Q&A: Ken Burns on Roosevelts at Center of History for a Century

The documentarian discusses his latest work, which tells the story of Franklin, Teddy, and Eleanor.

The century between 1858 and 1962 transformed America and shaped the modern world. The first national parks and the Panama Canal were created, the Great Depression gave way to the New Deal, two World Wars were waged, and civil and human rights came to the fore. And at the center of it all was one family.

As president from 1901 to 1909, Theodore Roosevelt expanded the government, reformed the economy, and helped the United States emerge as a world power.

His fifth cousin, Franklin, presided from 1933 to 1945, restoring American confidence after the Depression, leading the country into and out of the Second World War, and improving working standards and wages.

And Eleanor, the wife of FDR and niece of Teddy, changed the First Lady's role forever by promoting equality for women and minorities and championing a host of progressive causes.

Now Ken Burns is telling all three tales in one documentary: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Tracing his subjects' eventful lives and times, from Teddy's birth to Eleanor's death, the filmmaker's 29th work refracts a tumultuous century through the Roosevelts' prism.

Co-written with longtime collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward and starring name-brand actors (Paul Giamatti is the voice of Teddy, Edward Herrmann does FDR, Meryl Streep is Eleanor) and historians (Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough), the seven-part, 14-hour documentary airs on PBS for a week starting on September 14.

National Geographic recently spoke with Burns and asked him a few questions about the remarkable Roosevelts. (See Nat Geo's previous coverage of Burns's work on the Gettysburg Address, the national parks, and the Dust Bowl.)

The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to make a documentary about the Roosevelts? And why now?

All of the same themes that were present at the time of Theodore, and later Franklin and Eleanor, seem to be moving to the fore right now. Things like: What is the role of government? What does adversity in life contribute to character? And how does character shape leadership?

Also, Geoff Ward—with whom I've had a 32-year collaboration—contracted polio as a child, so he'd always been very interested in Franklin Roosevelt. And we'd always talked about doing something about the Roosevelts one day.

This is the first time their three stories have been told in a single narrative. Why do you think that is?

I'm stunned that nobody has really dealt with them this way. It may be simplistic, superficial thinking that because Theodore was a Republican and Franklin was a Democrat, they could forever be severed.

But as we point out throughout the film, there are similarities. And in many ways Franklin Roosevelt's tenure was a continuation of Theodore's.

You call this film "an intimate history," and it does seem more personal than your previous works. It also gets at a number of still-relevant issues—some of which you alluded to earlier—in an implicit way. Was it hard to reconcile the tone with the topic, or the scale with the scope?

Not at all. This is the first time we've done a long-form, major-length series about individuals, not about things like baseball or jazz or the Civil War. It's sort of like a Russian novel—taking one family and understanding their interrelationships.

But this isn't psychobabble or tabloid history. Nor does it neglect the outer events—the Gilded Age, the World War I era, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

They're all there. But you see them from a less familiar, more interesting perspective than you're used to.

You can also see the dynamism of the interior lives of these people coexisting with the larger, top-down version of history. This is inside-out history.

Did your views on any of the Roosevelts change during or after making the film? Were there any surprises or revelations?

It was a constant revelation. I never make films about stuff I know, and then tell you what you should know. Last time I checked that's called homework.

Each of the Roosevelts both rose in my eyes but also fell.

Franklin Roosevelt is, without a doubt, the greatest president of the 20th century. And even though I'm a Lincoln guy, he lives up to Lincoln in my eyes.

But you have to be perturbed by his opacity, his deviousness, his inability to show the world who he truly was. With the exception of Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, his cousin with whom he had—up until recent years—a very secret relationship, it's been hard to get a lot of dimension out of his personality.

Eleanor is just a miracle. She shouldn't have survived through a difficult childhood. She was orphaned at the age of ten and subjected to all sorts of horrible tragedies. And yet she remade herself—not only out of that tragedy but also out of the tragedy that her husband had betrayed her with Lucy Mercer, her own social secretary—into the most consequential First Lady, and arguably the most consequential woman, in American history.

And Teddy was, as they said at the time, a steam locomotive in trousers—a force of nature who never stopped trying to outrun his demons.

