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Eleanor Roosevelt and the New Ken Burns Series

E Roosevelt.jpg

A new series, The Roosevelts, by the celebrated documentarian, Ken Burns, will air next month (starting September 14), bringing to PBS viewers an early to mid-20th Century world that by now seems exotic. Almost everyone from those times, after all, is gone. But Burns' evocation of those days may well have some new things to tell us about our own world.

Consider Eleanor Roosevelt, who is featured in the series, along with her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, and her husband (and distant cousin), Franklin. Mrs. Roosevelt is famous for her role as a first lady with a public life that buttressed, but also went beyond her husband's. Among other unique activities, she personally wrote a daily newspaper column--"My Day"--for nearly three decades, something that has not been attempted by any of her successors, even by her greatest admirer, Hillary Clinton. In some ways it was a precursor of the blog, a daily journal, but one with the most interesting array of entries.


After FDR died, Eleanor was appointed by President Harry Truman to the first US delegation to the UN. She most notably played a role in drafting the UN Charter on Human Rights.

But one has to wonder what she would think of the UN today. For example, in recent remarks that the media discreetly passed over UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, criticizes the Israelis and the United States for not providing the Gazans with the "Iron Dome" technology that the Israelis deployed to knock down the indiscriminate rockets that Hamas has been shooting at Israel.

This isn't even-handedness; it's perverse. And it is a long way from the UN human rights regime Eleanor Roosevelt helped establish in the 1940s and promoted in the 1950s. It certainly is contrary to the way Mrs. Roosevelt saw Israel.

During an April, 1955 trip to Israel, for example, she wrote in "My Day" columns about the Jews who were moving into the country after expulsion from their ancient homes in predominantly Arab countries like Yemen, Egypt and Iraq. When she toured Israel on several occasions it was not really as a tourist. Instead she was making inspections of the many innovative projects the Israelis had undertaken, from irrigation to education. She would have thought it strange not to praise Israel for these programs.

Mrs. Roosevelt, as she emerges from her "My Day" columns, also was an old fashioned Christian who found no reason to hide her faith. One of her columns was on family bibles, describing with loving detail her own, with its many underlined sections and marginal notes from one generation to the next, and her husband Franklin's "Dutch Bible", a family treasure upon which FDR took his oaths of office.

Back home in Hyde Park in April, 1955, Mrs. Roosevelt writes with great peace: "Easter is always a time of promise. For a Christian it is perhaps the promise of eternity and should be a joyous festival. The mere season of the year reminds us all of re-birth and the constant cycle in nature of birth and maturity, and after the winter's rest the return with renewed vitality to the ever-recurring growth. It should probably give to each of us individually the realization that this is a time to be grateful for any achievements which we may be able to take into account in the past year. But above everything else it is a time to realize that discouragement is a luxury no one can indulge in. We must simply accept any defeats or setbacks and begin again, as the world around us is beginning. The spring is not a time for sadness. It is a time for joy and renewal of hope."

Her style is, in a sense, naive and genial. But that was typical of her class and era. She was a considerate hostess and guest, taking pains to include everyone. But she was quite sophisticated in her circle of friends, which included note philosophers and theologians.

She relished the arts and writes a couple of times a week of painting exhibits and new plays she has attended, commenting with casual, but effective understatement on the performances. She does the same about political meetings, saying suprisingly nice things about Republicans sometimes (such as a speech on civll rights by Gov. Theodore McKeldin of Maryland) and observing that some prominent Democratic speakers at a party fundraiser may taken too long to get to their poins. (How would you like to know that such a review of your speech by ELeaonor Roosevelt was being printed in hundreds of papers nation-wide?)

The 1950s were a rough decade in politics in many ways. Yet there is an inclusive, nuanced and conversational tone about Mrs. Roosevelt's columns that is reassuring. One doesn't have to agree with her politics to appreciate her politeness.

Ken Burns' series, The Roosevelts, airs seven nights running in September. Having seen a preview, I anticipate the filmmaker's opinion that both TR and FDR believed in a "living constitution" and presumably would approve today of a President who stretches executive authority still further. That video skein probably had more appeal a few years ago when the Obama Administration was new and before the follies of executive over-reach had been manifested.

Yet, the actual lives of TR, FDR and Eleanor as Burns expatiates upon them have much more to tell us.

I don't know what space the series will give to Eleanor Roosevelt in her final years, but history students will want to know about them.

You can email brucechapman@discovery.org

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