On visiting my old hometown last week, I had the good fortune to meet an old teacher of mine. She was at the hospital for the birth of her granddaughter, accompanied by her own mother, a spirited nonagenarian. A discussion of our delight at the serendipitous meeting — I had probably not seen this retired teacher and librarian in 15 years — suddenly and unexpectedly turned to the sorry state of the world, the incipient rise of socialism, and the unfortunate career of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a youth, my teacher had plumped for Goldwater in the 1960s, and her venerable mother recalled her own father railing against the “dictator” Roosevelt back in the 1930s. The world was going in a baleful direction — in fact, conditions were even worse today than in the Depression — and the implicit parallel between our current socialist President and the Democratic icon of the mid-twentieth century could not have been clearer.
How is it that FDR inspires such strong partisan reactions today, almost seventy years after he died in office? I remember Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 campaign website was adorned with images of the 32nd president in a kind of hokey Democratic kitsch, conjuring fidelity to a shopworn liberal faith that is only slightly mustier than the nonstop deification of Reagan by conservatives. FDR imagery continues to appear widely in the literature and iconography of the labor movement, on and offline — his thoughts on economic democracy provide nourishment to sympathizers of the Left in a time of renewed class war, and, arguably, Barack Obama’s campaign that caricatured Mitt Romney as a heartless, greedy, Gordon Gekko-like plutocrat was perhaps the most populist Democratic electoral crusade since 1936. Many might have liked Obama to take a harder edge against “economic royalists” than he did, but the fact that the campaign was fought over images of wealth, equity, fairness, and men with monocles and top hats is a remarkable thing in an American political culture that reflexively disdains “class war” as the impudent and embarrassing harassment of the rich by the poor.
With the release of Roger Michell’s new film Hyde Park on Hudson, we get a unique take on America’s longest-serving president. I have not yet had the opportunity to see the film, and my immediate reaction upon seeing the trailer was a queasy curiosity. Bill Murray as FDR? Aristocrats cavorting around the Poughkeepsie hinterland, drinking champagne while snooty Brits turn up their noses at hot dogs? Is this idea awesome or awful? In a way, it seemed like a refreshing alternative to the Great Man commanding the levers of power in a time of war or revolution, portraying the president in a more relaxed and bucolic setting. On the other hand, the trailer seems to smack of syrupy sweetness and soft focus. Bill Murray appears to be completing the last leg of his trip to critical respectability, from the cynical, slacker comic genius of the 1970s and 1980s to the has-been who made Larger than Life and Space Jam, and on to his remarkable rebirth as the star of Rushmore and Broken Flowers. But could Herman Blume and Steve Zissou really be FDR?
As improbable as it sounds, Murray appears to come surprisingly close to a certain image of FDR — the laughing aristocrat with a cigarette in his cigarette holder, possessing a joie de vivre and knowing insight. This is the scion of privilege who championed working people and the poor, who created the modern welfare state, defeated fascism, and shouldered the burdens of the presidency for 12 years despite his physical struggles. That such a man loomed over the politics of the twentieth century so heavily, to the extent that US historiography routinely employs the “rise and fall of the New Deal order/coalition” as its defining trope (even when disputing the trope), and Reagan’s ushering in of a new conservative order is still seen as essentially a response to FDR, leaves him a remarkably challenging and elusive figure to understand. Aristocrat and social democrat, abuser of civil liberties and champion of labor, perpetual image of governmental overreach and liberal hero — FDR represents all these things, even as historians and other observers have struggled to comprehend his true nature (Richard Hofstadter called him the “patrician as opportunist,” while Oliver Wendell Holmes appreciated FDR’s political genius with a back-handed compliment: “a second class intellect but a first class temperament”). A future film might be made about our current aloof, vaguely populist, and widely reviled president, deducing his own remote and inscrutable inner motives.
Despite his elusive character, FDR has often been portrayed in popular culture many times over the years. He even has a “character” page on IMDB. There was, of course, the classic nod to the former president in Seinfeld, in which Franklin Delano Romanowksi was a hot dog vendor, among Kramer’s eccentric friends and part of the universe of bizarrely New York characters that populated the sitcom. In the BBC’s 2008 docudrama, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors, FDR was portrayed by Bob Gunton, who is perhaps best known as the evil warden in The Shawshank Redemption. In a 2005 TV movie, FDR was improbably played by Kenneth Branagh, alongside an equally miscast Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor Roosevelt. The same year a “tongue-in-cheek musical comedy adaptation” of the 1930s film Reefer Madness was produced, with Alan Cumming in the role of FDR (as well as “goat man”). FDR had been previously portrayed in TV movies by Robert Vaughn in 1983 and the great Jason Robards in 1980. He was even played in a voice role by conservative hero Charlton Heston in a 1960s TV miniseries. FDR’s earliest appearances were in a handful of films released during his time in office, when he was simply included as “President Roosevelt” — including the Three Stooges’ 1937 Cash and Carry.
In reviewing FDR’s cinematic career, it appears that there have been many TV movies about him but no theatrical release entirely devoted to his character or story — until now. That fact alone might make Hyde Park on Hudson worth seeing. It is striking that a man frequently regarded as one of the three or four best presidents has been denied the attention that Lincoln, JFK, and Nixon have all received from filmmakers — and that the attention, when it does come, takes the form that it does. Most scholars tend to rank Washington, Lincoln, and FDR as our greatest presidents, and the first two elicit little dispute. Washington, lacking many ideas or initiatives of his own, serves as a blank screen for projecting whatever we want on him, a responsible steward who set the nation on a solid path. Lincoln saved the Union and steered it through a crisis of democracy and revolution, paying ultimately with his life — while he may have been a highly controversial figure in his time, and some may still question some of his decisions (as the recent debate about Steven Spielberg’s film revealed), there are few today who care to dispute the wisdom of preserving the integrity of the country and ending slavery. FDR, alone among the triad of great presidents, remains a still-partisan figure. Not as polarizing as LBJ, Reagan, Dubya, or Obama, but still tinged with doubt — a sort of asterisk next to his achievements as father of the New Deal and other policies that some Americans continue to dislike, which retain their political relevance in debates over “debt limits,” “fiscal cliffs,” and “entitlement reforms” today. While many scholars start with the assumption that the New Deal is dead and died a long time ago — in 1968, 1972, 1980, or 1994 — it seems that FDR’s legacy is still alive and still contentious, if contemporary politics and culture are any indication.