the roosevelts: an intimate history

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a film or a television series ... I’m going with TV, since that’s where Ken Burns always ends up.

Burns’ style is so recognizable that I know it quite well, even though the only other one of his documentaries I’ve watched to the end was Baseball. I don’t know why I haven't seen more ... they always get good reviews, and I do like documentaries. Anyway, as my previous viewing demonstrates, I tune in when the topic is particularly interesting to me, like baseball. So you can infer something about me when I tell you I made it through all 14 hours of The Roosevelts.

I was raised to believe that FDR was the greatest American president. Not by my parents ... my dad was pretty much on the border between Democrat and Republican in those days, and while my mom and I often discussed important topics, they tended more to philosophical concerns than political. But her mother, my grandmother, loved talking politics, for hours on end. She was a New Deal Democrat, and she loved Franklin Roosevelt. I can’t count the number of times she told me about FDR’s dog, Fala. She had a box set of LPs titled F.D.R. Speaks that we would listen to ... it had his four inaugural speeches, a selection of Fireside Chats, the “Day of Infamy” speech, and yes, the one where he talked about Fala. She would explain the context for the various speeches ... this would have been around the mid-60s, I knew very little beyond what she told me.

Like many fans of FDR, I’ve often wondered how the country would be different if LBJ hadn't screwed up on Vietnam. And I’ve wondered why President Obama hasn't done what Roosevelt did. My friend Jonathan Bernstein, who has forgotten more about the U.S. presidency than most of us actually know, was good at reminding me that it’s not 1932 any longer.

The selling point about The Roosevelts, beyond the part where it’s the latest epic from Ken Burns, is that it looks at three members of the family instead of one. From Teddy’s birth to Eleanor’s death covers just over a hundred years. They were connected by more than blood, and Burns keeps things moving forward by effectively intertwining their stories. Naturally, Teddy dominates at first, Eleanor blossoms most in the final hour, and Franklin gets lots of screen time (as perhaps befits a man who won four presidential elections). Burns is known for presenting a seemingly unbiased narrative that nonetheless is driven by Burns’ own beliefs. As Matt Zoller Seitz noted:

Where real history is concerned, Burns is as much of a cinematic mythmaker as John Ford, Steven Spielberg, or Oliver Stone. You’re aware that what you’re seeing isn’t a just-the-facts recitation of what happened and to whom, but one filmmaker’s presentation of a particular political worldview (mainstream liberal, optimistic verging on rosy, but hypersensitive to issues of race, class and gender that other big-ticket documentaries tend to gloss over).

The other key to The Roosevelts can be found in the subtitle: “An Intimate History”. While the series covers a century’s worth of history, it also spends significant time delving into the psychological makeup of the three protagonists. This can be a bit tricky ... the more we learn about them as people, the more we empathize with them, the more we are willing to accept their weaknesses. Eleanor comes across the best here, perhaps because she’s the only one of the three who wasn't President. Her mistakes were not as crucial to the world, so we are left with the good things she accomplished, and there are many. Plus, by outliving the others, she gets the last word ... the majority of the final episode is devoted to her life and career post-Franklin.

There is another kind of trickery involving the personal lives, one that Michelangelo Signorile addresses effectively. Burns spends plenty of time telling us about FDR’s many affairs, and how they impacted his relationship with Eleanor. Those affairs are not off-limits ... they help make this “an intimate history”. But Burns consciously chooses to leave out part of the story entirely:

It's long been discussed that Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and deep relationship with the Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok, with whom she went on a road trip, alone, across the country, and who even had a room in the White House for a time -- and those facts are included in the series. Also included is the fact that Eleanor had friends and colleagues with whom she organized on women's issues who were lesbians, some of them in deeply committed relationships.

But the way Burns treats all of this is to discuss Eleanor and Hickok as close and intimate "friends" -- he has Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us Hickok was "in love" with Eleanor, almost as if it was one-sided -- but never using the "L" word, or even raising the possibility of sex, seeming to view that as sleazy.

He then quotes Burns saying, “This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid”, and asks, “Why is it ‘tabloid’ rather than ‘intimate’ to speak of the possibility of a sexual relationship between two women?”

Signorile also discusses lesser-known items about FDR’s role in anti-gay scandals, “lesser-known” to me, at least ... I hadn't heard about them before.

I mention this mainly to show how even a director like Burns, who seems to cover every possible angle of his subjects, invariably leaves something out, with the decisions about what to avoid being the choices of a specific individual “mythmaker”.

link dump

“’We seem to be more frightened than we’ve ever been’: Eula Biss on anti-vaxxers, white privilege and our strange new culture of fear”. “If you don’t approach your subject from a paranoid posture, the risk is that you’ll be seen as naive and complacent, as someone who is kind of playing the fool to institutions of power.”

