Sold-out Sunday show features former Mary Tyler Moore Show staple

by: COURTESY PHOTO: PACIFIC UNIVERSITY - Actor Ed Asner portrays President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a sold-out, one-man show at Pacific University Sunday. He was the leader to bring us through the darkness, said Asner, who lived through the Great Depression and World War II with Roosevelt at the countrys helm.Ed Asner was 15 years old on April 12, 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s last day on earth.

“I was a sophomore in high school when he died and I felt the floor had been removed from under me,” Asner remembers. “How do you exist without Roosevelt? I regarded him as God the Savior.”

Asner is a longtime actor whose popularity stretches from the 1970s, when he played Lou Grant, the crusty news editor on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, to 2009, when he voiced the — yes, crusty — old man in the Pixar movie, “Up.”

But Asner’s most recent gig is playing one of his boyhood heroes: FDR. His one-man show at Pacific University this Sunday sold out two days ago. But Asner spoke with the News-Times about Roosevelt, the show — and some surprises he found in the script.

“I certainly was not that heavily aware of his sexual activity,” Asner said. “The fact that he had a mistress at one time (Lucy Mercer) that endangered his marriage, and that he finally came to an agreement with Eleanor (his wife) that absented her from his bed but still allowed her to be First Lady.”

The show doesn’t explore rumors of Eleanor being bisexual or lesbian, Asner said, but makes it clear that in this case, Roosevelt is “the guilty party.”

The affair wasn’t Roosevelt’s only dicey move.

In 1937, frustrated by a conservative Supreme Court that kept blocking his New Deal reforms, the President tried to add as many as six new seats and pack the court with liberal supporters, but Congress rejected the idea. “It was the first sign he could be stopped,” Asner said. Shortly afterward, one justice retired and a few others began approving some of Roosevelt's policies.

Those policies included unemployment benefits, a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, union recognition, overtime pay and more — "all great progressive advances,” Asner said. 

Another huge mistake people castigate Roosevelt for is not foreseeing the attack on Pearl Harbor, Asner said. Although FDR was “well aware” the Japanese were going to try something, “he did not realize they would go for broke.”

But the rest of Roosevelt's wartime behavior was leadership — and political manipulation — at its best, Asner said, especially given that “he was working against a very isolationist country."

Roosevelt believed that if America followed its isolationist tendencies and left Hitler alone, the Fuhrer would eventually step across the water and attack after he conquered all of Europe, Asner said: "He wanted us involved and armed before that.”

Roosevelt started the draft, a highly controversial law that passed Congress "by one vote" when it was up for renewal the second year, Asner said.

And he found ways to work around America's arms embargo and send weaponry to the United Kingdom. “It certainly kept England going and allowed her to win the Battle of Britain,” Asner noted.

The pain of World War II and Roosevelt’s role still flares today, Asner said, as a recent New York Times op-ed piece blamed him for not doing enough to save Jews from the Holocaust.

The Times responded with an editorial pointing out that the U.S. under Roosevelt saved more Jews than anyone in the world during that time, said Asner.

Back in the 1940s, Asner said, “this was an anti-Semitic country. He could not make that many advances to favoring Jews without exacerbating the anti-Semitic feeling that was already here.”

Roosevelt's other great time of leadership was during the Great Depression, when he instituted a huge stimulus program.

“There was a time, I believe, in ‘37 when they tried to hold back some of the economic boosting that had been going on to fight the depression — and that made it worse,” Asner said. Roosevelt tried unsuccessfully to start the stimulus back up again. “Then preparation for the war in industry began and overcame the mistake,” Asner said.

All of Roosevelt’s acts during the Great Depression repaired the infrastructure of the country and put people to work, Asner said. “Gave them hope. And that was the main item for sale. The hope worked.”

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