Friday, March 28, 2008

A documentary on Eleanor Roosevelt

I just watched an excellent documentary of Eleanor Roosevelt on WTTW 11 in Chicago (the PBS station). It was an interesting view of a hard-working woman , very dedicated to social justice. It portrayed her as the eyes and ears of FDR in places where the disabled FDR could not go. Without meaning to be, the story was an insightful look at an important chapter in the creation of America's nanny state. A story of a caring woman, a caring husband, and the influence that they were able to exert over America's governmental institutions. An important reason for me to study modern American history is the answer the question for myself of "how did we get to where we are today?" This documentary helped me understand that question.

While still young, Eleanor played a role that many society women would not play. Not only did she stop in at a settlement house for immigrants, but she came regularly and assumed a role of responsibility. She taught dance and calisthenics. The Roosevelt family seemed to have a strong sense of social responsibility and Eleanor exposed FDR to a view of the world that he was unfamiliar with. For example, one experience was mentioned, where FDR over and over, afterwards, talked about how shocked he was that human beings actually lived that way. The documentary did not draw a distinction between volunteer organizations and government, but at this point, Eleanor was still very active in charitable organizations playing a philanthropic role.

Soon, however, that transitioned into the concept of Eleanor being well-aware of the misery in which people lived, and Franklin being well-aware of how government could be moved to help people. This team, as alluded to by the documentary, led to what would become the New Deal. The filmmaker went on to tell the story of people with unhappy family lives, going on to use government to make happy lives for everyone. FDR is depicted as a man who could not confront his own mother, who ignored the negatives believing they would disappear, who played a very limited role in the upbringing of his children, other than coming home and playing with them at the end of a work-day. Eleanor grew up in an out of control environment and the idea of people behaving in an "out of control way" (as stated by the filmmaker) was very unappealing to her. She had a very difficult time being comfortable with the idea of being a mother.

One gentleman interviewed for the documentary said some viewed the Roosevelts as a traitor to their class. That sounded plain ignorant, but something that I none-the-less believed was said and thought. He said that Eleanor more or less viewed the world as one big vast slum project. Also he added that she had "a large political equivalent of the housewife's desire to redecorate." This expanded from domestic affairs into foreign affairs as well.

The filmmaker claimed that FDR laid the groundwork for what would be the UN. Eleanor showed excellent political acumen in roles that she played at the UN and was chosen to chair the committee for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a speech that she gave, she pointed out that it would not be a treaty, would not be a law, it would simply be a declaration.

Later, as she was campaigning for Adelaide Stevenson, she received an interesting introduction. Evidently this was from an America and perhaps a world, much more comfortable with the concept of an American empire. In August 1956, she was introduced to the Democratic national convention as "the first lady of the world."

Woven throughout all of this, Eleanor Roosevelt was depicted as a tough, impressive, influential, hard-working woman.

- Allan in Blue Island

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