Adoring in its tone and curiously erratic in its content, tonight's biography of Eleanor Roosevelt on "The American Experience," airing at 9 on Channel 26, demonstrates that terminal earnestness can undermine the effectiveness of even the finest documentary series on television.
It's not that the 2 1/2-hour story of America's longest-serving first lady is unwatchable or even uninstructive. How could Eleanor Roosevelt be anything but provocative? It's just that filmmakers Sue Williams and Kathryn Dietz seem determined to drain the blood from one of history's most intriguing and enigmatic public figures with a narrative--and a narration--that could anesthetize an insomniac.
Moreover, Williams and Dietz try to give the nation's famously chinless social conscience with the quavery voice a revisionist make-over into a 1990s-style feminist. This is as historically fraudulent as the efforts of the animal rights activists who banned her famous fur piece from her statue in West Potomac Park.
Eleanor Roosevelt was most definitely a feminist, arguably the most famous and effective one in history. But unlike so many who invoke her name today, she repeatedly and pointedly rejected the concept and the rhetoric of victimhood. Noticeably missing from Williams and Dietz's portrait of her is her famous declaration (delivered to an audience of black women) that "no one can make you feel inferior without your own consent."
Williams and Dietz do their best to paint her as a victim, and they certainly have plenty to work with. Despite her family's wealth and social position (she was Theodore Roosevelt's niece), she was barely tolerated by her mother, who would have preferred a beauty and died when Eleanor was 8, and adored only by her rakehell father, who drank himself to death two years later.
She was farmed out to a grandmother in a mansion populated by two drunken uncles given to firing off weaponry on the premises. When she reached the nubile stage she was exiled to a progressive boarding school in England, which proved her salvation. It was run by an independent-minded French woman who injected her aristocratic young charges with the imperatives of noblesse oblige. The well-bred girl was to be useful as well as decorative, and use both her brains and her femininity as a force for social justice. It was an indoctrination Eleanor Roosevelt never forgot.
Once back home, her passion for reform captivated her handsome and politically ambitious cousin Franklin. He had seen little of life but estates and country clubs: She showed him tenements and slums. "I didn't know human beings lived like this," he said, and one of the great political alliances of the 20th century was born.
Williams and Dietz are far better at detailing their subject's troubled personal life than providing the historical context for her political career, and they seem to see nothing astounding about a first lady in the 1930s having a live-in lesbian as her White House confidante. Or having at least one hotel rendezvous with a student leftist half her age. Or making commercial endorsements for mattresses and margarine.
However crucial and courageous her stands for racial justice and other human rights, Eleanor Roosevelt was often a loose cannon whose political and personal indiscretions were as astounding as her relentless energy. Her husband, with all his astonishing achievements, was hardly more judicious, ultimately dying in the company of a former mistress he had promised never to see again. It is instructive to contemplate today how much of all this the press of the time either actively covered up or showed no interest in pursuing.
In fact, the Roosevelts in the White House were so dysfunctional a married couple that they make the Clintons look like June and Ward Cleaver. But so effectively--if uniquely--did they function as a governmental unit that they may well have saved both the American experiment in democracy and its capitalist economy.
Williams and Dietz convey little sense of the bitter disdain Eleanor Roosevelt aroused among anti-New Dealers, or of the cruelty and obscenity of the jokes they circulated at her expense. The closest thing to political criticism of her on the program is voiced by publisher William Rusher, whose father supported FDR's 1936 opponent, Alf Landon. Rusher remembers her being seen as "someone who viewed the world as one vast slum project . . . tut-tutting . . . and insisting that something must be done. She seemed to have a large political equivalent of a housewife's desire to redecorate."
Rusher is one of many generally insightful friends and relatives offering remembrances of Eleanor Roosevelt and showing how very much she deserved the title of the world's most admired woman. But the list is noteworthy for at least two voices never heard. Neither "American Experience" host David McCullough nor Doris Kearns Goodwin, both important Roosevelt biographers, is interviewed, even though Goodwin's book "No Ordinary Time" is one of the best recent portraits of the Roosevelts during the years of World War II. McCullough, who usually narrates the best of the "American Experience" programs, is replaced on "Eleanor Roosevelt" by the lifeless voice of actress Alfre Woodard. No offense, Ms. Woodard, but you're no David McCullough.
Finally--and inevitably--the program begs comparison between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, with whom she's often compared. The question is even suggested in press kit accompaniments to the advance tape. Williams describes Eleanor as "a woman who loved power"--a major misreading of the Roosevelt life and writings. Eleanor Roosevelt neither loved nor sought power for itself: it was always as a means to furthering social justice. All her life she was uncertain of herself, but she was absolutely certain about her beliefs. Isn't the hallmark of Hillary Clinton--like much of her generation--just the reverse?
CAPTION: PBS documents the life of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt tonight at 9.