The Way We Were, And No Longer Are

At the close of Thursday’s episode, my wife opines that every American should be required to watched the latest series by Ken Burns, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait.” Conservatives would doubtless feel that such a blatantly tyrannical, socialistic, nanny-state intrusion on freedom of choice is evidence that she has been brainwashed by this subversive paean to “that man in the White House,” hated traitor to his class.

Actually, she might be in trouble with any such imaginary thought police since she sporadically slept on the couch through several episodes and played bridge during another, thus proving that contrariness and individualism have survived the onslaught of “The Roosevelts.”

But the Burns series is triumphant nevertheless, and she’s right — it might do some good if a lot of contemporary Americans who favor Fox News or “The Petulant Housewives of Palm Springs” over PBS could be reminded of several things on vivid display in “The Roosevelts.” How great this country is and how resilient the common people that, in Lincoln’s formulation, “God must have loved because he made so many of them.” How very hard hard times can get. How lopsided the distribution of wealth and power can become. How necessary a course correction can also become, and how hard to achieve.

And two overriding additional lessons. First, that government of the people, by the people and for the people can actually occur and can accomplish good, can act as a governor on the abuses that are inevitable when the powerful few are unrestrained and free not just to pursue happiness but to do so rapaciously at the expense of the many.

This obvious lesson of all history, not just our own, can seem almost heretical to those who have been subjected to a couple generations of conservative propaganda. This relentless, well-funded, multi-media effort on the part of apologists for those Teddy called “malefactors of great wealth” has been aimed at destroying the protective edifice erected over the better part of a century by Square Deal, New Deal and its followers.

Listen carefully and you’ll hear the animus behind the calls for “reform” of Social Security and Medicare, for the curtailment of labor rights, voting rights, for the need to “update” and “revise” regulation of Wall Street and banks, safe food and drug laws, workman’s compensation, unemployment insurance and on and on. The real goal has always been to “revise” and “reform” these landmark accomplishments of the progressive era and its inheritors out of existence.

This agenda has been considerably advanced since Goldwater and Reagan made it the goal of their party to eliminate the social safety net on the pretext of empowering the powerless to pull themselves up by non-existent bootstraps. We are told we no longer need the safety net. We can no longer afford it. But the last six years have shown the need can arise suddenly and catastrophically, and “The Roosevelts” shows starkly what a country without such protections can look like. As to the cost, there always seems to be enough money to conduct the latest war abroad, but never enough to care for our fellow Americans at home — even when the conniving of unfettered capitalism causes a generation’s hopes to crash and burn.

The other great lesson of ”The Roosevelts” is one Burns himself has frequently stressed in promoting the series. Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor were extraordinary people, but also flawed, damaged, idiosyncratic and odd, as great souls so often are. They were brought up to expect they could succeed not just in feathering their already comfy nests but that they ought to attempt to strive to better their nation. This sort of concern for the common good is clearly not in vogue among the current crop of predatory plutocrats. No noblesse oblige for them.

Just as the ordinary man has little chance today to work his will against the forces of concentrated wealth, corporate power, and vested interests, so the extraordinary man of egalitarian bent may have less chance to achieve power today. Could an incautious, manic zealot such as Teddy expect to rise today or would he be seen as too extreme in a 24/7 media environment? Would a man in a wheelchair with abundant character flaws and a cheerful willingness to out-connive his foes be an acceptable candidate for high office? Would a less than photogenic, timid First Lady with a highly unconventional marriage and lifestyle, but with a cast-iron sense of duty, an unbendingly idealistic orientation, and unwavering moral compass have a chance to be so deeply admired and influential today? Not without a fashion consult.

If “The Roosevelts” teaches anything, it is that power can corrupt, but can also be used as a tool to egalitarian ends, that greatness arises in unexpected places and acts in less than elegant ways in seeking to do right, and, sadly, that there are forces that never rest in trying to claw back from the people any hard-won gains they may achieve in an unequal contest.

The Roosevelts are rightly celebrated for bending their considerable skills to trying to make the playing field a bit more level. That, too, appears to be out of fashion. The country is the poorer for it, and not just in material terms.

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