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Ken Burns captures complicated portraits of ‘high-voltage’ Roosevelts

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight: a conversation with Ken Burns about his latest effort to bring history alive.

    Margaret Warner has the story.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You think you know them, three icons from one extended patrician family, all ambitious, Teddy, the boisterous rough rider and Western adventurer who used the bully pulpit as a Republican president to press social reform, Franklin Delano, elected president as a Democrat during America’s worst economic depression, who took America to war and died before it ended, the nation’s longest-serving president ever, despite being afflicted by polio all his adult life, and Eleanor, Teddy’s favorite niece and FDR’s wife, who broke the mold to create the modern first lady, a liberal champion of civil and human rights and a U.S. delegate to the United Nations.

    They shaped America’s transformation during the first half of the 20th century, but do you really know them?  Now you can through a sweeping new documentary series, “The Roosevelts,” produced by Ken Burns, airing this week on most PBS stations.

    I spoke with Ken Burns yesterday at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C.

    Ken Burns, thank you for joining us.

  • KEN BURNS, Producer, “The Roosevelts”:

    It’s my pleasure.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, all three of these historical figures have been the subject of major books on each alone.

  • KEN BURNS:

    Yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What made you think of pulling them all together like this?

  • KEN BURNS:

    Well, it seems now, in retrospect, so obvious. They’re — all three people belong to the same family. This is an intricate family drama, that they’re exponentially more interesting when they’re interrelated and you understand how they’re interrelated.

    There is no Franklin and no Eleanor without Theodore. He’s the precursor. And I think we have segregated them into separate silos because Theodore is a Republican and Franklin is a Democrat, and we think there is no connection. Well, there’s more things that they’re similar than the differences.

    And they’re both progressives within their own parties. And so there is a continuum that you can see. And the internal drama, the family drama, the tensions within each person and between these people is so spectacular that it sheds new light and gives you fresh perspective on the events we think we know.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And what do you think, of all the similarities, what’s the most consequential?

  • KEN BURNS:

    I think the single most consequential thing is, they all felt, and they came to it in our own way, that we all do well when we all do well. They were all to the manor born. They could have spent their lives in idle.

    But they didn’t. They felt an obligation to do something. And it wasn’t just adding their money to things. It was adding their lives, their sacred honor to this cause. And what was the cause?  It was sort of leveling the playing field.

    They really felt that government had to be a kind of countervailing force against what was hugely large industry and an inability of workers and ordinary people to have a voice in that equation, that government could help balance the scale. All of us are the beneficiaries.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, what do you think, though?  They each suffered from afflictions, not just physical, emotional, psychological…

  • KEN BURNS:

    Mental, yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    … that cripple many other people, I mean, just stymie them for life.

    Did you see a common thread in what enabled them to either — did they do it by transcending it, sublimating it or turning them into strengths?

  • KEN BURNS:

    They each dealt with stuff in different ways. And all of it had to do in some ways sublimating it.

    Franklin Roosevelt has that opacity. He’s absolutely — everything is fine, no matter the fact that he can never walk again in his life. He has the same enthusiasm and confidence he had when he was a little boy. Theodore Roosevelt is trying to escape the demons. He’s always running faster than those demons.

    And Eleanor is very much like that, but she’s also saying, get up every day and do something that you don’t want to do. It’s facing your fears. And that’s what all of them did in a way. And they did it in an active way that they instilled confidence in others.

    And when you think about, say, even just Eleanor Roosevelt, who shouldn’t have even survived her childhood, to be not only of the moment, but to understand our future, what the issues were, of race, of poverty, of children, of health, of women, of immigrants, of labor, all of these things that are still the front page of our discussion today, and she was doing it more than half-a-century ago.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, one of our Facebook communities sent in a question today asking you, what was the most amazing sort of revelation that came to you in the course of this project?

  • KEN BURNS:

    I think, in the end, as much as I love Theodore and Eleanor, it’s understanding what Franklin Roosevelt was actually going through.

    Now, normally, we say, he got polio and then the press turned off the cameras, so the American public didn’t see him. We get into a discussion of press discretion, but we don’t understand that, from the summer of 1921 until he’s elected president of the United States in November of ’32 and inaugurated in March of ’33, this is one of the most incredible passages.

    It’s like being out in the desert for Christ. It is an amazing transformation of trying to will his body back, a body that would never take another step again unaided, but able to come back. And when we think about it, that he was able to lift us through two of the greatest crises that we have ever felt, certainly the great — certainly the great — two greatest crises since the Civil War, the Depression and World War II, and he couldn’t life himself up.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, they weren’t saints. They all had flaws.

  • KEN BURNS:

    Yes. And that’s hugely important to remember.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How did they transcend those or how did they deal with those?

  • KEN BURNS:

    I don’t think you do.

    We live in an age, a media culture which says, if this person isn’t perfect, they’re no longer a hero. And we lament the absence of heroes. But the Greeks defined heroism as the negotiation between a person’s strengths and weaknesses. Achilles had his heel and his hubris.

    And so I think it’s not so much that they transcend it. It’s just a very interesting negotiation, sometimes a war within these volatile, high-voltage individuals, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, that’s so interesting to watch.

    They never mastered — and Franklin was so opaque and so devious and manipulative. And Eleanor could be at times frustratingly naive and just sort of certain about things. And T.R. is unstable in many ways, loves war, pushes his sons close to war, with the most horrible, tragic consequences in World War I.

    And yet — and yet each one of them, on balance, made an extraordinary, positive contribution. And I think the lesson for us today is stop being so absolute. Let’s not be the moralist, but let’s be able to hold intention, a person’s strengths and their weaknesses, and make a much more sophisticated judgment or come to a much more sophisticated understanding of who our leaders are and what they’re capable of.

    And then the Roosevelts, for all the good things they did do, they will have done a second thing, which is remind us about what human beings are really like.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    A final thought on yourself as a filmmaker.

    All of your 26 documentaries have dealt with American culture, American themes. Why is that?  What is it about the American saga that so fascinates you?

  • KEN BURNS:

    I love my country. I don’t know anyone who loves their country more.

    And I’m curious about how it ticks. I think I have made the same film over and over again, and we’re asking this question, who are we?  Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?  And I feel like a mechanic. You lift up the hood, you see how this thing works, how it’s not working.

    And it’s not so much that you want to proselytize. It’s not so much that you want to put your thumb on the scale and judge. You want to go, this is. Understanding the past gives you a chance to actually have a future.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Ken Burns, thank you, and congratulations.

  • KEN BURNS:

    Thank you. My pleasure.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Margaret also asked Ken if he thought the Roosevelts could flourish in today’s political climate. Watch that part of the conversation online on the Rundown.

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