Blame Republicans, Not Madison, for Gridlock”. “The real problem preventing compromise isn’t inherent in the political system. It's something particularly wrong with the Republican Party, which has become increasingly hostile to the very notion of compromise.”

New Atheists are wrong about Islam. Here’s how data proves it”. “A majority of both Christians and Muslims seem to embrace at least some separation of sacred and secular in politics. That’s one finding that was perhaps surprising and also showed that Muslims are less distinctive than we might think.”

The Hunting of Billie Holiday: How Lady Day found herself in the middle of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ early fight for survival.” “Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself—because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals.”

'That's Not All!' Kevin Trudeau, The World’s Greatest Salesman, Makes One Last Pitch”. “There was his own Mega Memory training program; the Sable Hair-Farming System (which he promised would ‘end hair loss in the human race’); Dr. Callahan’s Addiction-Breaking System (which he said could break the user of any addiction in 60 seconds ‘virtually 100 percent of the time’); Howard Berg’s Mega Reading speed-reading program, the Perfect Lift Non-Surgical Face Lift, and Eden’s Secret Nature’s Purifying Product. There were magnetic toe rings and magnetic mattress pads, crocodile protein peptide, and Biotape, an adhesive tape said to relieve pain by reestablishing broken electrical connections in the body.”

mixed messages

What to write? Things have gotten so bad in Ferguson, Missouri, which is to say things are as bad as ever for all oppressed Americans, particularly African-Americans, particularly African-American males, that I find myself speechless when it comes to writing here. And I know I speak from a privileged position … I’m an upper-middle-class white man with a great wife and family, living for 40 years in a place that, for better and worse, I am proud of. This weekend, I got to spend some time with the grandson, and this photo pretty much sums up how that went:

japanese restaurant

I spent Sunday afternoon with an old friend I hadn’t seen for awhile. The weather was great, the company was great, the event was great:

august 2014

But all the while, this is happening (I first saw this photo on the Twitter account of Darwin Bond Graham):


How do I come up with blog posts to reflect life at the moment?

music friday, ferguson edition

Thursday, President Obama finally decided to say something about events in Ferguson, Missouri. Among his comments: “I’d like us all to take a step back” … “now is the time for all of us to reflect on what’s happened” … “There is never an excuse for violence against police” … “we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values” … “now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.”

Yes, I am being selective with my choice of quotes. No, I don’t give a fuck about that. Michael Brown was murdered on Saturday. Ferguson has been under siege for several days … I can’t precisely say we’re seeing the implementation of a police state, when “police” seems inadequate to describe the militarization of so-called peace officers. Five days after the murder, our President pops up to ask us to “take a step back”. It’s a bit late for that, don’t ya think, Prez?


The Clash, “The Guns of Brixton”.

Tom Robinson Band, “Winter of ‘79”.

The Avengers, “The American in Me”.

Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”.

Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”.

Body Count, “Cop Killer”.

The thing about the musical selections for this post is that they are un-centered, even unhinged. There may be a rational way to get to the same place, but for the moment of these tracks, rationality is irrelevant. The time comes when a different response is required. In “Guns of Brixton”, the singer says that yes, “the money feels good and your life you like it well”, but as with everyone, “surely your time will come”. Meanwhile, that time has already come for many, and decisions must be made. There is little time for reason when you’re looking down the barrel of a gun. “When the law break in, how you gonna go? Shot down on the pavement, or waiting on death row?”

“Winter of ‘79” describes a time in the future from when the song was written, from the perspective of someone further in the future looking back at the past. The narrator drips nostalgia at first, chastising the “kids who sit and whine”, telling them they “shoulda been there in back in ‘79”. But that fantasy soon gives way to a history lesson, a fake history where someone from the future tells us about 1979, but which is meant to speak to listeners in 1978, and which still rings true today:

That was the year Nan Harris died
And Charlie Jones committed suicide
The world we knew busted open wide
In the winter of '79 …

It was us poor bastards took the chop
When the tubes gone up and the buses stopped
The top folks still come out on top
The government never resigned
The Carib Club was petrol bombed
The National Front was getting awful strong
They done in Dave and Dagenham Ron
In the winter of '79
When all the gay geezers was put inside
And coloured kids was getting crucified

Finally, the singer returns to what amounts to a lesson to those whining kids: “A few of us fought and a few of us died in the winter of '79.”

“Winter of ‘79” came during the late-70s British punk era. “The American in Me” comes from the other side of the Atlantic. The singer here understands what is happening to us: “Ask not what you can do for your country, what's your country been doing to you?” But the country has already succeeded … “It's the American in me that makes me says it's an honor to die in a war that's just a politician’s lie.” To be an American is to already be brainwashed.

