Book review: "Roosevelts" illustrates progressive dynasty

373 Incline.jpg
The Seventh Avenue Incline rail line in Duluth was a sometimes harrowing but always spectacular ride connecting the downtown lakeshore to the top of the Central Hillside. The streetcar line was shut down in 1939.

"The Roosevelts: An Intimate History"

Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

Knopf, 503 pages, $60

This is a must for the library of political junkies -- well, of left-leaning political junkies. You might think that Teddy Roosevelt's Republican credentials would give it a place in the library of right-leaning readers also, but TR is hardly a Republican icon. He was a giant of progressive politics and inadvertently made Woodrow Wilson a great president. Some today would say he was RINO -- Republican in Name Only -- but in fact in the early 20th century, Republicans came in all shapes and sizes, in various political stripes. Theodore Roosevelt came from the progressive wing of the party, which of course would be anathema today.

That's among the pleasures of this book and of the PBS series that spawned it -- it draws a direct line from Teddy Roosevelt's domestic policies and muscular view of the United States in global affairs to FDR's leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. Though the authors tend to paint young Franklin Roosevelt as a shallow, sycophantic admirer of Uncle Teddy, they give the relationship more attention than other biographers, with Eleanor Roosevelt being a connecting link.


It's impossible to tell FDR's story without a complete accounting of Eleanor's amazing life and her personal accomplishments, but at least in this print version of the PBS documentary, it seems disproportionate to sandwich her biography in between those of two of America's greatest presidents.

If you've read a lot about the Roosevelts, you won't find much new information here, and most of the photos are familiar. The documentary, which aired last summer, was more interesting; if you know Burns' earlier work, it was a pleasure to see his favorite on-air scholars again. But the print version is a beautifully crafted portrait of three modern American giants.


"Twin Ports by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Duluth-Superior"

Aaron Isaacs

University of Minnesota Press, 352 pages, $39.95

"There is no other American city quite like Duluth," Isaacs writes in the opening lines of this richly illustrated history of the Twin Ports. Chock full of photos, train schedules and ridership data, it documents the vital role that streetcars played in building the city.

The high point of the streetcar system, literally, was one of the grandest structures in Minnesota, the Incline rail line that took passengers from the waterfront to the top of the hillside, with its glorious view of Lake Superior and St. Louis Bay. The Seventh Avenue Incline went into service in 1891 and was shut down in 1939. Just imagine if it was still there -- it would be a thrill ride better than any at Valleyfair and a tourist draw like no other in the Midwest. Instead, all that's left is a bowling alley called the Incline Station at the bottom of the route.


Not unlike "The Roosevelts'" treatment of Eleanor, the book includes some material on Superior but it's mainly about the Zenith City, with amazing photos of freighters, storms and the incredible architecture of Duluth in its glory days.

"Twin Ports by Trolley" is a sequel to a similar book on the Twin Cities streetcar system. At a time when the metro area is spending billions to build a light rail system and when even Rochester is looking at a trolley system, it's both relevant and a wistful look at what we had not so long ago, before the auto industry took over and we tore up all the tracks.

FDR in 1937, pretty much as he appeared three years earlier when he visited Rochester and took a ride in an open car with the Mayo brothers.

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