Inspiring 'FDR' reveals public and private man

October 11, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"FDR" is sublime.

The 4 1/2 -hour biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which begins at 9 tonight on PBS, could be the best nonfiction, or dTC "reality," program you will see all year.

It's that good.

It does much that is daring, and even more that is revealing and touching. Best of all, it never sentimentalizes its subject.

For starters, it tackles without apology the great lie of the Roosevelt presidency -- that the president was not really paralyzed or physically helpless.

In fact, he was. With no hip muscles, Roosevelt could have been blown over by a sudden breeze, says host David McCullough. Roosevelt could not walk; he could not even stand unaided -- though the news reel films and newspaper pictures of the day suggested he could.

The program painstakingly shows -- through film, still pictures and interviews with Roosevelt biographers, Secret Service agents and medical doctors -- that only through incredible stage-managing was it possible for Roosevelt to appear in public. Aides would be carefully positioned to hold him up, and entrances and exits were meticulously mapped so that his reliance on the strength of others was masqueraded. "FDR" includes an interview with Roosevelt's physical therapist, who talks about helping Roosevelt create the great illusion that the president could walk.

As Roosevelt once told Orson Welles, "Orson, you and I are the two greatest actors in the country."

The performance was necessary, says McCullough, because Roosevelt was convinced the country would never elect as president someone who was paralyzed.

"FDR" shows us the private man as well as the public one. Through a bevy of biographers, it explores the eight years when a 39-year-old Roosevelt dropped out of sight after he was diagnosed with polio.

It is not a period most historical accounts concentrate on, but it's a fascinating one during which Roosevelt mainly swam, drank and played the ukulele while living on his houseboat off the Florida coast.

Eleanor was invited down, but it was during this period that she started her own life mainly independent of her husband.

Speculation that Eleanor Roosevelt was gay or had lesbian relationships is not explored in "FDR." It does, however, show home movies featuring her friends, some of whom were called "new women" and lived together as couples.

This is a grand and detailed look at two people who used loss, despair and illness to unexpectedly transform themselves into larger, better people. It's an intimate look at the two people behind the public figures -- complex, in some ways tortured, and, in so many more ways, inspiring.

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