Roosevelt, Roosevelts, PH
There’s Roosevelt Avenue in Quezon City and there’s Roosevelt St. in Greenhills, one of many streets named after US presidents.
I’ve always thought of those street names as being part of the colonial hangover. Yet I’m sure an overwhelming majority of residents in those streets and avenue wouldn’t know there were two Roosevelts who became US presidents, and during crucial periods in Philippine history.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was the US president from 1901 to 1909, the first decade of American colonial occupation of the Philippines, while Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) was president from 1933 to 1945, overlapping with our Commonwealth era and into the Japanese wartime occupation.
(An aside here: the streets in Quezon City and Greenhills don’t indicate a first name or initials, so we don’t know who they’re named after.)
Under the Americans for half a century, our history is deeply intertwined with the United States’, and I’d like to see Filipino social scientists exploring the ways that shared history, including US presidents, have shaped our national policies and directions.
I thought about all this while watching seven episodes, each almost two hours, of “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” on Netflix. It was through “The Roosevelts” that I learned, and I’m going to use initials now, that TR (Theodore Roosevelt) and FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) were fifth cousins. Ken Burns’ documentary series also featured FDR’s wife, Eleanor, who was also his fifth cousin but one generation down, Eleanor being TR’s niece. All in the family — we Filipinos love figuring out who’s related to whom, horizontally and vertically.
Intrigued, I looked up more information on the Roosevelts. I’m going to do two columns about them, not one for each of the presidents but one for the men and another for the women, because I was so struck by the gender factor in the Roosevelt clan, an important reminder of how gender shaped the presidencies, the United States and, possibly, the Philippines.
TR and FDR had very different politics. TR was a conservative Republican, although he was the first president to try to rein in the powerful business monopolies that rose to dominate the American economy and politics from the 19th century onward. He was also an imperialist through and through, believing that non-whites could not govern themselves. TR saw naval power as the future for the United States; as assistant secretary of the Navy during the term of President William McKinley, there can be no doubt that he pushed for annexing the Philippines in 1898 as a key to American naval and global power.
FDR was a Democrat and a liberal, remembered for his New Deal, involving heavy government intervention in the economy. Some of his important New Deal reforms—the Social Security System, regulation of the stock market, even a national minimum wage—were adopted by the Philippines after we regained our independence in 1946, although with some delays because our own politicians, influenced by American conservatives, tended to look at programs like social security as “socialist.”
While their political views were radically different, both TR and FDR were epitomes of American machismo, although with some differences.
TR suffered from asthma and depression, and throughout his life set out to prove that a person could overcome any kind of physical handicap. He fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, heading a volunteer regiment that came to be known as the Rough Riders and that popularized the image of a cowboy soldier.
FDR, on the other hand, came down at the age of 39 with a severe paralytic illness. He continued to pursue his political career, using braces to be able to stand up in public, although later in life he had to rely more on the wheelchair. Despite his handicap, he led the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. FDR is remembered for his 1933 inaugural address where he declared: “The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
FDR was known to have had at least two extramarital relationships, straining his marriage to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was loyal to the end to FDR, but who carved out her own niche and made a name for herself.
Given my focus on gender, the Roosevelts and the Philippines, I want to use another column to talk about two Roosevelt women, both of whom also have relevance for the Philippines. They are Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, an interesting woman who would probably endear herself to people in our times. Oh, she did, it seems, melt the heart of the Sultan of Sulu in 1905 — but that’s for the next episode, oops, I meant column.