“That Swine, Roosevelt"

I always looked forward to the arrival of the latest Harvard Lampoon magazine parody to hit newsstands.  One never knew when it would show up, but tucked away among the uniformly bland issues of Time, Newsweek, and Life, there was sometimes an imposter with a lookalike cover, an identical typeface, and the same layout and institutional prose style, full of familiar content that was bent just slightly out of shape.

If a reader failed to notice the words “Harvard Lampoon Parody” printed almost microscopically above the title, it was possible to flip through three or four pages before some little detail gave away the secret that it was all a gigantic put-on.  Perhaps it would be an item in the TV listings,  alerting viewers to a vintage production of Shaw’s Man and Superman, starring George Reeves as Superman, or the movie version of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, with Lee Marvin leading a team of commandos on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.  Or it might be the news contained in the list of best-selling fiction, that Arthur Hailey’s latest follow-up to Airport, and Hotel was a hefty potboiler called Parking Lot.  Or that among the most popular non-fiction titles vying for the top spot, was a volume of revisionist history called That Swine, Roosevelt.

The latter title seemed hilariously unlikely.  I knew only the basics about FDR, that he had been elected president four times, saw America through the Great Depression and World War II, and was an exalted figure whose image was stamped on the dimes in my pocket that I planned to spend on comic books.  This was my first inkling that there was such a thing as revisionist history, although the process of toppling plaster saints had been going on for a while.

One of the earliest Western heroes to take a tumble may have been George Armstrong Custer, although the process of demythologizing him had to wait for the death of Mrs. Custer, the keeper of the flame.  After her husband’s disastrous defeat at Little Big Horn, Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer dedicated the rest of her life to the zealous protection of her husband’s reputation.  Since she lived to be ninety, dying in 1933, it was not until 1934 that Frederic F. Van de Water dared to publish his Glory-Hunter: A Life of General Custer.  Despite occasional efforts at rehabilitation, Custer’s stock continued to drop until, by the 1970’s, America's martyr in buckskin, whose gallant last stand had once decorated tavern walls across America, could be reduced to a jabbering vainglorious madman in Arthur Penn's epic film, Little Big Man.

The 70’s were dangerous years in the cinema for Western icons.  1971’s Doc starred Harris Yulin as a sociopathic assassin Wyatt Earp, who may or may not have had romantic designs on Doc Holliday (Stacy Keach).  It was perhaps the inevitable result of Frank Waters’ 1961 screed, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, another case of a book that waited to be published until a widow died, in this case Virgil Earp’s widow, Alvira Sullivan Earp, the purported source of Frank Waters’ distateful revelations.

Although he offered little evidence, except for conversations he supposedly had with a woman who was now dead (When give a peek at the manuscript, Allie had reportedly denounced it as “a pack of lies” and threatened to shoot Waters), his book established a view of Wyatt Earp as a bully, a con-man, the head of a criminal family and a band of stagecoach bandits.  Waters apparently dreamed that his book would become a motion picture, but Doc was as close as Hollywood ever came to basing a shooting-script on The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, proving that verteran screenwriters were every bit as skilled at making up unsavory fiction as Frank Waters was.

Even legendary Westerner William F. Cody did not make it out of the 1970’s unscathed.  Robert Altman’s 1976 film of Arthur Kopit’s play Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, portrayed the great scout as a guilt-ridden blowhard with hair extensions and a resumé that had been extensively padded by his press agent.  Cody’s star had been fading since at least the 1940’s when Hollywood director William Wellman began research for his biopic, Buffalo Bill, starring Joel McCrea.  Wellman believed he had found enough holes in Cody’s autobiography to put him off filming a biography as he had first intended.  Briefly tempted to turn it into a celluloid exposé, he wound up giving the script a completely fictional makeover, designed to appeal to kids.  Interviewed by film critic Richard Schickel for his 1973 series, Men Who Made the Movies, Wellman was still fuming, denouncing William “Buffalo Bill” Cody as a complete fraud.

Was Cody a blowhard and a fraud?  While he was completely unashamed about playing up his exploits, historians have now discovered primary evidence showing that William F. Cody did just about everything he claimed.  He was a superb scout, a Medal-of-Honor winner who took part in sixteen battles, and sometimes seemed to wander the Plains with a permanently blood-stained bandana wrapped around his head.  He was also a brilliant showman who treated the Indians in his employ with fairness and great respect.  It’s a shame no one ever made that movie.

Wyatt Earp has also come through a spate of character assassination with much of his reputation restored.  We know that, far from being regarded by contemporaries as the murdering, stagecoach-robbing villain of Frank Waters’ imagination, by the standards of his time he was respected as a fearless, efficient and honest lawman.  He was rougher around the edges than Stuart Lake dared to admit in his 1931 Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, but the rough edges only seemed to make Wyatt more human and more colorful.  The romantic entanglements which Lake carefully kept under wraps, added zest to his story when it was brought out of the shadows for the 1993 film Tombstone.

Recently, even Custer has come in for a more even-handed re-evaluation.  In The Last Stand, Nathaniel Philbrick portrays him as complicated and ambitious, full of contradictions, but a soldier to the core.  He adored his wife, but struggled to remain faithful to her.  He was a teetotaler, yet also an habitual gambler.  He was a demanding commander who made his troops feel important, except for the ones who eagerly deserted.  His junior officer corps was divided into camps who either adored him or hated him and wanted to see him fail.  Handed a dirty, perhaps even an impossible task, he would see it through at any cost.

No one has yet brought out a volume labeling FDR a swine, but his flirtations and marital infidelities have been cataloged, and the legacy of his economic policies regularly come under fire from the sort of persons you might expect to despise them.  George F. Will looks at a 1937 spike in unemployment as a sign that FDR actually prolonged the Great Depression by trying to do something about it.  George F. Will may hope that we see his bow ties and spectacles as marks of intelligence, but he is clearly an idiot.

My grandfather, who once considered Franklin Delano Roosevelt a “dangerous socialist,” later changed his mind, agreeing that he had saved the country, had seen us through the war, and had been right about everything.  Anyone who could change my grandfather’s mind and get him to admit that he had been wrong, was not only a great man and a great president, but had accomplished the first miracle on his way toward sainthood.                 

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com