What is it with the great liberal presidents and their women? It’s not that FDR’s cheating ways were a secret. His affair with his secretary Lucy Mercer was a key catalyst for Eleanor’s rise to greatness as a first lady who transcended both the office and her presidential spouse. Certainly there are shades of the Clintons here. But FDR’s first big affair is not the central story of Hyde Park on Hudson. Instead, we’re introduced to the story—fictionalized here, but apparently plausible based on the evidence—of his seduction of his distant cousin Daisy. She, not unlike the innocent viewer, stumbles into a romance that can only be understood as such by someone who is entirely naïve about the ways of the world. Since the romance isn’t a romance but rather an instance of a charming but old man putting the moves on a much younger woman who’s not really in a position to resist. There’s one kind of movie in that story line, but enfolding it into another movie that’s full of the kind of misty-eyed nostalgia that Americans have for the Great Depression and World War II era makes for an odd mix. The movie tries to resolve these two stories by suggesting that we must understand how hard it was for FDR to take care of everyone. Democracy, after all, is not the same as monarchy which is why FDR gets to play father figure to the poor old King of England who stutters and lets himself be henpecked. In the end, FDR must bear the burden of keeping up not just the spirits of the Americans as they slog through the Depression, but of the entire free world as the Nazi threat draws nigh. In Hyde Park on Hudson, the re-creation of FDR doing his jaunty cigarette-holder smile photo makes it clear just how hard that magic act was on the worn down and physically incapacitated president.
And so the women fall for it. Recently in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan wrote about her ongoing romance with JFK. Like any good co-dependent girlfriend, she describes herself as constantly backsliding. She swears him off, calls herself a fool, and then it happens: she looks at the pictures of Kennedy with little John John and Caroline again. And in a flash the player-in-chief disappears. Even after reading the most recent Kennedy mistress tell-all, in which it becomes clear that very little was sacred to the President, Flanagan falls for him again. “Let him have the girls, I thought; he could handle the girls and still put in an ace performance as Father of the Century.”
What does showing FDR’s creepy old man side do for a very different, if no less beloved, icon of the twentieth-century? In the key scene of HPoH, when he puts his country cousin Daisy’s hand on his knee, we are directed to focus on the age spots and wrinkles of that hand. FDR is not just the national father figure, he’s the national grandfather except, of course, for the rather notable absence of any children in the movie. They’re substituted by the adults, who sometimes act like children and play strange little games with each other. The women seem caught in a particularly sad situation. The best thing anyone finds to say about Eleanor is that she’s “realistic;” Mrs. Roosevelt (FDR’s mother) is in denial even as she plays the procuress; the queen is anxious and hopelessly uptight; the secretary is fated to die; and Daisy herself realizes that her choices boil down to servicing the president or getting on her knees to help her aging mother put her stockings on. And so it’s odd that the film ends happily. England is saved, the King eats his hot dog (and likes it!), and the harem plays bridge together. Only poor old FDR is left isolated and debilitated, his heroic service to the nation soon to be rewarded with a deadly stroke. There may be some psychological truth to this but it leaves one wishing for the rather different presidential woman that Laura Linney played so memorably in another role. Abigail Adams would have set Daisy straight.