Where Once Were Giants . . .
Of late, our local PBS station has been rerunning Ken Burns' brilliant seven-part 2014 documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. It has kept me in rapt awe - the backgrounds, accomplishments and vast range of interests and abilities of these two distant cousins whose family fortunes had been secured several generations before their respective births (Theodore in 1858, Franklin in 1881). Patricians of the first rank, the interests and accomplishments of TR of Oyster Bay and FDR of Hyde Park (who, in matter of truth, did not know each other all that well and whose sides of the family had a natural aversion to one another), were both broad and awe-inspiring. I remember watching the series, narrated by the gifted actor Peter Coyote (born Rachmil Pinchus Ben Mosha Cohon) back in 2014. For some reason it didn't affect me in the same way as it has this time around. After giving the matter some thought, I discovered the reason why.
But first . . .
Neither TR nor FDR ever had to do a day's work; they never had to earn a penny. And yet, despite all this - despite the private tutors, exclusive prep schools, summers in Europe and undergraduate years at Harvard - they worked harder than any wage-earning laborer, devoting their lives to expanding their personal horizons by devoting themselves to the political arena. and public service. These men were, in brief, the embodiment of that all but forgotten motivator known as noblesse oblige (the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth). Indeed, it gives me increasing pride that my parents decided to give me the middle name "Franklin," after the recently deceased POTUS.
Yes, I am more than aware of the fact that there are a lot of contemporary "movement conservatives" who deride T.R. for being "more concerned about parkland than profits," and Franklin for being "a Socialist in aristocrat's clothing" and the "founder of the national debt." Then too, many liberals score Theodore for having "made far too many trophies of far too many big game animals" and his Hyde Park lantsman for "turning his back on the Jews of Europe." Wall Street hated both these American blue bloods for being traitors to their class, while Main Street loved these patricians for offering the American working-class people first a "Square" (TR) than a "New" Deal (FDR). Sure, they had their faults: TR was both an egomaniac and perpetual child; FDR wasn't terribly loyal to his wife and frequently played fast and loose with the truth. Both could be insecure and mother-fixated. Both overcame debilitating physical conditions - TR's childhood asthma and FDR's polio) which would have permanently invalided most anyone else. But true to their heritage, they came to see themselves as preeminently healthy men with "physical conditions." Nothing more, nothing less.
And yet, despite the shortcomings and character flaws, they were giants; real honest-to-god giants. In addition to being the youngest-ever member of the New York State Legislature, New York Police Commissioner, New York Governor, a Rough Rider in the Spanish American War, Assistant Secretary of State, Vice President and President of the United States, TR found time to father six children (one of whom died in WWI, and one in WWII), be one of the best traveled men of his time, write more than 3 dozen books (histories, biographies, political essays, flora and fauna) including several which are still in print. Likewise FDR, who was married to cousin Theodore's niece Eleanor, served in the New York State Senate, was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ran unsuccessfully for Vice President in 1920, was elected Governor of New York, and like his elder cousin, fathered six children. Three of his sons would become combat officers in WWII. Unable to walk or stand unaided due to polio, FDR nonetheless manged to stand and campaign in virtually every one of the then 48 states through 4 presidential campaigns.
Unlike the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, neither of the Roosevelts - nor the Kennedys, Pells, Chaffees, Cabots, Lodges, Frelinghuysens, Rockefellers, Adamses Saltenstalls or Griswolds - sought political office as a lark . . . as just another quaint jewel-encrusted fob on a rich man's golden watch chain. For the scions of American capital, politics was a calling, an urge - sometimes a necessity - to give something back. And whether one agreed with their politics or not (I for one find little to recommend in the actions of say, the Cabots, Lodges or Frelinghuysens, but rather admire the Pells, Chaffees and Browns of California) the fact that generation after generation served the people is both noteworthy and laudable. Nowhere does the historic record find, say, a Griswold, Kennedy or Adams serving in office in order to benefit "the family business." Nowhere do we find them crowing over their family wealth, position or possessions. Though both TR and FDR had their suits tailored by Brooks Brothers, wore shoes and boots cobbled by Foster & Sons and ties handmade by Charvet, they were as comfortable in their own skin as a Main Street druggist. Today, by comparison, we are led by a parvenu whose ego is far larger than his net worth, his manners those of a boorish brat, his braggadocio overpowering enough to make a battle-hardened marine wince.
Both TR of Oyster Bay and FDR of Hyde Park surrounded themselves with experts; men - and occasionally women - who knew more than they did about the one-thousand-and-one things a president must grapple with on a daily basis. They - the cousins Roosevelt - were wise because they knew what they knew. They were truly wise because they knew what they did not know. They were exceptionally wise because they found - and listened to - people who knew one whole hell of a lot more about what they themselves did not know. And in the end, it was they - TR or FDR - who made the decisions, embraced the applause . . . and when necessary, bore the blame. Though as playful as pugnacious children and as intellectually appetitive as college freshmen, these men - like a majority of their predecessors and successors - represented the United States of America with both dignity and aplomb. There was never the fear that through word, deed or spontaneous impulse that they would ever embarrass the nation they were elected to lead.
Yes, where once were selfless giants now lives a selfish pygmy . . .
255 days down, 1,099 to go.
Copyright©2017 Kurt Franklin Stone