September 17, 2014

Ken Burns blows it: Big errors on #Roosevelts

Ken Burns / Wikipedia
In short, Ken Burns has done what I feared he would do. He polished Teddy Roosevelt's apple at the expense of his successor, William Howard Taft, as part of his new documentary on TR, FDR and Eleanor. And, that's the most obvious of multiple pullings of historic punches by Burns.

I fear he'll do more when we get to FDR's presidency. (That said this is Ken Burns; see the bottom.)

Tuesday night's episode claimed, among reasons that TR decided to run again for president in 1912, that Taft backed off on tariff reform legislation and wasn't much of an environmentalist.

The reality?

Taft "backed off" on tariff reform in exchange for getting Congress to pass the 16th Amendment; meanwhile, TR deliberately refused to tackle the tariff while he was president, even though Taft, while his Secretary of War and all around confidante, had asked if he was going to do that. Taft and Interior Secretary Ballinger **legally** protected more land for watersheds within national forests than TR and Chief Forester Pinchot did with more dubious legality. And Burns knows this, because Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, a history of the Progressive Era, a surprisingly good one for her, includes all this and more, and Goodwin is one of the talking head historians he has on the documentary.

The only semi-concession Burns makes to this is to have Goodwin say that TR would have been disappointed in whomever his successor was. I even wonder if Burns would have thrown in the claim that Taft wasn't a trust-buster if more people didn't know that was false then know what Burns actually claimed about TR was false.

Also, Taft didn't always weigh 330, let alone 350, pounds, as president. He often was under 300 and at times was as low as 250 or so.

And, here's my review of that book by Goodwin:

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismThe Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's not bad overall, for being a Goodwin book. Hey, have to be honest. She's not that great, even with allowance for her being a "popular" and not an academic historian.

I learned more about Taft than TR. The main thing is that I didn't realize that he had explicitly pushed for Congress to pass the 16th Amendment to send to states, along with starting the federal corporate income tax, in exchange for accepting the flawed "lowering" of tariff rates in the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill. Willingness to tackle the tariff, let alone get this much out of it, makes him more progressive (and more courageous) than TR in some ways right there.

Second major thing I learned was more about the details behind Taft's sacking of Gifford Pinchot. Taft partially caused this by not keeping John Garfield as holdover Interior Secretary, being dithering in making this decision and not telling Garfield exactly why.

That said, most of the actual precipitating events, from Pinchot's conflicts with Garfield's replacement, Richard Ballinger, indirectly proved part of Taft's reasoning right and also show that Pinchot largely shot himself in the foot. Pinchot's replacement, plus Ballinger, actually eventually and with better legal footing, "reserved" more forest lands from private development than did TR/Pinchot/Garfield.

In essence, forest reserve issues are one of the clearest issues of TR's arbitrary nature as president. We should be glad he didn't run for a second elected term in 1908, let alone get elected in 1912. When WWI started, he probably would have become more dictatorial in waging war than Woodrow Wilson ever was.

That said, the book lacks focus. That's in part because Goodwin's trying to do too much and spread herself too thin. Having read a bio of Lincoln Steffens and other books about the muckrakers, I know that she tried to cram in too much about them.

View all my reviews

And, I'll take this as my first opportunity to review the series as well.

I'll start by noting that, on weighty matters, TR was well over 200, at just 5-8, by the time he left office, as Gore Vidal notes in a delicious sketch of the Roosevelts. Also, as Goodwin notes, Taft's wife had a stroke after he had been in office just a couple of months, which had a strong effect on him politically; she was arguably, in her brief pre-stroke time, even, the most political First Lady up to that time, with the possible exception of Julia Grant.

Vidal has this to say on the idea that TR's entry into politics was sui generis for someone of his class:
Much had been made of what a startling and original and noble thing it was for a rich young aristo to enter the sordid politics of New York State. Actually, quite a number of young men of the ruling class were going into politics, often inspired by fathers who had felt, like Theodore, Senior, that the republic could not survive so much corruption. In fact, no less a grandee than the young William Waldorf Astor had been elected to the Assembly (1877) while, right in the family, TR's Uncle Rob had served in Congress, as a Democrat. There is no evidence that Theodore went into politics with any other notion than to have an exciting time and to rise to the top. He had no theory of government. He was, simply, loyal to his class--or what he called, approvingly, "our kind." He found the Tammany politicians repellent on physical and social as well as political grounds.

Well, that's pretty obviously undercutting that idea, yes. 

It is funny to hear Vidal call TR a gun-toting sissy, but, to put it a bit differently, was he a warmonger? Yes. That said, Burns does partially cover that. But let's read Vidal on that:
As a politician-writer, Theodore Roosevelt most closely resembles Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini. Each was as much a journalist as a politician. Each was a sissy turned showoff. 
That in turn leads to the issue of, beyond being a gun-toting sissy, was TR an imperialist? Yes. And, Burns doesn't cover that. Although we didn't annex all of Panama, we did make the Canal Zone our territory. Our 1903 "treaty" with Cuba semi-imperialized that island until Castro, starting with a four-year U.S. occupation that began in 1906. TR continued the war to crush Philippine independence that started under McKinley.

First, per a Facebook friend, is 14 hours too much? Possibly; I'd like to think we could have cut to 12. Ten might be too short, but I think 12 would be good.

Second, while Paul Giamatti may have the accent of TR right, I don't think he has the full vocal dynamics right. His voice should be definitely louder and more dynamic than  Ed Hermann as FDR.

And, speaking of FDR ...

Third, the one reason from here on out I'm watching the show is to see if Burns is honest in showing just how much of the New Deal was limited to white folks, either explicitly or implicitly. Starting with Social Security, which initially excluded two classes of employees — farmers (don't forget all the black sharecroppers) and domestic servants. People who really know much about the Franklin-Eleanor dynamic know that, to the degree the New Deal did help African-Americans, it was largely at her pushing and prodding.

Related to that, and somewhat contrary to H.W. Brands' "A Traitor to His Class," I want to see if Burns portrays the New Deal as being relatively conservative, at least as compared to Upton Sinclair's EPIC and Huey Long's Share the Wealth. (And, sorry, Harry Hopkins, per the EPIC link from Wiki, but what FDR eventually got passed was not quite the same as it, let alone as Share the Wealth.) Here's EPIC:
To implement EPIC, Sinclair called for the creation of three new government agencies: the California Authority for Land (CAL), the California Authority for Production (CAP), and the California Authority for Money (CAM). CAL was to implement the plan for seizure and cultivation of unused farm lands. CAP was to do the same for idle factories. CAM meanwhile was to be used to finance CAL and CAP by issuing scrip to workers and issues bonds for the purchase of lands, factories, and machinery.

And, Huey Long was more radical yet. For that matter, Social Security didn't even, at first, come close to Frances Townsend's idea.

Fourth, FDR was also an imperialist of sorts. Look at all the Pacific island chains we took over as UN mandates, just like Britain and France after World War I with their League of Nations mandates.

FDR, while certainly better for America than Hoover, must thus also be taken with a grain or two of salt. On my third point, he got lucky to die when he did. I seriously doubt if he would have been as hasty to integrate the armed forces as Truman did. Nor (since he didn't during the Depression) would he necessarily been hasty to push for national health care. 

Fifth, and completing the circle, per another Facebook friend, maybe Burns is, in part, a middle-class, vaguely-and-politely liberalish democratic equivalent of Leni Riefenstahl in his documentary production style and thrust. Or worse.

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