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Howard Rosenberg / Television

Only on TV: Rethinking FDR . . . and Roseanne

October 11, 1994|Howard Rosenberg

Dueling Rosies.

That's tonight's exotic television matchup as PBS opens a two-part biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Fox premieres its one-nighter quickie about Roseanne (the former Roseanne Arnold and Roseanne Barr).

The latter is a Fox crotch job, with "Roseanne: An Unauthorized Biography" doing to its subject pretty much what she did to the national anthem a few years back.

Much more melodic is "The American Experience: FDR," a 4 1/2-hour documentary about the nation's 32nd chief executive, whom many historians regard as having redefined the presidency while leading the United States through the Great Depression and horrific World War II. Charismatic and commanding despite being disabled by polio, Roosevelt was a "President like no other," narrator David McCullough notes tonight.

Yet it's Roseanne, star of tabloid headlines, of squabbles with her estranged spouse, Tom Arnold, and of her own hit ABC sitcom, who's much the better known today. Such is our obsession with boisterous celebrities who are ultimately devoured by the very media they spend much of their careers manipulating.


Not that there wasn't a broad streak of show business in Roosevelt, whose own epic manipulation of the press is arguably unmatched in modern presidential politics. "You and I are the two best actors in America," he's recalled saying to Orson Welles in tonight's "FDR," a memorable documentary from David Grubin, whose impressive PBS credits include a grand 1992 biography of Lyndon Johnson and "Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas," an extraordinary chronicle of Bill Moyers' return to his hometown a decade ago.

And now, happy days are here again, so to speak, for despite offering little that appears new, Grubin's "FDR" is a fascinating, meaningful rendering of history, stylishly crafting diverse data into an irresistible narrative that has great relevance for a 1994 audience.

After all, it was Roosevelt whose bold signature in the 1930s and early 1940s was the kind of big government that today is increasingly reviled by outspoken politicians, reformers and others who insist that only through federal smallness can a troubled United States ever achieve salvation.

"FDR" shines a light on the complex man behind the caricatured broad grin and long cigarette holder. By and large, it's a warm light--one that also leaves some shadows, for, as we're told here, he was a "charming but a distant figure" even to those who were closest to him.

They included his controlling, ever-looming mother, whom we meet here as matriarch of the Hyde Park estate that symbolized young Franklin's cocooned upbringing as a product of old-monied New York royalty, a family that was already represented in the White House by FDR's cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, when Franklin graduated from Harvard with his own aspirations for the presidency.

In 1905, he marries his distant cousin, Eleanor, who will also have an enormous influence on him while much later becoming a renowned political figure in her own right, her independence growing after she discovers his affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, in 1918. After this, Eleanor moves to a separate cottage two miles from Hyde Park, and the couple never again "shared the intimacies of married life," McCullough says, a political union supplanting their marital partnership. This relationship continues through Franklin's dozen years in the White House, which ended with his death in 1945.

The uniqueness of that relationship is described here, as are FDR's famed Depression-era policies, the tactics he used to aid England even before the United States was drawn into World War II and his special relationship with another epic figure of history, Winston Churchill. Roosevelt was "flawed, inconsistent and often deceitful," McCullough says. But, most agree, he was very good at being President.

Of special interest here are unusual old photographs and home-movie footage that relate a separate story about an FDR whose paralysis was much more severe than most of the public ever realized. There he is in 1921, at age 39, after contracting the dreaded polio, the last time he is seen standing alone on his own feet. And there he is cavorting in a pool with children at the Warm Springs, Ga., clinic he established for victims of the disease.

And quite stunningly, there he is in a four-second sequence, played in slow motion, appearing to walk even though he couldn't. Knowing that to be disabled in those days was "political poison," he devised a rocking-motion technique--one hand pushing down on a cane, the other on the arm of one of his sons--that gave the illusion of him walking. "I don't think five in 100 Americans even knew he was paralyzed," says observer Alistair Cooke.

Wearing black braces that blended in with black pants and black socks helped, as did a "conspiracy of consent" on the part of White House photographers--which would be unthinkable in the 1990s--to not reveal the extent of the President's disability.

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