• Weird History

'The Roosevelts' Is The Only Documentary Anyone Needs For All The Drama From TR To FDR

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a 14-hour documentary miniseries split into seven two-hour episodes, produced and directed by Ken Burns. It originally aired on PBS in 2014 and can currently be streamed on Netflix. Nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards, it won the Emmy for Outstanding Narrator (Peter Coyote).

The series chronicles the personal and political lives of Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States; his fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd President of the United States; and Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Teddy's niece and Franklin's wife (and cousin).

Between them, these two male members of the Roosevelt family spent 19 years as the president of the United States. They represented opposing political parties (Teddy was a Republican, then a Progressive, while Franklin was a Democrat), but their rise to power was similar in many ways. Eleanor, besides being a link between the two men, became a powerful political voice apart from her husband's, championing various causes while also supporting FDR's career.  

  • Photo: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History / PBS

    Franklin And Theodore Roosevelt Supported Each Other's Political Careers

    Franklin Roosevelt grew up admiring his cousin Teddy's political career and, though more than 20 years his junior, was eager to follow in his footsteps. The two ended up leading opposing parties, but that did not cause a major division in the family until Teddy passed in 1919.

    The Democratic Party approached Franklin in 1910 to discuss running him for a spot in the New York State Legislature. Before making his decision, FDR first asked for and received the approval of Teddy - a near-lifelong Republican. Teddy was also happy when Franklin was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy (a position Teddy had previously held) in 1912.

    During the 1912 presidential election, Franklin was torn between the Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, whom he admired, and his cousin. Eleanor wanted her husband to support Teddy, her uncle, but as WWI dragged on with no sign of American involvement, FDR came to oppose Wilson's isolationist policies. He met secretly with his cousin to discuss how to take on the president.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    However, Theodore's Family Often Clashed With Franklin's

    In 1920, when FDR ran as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, Teddy's sister Corinne and daughter Alice campaigned for the Republican ticket, while Theodore Jr. combatted his fifth cousin politically and personally.

    Eleanor did not forget this public blow. In 1924, when Theodore Jr. ran for governor of New York, she followed her cousin on the campaign trail in a car with a paper mache teapot on the roof (Theodore Jr. and his brother had been implicated in the Teapot Dome bribery scandal but found innocent of any wrongdoing). She denounced him as a personally nice man whose public service record showed he was willing to do the bidding of his friends. He never forgave her for the stunt.

    When FDR ran for president in 1932, Teddy's sister Corinne crossed party lines to vote for him, but his widow Edith and daughter Alice campaigned hard against him. And when FDR ran for reelection in 1936, Theodore Jr. and Alice again attacked his political record.

    Although Teddy's son Kermit (already serving in the British military) supported FDR's determination to help America's allies in the war against Germany, Theodore Jr. did not. Alice went further and said she'd rather vote for Hitler than support her cousin's bid for a third term as president. When he learned of this, FDR told Eleanor he didn't want anything to do with Alice - or as he called her, "that damned woman" - ever again.

    After WWII broke out, the two branches of the family temporarily put their political differences aside. 

  • Photo: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History / PBS

    Theodore Roosevelt Used His Popularity To Give The Presidency More Power

    When Theodore Roosevelt inherited the presidency in 1901, the real power in the federal government was held more by Congress and the Democratic and Republican political machines than by the president himself. 

    Teddy was determined to change this, and used public support to do it. The young president was no stranger to PR campaigns. As a police commissioner in New York City, he had invited reporters to accompany him as he looked for officers who were derelict in their duties. As governor of New York, he held two press briefings per day to build support for his platform. 

    As president, Teddy pushed Congress to pass progressive legislation so all Americans, rich and poor, could thrive. He barnstormed for this legislation, and his outsized, energetic personality drew huge crowds everywhere he went. He provided great copy for reporters.

    In 1906, despite the opposition of the railroads, he won passage of the Hepburn Act, which empowered the interstate commerce commission to limit the rates railroads could charge to transport goods from place to place. It was the first time in United States history that the rulings of a federal agency had the force of law.

    Teddy continued to use his media and public popularity to change the role of the federal government. He campaigned for the Pure Food and Drug Act, and when the meatpacking trust tried to block an inspection bill that would’ve cleaned up the appalling conditions in slaughterhouses, he released part of the findings of a federal investigation into industry practices. Then he threatened to release the rest if they didn’t back down.

  • Franklin Roosevelt Used Modern Media To Calm The American Public During The Depression And WWII

    Just eight days after his inauguration in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt did the first of his radio "fireside chats." 

    In less than 15 minutes, he explained to the public how the banking system was supposed to work and how it had failed. He explained what the bank holiday he had declared meant. Then he said all the politicians did would mean nothing without the support of the American people. He spoke to listeners as an equal, telling them, "Together we cannot fail."

    In this first chat, held on a Sunday night, he said hoarding money had become "unfashionable." The very next day, thousands of people lined up to redeposit their money into banks.

    FDR continued to make these fireside chats throughout his presidency, communicating self-assurance in an era of uncertainty. These broadcasts were heard by an average of 18% of the potential radio audience during peacetime and 58% during WWII.

    These broadcasts helped FDR retain his popularity. In the 1930s, a New York radio poll asked listeners who was the greatest man. Franklin Roosevelt won the poll; God came in a distant second.