November 29th, 2012

FDR, the movies, presidential reputations, and history

Remember when the movies portrayed presidents as heroes? They left out a lot of the more sordid stuff (like, for example, affairs) because there was no need to focus on that. There was enough about presidents to admire, and it was considered uplifting to ask the nation to admire it.

Take the old biopic about FDR made in 1960, “Sunrise at Campobello. I saw it as a kid in the movie theater and I was very impressed with FDR’s courage in the face of adversity. It’s set during a time before he became president, and in its own way it was a “now it can be told” movie, revealing something about FDR that had been pretty well hidden during his lifetime: the extent of his disability; and his struggle to overcome it, enter politics, and minimize its severity to the world and the American people.

It’s an interesting premise: private courage, but hiding the truth about that in order to appear more heroic and stronger in the public’s eyes.

The movie featured a sanitized version of FDR’s marriage to a suffering yet strong and supportive Eleanor, played by Greer Garson with a false set of buck teeth. Not a hint of marital infidelity here—just “drama, devotion, and courage”:

In the many years since the movie was made, all the dirt has been raked up and evidence of FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is common knowledge. But it seems that’s not enough; now the movies have to invent more dirt if there isn’t enough already to satisfy us.

Case in point: a new biopic about FDR starring Bill Murray (Bill Murray???) as a generalized serial philanderer a la Bill Clinton:

On this particular trip, the president decides to wave off the police cruiser tailing him and forges a new path through the fields. He parks the car at the top of a hill overlooking the arresting meadows below, turns the radio up, and procures a smoke. Then he takes [his friend and fifth cousin Margaret] Suckley’s hand and slowly places it on his thigh. She is shocked, but intrigued. The president casually unzips his fly, and Suckley, ever the doting consort, gives him a handjob.

“I knew that we were not only fifth cousins, but very good friends,” she says in voice-over…

“Most of the scenes in the film happened behind closed doors, so I think you have to take every historical film as a version of those events,” said Michell after a screening of [his] film. “I don’t think it’s an irresponsible lurch into the improbable. It’s very probable.”

In the film, despite his seemingly earnest affection toward Suckley, FDR is portrayed as a bit of a philanderer, bedding members of his staff. His rampant infidelity is even pinpointed as the root cause of wife Eleanor’s romantic indifference…

We pretty much know by now that FDR had a least one dalliance that seems to have been a serious long-term love affair, as well as a possible other. But there’s no evidence of casual philandering of this nature, or of an affair with cousin Suckley. But hey, why not gild (or rather, sully) the lily by making the picture even worse than it was, because it could have happened?

Just as Tina Fey’s pretend quote from Sarah Palin about seeing Russia from her house replaced the actual quote from the real Sarah, so Oliver Stone’s movies have been regarded by way too many people as factual documentaries, or close to it. Movies can seem more real than history—especially to those who are ignorant of history, a seemingly growing number of people. In the past movies weren’t really true, either, but at least their makers tried to give us an idea of ourselves that was elevated rather than degraded.

[NOTE: The new film “Lincoln” may be an exception to this rule. I haven’t yet seen so I’m not sure, but my guess is that, if it manages to avoid creative smears about Lincoln, it would be because of his iconic and somewhat protected status due to his role vis a vis slavery. That brings an interesting thought to mind: if a biopic was ever made of the life of Martin Luther King, how would they treat his serial philandering?

Perhaps the answer to the whole thing is that I’ve got it reversed: a president or renowned public figure indiscriminately chasing after women is no longer considered a bug; it’s a feature. How very advanced and European of us!]

28 Responses to “FDR, the movies, presidential reputations, and history”

  1. Sam L. Says:

    I’ll wait for “Slick Willy!”

  2. mizpants Says:

    What isn’t advanced and European about us is our sophomoric vulgarity. FDR getting a handjob from his 5th cousin! That’s such a depressingly predictable Hollywood treatment. I can see the trailer now — the hand on the thigh, the audible zip, Bill Murray’s eyes rolling up. God, how gross. How stupid. How base.
    Am I just getting old and cranky, or do others feel the same heart-sinking dismay that I feel at the state of our culture?

  3. vanderleun Says:

    We all do, mizpants. We all do.

  4. Liz Says:

    When it comes to MLK, I’d be more curious how they’d treat his constant plagiarising.

