What a story for a writer!
And yet, to my knowledge, it's not yet the subject of a novel, a major movie drama, or a play*. And it's been more than half a century since the curtain closed on the life in question! I'm talking about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose life is the subject of a 4-part, 1994 PBS ("American Experience") documentary biography my wife and I watched recently on DVD. Originally, I ordered the series because of the obvious parallels between Roosevelt's first term, at the nadir of the Great Depression, and Obama's.
Even though my wife and I were both born a mere three years after FDR's death near the beginning of his fourth term in office, and I'd taken an American history course or two in college, I knew powerful little about the archetypal period of his years in office. My dad had spoken a little about how bad things were during the Depression, but what I retained were mainly acronyms like WPA and CCC. I knew those great murals at the post office had been painted at taxpayer expense during those years, and that the Federal Theater Project had employed many outstanding playwrights and actors. Beyond those factoids, my knowledge bank got blurry.
But as the biography unfolded, we soon realized we had gotten much, much more than we'd bargained for. Roosevelt's life was a life of Shakespearian proportions, both politically and as a raw drama of character development. As the themes of our 33rd President's life developed, I repeatedly felt like a painter whose subject's power kept outstripping the size of his canvas.
If you don't know anything about FDR, here are a few of the basics. (See the series for a fuller development. These "little spoilers" won't harm your viewing.) He was born to a very wealthy family on a vast, wooded estate in Hyde Park, NY, up the Hudson from NYC, and had a childhood that resembled how a Russian Czar's only child might grow up. He had free rein of the woods and grounds, private tutors, and virtually no contact with people his own age. His mother doted on him, indeed, was practically obsessed with him, in a hands-on way. (FDR did not really control his own finances, for example, until his mother died during his second term as President!) He had the makings of a self-indulged little upper-class geek. Eventually, he went into politics almost as a pastime, with no real vision and no apparent motivation except personal ambition and the fact that Teddy Roosevelt was a distant cousin.
But all that was fated to change, and the documentary traces that change in such a way that my wife and I cried most of the way through it. In 1921, when Franklin was 39 years old and had already been a candidate for Vice-President of the United States, he contracted polio while on a family vacation in Maine, and he never walked again. (I'd known, of course, that he "had polio", but had not been aware how early in his career he'd been stricken.)
Even today, the idea of the American people electing a President who is unable to stand or move unaided is outrageous! It was much moreso in those days long before the Disabilities Act and the many other inclusive political developments since the 1960's. But it was not just Roosevelt's political acumen that is the stuff of great drama. He also underwent a total transformation that could be called spiritual, though he was not publicly "religious" in any ostentatious way.
As part of his tireless effort at rehabilitation, he found his way to Warm Springs, Georgia and underwent treatment in the local waters that he came to feel were beneficial. He went on to purchase a resort there and to found the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, which continues operations to this day.
Although FDR never did walk again--but learned to "fake it", somewhat, by leaning upon the arms of his sons as he approached the podium at his inauguration (four seconds of his "walking" were captured on film, and are part of the documentary)--he continued to believe in the therapeutic value of the waters, the treatments by the medical and physical therapy teams he assembled, and the healing cameraderie of patients, especially the children who came there from all over America. He became a kind of "coach" for the many polio victims who gathered at the Springs. The documentary includes wonderful footage of him, swimming in the pool, completely thronged by children. The glee and joy they share is contagious and utterly disarming.
Later, when FDR re-entered the political arena, he was not simply a member of the gentry pursuing politics as a personal pastime or ambition. He had tuned into the heart of America. His magnificent speaking voice became the voice of the aspirations of the people. Roosevelt's thunderous optimism about our country, in the very depths of the Depression, contrasts starkly with Herbert Hoover, a cold, pessimistic fish who provided no leadership at all. His election was a foregone conclusion, and his famous first Inaugural Address, in which he uttered his famous line, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" echoes and re-echoes in every heart, and always will.
Here I have only been able to touch on one theme of FDR's life, his transformation from a sort of playboy of the upperclasses to a hero of the common people. As we leave him here, he is yet to face the colossal 2nd Act of his public life, World War II. Either of these challenges would have been enough to consume every bit of any human being who has ever lived. Roosevelt was called on to lead his people, and the world, through both of them.
I have not mentioned, either, his complicated relationship with his wife Eleanor (who shared hero status with FDR in the household where I grew up). That, too, is worthy of a full-length play..
There are some lives that change us merely by our learning about them. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's is one of those. President Obama has reportedly been studying Roosevelt's life and Fireside Chats. Indeed, his own optimistic tone in this week's address to Congress was likened to FDR's. Viewing the biography of Roosevelt, I was stunned to see how much difference one person's positive leadership can make!
*There have been some dramatic works based on FDR, notably "Warm Springs" with Kenneth Brannan, and the play, "Sunrise at Campo Bello." What I mean is that one doesn't think of them, say, the way one thinks of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, in the "major canon" of American art. Or, I should say, I don't.
The "American Experience" DVDs: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/presidents/32_f_roosevelt/index.html (also available from Netflix)
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