Sunday, June 24th, 2018

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We have much to learn from history, and the Roosevelts


Ken Burns was a speaker at the Chautauqua Institution this summer and received the reception normally reserved for rock stars.

He has been there before and his programs fill the old amphitheater to the brim. There were long lines of people waiting to get in every morning. This year’s appearance was a run-up to the September showing of “The Roosevelts” which was given an unprecedented seven consecutive nights on PBS. Thanks to the miracle of the DVR, I was able to watch every minute and it was worth it.

Burns is the master of his craft, which involves many years and many people to produce the finished product — a narrative and pictorial history of events which cry out for his sort of treatment. It is history of the most palatable kind based on rigorous research, the help of historian friends and an uncanny ability to find just the right photographs and films to illustrate the story.

The story of the Roosevelts is the story of the first half of the 20th century, a time in the history of this country when we lived through two world wars, the great depression and the beginnings of great growth and prosperity. Even though we think we know everything about a particular topic, Ken Burns shows over and over again that we have forgotten or never knew the real story.

My only real recollection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the day he died. I was six years old and apparently already had a nose for news. I walked all around our neighborhood telling everyone that the president had died. All my life I have had a feeling of love for this man, made stronger than ever by this latest history lesson.

Part of the joy of the series was learning all about Theodore Roosevelt who has always been known as a Rough Rider, a big game hunter and a canal builder. It was fascinating to learn about his childhood and of his political life and to see how he overcame great physical problems.

Eleanor Roosevelt whom people either loved or hated (you could say that about her husband and her fifth cousin too) was a remarkable woman who overcame a very sad childhood, married a man who loved her but would betray her, gave birth to six children and had the mother-in-law from hell. She famously was her husband’s “eyes and ears” and worked tirelessly for human rights. At one time I’m sure she was the most admired woman in the world.

Everyone who whines about their lot in life and complains about the sorry state of the world should be required to learn about the Roosevelts and learn what real adversity is.

I say “bully” for all of them.

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