This four-hour documentary on FDR proves the notion that the further away you move away from events, the more nuanced assessments can be made.
Airing in two parts on the History Channel, FDR: A Presidency Revealed, brings to light aspects of Roosevelt’s character and events in his life that molded him into the president that guided America out of the Depression and through World War II.
Tonight’s episode [April 17, 9 pm], takes us into FDR’s first two terms as president, and also backtracks in his life to 1921 when he contracted polio and became crippled for life.
Most people are aware FDR had polio, and that it left him incapacitated — but not to what degree. This program points out that he never walked again — and also chronicles his enduring phyiscal pain as well as his atempts to mask his infirmity from the nation. An interesting footnote is that only two photos exists of him in a wheelchair during his presidency and they were taken by a family friend; the press ignored the president’s medical condition throughout his public life.
His now famous first “100 days” are detailed, and we are reminded that his first two acts — overseeing the end of prohibition and closing the banks, provided a tonic both literal and emotional that reawakened America’s ability to believe. Most remarkable, perhaps is what we learn by inference — that by sheer force of will and willful dismissal of the facts, FDR fronted a profound optimism that by itself could be regarded as a public policy.
As in all good documentaries, A Presidency Revealed covers FDR’s failings and forgotten accomplishments. In the latter category, we learn of an affair with his secretary that nearly destroyed his marriage, his failed attempt to restructure the Supreme Court and his lack of political courage in letting a federal anti-lynching bill die on the vine.
FDR’s most forgotten accomplshment? That he purchased the Warm Springs resort in Georgia where he traveled to recuperate and exercise among other “polios” as the narrative refers to them. He did so with money from his trust fund, a move that threatened his own financial independence. FDR is credited with creating a positive atmosphere of hope and self-reliance at the resort, which still exists and bears the name, Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.
There’s also the story of Arthur Kent, an American embassy employee working in England who had secretly intercepted thousands of pages of correspondence between FDR and Churchill. Kent was planning to turn the documents over to isolationist forces in the US Senate, but was arrested on Churchill’s orders the day before he was scheduled to leave the country. The documentary posits that had Kent succeeded, it would have destroyed FDR’s quest for a third term as Hitler began waging war in Europe.
Tomorrow: a review of Part Two of FDR: A Presidency Revealed.
The DVD set, packaged with a special Life magazine bio issue on Roosevelt, can only be preordered through the History Channel. Availability is May 20, 2005.