  5. Tesh Says:

    Ah, so *this* is what Bill Murray had to work on instead of Ghostbusters 3. Priorities!

  6. expat Says:

    I’m with you,too. I also hate tatoos.

  7. Don Carlos Says:

    Neo is quite right: “a president or renowned public figure indiscriminately chasing after women is no longer considered a bug; it’s a feature.”

    For that we can thank the Gramsci crowd and Slick Willy. Seminal fluid is rather slick, BTW, so calling him Slick is rather more than just apt.

  8. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    My take on the Lincoln movie:

  9. Molly NH Says:

    Talk about stupid, for much of my life (i had never read his bio & knew no more about him then what appeared in the media) I wondered in amazement at “how his mother had the prescience
    to name him “Martin Luther” of course the “JR” part was a later
    acquisition, guess his dad wanted a ride on that bus, (excuse the pun). Reminds me of Mrs Obama during their first campaign.
    “we will need to change our history” !!!!!
    Some people are amazingly bizzare !

  10. Mac Says:

    Neo, I think your last paragraph is correct, alas.

  11. Zachriel Says:

    Sam L: I’ll wait for “Slick Willy!”

    Primary Colors

  12. Zachriel Says:

    neo-neocon: Remember when the movies portrayed presidents as heroes? They left out a lot of the more sordid stuff (like, for example, affairs) because there was no need to focus on that.

    It’s possible to make a good movie that includes salacious details, but often, that’s just an easy way to attract attention when lacking in creativity.

    Another interesting depiction of FDR is a short spot in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. A more modern incarnation is ‘Warm Springs’.

  13. Artfldgr Says:

    When it comes to MLK…

    I could care less if they even dubbed the actual fbi tapes of the sex acts to the movie for ‘authenticity’

    what i would bet $100 for, would be how they handle “the highlander school”, where he received education in social movements, and all that kind of communist kind of thing… (highlander was closed due to communist subversion, and a lot more. it was funded by the same person that funded Tuskegee syphilis study, which they don’t point out was not funded by the state, but private money)

    from the time i first said something (and others too) there have been various scrubbings and rehashes and all kinds of progressive games with the highlander history.

    but now with the win and the future sealed (despite people trying to think otherwise), they now are putting their stuff kind of in the open… (a bad sign as it means they dont have to hide, which means what? that whether you know or dont know doesnt matter and wont matter any more)

    Highlander Research and Education Center

    The Highlander Research and Education Center, formerly known as the Highlander Folk School, is a social justice leadership training school and cultural center located in New Market, Tennessee. Founded in 1932 by activist Myles Horton, educator Don West, and Methodist minister James A. Dombrowski, it was originally located in the community Summerfield in Grundy County, Tennessee, between Monteagle and Tracy City. It was featured in the 1985 documentary film You Got to Move.

    Highlander has provided training and education for the labor movement in Appalachia and throughout the Southern United States. During the 1950s, it played a critical role in the American Civil Rights Movement. It trained civil rights leader Rosa Parks prior to her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as providing training for many other movement activists including the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Septima Clark, Anne Braden, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Rosa Parks, Hollis Watkins, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis in the mid- and-late 1950s.

    Backlash against the school’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement led to the school’s closure by the state of Tennessee in 1961.

    It reorganized and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where it reopened, later becoming the Highlander Research and Education Center.

    i bet when you all went to school, they taught you that what rosa did was a spontaneous act and in protest of the bus company. but it was a state law… and they were forcing the drivers to enforce the law, the same way that tsa goes after drugs, which has nothing to do with flying, or danger flying, and is just an act of deputizing a business to use them to abuse the public with powers that the police are forbidden to have.

    so from the law the dems made putting the bus drivers and bus companies in the position of doing something they werent doing as policy, to the training at highlander.

    and you have to love this:
    Backlash against the school’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement led to the school’s closure by the state of Tennessee in 1961.

    they are proud enough to tell you that they trained Rosa… and MLK, and others… So then these people were just fronts for the people who were teaching them to go out and “do that great thing”. Rosa didnt stand up and think i was fed up and acted, she was trained to act against a law that the southern dems created. the celebration of these people is the celebration of a person who was trained by another person or group of person, who they are erasing. no?

    and now they are proud of their work, but not quite proud enough to admit this yet. at least up front in the part most read.

