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Rob Edelman: “Perfect” Politicians

With the election of a U.S. president much in the news, one soon-to-be-released film takes on extra-special resonance. That film is HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, which was screened at the Toronto Film Festival and is scheduled to open theatrically in December.

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON spotlights Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a moment in time during his presidency. It is June, 1939, the eve of the Second World War, and much of the story centers on what happens when Roosevelt hosts a visit to upstate New York by the King and Queen of England. But just as central to the film is the president’s relationship with Margaret Stuckley, his distant cousin. At the outset, Stuckley, who is unmarried-- back then, “spinster” was the term for women like Margaret-- is called to the Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park. Her presence allows the president to get his mind off his work. At first, he shows her his stamp collection. Then they set out on a country drive. But clearly, Roosevelt wants more from Margaret than mere companionship.

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is not a flawless film. Far from it. Its narrative is a bit thin and, given its subject matter, it could have been far more compelling. But it is worth a look for several reasons, one of which is Bill Murray’s impersonation of FDR. Once you become acclimated to his presence and performance, Murray is a pleasure to watch.

But more importantly, perhaps, is the film’s take on FDR. He is introduced as one of America’s great presidents: a man who brims with self-confidence, and who refuses to let the polio that has crippled him hinder his approach to his duties. Most significant of all, he is a politician who is honest in his dealings with the public. This FDR does not lie. At one point early on, he poses a question that is well-worth pondering. And that is: “Why can’t politicians just be honest?” 

However, as a human being, Roosevelt is not unblemished. The film references his sexual affairs outside his marriage to Eleanor Roosevelt and, in particular, his intimate relationship with Stuckley, who is played by Laura Linney.

While watching HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, I kept thinking of Bill Clinton. Now you may agree or disagree with Clinton politically. You may think that he was a great president or a less-than-great president, but I would bet that in a brief biographical sketch of Clinton the name “Monica Lewinsky” would pop up in the first paragraph.

So the question here is: Why is it that we expect perfection in our presidents and, for that matter, in all our politicians? We demand that they be smart and honest, and we demand that they be pillars of morality. Just like George Washington, they should declare, “I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.” In other words, they should be perfect human beings, and heaven help them if they are not.

Not too long ago, just after Bill Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention, I was reading coverage of the event online and was struck by a reference to Clinton as a “serial rapist.” I then googled the words “Bill Clinton serial rapist” and came up with other, similar citations. Now let us deal with the facts here. First of all, did Bill Clinton ever cheat on Hillary? Well, the evidence tell us that, yes, he did. But is he a “serial rapist?” Any fair-minded person, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, would have to say “no” to that one. Calling Clinton a “serial rapist” is absurd.

When we think of Franklin Roosevelt, we think: Great American President who led his country through a Depression and a World War. But as HYDE PARK ON HUDSON reminds us, he was not a perfect human being. He may have shared intimacies, physical or otherwise, with women who were not named Eleanor, but this in no way lessens the impact of his presidency.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.