Politics, Death Threats, Decency: The Roosevelts

Mr. Trump hangs scapegoats like piñatas and invites people to take a swing. — Arizona Republic, September 28, 2016, lead editorial


A friend is watching the PBS series, The Roosevelts. She’s taken in by the first episodes. I find myself pushed back in time, reliving the powerful impact of the series when I first viewed it two years ago.

imagesBack then, I was a complete fan, a true believer. I was abroad, and no doubt nostalgic for a number of reasons, not least, hearing my native tongue. The episodes arrived weekly on the screen of an iPad.

Quite uncharacteristically—this was a first—I wrote a long hymn of praise to the screen writer, Geoff Ward, and addressed Ken Burns, the director, too.  I paste in this letter below. I knew Geoff from college, though I hadn’t seen him since.

Coming across the letter anew, I’m struck by its exuberance and by its compulsion to say, at some length, what makes the series so powerfully attractive. I’m also startled. My praise for The Roosevelts back then has a different resonance today. It’s as if Franklin and Eleanor were invented especially to shame the indecent Mr. Trump.


What did I find so exciting, poignant, and instructive about this PBS series?

thWithout apology, it celebrates the convictions that decent character matters in public life; that a decent person can survive, even flourish, in the indelicate push-and-pull of political life, tragic and toxic as the details may be.

Can very good people still hold positions of highest political importance? Can politics be more than a saga of corruption? The Trump answer is “No!” And his behavior confirms this.

images-3-0Teddy, Franklin, or Eleanor might not have pursued effective policies or avoided personal indiscretions. Certainly the country at the time was tainted by racism, sexism, xenophobia, and repression of the poor. Who knows the spot Franklin Roosevelt will hold in the annals of presidential leadership.

Nevertheless, the documentary conveys an intuitive sense that they’re good, decent people. They devote their lives to public service. This intuition is bolstered when we juxtapose the Roosevelts with Trump.

The Roosevelts are not frauds, liars, or poseurs. They don’t launch scams or stiff their contractors, indulge ugly narcissism or mock the fat or the crippled. They don’t grub shamelessly for money and notoriety in vain contempt of others. They won’t hint that a competitor’s bodyguards be disarmed to enable assassination.

If you wonder what decency means, just take Trump in garish technicolor and think of a refined and honest opposite.

Today we fear a billion-dollar disaster ready to detonate. Trump would make life miserable even for those who, like jeering drunks at a frat house party, egg him on, shouting “Prison for Hilary.”


Here are some legitimate queries. I list them only to put them aside. They’re not easy to answer; they deserve mention, and a full discussion at another time.

  • images-5Is the promise of exemplary decency in political life gone for good? Can it be revived?
  • Apart from debating policy is there hope for character, for decency in politicians? Or is this hope only a pipe dream?
  • Does power always corrupt? Do only the corrupt seek power?
  • Does indulging the promise of civil discourse deflect attention from more pressing matters? 
  • What if the documentary is subtly false to the texture and realities of the figures and decades presented? (I’ve conceded that I neglect, even if the documentary doesn’t, racism and other repressions of the times. See my note below under “Credits and Comments”)


The ideal of national politics free of indecency is fragile. How rare it is to rise in wholehearted applause and acceptance of a political figure – rise in a simple and deeply felt pride in their simple humanity! Yet it is precisely the Roosevelts’ decency that leads me to applaud them for having it and to condemn Mr. Trump for lacking it.

I trust the Burns documentary is not just refashioning the myth of exceptional American goodness. In the very delicacy and intelligence of the telling there is a deep respect, admiration, caring attention, and even love shown to the people whose narratives it displays. I’ll trust, until proved otherwise, that its depiction of two World Wars and the Great Depression are credible. I praise the series for providing exemplary portraits, in drastic times, of exemplary, uncompromised character.

Decency can survive political trials and personal afflictions, too: Franklin’s polio, Teddy’s crippling asthma, Eleanor’s being surrounded and discounted by powerful men.

Here is the letter:

June, 2014

Dear Geoff — Dear Ken Burns:

You identify your work on Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor as an intimate portrait. It brings into focus personal and sometimes very private aspects of these lives.