    In reaction to the work done by the school, during the late 1950s, Southern newspapers attacked Highlander for supposedly creating racial strife. In 1957, the Georgia Commission on Education published a pamphlet titled “Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tennessee”.[2] A contoversial photograph, supposedly of Martin Luther King and Gus Hall was published, claiming it was taken at the school. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, West was the District Director of the Communist Party in North Carolina.,[3] though West denied he had ever been a member of the Communist Party.[4] Finally, in 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter, after planting moonshine and confiscated its land and property.[citation needed]

    Later that year, the Highlander staff reincorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moved to Knoxville, where it stayed until 1971. Then it relocated to its current location in New Market, Tennessee.

    note that citation needed…

    do a search and now there are tons of things up front and first (unlike the past) about white supremacists doing this, and so on. go past that and you can read the real deal, and even the FBI records online.

    this can help you find things that are quite interesting

    and yes, there are pamplets as wiki says…

    but you can dig quite far on this..

    Ah, but the key to it is Rosenwald and The Rosenwald Schools

    Jewish social activism helped spearhead the early civil rights movement as well. In 1909, Joel Spingarn was a founder and then long-term president of the NAACP. Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck was a pioneer in the new field of progressive philanthropy.

    He endowed Jane Addams’ Hull House and Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, funded more than 5,000 schools for African Americans in the rural South, and supported the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee-based training center for labor and civil rights activists.

    On the one side, a hero for doing that, on the other side Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and who gives them credit? who do the progressives blame for Tuskegee?

    Rosenwald Fund

    Tuskegee syphilis experiment

    The Rosenwald Fund, a major Chicago-based philanthropy devoted to black education and community development in the South, provided financial support to pay for the eventual treatment of the patients. Study researchers initially recruited 399 syphilitic Black men, and 201 healthy Black men as controls.

    Continuing effects of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression led the Rosenwald Fund to withdraw its offer of funding. Study directors issued a final report as they thought this might mean the end of the study once funding to buy medication for the treatment phase of the study was withdrawn.

    who does the African community blame and give lots of hate towards because of this progressive philanthropy?

    you can look around, but its like opening a door to a rabit hole where you are amazed as each hop leads you to round and round the same things from almost any point you start.

    Langston Hughes is awarded the Rosenwald Fellowship

    Rehabilitating McCarthyism
    International Socialist Review Issue 12, June-July 2000

    A similar perspective is warranted when we look at the CPUSA’s role in fighting racism and other forms of oppression. Books such as Naison’s Communists in Harlem During the Depression and Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression show how effective the CPUSA was in organizing Black resistance to racism in housing, transportation and employment, and in attracting Black workers to the industrial unions in the 1930s. Black membership in the CPUSA rose from fewer than 1,000 in 1930 to more than 5,000 in 1939.
    No wonder major Black artists and intellectuals such as Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes joined the CPUSA. The CPUSA also involved thousands of its members, Black and white, in theater, book clubs and poetry readings.

    Wright and Hughes, like so many kind of converted later in life and in the case of hughes, regretted the early works that still inspire people to what he discovered things were when he got older. but its very hard to find that stuff, as the younger revolutionary stuff dominates all over.

    Richard Wright is a bit more interesting… as his novels were used, but very quickly he got into trouble with them. Too smart to be a communist (if i remember) was a title of a book we have forgotten.

    His difficulties began in Chicago when he joined the John Reed Club, which was mainly run by communists. He was eventually denounced by both communists and African Americans who thought he acted too “white.”

    they thought he was too smart and would figure things out
    (which implies what about who they work with and don’t denounce?)
    so while the socialists say he joined because of the poetry and culture and all that, which is half true, they do not point out the history of his difficulties and what he wrote about it

    As the Depression bit in the early 1930s, the party followed Stalin’s “Third Period” perspective, which urged it to denounce all liberals as “social fascists.” It tried to build Communist-led “Red” unions, rather than attempting to organize from within existing unions. In 1936, Stalin–looking for alliances with the main capitalist powers against Hitler’s Germany–dictated a shift to a radically different “Popular Front” perspective. During the Popular Front period, the CPUSA sought to accommodate itself to the very liberal politicians and labor leaders whom it had before denounced as “social fascists.” This meant supporting the Democratic Party. In 1936, the CPUSA ensured Roosevelt’s reelection by blocking the formation of a national labor party.

