What Happened to the Roosevelts?
In any case, it should have been true: that when Joe Kennedy’s bomber exploded in midair, the officer in the trailing plane flying through the fragments and the fireball was none other than Elliott Roosevelt. That, in the last year of World War II, the son of America’s 32nd president was eyewitness to the death of the brother of the 35th. At least one biographer thinks that Colonel Roosevelt fudged the details: that he was safe on the ground, and the real eyewitness was a flier under his command. But it’s a story that lingers, because it’s a story founded in family. Christopher Buckley called it an “Iliad-level detail,” and he was absolutely right, because the urge to substitute genealogy for history is an ancient one. We love our known quantities; we love our characters whose names are a compressed story in themselves.
And, taking the long view, we’ve loved those things much longer than we’ve tried to practice democracy. Maybe that appeal explains why democracy produces dynasties fairly consistently—but even so, the dynastic and democratic mindsets are at odds. The former promises all the appeals of celebrity, spectatorship, certainty. The latter means impersonality, interest groups, movements, “institutionalized uncertainty”—things that are simply harder to narrate. It’s no wonder that politics is so often told as a story of Kennedys or Bushes or Clintons (or, if we live elsewhere, of Trudeaus or Gandhis or Xis). It’s no wonder that Ken Burns’s just-aired documentary epic on the Roosevelts, which many of us are still watching on TiVo, was pitched to us as “An Intimate History”—the story of a family.
Yet it’s one of that history’s puzzles that a political family that looked poised at mid-century to pass from success to success instead fizzled and failed. And it is one of that history’s ironies that the great beneficiary of dynastic politics, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also left behind one of the sharpest critiques of dynasties in American life. Even as he reaped the rewards of a famous name, no one spoke for the dignity of the democratic mindset like FDR did. As we head toward what may be yet another dynasty-driven election in an era of deep inequality, it’s worth remembering that message—and the Roosevelt family’s consequential failures. It’s worth asking: Whatever happened to the Roosevelts? Why did their political dynasty fade, while others—the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Bushes—thrived? ...