A first lady who remains loved and hated

PBS: `American Experience' tells the heroic and heartbreaking story of Eleanor Roosevelt.

January 10, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Like a certain current first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was alternately admired and excoriated. Though loved and respected by many for her tireless championing of minorities and the disadvantaged, she was also despised for, in many people's minds, sticking her nose in places it had no business being.

She was even investigated by the FBI -- her file covers more than 3,000 pages -- and once had a bounty placed on her head by the Ku Klux Klan.

Whether Hillary Rodham Clinton will ever warrant an "American Experience" documentary as loving and laudatory as tonight's "Eleanor Roosevelt," only history can decide. Perhaps it will come down to one question: Did she make a difference?

Writer-director Sue Williams certainly believes Roosevelt did, and not just because she served as her husband's legs during his 12 years in the White House. The Eleanor Roosevelt that emerges tonight is a master politician -- at a time when women were largely excluded from the political process -- who benefited greatly from never holding elected office.

That peculiar combination left her both free to speak her mind and able to play the political game with an expertise that astonished the men who consistently underestimated her.

Born on Oct. 11, 1884, Eleanor was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt (Franklin, whom she would marry in 1905, was a distant cousin). Awkward and unattractive, she was shunned by her beautiful mother, but doted on by her father, an alcoholic with a penchant for abandoning his family. None of which overly bothered his daughter, who adored him and was shattered by his early death.

In the dashing Franklin, Eleanor thought she had found another man to be her soulmate. "He was young and gay and good-looking," Eleanor said. "I was young and shy and awkward, and thrilled when he asked me to dance."

Her visions of wedded bliss imploded, however, when Eleanor discovered that Franklin had a mistress. Tonight's film is at its most quietly eloquent when describing the affair, illustrating it with a picture of a smiling Eleanor and Franklin wrapped in each other's arms. The realization that she'd never know such joy again must have broken Eleanor's heart, just as it will break the hearts of viewers.

Still, the Roosevelts made for a formidable pair when it came to politics. A rising star in the Democratic Party (he had been its 1920 vice presidential candidate), Franklin's career seemed over when he contracted polio in 1921 and lost the use of his legs.

But Eleanor, whose friendship with many learned women of the time had bolstered her self-confidence and shaped her world-view, helped keep her husband's political ship afloat.

As first lady, she championed both civil rights and economic reform. When singer Marian Anderson was refused use of the DAR's Constitution Hall for a performance, Eleanor resigned from the organization and arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. And she continually prodded FDR to do more for the poor, especially after she toured several impoverished sections of Appalachia.

Eleanor's unceasing activism for social reform continues to rankle many conservatives, who will doubtless be disgusted by tonight's depiction of her as a heroic figure. Her trips on behalf of the poor during the 1930s, conservative columnist William Rusher sniffs in a recent interview, was the "political equivalent of the housewife's desire to redecorate."

Eleanor Roosevelt's reputation only grew after FDR's death in 1945; by the time of her own death 17 years later, she had served as the U.S. delegate to the first meeting of the United Nations, chaired the committee that drafted the organization's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and routinely emerged in polls as the most admired woman in the world.

`The American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt'

When: 9-11: 30 tonight

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

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