In its broad sweep of episodes, we find sadness, goodhearted laughter, and many sorts of love and affection. We’re touched by wonder at the complexity of human living, by grief at terrible tragedy, by pride and relief at victory over obstacles.

I’m left with an impulse to applaud. The strengths of common decency wrestle adversity and often overcome it.

Any of this can set us aglow, or draw a tear—say, as we watch Franklin struggle to simply walk, or watch him spend time with children from his wheel chair, or prepare for an exhausting meeting with Stalin and Churchill

You give us the intimacy of close friendships, of close (and trying) family relations. We see hidden sides of political life, and how the impersonal engines of war and economy enter the intimate lives of citizens and youth.

The utterly respectful way that intimacies are revealed is itself deeply moving. I found myself often at a loss for words, for our most cherished moments can baffle our capacity to say in a convincing way exactly what moves us.

It seems we’re naturally curious about what makes people tick, especially public figures who often have an outer facade that hides their intimate lives.

Each of the Roosevelts experienced setbacks in early and mid-life that would have defeated lesser persons: asthma, polio, Eleanor inhabiting an Alpha-male world. Of course persons of lesser means confront tragedy and defeat on a scale greater by virtue of numbers alone.

In the very delicacy and intelligence of your telling there is a deep respect, admiration, caring attention, and even love shown to the people your narratives display.

There is an utter lack of the “know-it-all” critique from the sidelines, or the tone of “Here’s the dark underside of it all.” Let me give examples of this all-too-common almost cynical expectation of deprecating critique.

A few months ago a colleague was asked to give a talk on Martin Luther King, Jr. She was asked by the program organizer to focus especially on his clay feet, on the “other side” of the story.

On a parallel occasion, one of my graduate seminar students asked, in effect, when we were going to abandon the “nice” side of Thoreau and open fire on his deficits. (See my earlier Zeteo posts on Thoreau bashing.)

At an academic Kierkegaard conference I reviewed a book whose unblushing aim was to “find cracks in the granite of genius”—as if genius existed only to be smashed or unmasked.

Your script, Geoff, depicts persons we can generously praise. For this I’m grateful.


Generosity and Praise

L et me take up the way generosity in criticism can culminate in praise.

imagesI’ve taught literature and philosophy for years. My job is in part uncontroversial: to pass on knowledge and the skills of critique, and to add to accumulated knowledge through research. But the core of my vocation is more complex, and for some ears, quite controversial.

I try to pass on a sense that decency-in-adversity, imagination in crisis, seeing the bitter-sweet in love, avoiding mob reactions, feeling tender toward children, resisting evil—and many other good things—are worthy of knowing and exploring. They are worthy of existential mulling, absorption, and taking in.

I want to display not just love of knowledge but love of the world and its good things, including basic decency; and I want to display my despair at, and to display my care to correct, unnecessary suffering; and I want to display revulsion and indignation at evil.

Just above is a portrait of dignified subjects of Dust bowl immiseration. It was taken by Walker Evans, the WPA photographer who worked in the era of FDR. It can be found, along with James Agee’s elegrant prose, in the aptly titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  We are to look at the family pictured above as praiseworthy and meriting fame.

In teaching I aim to instill faith that at least some of the artifacts of varied cultural traditions, like the work of Walker Evans, are gems well worth knowing, making famous, preserving and praising.

We know in our bones absolutely those unforgettable times and places where human decency shines.

In the humanities we are curators of the soul, curators of works of the soul, curators of community, and of the worthy works of community.

I pass on tools of analysis, critique, and appreciation. Critique separates the wheat from the chaff. It’s a kind of uncovering, exposing, and unraveling. I unmask the false or pretentious (often a relatively easy job) and I try to recover images-3forgotten or dimly remembered works of genius (often a harder job). I try to unravel or expose the workings of worthy art, literature, and philosophy. Critique needn’t only provide “gotcha” moments.

Tools of critique can unveil strength, decency, and beauty. I reach for destructive critique only when needed.

Constructive critique is a respectful, loving unveiling: lifting up a photograph, poem, or sonata of passion, suffering, or joy, and making their passion, suffering, or joy better known. I am a curator of the soul. Generous critique folds into our task as curators. That task is laced with gratitude and charged with bringing the forgotten or abandoned to light.

