Correspondent John Hart doesn't announce the "theme" of tomorrow night's NBC News special, "Nothing to Fear -- The Legacy of FDR," until its conclusion, when he says the program is all about "who we were before the Roosevelt years and who we became as a result of them."
That thesis is only toyed with in the program, at 10 tomorrow on Channel 4; it remains Regulation Network Doc for the most part. We hear the familiar FDR quotes -- "nothing to fear," "rendezvous with destiny" and all that -- and see him swimming at Warm Springs with children, the better to distract the public eye from the polio that crippled him. There is also a mention of the recently revealed Oval Office bugging that FDR pioneered with the help of RCA's David Sarnoff.
But the program -- part of television's commemoration of FDR's 100th birthday -- is most absorbing when it gets to warts-and-all, recalling FDR's fondness for the expedient lie before and during World War II, his condoning of internment camps for Japanese-Americans, his cruel failure to open the golden door to European Jews fleeing Hitler's holocaust, and his stand on civil rights, which was no stand at all. The portrait depicts him as a man of private courage but feeble conviction.
He also possessed, of course, a titanic charisma, a quality so leveling that FDR was able to enter into a "gentleman's agreement" with the press not to describe or depict his infirmity. Recalls one observer, "Simply by entering a room, he could exhaust all the oxygen in it." Oddly, perhaps, there seem parallels between FDR and Ronald Reagan -- both intensely magnetic personalities, both adept media manipulators, both bags of hot air where things like balancing the budget are concerned, both carriers of the arrogance of wealth.
One description of FDR sounds extremely applicable to the current president: "a second-rate mentality and a first-rate personality."
There are some inventive touches to the documentary, such as an interview with a woman tenant-farmer who was in a famous Walker Evans Depression-era photograph. But producer Anthony Potter's style is rather dull, and the program does not seem the product of a particularly lively and vital news organization.