The Reformers

The Rooseveltsby Geoffrey C. Ward

Knopf. 528p $60

Blood is often thicker than politics.

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In the spring of 1915, former President Theodore Roosevelt, his political career in tatters, was sued for libel for claiming in a speech that New York’s state Republican boss pushed “corrupt and machine-ruled government” as much as the Democratic bosses of Tammany Hall.

Few of his old G.O.P. political allies came to his defense. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt—an up-and-coming Democratic star married to the former president’s niece, Eleanor—did testify on Teddy’s behalf.

On the stand, Franklin was asked about his connection to the defendant, whom he’d admired his whole life.

“Fifth cousin by blood and nephew by law!” said Franklin with a grin. A jury soon threw out the libel suit.

A grateful Teddy later told his equally ambitious kin: “I shall never forget the capital way in which you gave your testimony.”

Though they sometimes differed on politics, the Roosevelts—as presented in the ambitious and engrossing book by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, an excellent companion to their new PBS documentary—shared a keen sense of family legacy, progressive politics and a compulsive need to be at the center of American life during the first half of the 20th century.

This massively illustrated 500-page book focuses on Teddy, F.D.R. and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, providing what the authors call “an emotional archeology” to their respective times in and out of the White House. By comparing and contrasting the two sides of the Roosevelt family—Teddy’s clan based in Long Island’s Oyster Bay and Franklin’s family in upstate Hyde Park—the authors come up with many enlightening details that remind us how far and deep the bonds of political dynasties can extend.

Overall, the book, unfolding in vignettes and episodic profiles, is very effective and often moving as it explores both the public triumphs of these three remarkably influential figures and their personal sufferings. We are reminded again that despite their limitations—Teddy with his childhood asthma, Franklin crippled by polio at midcareer and Eleanor with her chronic emotional self-doubt—these Roosevelts had a soaring spirit and drive that helped define their eras.

The Roosevelts details the lives of two of our most extraordinary presidents, but the lynchpin holding together this family saga is the equally extraordinary life of Eleanor, which spans virtually every decade of this book. Emblematic of the rising role of women in American society, Eleanor carves out her own identity from a secondary status. As the connecting figure in this narrative, she possesses a deep understanding of the ambitions that compelled both her famous uncle and husband and its impact on their family.

“Men and women who live together through long years get to know one another’s failings: but they also come to know what is worthy of respect and admiration in those they live with and in themselves,” she later wrote after F.D.R.’s death in 1945.

All three key Roosevelt figures—Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor—were reformers at heart. This book’s fascinating photos and well-researched text reflect their individual progression as well as the growth of the United States from an isolationist rural former colony to an international power greater than the once pre-eminent British empire.

As a progressive Republican, T.R. defended the rights of workers, broke up the trusts of robber barons and championed the idea of national parks as a lasting gift for the future. F.D.R. created the modern social safety net with Social Security and other domestic programs and prevailed over two of the biggest crises ever faced by a president—the Great Depression and World War II. And Eleanor gave voice to the underdog during her husband’s presidency, eventually becoming a world-renowned figure in her own right. After F.D.R.’s death, she skillfully chaired a United Nations committee that established the landmark “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and became a leading liberal voice within the Democratic Party.

In this story, the relationship of fathers and sons, the expectations of greatness and the difficulties of living up to a famous name is a constant dynamic. War and violence are often rites of passage in this family, especially for “Rough Rider” Teddy, celebrated for his 1898 charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American war. The authors suggest his incessant urge to prove himself on the field of battle stemmed from T.R.’s shame that his father hired two surrogates to fight on his behalf during the Civil War. No one would ever call T.R.—a lifelong “man in the arena”—a coward, regardless of the costs. Before he died fighting for his country in World War I, Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest of Teddy’s four sons, acknowledged that all were in uniform because “Well, you know it’s rather up to us to practice what father preaches.”

While war was something to be avoided for Franklin Roosevelt—whose reluctance to enter World War II was influenced by the thousands of U.S. casualties from the earlier Great War—Teddy repeatedly exhibited a bloodlust for battle. “All men who feel any power of joy in battle know what it is like when the wolf rises in the heart,” T.R. exulted after slaughtering his enemy. In the television version of “The Roosevelts,” the historian Clay Jenkinson bluntly calls Roosevelt “a killer” who did it with the repetitiveness and thoughtlessness of a Gatling gun. More subtly in the book, the authors quote a Rough Rider friend of T.R.’s recalling his “just reveling in victory and gore” and let Teddy’s words speak for themselves.

Legacy plays a constant defining role with the Roosevelts. Sometimes they are its beneficiary—with F.D.R. repeating the successful path of T.R. as both an assistant secretary of the Navy and later as governor of New York before ascending to the presidency. Yet expectations weigh heavily on others in the clan. At times, the sons of F.D.R. seemed more like props in their father’s story—gripping the president’s arm at public events so he wouldn’t fall while on crutches—than finding a place on which to stand on their own.

As skillful multi-media historians, Ward and Burns also project light on the little-known fractures and competing egos within the Roosevelt family. Before he first ran for office in Dutchess County as a Democrat, F.D.R. privately asked for the approval of T.R., the nation’s leading Republican, who wished him well. But after T.R.’s death, his namesake son was an outspoken critic of F.D.R.’s New Deal, resenting how Franklin had become the Roosevelt family standard-bearer. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, T.R.’s oldest child, even suggested F.D.R. was a “mollycoddle” for not overcoming polio as her father did with asthma.

Yet, also important, Ward and Burns explain how overcoming suffering, whether physical or emotional, was a hallmark of all three Roosevelt protagonists, ultimately forging a steely determination to lead. Eleanor in particular seemed inspired by the example of both her uncle and her husband, as she changed from a quiet, insecure girl to a role model for future first ladies, including Hillary Rodham Clinton. As she explained, “Anyone who has gone through great suffering is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”

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