I’d like to know more musical theory. Its analytic, critical tools can help me better appreciate — better praise and celebrate — Bach. I’d like to know the ways of Japanese culture and language to better appreciate, celebrate, and praise images-1Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North.


The Roosevelts merits praise for its affirmation of personal decencies and of commitments to the common good. Basic civility, of course, works in landscapes that exude true horrors.

There’s nothing to praise about abject poverty or the carnage of war. Living cheek-by-jowl with all that we admire in the presence of Eleanor, Franklin, and Teddy are racism, anti-Semitism, and proto-fascist populism. Their dark shadows sometimes rub off.

But through it all there are—so we hope—sustaining chords in their lives that can be recalled—should be recalled—in full applause, affirmation, and wholehearted gratitude. Then we rise above an excess of irony, scoffing, condescension, or belittling judgment.

The fruits of debunking are often bitter, sometimes necessarily bitter. But bitter fruit needn’t be all we find at the table.

imagesWe can cherish those moments, however rare, when we can rise in simple and deeply felt pride at just being human. Such moments create bonds of solidarity across differences and create faith in the future. In the full affirmation of decency we also find strength to forgive—or at least to suspend fixation on petty foibles, or at least to avoid the paralysis brought on by fixation on horrific acts only.

The triumphs of decency merit circulation and applause

I remember the moment that all the delegates to the founding meetings of the UN in London rose to applaud Eleanor Roosevelt, who had shepherded them to unlikely consensus. Whether or not we like the UN we can take pride in her dignified and decent presence.


It’s a strange and wonderful thing to be exposed to so much in the PBS series that might have been pictured otherwise might have images-2been told in another, less affirmative voice, eliciting a viewer’s despair, shame, anger, or condescension. It is part of the moral genius of this documentary that none of this is given air time.

For me, in instance after instance, there prevails an honest admiration and thankfulness. It’s as if a soft voice whispered, “This is what a person, a family, a march, a dance, a walk of eloquence, can be!” We see a rare and precious faith—a precious gift.

— Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Among Mooney’s works: Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009.


Credits and comments

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, directed by Ken Burns and written by Geoffrey C. War, was first aired in 2014. It is available frpm PBS, at public libraries, and via Netflix.

Let us Now Praise Famous Men, with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans, was first published 1941. More recent editions are also available.

I shy from the iconic, heroic photos of Franklin and Eleanor to highlight their simple decency and vulnerability, especially in age. I also shy from exploring how, overall, simple decency is compatible with glaring exceptions—for instance FDR’s insensitivity to Jewish appeals for help and for suspension of emigration quotas in the years before Pearl Harbor. How this is possible is the topic of another essay.William Eaton graciously read an earlier version of this essay. Spotting lacuna, he coaxed it toward its present form. I thank him.

In an odd turn of events I learn today (September 29, 2016) that Arizona’s biggest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, for the first time in its history is endorsing a Democrat for President. Confirming, almost verbatim, a claim of the present piece, the paper writes that Trump, “shows a stunning lack of human decency, empathy and respect.” (Arizona Republic, September 28, 2016, lead editorial.)  They add the quip that heads this post: Trump “hangs scapegoats like piñatas and invites people to take a swing.”

In another essay I would explore how individual, decent character intersects with broader, cultural and institutional aspects of an Era—some of which can be ugly. As regards my criticism of some historians’ “dark underside of it all’ tone, William Eaton has proposed that, as regards American history as a whole, this underside or upperside includes:

  • the almost complete annihilation of the Native Americans (and this to an extent that inspired Hitler and went way behind the terrible massacres of Latin America);
  • slavery and all that has followed in its wake (to include the lynchings that FDR did not act to stop and the imprisonment and police assassination of young black males);
  • an imperialist foreign policy which has, inter alia, involved the maintenance of puppet governments throughout Latin America (and the assassination or overthrow of anti-American-business political leaders throughout Latin America and in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia).

Writing on the moral (or immoral) features of an era is different from writing on the decency (or indecency) of someone’s character. We can draw intimate portraits of character but only large scale tapestries of an era—its wars, imperialism, or slavery. Of course there are moments when character and Era-shaping factors intersect. Then we wonder whether Hitler invents Fascism or Fascism invents Hitler—or whether we have co-creation.


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