Tuesday, July 22, 2008

American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt

I found this to be an acceptable biography, but I didn’t think it had the depth of the presidential biographies I have watched from PBS. One thing I think hurt it was the most of the interviewees were mainly relatives (mostly grandkids) rather than historians. While I enjoy the first hand accounts, I would have liked to see them more evenly distributed among historical opinions. It just made it seem biased and less academic.

The discussion of her childhood hit the high points, but having read Caroli’s Roosevelt Women (this link is my review of it), I felt there was more to say. I also think the importance of Sara Roosevelt in creating the Eleanor we know was very much overlooked. This biography really fell back on the version of Sara as the stereotypical mother-in-law gorgon. Caroli did a much more in-depth job of looking at this relationship.

I did like the fact that they did discuss the possibility of lesbianism. Reading some of Eleanor’s letters to female friends, like Lorena Hickok, it is impossible to deny the possibility especially considering what is known about the Roosevelt marriage. The program certainly made no definite answer to this question, but I personally don’t think it is really possible to make that call, so I was happy with that solution.

One really great part of this biography was that they used video and audio footage of Mrs. Roosevelt and this really gave a personal feel to her and I think added a lot. I also liked the discussions of the Roosevelt marriage and the problems with the children. Looking at Eleanor’s childhood, though, she really never had a model to work from.

The part on her work after FDR’s death was also very well done, especially her work with the United Nations. I also knew she had campaigned against Eisenhower, but found that section very interesting. I also found this bit on their opinions of each other from the NPS site on Eleanor (Val-Kill – which the program talked about as very important to Eleanor):
As Eisenhower rose in his countrymen's estimation, his standing with Eleanor Roosevelt sank, and she worked assiduously to defeat him in 1952 and 1956. At the outset of his political career, she thought he was long on glamour and short on political conviction, particularly when he failed to defend General George Marshall, the man most responsible for his rapid promotion during World War II, against charges of communism. She also thought his choice of Richard Nixon (who had played on his California constituents' fear of communism to defeat her friend Helen Gahagan Douglas for the Senate in 1948) was particularly irresponsible –especially after Eisenhower suffered a massive heart attack in 1955. Later she felt Eisenhower catered too much to public opinion in his handling of Senator Joseph McCarthy's allegations of communism in the federal government. She also deplored his administration's poor record on civil rights, especially his reluctance to implement the Supreme Court's directive to end school segregation in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. She was particularly incensed over his initial failure to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to protect black students attempting to integrate the high school there.

For his part, Eisenhower liked neither ER's politics nor her style. In the wake of his 1952, election he accepted her resignation from the U.S. delegation to the United Nations with only a perfunctory letter of thanks, despite her significant contributions to the organization's success. He also barred her from White House social events because of remarks she had purportedly made about his wife, Mamie. The two were never reconciled although Eisenhower did attend ER's funeral in 1962.

On the PBS site, you can also explore Eleanor’s FBI file or read “My Day” columns in addition to the materials from the biography.

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