Prominent among this fall’s television offerings was “The Roosevelts,” produced by Ken Burns for PBS, providing 14 hours about the lives and careers of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Taken together, or individually, they made enormous impressions upon life in this country. Theodore Roosevelt was president from 1901 to 1909. Franklin Roosevelt was President from 1933 to 1945, the longest presidential tenure in U.S. history. Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore’s niece and Franklin’s wife, by any historical measure was the most influential, engaged and controversial first lady in history.
They were Episcopalians, but they all intersected in many ways with the Catholic Church, with Catholic leaders and with ordinary Catholic citizens.
Theodore Roosevelt’s connections with Catholics came as he served in public office, especially as president. Politically, he was a Republican, but he was his own man. In fact, as New York’s governor, he annoyed the leaders of the state’s Republican machine. Somebody suggested that the way to get him out of the limelight was to press for his nomination as vice president on President William McKinley’s re-election ticket. Then, as almost always in U.S. history, vice presidents were not political powers.
It seemed to work for a while after the McKinley-Roosevelt victory. Then, McKinley was assassinated, and instantly Roosevelt was the most powerful person in the country. He set his sights on improving the lives of ordinary people, many of them Catholics, openly allying himself with Catholic bishops and others demanding rights for workers.
Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, Theodore’s distant cousin, also came from privilege and plenty. However, he surrounded himself not with fellow New York socialites but with the little people, often poor Catholic immigrants or children of Catholic immigrants.
Elected to the White House in a landslide in 1932, re-elected in a greater landslide in 1936, and then comfortably re-elected in 1940 and 1944, he named dozens of Catholics to high government positions and to the courts. Before him, Catholics as often as not lost such appointments because they were Catholics. He established an American presence at the Vatican, forerunner of the future U.S. embassy. His policies clicked with Catholics.
High-ranking Catholic bishops such as Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York, Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago, and up-and-coming Auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Spellman of Boston, and many others, hurried to claim him as a friend. When a Detroit priest with a national radio ministry began to denounce Roosevelt, the Vatican ordered that the priest get off the air. No other president has deliberately cultivated — and acquired — such important ties with Catholics at all levels.
Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife, had a more mixed relationship with Catholics. She easily associated with Catholics. Yet, her championing of certain social causes left many Catholics nervous.
After her husband’s death, she got into a dispute with by then New York Cardinal Francis Spellman about parochial versus public schools. He made the mistake of criticizing her personally rather than arguing the point. Urged by dismayed important Catholics, he tried to apologize. Accustomed to controversy, and always seeing the big picture, she would not allow him to humiliate himself and turned his attempt at an abject apology into a friendly conversation about the good old days.
Keep this in mind if you watch the series. The two Presidents Roosevelt very much affected the lives of American Catholics — then and even now.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.