The Roosevelts series aired again tonight, its fifth episode entitled "The New Deal." I have watched all five episodes so far, more out of curiosity than anything else.
As I feared from the opening night episode this past Sunday, Ken Burns failed again to recognize the success of the New Deal in bringing down unemployment to 3-4% by 1939, when one counts those doing the great public works Burns does show, which are the roads built, the rural electrification, the dams, reforesting and irrigation to produce a food basket no nation has ever achieved in the history of humanity. Burns, had he been interested, could have informed Americans in his documentary that opponents of the New Deal had successfully demanded, in the compromises of the early to mid-1930s, that those working on public works programs would still be considered "unemployed," but would be no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. This compromise with these dark forces had the effect of making the official unemployment figures worse than they were.
Instead, Burns' viewers were confused as they heard William Leuchtenberg talk of the magnificent public works across the country, and yet Burns later has the narrator talk of the New Deal failing to help many people. It is incongruous because the latter statement is simply not true. The New Deal lowered unemployment from nearly 30% in 1933 to 3-4% (depending upon the monthly snapshot) in 1939. That by any honest measure is a success.
While Burns mercifully did not allow Will or anyone else to say it, it is important to say here that it is a lie to believe that most of the New Deal programs were "make work." The work performed had use, the work performed left a legacy and the work resulted in the re-development and further development of our nation.
And really, folks, whether we build a tank for war or a library for our own town with a government program, it's a stimulus and it has value. To therefore say World War II ended the Depression is itself a misnomer, as the war was itself a continuation of government stimulus for work. Both are consistent with Keynesian economics and both are consistent with Hamilton's original vision for the nation.
Which brings us to something else: Burns let George Will AGAIN say FDR undermined the US Constitution when FDR supposedly said there were "implied" powers of the federal government. In fact, and let's emphasize the word FACT, the idea of "implied" powers was precisely set forth in the early Republic's jurisprudence of Chief Justice John Marshall in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) and M'Culloch v. Maryland (1819), and certainly Hamilton's vision of a vibrant central government was, as he reminded James Madison, based upon a view that Article 1's statement of Congressional power was not crabbed or limited--or "enumerated"--in any way whatsoever. As FDR recognized, the purpose of the federal government is to promote the arts and sciences, build roads, bridges and canals, and develop the nation's economic strength as a whole. It is 100% wrong for Will to have made that statement, yet Burns allowed Will to make it twice without refutation.
It is a shame that Burns appears forced by his corporate funders to let ignorant people such as George Will on the show to speak about FDR in general tones, while relegating those who better understood FDR, such as historians Geoffrey Ward and William Leuchtenberg, to speak only about specifics and in a more narrow way. One need not have avoided all conservatives. For example, Burns could have approached Conrad Black, who wrote the best biography of FDR with the perspective of a CEO rating another "CEO" (FDR as president), and Black would have mesmerized American audiences with his knowledge and understanding of what FDR meant to not only Americans at the time, but to the rest of the world.
The show has, nonetheless, been decent and has some good moments. For example, Burns showed tonight how nearly 85% of Christian/Catholic America opposed letting Jews from Europe into the nation, and yet FDR defied those folks as best he could to allow more German Jews to extend visas and come to America. Burns could have gone further and noted how FDR ensured that nearly 40% of German Jews came to America during the 1930s, and that FDR often used European immigration quotas to put in Jews from Europe, defying the State Department, who had powerful connections in Congress, who yelled every time FDR took action to protect Europe's Jews in the 1930s.
The Roosevelts documentary could have been so much better. It could have re-acquainted Americans with the true history of our nation, one that placed the Roosevelts within the thread that starts with Hamilton and Gallatin, and goes through Clay and Lincoln, and Carl Schurz and even Eugene Debs. Instead, Burns wanted to create a silly exceptionalism as if the Roosevelts appeared out of thin air and were a departure from the history of our nation. They were a departure from the presidents who immediately preceded them, certainly (that is, McKinley and Hoover). But they were instead a restoration of that thread of which I write. Tonight's show did, however, emphasize the importance of leadership and using again the bully pulpit as TR spoke of. Would that our current president understand that. FDR was shown visiting people in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and Burns could have shown FDR visiting dust bowl areas. FDR knew the importance of showing up where regular folks are. God bless Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.
One Brownie or Burns point in favor of the series: Burns uses Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," one of the most beautiful pieces of music from an American composer, as the show's theme song. Good for Burns on that at least!