Ken Burns’ latest documentary on the three Roosevelts – Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor – is a must watch. Critics call it his best work ever. This is a huge thumbs up considering Burns’ documentaries on baseball and the Civil Rights movement are the gold standard of historic storytelling.
Here’s why I’ll be tuning into PBS for the next few Sundays and here’s why I think you should too.
1. Learning about Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible career trajectory.
Most of us will not become president by the time we are 42. That being said, it is incredible to understand the strategic steps that Roosevelt took as a young man to land this role. He was prolific and had many interests. Like many of us during childhood, he knew what he wanted to be as an adult – an ornithologist or bird enthusiast. In college, he made the career change to politics. He served on NYC’s Police Board, the Federal Civil Service Commission, was an assistant-secretary of the Navy, Governor of NYS, Vice President and eventually, President. He also maintained himself as a rancher and avid hunter. Prior to the presidency, T. Roosevelt authored 13 books and countless articles.
He carefully calculated each step of his career trajectory. What’s more impressive is the glee, focus, and work ethic with which he approached each new endeavor. He’s a reminder for me (and likely many of you) to step up our game.
Of course understanding Theodore’s successes also requires understanding his privileges. The Roosevelts are descendants of some of the first European settlers in New York State and are considered to be “well-born.” They had a lot more time than we do. Especially as a 20-something man in the 1880s, he never had to think about domestic matters – cooking, cleaning, ironing, etc., were all taken care of. He never wondered, “What’s for dinner tonight?” or “What do I have in the fridge?” Talent + intellect + no worries about the mendacity of life = lots of time to get stuff done.
Another privilege that comes with being “well born,” is always being able to assume their answer is the right answer and people around them assumed the same.
So watch this documentary on PBS. While watching, make a list of all the things you have ever done for money. Look for themes and consistencies. Also, note situations where your privilege (white, male, socioeconomic status) allowed you opportunities that you might not otherwise have.
2. A better understanding of the Two-Party System
Quick history lesson: the Republican and Democratic parties formed from a split in the slave-state vs free-state debate. The Republican party roots are reform, equality, and fairness. The Democratic party stood for agrarian living, states rights, the spoils system and were best known for their organizational skills. Few national organizations have ever matched the organizing power of the Democratic party.
The Burns documentary details how the shift occurred into our modern day understanding of the Republican and Democratic parties. Over time, Democrats came to be known for fighting for the little guy against corporate, moneyed, interests. The Republican obsession for efficiency and right-sized government turned into a critique on the role of government altogether. I look forward to this film illuminating how both parties ignore the root causes of inequity: racism, classism, and unchecked capitalism.
The Roosevelts were flawed – aren’t we all? Despite their flaws they all consistently re-created themselves, and under the glare of public life, played a critically important role in the shaping of American political history and therefore, my history and your history. Take some time to review their accomplishments and failures and trace how your life has been influenced by decisions made decades, in some cases a century, ago.