Those songs all come from white punks, 1978-80. Whatever privileges they think they had are gone. For African-Americans, the privileges never arrived. Nina Simone begins her classic “Mississippi Goddam” by informing us that she means “every word of it”, and as the song progresses, she stops at one point and remarks, “you thought I was kiddin’ … Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.”  She goes from “I can't stand the pressure much longer, somebody say a prayer” to “I don't belong here, I don't belong there, I've even stopped believing in prayer”. She points her finger at those who encourage her to “go slow”, replying with anger, “This whole country is full of lies. You're all gonna die and die like flies. I don't trust you any more.”

Public Enemy takes the situation and makes it their own: “Black to the bone my home is your home, so welcome to the Terrordome”. “How to fight the power?,” they ask, knowing we “cannot run and hide, but it shouldn’t be suicide”. PE gives us their art, give us “something that cha never had”. It’s a “brain game” with a lesson: “Move as a team, never move alone”. But make it your own: “Welcome to the Terrordome”.

Body Count, or more accurately, Ice-T, goes all cartoon on us, as if cartoons are the only way to explain what reality is like. The chorus would be funny, if it wasn’t so true in its ludicrous way:

I'm a cop killer, better you than me
Cop killer, fuck police brutality!
Cop killer, I know your family's grieving
Fuck 'em!
Cop killer, but tonight we get even!

I leave you with Robin Harris in House Party:

dealing with all of it

I sleep with the radio on. I’ve done this my whole life. Since my wife isn’t cursed this way, I use a “pillow speaker”, which allows me to hear the radio without bothering anyone else in the room. My bedroom radio is a Squeezebox Internet radio that gets stations and podcasts from around the world, along with Pandora and Spotify and such. There are a half-dozen preset buttons on the front that I use so I can reach up in the middle of the night and switch to a favored station. I’ve got a couple of sports stations, BBC World Service, a comedy channel … no music, using the radio and the pillow speakers together means I miss one channel of the stereo output, so music sounds goofy while talking usually works OK.

When I went to bed last night, I thought I’d turn on the replay of the Giants game from earlier in the day. The Giants had won, and it felt like a nice way to drift into the sleep zone, catching an inning. It’s never more than that … I fall asleep before things get rolling. But when I lay my head on the pillow speaker, I found that the replay had reached the point where starter Ryan Vogelsong was knocked out of the game, and that wasn’t what I needed to go to sleep, so I started hitting the preset buttons. Which is how I ended up on NBC Sports Radio. I have them on my presets because I enjoy Brian Kenny, who has a morning show during the week.

The host of the show at that early hour of the morning was someone named Jason Page. I admit I hadn’t heard of him … outside of Kenny, the hosts all run together for me. I figured to let him jabber … I think it was the beginning of his nightly stint … while I fell asleep.

Then Page got my attention.

You can listen to the first ten minutes or so of last night’s show here.

Page said he wanted to talk about a quote from former NFL coach Tony Dungy, regarding Michael Sam, the recently-drafted member of the St. Louis Rams, who is gay. Dungy was one of the best coaches ever (he’s a TV analyst now), and was the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl. In an interview, speaking about drafting Sam, Dungy said “I wouldn’t have taken him … Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”

Page then said he wanted to tell two stories. The first was about football player Michael Vick, who did just under two years for his participation in illegal dog fighting. Page detailed some of the things done to the dogs … I admit I was close to dozing off, the story was interesting but to me, it was just part of my nighttime ritual of falling asleep. But I was awake enough to hear the connection Page was making … when Vick got out of prison, Tony Dungy worked hard on Vick’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society and the NFL.

Then Page began telling the story of another person, a person he knew well, who, some years before, was a closeted gay man who struggled to find a place for himself. The internal conflicts that came with living in the closet eventually overwhelmed the man, and one night, he put together a package of pills and prepared to take them all at once. He prepared to take his life. Just before he took the step, he got a phone call from a friend who convinced him not to do it, that it was time to come out of the closet, which he proceeded to do over the course of the next couple of weeks.

Page had my attention. He was being an effective storyteller … he had also moved the story beyond what I’d expect from a late-night sports-talk show.

And then came the punch line: that suicidal young man was Page. “That person was me.”

He spent the next few minutes talking about why comments like Dungy’s could be harmful, but again, I wasn’t being the best audience member. The points Page was making had less of an impact on me than the fact that the sports-talk host had slipped into a personal mode … things had turned “real”.

I don’t suppose I need to mention that this is not the kind of thing I usually hear when I happen upon sports talk radio.

I knew I couldn’t sleep until I made some small effort. So I climbed out of bed, went to Twitter, and sent a tweet to Page: “just heard your story, connected to the Dungy quote. Had to get out of bed to tweet support.”

A small effort, to be sure. But Page had broken through my attempt to fall asleep, and I had to thank him.