    From the mid-1930s on, CPUSA collaboration with the Democrats and the U.S. government was coupled with a willingness to undermine the radical left and workers’ organizations when it suited the party line to do so. This was especially the case during the Second World War, following the collapse of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1941, when Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union meant that the USSR and the U.S. would become allies. CPUSA cooperation with the Roosevelt administration went beyond all-out support for the war effort. In 1941 Earl Browder actively helped the government use the Smith Act to prosecute members of the Socialist Workers Party, some of whom had led the “Teamster Rebellion” of 1934.

    International Socialist Review Issue 12, June-July 2000

    So now… ya want to tell me that its not worth reading the history? if you did you could just know from them what they did. right above is the conditions that changed things. the communists stopped attacking liberals and decided to switch tactics. it was Stalins game.. you could have read this kind of thing pretty much any time in your lifetimes, since this is probably before the time of everyone that has read this far.

    they bring up browder… why did they kick browder out and then Foster remade it?

    “He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1945, when he dissolved it into the Democratic Party to form the Communist Political Association.”

    Coming to see the role of American Communists to be that of an organized pressure group within a broad governing coalition, in 1944 he directed the transformation of the CPUSA into a “Communist Political Association.” However, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Cold War and internal red scare quickly sprouted up.

    its kind of funny, but the only people you cant convince of things are the victims, who wont read the words of the very proud people who cant help but tell their story so that their work isn’t remembered as some natural happening as others think… and write.. and muse about…

  14. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Eh, I try to be clear-eyed about the history that I put into my books; I don’t skip over the ugly that really happened – but I also don’t put additional made from whole or partial cloth in to titillate the audience and smear historical figures. I write historical novels in an attempt to reclaim pop history about America from t*rds like Oliver Stone and his ilk. I might not be best-selling in any sense of the word, but at least I can be proud of my historical accuracy.

  15. LisaM Says:

    mizpants – Me too. Although I freely admit being oldish, and cranky.

  16. Occam's Beard Says:

    Art, Bella Dodd attributes Browder downfall also to opposing Stalin’s decision to promote Balkanization of American ethnic groups, and instead favoring “American communism.”

  17. Occam's Beard Says:

    Also, to see left-wing hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty in its full malignant flower, consider in whose Administration the USPHS began the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. That would be 1932 … must think … must think. Would that be the Administration that interned the Nisei? Why, yes, it would be.

    Yet have you ever heard any lefty ever lay either of these things at FDR’s door? Of course not. They’ll rather cutely accuse the “US government,” as if Roosevelt had nothing to do with either.

  18. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: I’ve written about the Tuskegee experiment, here. If you read it, you will see that the situation is a lot more complex than that.

    It was actually later, in the postwar 1940s, that the experiment really went awry, when antibiotics that could treat syphilis became available, and yet the Tuskegee subjects never received them. That was indeed under a Democratic administration, but by that time the experiment had been going on for about fifteen years, and the protocol was never reviewed.

  19. Occam's Beard Says:

    Thanks, neo.

    Despite my simplistic take, I think the point remains: had this started under a Republican Administration, that fact would be blazened across the sky as a damning indictment (regardless of how innocuous and well-meant it was at the time).

  20. Molly NH Says:

    the dems have a huge history of racism, from the old deep south & their KKK associations to FDR, tuskeegee, & japanese internment, plus Truman was willing to drop A bombs on Asians
    right up to slick willy who never expressed even a bit of concern
    over the Rawandan genocide because those were black africans.
    MSM gives this stuff a good leaving alone.

  21. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: agreed.

    Plus, if the later failure to treat with antibiotics had happened under Republicans, that fact would have been trumpeted to the skies.

  22. Occam's Beard Says:

    For the record, I should say that I don’t fault FDR either for the Tuskegee experiment, or for interning the nisei. He doubtless was unaware of the former, and as for the latter, different times, different concerns, plus the very real possibility of nisei acting as a fifth column. (Japanese in California and Hawaii in that era commonly sent their kids back to Japan for education; they lived and worked here, but many still considered themselves Japanese. Having lived and worked as an American abroad for many years, I understand, and used to say that if my host country ever went to war against the U.S., they’d be very well-advised to intern my ass.)

    So my comment wasn’t a knock on FDR (I’ll save the knocks for Social Security), but to point out the difference in treament had a Republican done anything remotely similar.

