoyed adulation, but so did his mirror opposite, the refrainer Coolidge.
When it comes to the 1930s, such twisting of the record becomes outright distortion. By his own stated goal, that of putting people to work, Roosevelt failed. Joblessness remained above 10 percent for most of the decade. The stock market did not come back. By some measures, real output passed 1929 levels monetarily in the mid 1930s only to fall back into a steep depression within the Depression. As George Will comments, “the best of the New Deal programs was Franklin Roosevelt’s smile.” The recovery might have come sooner had the smile been the only New Deal policy.
So great is Burns’s emphasis on the Roosevelt dynasty that William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover come away as mere seat warmers in the White House. Especially puzzling is the neglect of TR’s progressive heirs, Taft and Wilson, who, after all, set the stage for FDR. This omission can be explained only by Burns’s desire to cement the reign of the Roosevelts. On the surface, the series’ penchant for grandees might seem benign, like the breathless coverage of Princess Kate’s third trimester in People magazine. In this country, elevating presidential families is a common habit of television producers; the Kennedys as dynasty have enjoyed their share of airtime. Still, Burns does go further than the others, ennobling the Roosevelts as if they were true monarchs, gods almost, as in Martha Gellhorn’s abovementioned line. Burns equates progressive policy with the family that promulgates it. And when Burns enthrones the Roosevelts, he also enthrones their unkingly doctrine, progressivism.
To be sure: One documentary series, even one by Ken Burns, can reach only so many. But Burns is not alone. The new Advanced Placement history curriculum, which will touch a large portion of thinking high-schoolers, buttresses the myths of the 1920s as failure and the New Deal as rescue. Against such a lovable monolith, bound to influence our culture through multiple election cycles, conservatives and centrists offer — what?
The Roosevelts brings to light a failing in conservative investors and non-progressive educators: They don’t deliver enough serious history of their own. Frustrated at their inability to penetrate such institutions as PBS and the Ivy League, many abdicate, turning to the instant gratification of spin-cycle journalism or politics. Conservatives and classical liberals — indeed, anyone looking for true balance — might also devote attention and resources to filming, writing, and drawing a high-quality narrative. PBS might in turn surprise by airing such work: It did air Daniel Yergin’s history of the free-market movement, Commanding Heights. Through my own work I’ve attempted to supply a different perspective on the 1920s and 1930s. But an army of attempts is needed. Precisely at a time when they must decide whether to back yet further incursions by Washington, Americans can sorely use a more complete version of their own past — preferably one without thrones.
– Amity Shlaes, the author of Coolidge and The Forgotten Man, chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. This article appeared in the October 6, 2014, issue of National Review.