He's the only genius we've ever had as president. And yet he also thought war is a good thing. He pushed his own sons not just to war but to combat, with tragic, unspeakable consequences.

Part of the drama of all of their lives is that they were deeply flawed and deeply wounded. But they were also incredibly amazing human beings who figured out how to help their fellow citizens. That's an amazing generosity for people who were to the manor born and could have led idle lives.

The Roosevelts were a patrician family that worked on behalf of poor Americans. Would that happen today?

It has happened. The current president has been the champion of people who feel like they've lost their voice.

There are so many similarities, the current media chatter notwithstanding. Not just the debate about what the role of government is. You could also look at the Affordable Care Act as the crowning achievement that neither Theodore nor Franklin was ever to achieve. Both wanted national health care.

I think if Theodore came back he'd say, "What? It took you a hundred years from when I tried to get health care? Are you guys out of your mind?"

I think also, for both of these presidents, words mattered. They cared about speeches and communicating with people.

Looking at these three figures with the benefit of hindsight, what do you think they each got right? And what did they get wrong?

When I made a series on the national parks, we interviewed Stewart Udall, the late secretary of the interior. And he said that Theodore Roosevelt had "distance in his eyes." I love that phrase, which I took to mean that he could see over the horizon and into the future.

I think all three Roosevelts had distance in their eyes. Particularly Eleanor, who was liberated from having to serve a specific electorate and could focus herself on the real issues. She understood the issues of the day—race, poverty, labor, immigration, health—in a way that her pragmatic husband couldn't, because he was dealing with the acute crisis of the Depression and then later trying to redirect his country's energies toward a coming war with Europe and the Japanese.

And I think Franklin is simply the greatest president of the 20th century. So what more could you ask?

Would the Roosevelts be electable, or even highly influential, if they were alive today?

I'm very sorry to say—and it really casts a horrible shadow on our present superficial media culture—that I don't think so.

Eleanor did not have the telegenic good looks that TV requires of a candidate. Theodore would be too hot for the cool medium of television. He would have ten "Howard Dean moments" a day.

And obviously Franklin, in his wheelchair, would be considered too infirm. I think people would say, "How could this person confined to a wheelchair possibly have the stamina to get us through any crisis?" Well, Franklin handled the two greatest crises since the Civil War—the Depression and World War II—thank you very much.

Have there been any Rooseveltian figures in politics or public life since FDR?

I think the most obvious one is Lyndon Johnson. He was a New Deal baby, and he fashioned his War on Poverty and his Great Society—which included the landmark legislations of Medicare and Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act—on the accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt.

I know that Bill Clinton probably fancies himself Rooseveltian, though I'm not sure how much he was able to accomplish. But his relationship with his wife reminds many people of the complicated dynamics between Franklin and Eleanor.

Why do you call Eleanor Roosevelt the most "consequential" First Lady.

First Ladies were expected to bake cookies and remodel the White House and raise their kids and take a decorous, ceremonial role. And she did anything but.

She became the eyes, the ears, and the conscience of the Roosevelt Administration, goading her husband on things like Japanese internment and immigration and child labor and health and women and racial issues. No First Lady has ever gone as far as she did.

And it's a testament to her that after she was out of office, after her husband died and she was a citizen again, she continued to campaign tirelessly on all of the things she wanted, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she basically shepherded through from beginning to end.

I've heard you're working on several other films now. What are they, and when will we see them?

Next spring I'm serving as the executive producer and co-writer on a three-part, six-hour series called The Emperor of All Maladies, about the history of cancer.

I'm also working on a biography of Jackie Robinson, and I'm in the editing room for a massive series—ten parts, 18 1/2 hours—on the history of the Vietnam War.

I'm also in the middle of shooting a massive series, I Can't Stop Loving You, about country music. And I've begun shooting a film on the life of Ernest Hemingway.

Bonus question: Last time we spoke, I asked you about other filmmakers co-opting the "Ken Burns Effect." I understand that there's new video-editing software that lets you pan and zoom over a still image with a single button.

There always has been, actually. It's a highly simplified version of what I've done over the years as I've tried to figure out ways to wake up static, still images. Because, you know, that's what I do.

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