  23. T Says:

    Just as Tina Fey’s pretend quote from Sarah Palin about seeing Russia from her house replaced the actual quote from the real Sarah, so Oliver Stone’s movies have been regarded by way too many people as factual documentaries

    I have been complaining locally about this since the early “docudrama” starring Barry Bostwick as George Washington. It is especially those with less than critical minds who walk away believing that George Washington, FDR or Sarah Palin said those things. No! As we here know, in most cases a Hollywood writer wrote those things.

    Remember the response to the premier of The Exorcist? They claim that visits to psycologists and psychiatrists increased noticeably in the short term after the movie premiered. This further reinforces the power that the optics of movies have. How many people, even of critical mind, naturally remind themselves that a movie is story-telling and nothing more?

  24. Zachriel Says:

    Occam’s Beard: Also, to see left-wing hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty in its full malignant flower, consider in whose Administration the USPHS began the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. That would be 1932 …

    And that would be the Hoover Administration.

  25. FenelonSpoke Says:

    Ed, The problem with the Lincoln Movie is perfectly expressed by the remarks made by some liberals at a Chinese Restaurant I was at. They were at another table and they had had just seen the film. I hadn’t seen it yet, but one 20 something said, “I don’t understand how Lincoln was a Republican.'” Her friend remarked. “Well, the parties shifted. It was the Southern Strategy.” I mouthed “No it wasn’t” under my breath .This is what they are taught by their education and, by golly, it’s unquestioned. They have NO idea that it was the Republicans who were responsible for all the major civil rights legislation. Just “The parties shifted” answers all their concerns and the Republicans go back to being the party of evil.

  26. Occam's Beard Says:

    And that would be the Hoover Administration.

    But it was seared, seared I tell you, into my memory.

    You’re absolutely right. Thanks for the clarification.

  27. Conrad Says:

    Filmmakers seem to think that long-dead figures from the past won’t be relatable to modern audiences unless they are given 21st century attitudes. Whoever directed the FDR movie probably figured that, since Roosevelt was known to have had at least one extramarital affair, it was therefore within the bounds of dramatic license to portray him abruptly engaging in a spontaneous sexual act in his car with a distant relative. While there’s no evidence that particular incident or relationship occurred, the director figures that modern moviegoers are accustomed to impromptu sexual encounters and so that is how FDR should likewise be portrayed in order to really drive home the point of how “human” he was.

    This is all nonsense, of course. The fact that FDR may have gotten it on with a mistress or two doesn’t justify the inference that he was Ben Roethlisberger version 1.0. We need to keep in mind that FDR came from a time and place in which sex was strictly behind closed doors. There was no Spice Channel or internet porn, or even the Starr Report. The kind of sexual encounter described in that excerpt would have been completely outrageous and therefore not at all true to his actual character.

    Most fillmakers are actually a lot more subtle about this. A favorite tactic in modern historical dramas is to show a LOT of cussing. Even “Lincoln” did this, although I thought it was otherwise great in terms of presenting us with a plausible vision of 1865 Washington. While I don’t doubt there was plenty of profanity in the old days, I think it was probably a lot less common to hear four-letter words in normal conversation. IOW, standards have decorum have changed. And that makes sense, actually, because a person 75 years ago would have NEVER heard a four-letter word uttered on the radio or in any movie, or even seen it in print. However, today’s movie directors will typically portray historical characters using bad language as if it were just as ubiquitous as it is today, simply to connect with modern audiences.

    You see this trend in other ways, too. If you look at old photos or movies, you rarely see a lady in a particularly flattering bra. In fact, a lot of women’s clothing (at least up to the 1930s) really looks bad to my “modern” eye. But Hollywood will always tailor the clothes to make the girls look great and sexy, no matter what the era. (Note: This is not a complaint.) And of course she’ll have perfect hair, makeup, and teeth, even though I would imagine it was nearly impossible for women to achieve such looks in the era being portrayed on film. Again, it’s more important to the filmmakers to make the characters relatable to modern audiences than it is to get the history right.

  28. Michael Adams Says:

    Lenin was especially delighted with the power of cinema. Have you seen any of the movies made in the twenties and early thirties? There was one about (what else?) tractors, specifically the coming of the tractor to the village. Silent, of course, with Russian and English subtitles. We’d call it heavy-handed. I am sure it swayed millions to the pro-Soviet and pro-tractor point of view.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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