Ken Burns. Still from The National Parks: America's Best Idea. Courtesy of Ken Burns.

Q&A: Ken Burns on The Roosevelts

Ken Burns talks to FrontRow about The Roosevelts, Henry James, and why he'll never make a documentary about Burma.

Ken Burns’ sweeping new documentary on the Roosevelt family covers a century in the lives of one of America’s most powerful clans. It’s told in a way that almost seems obvious, until you realize that it hasn’t really been attempted in this manner before. Over fourteen hours, Burns weaves together the lives of President Theodore, First Lady Eleanor, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, highlighting the significance of each family branch to the other. More importantly, he hints at how this triumvirate still impacts our world today.

I sat down with Burns last week for a chat about the new documentary. My favorite moment is when I bring up Eleanor Roosevelt’s old friend, Gore Vidal, and Burns dismisses the author’s take on Teddy Roosevelt. I quote the title of Vidal’s essay, “Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy,” and Burns immediately shoots down the sentiment. Attaining that firsthand insight on who Burns does and doesn’t take seriously on certain historical matters was a privilege.

FrontRow: Why do you think that nobody had thought to previously tie the Roosevelt family narrative together like you did? Is there an author who inspired you, or who you felt came close to doing that?

Ken Burns: My longtime collaborator, Geoffrey Ward—who has written many of the scripts for our series like the Civil War, co-authored with me; and Baseball, co-authored with me; Jazz, the Second World War, this script–is himself the author of two books on the early life of Franklin Roosevelt. He and I had been talking about doing something on Franklin and then later on all three, because we realized the interrelated nature of it.

I think it’s just that we live in an era where we’ve got so much information, that we superimpose a kind of superficial conventional wisdom. We assume that because Franklin was a Democrat and Theodore was a Republican that they must be incredibly different, so therefore they are standalone considerations. And most of the books about them … there are tons on Theodore, there are tons on Franklin, some on Franklin and Eleanor, some on Eleanor—but, we said “Wait a second, they were all born with the last name ‘Roosevelt.’ This is an intertwined drama.” What happens is that when you do combine them, it’s exponentially more dramatic than if you did them as standalone, because they’re now connected. You understand things that Theodore says in Episode 1 about being frustrated with the courts, and then by Episode 5 Franklin Roosevelt is trying to pack the Supreme Court. You know, programs of the Progressive Party in 1912 are things that Franklin Roosevelt is able to carry out in the New Deal. Both have a relationship to wars: Commanders in Chief, and the living link between them is Eleanor Roosevelt. I mean it’s just a story unparalleled and it seemed sort of “duh.” [Laughter] You know, it was sitting out there and why isolate these things when combined together, it’s like why have one scoop of ice cream when you can have three?

FR: Not everyone bought into Theodore Roosevelt’s tough guy image. How much of it was political theater? Gore Vidal refers to him as a “sissy with a gun” in one particular essay. Henry James also seemed to have a less than stellar opinion. 

KB: Let’s pull Gore Vidal out, because Gore Vidal never knew him. Henry James did know him. TR used to complain that he had no great crisis when he was president. There are many people like Henry James who thought he was the crisis. A lot of it has to do with the bluster, a lot of it has to do with this notion, this sort of old romantic notion that war is good for men. I think he was really that way. I don’t think this was an act. But it has some consequences, and we have to be very careful. George Will points out in our film that we have to look at TR with clear eyes. When you think about somebody who is promoting war; who is thrilled to go off to the Spanish–American War; disappointed that he didn’t get a disfiguring wound; lobbying for the Congressional Medal of Honor, which you do not do in the military. And also, very proud of the fact—to the horror of the Army—that his regiment had the most number of casualties. This just did not sit well, and then later on he pushed his own family, four sons, into combat in World War I with unspeakable, horrible, tragic consequences for one of those boys. When you think about, as George Will says in the film, what the 20th Century would become, this is not a good thing. He’s unstable in that way. I don’t think it’s a fraud. He was authentic and that’s why people loved him. But part of that authentic TR is him thinking that war is a pretty good, fun thing. We see that in our own environment. Every answer to many politicians, every solution, is to go to war.

Football season is underway and Teddy Roosevelt is considered someone who helped reform the game after a large amount of injuries. His role is disputed by historians as to how significant he was, but do you have any insight on that?

No. We talked about it and thought about it early on, but we felt that we had many more important fish to fry with regard to that. Not that we weren’t dealing with intimate and smaller things. For me, there wasn’t enough critical mass to say, “Okay, and he pioneered this aspect of college football that permitted it to go on and have a life.”

He was a college guy so obviously he liked football and both the Roosevelts did. Franklin took Eleanor to the Harvard/Yale game; it was part of their courtship, and they took a stroll along the Charles later on. So sports was part of it, and they were both extraordinarily athletic, until of course aged 39, stopped being athletic altogether.

FR: Right. Had FDR lived to see the atom bomb actually used, do you think it would have changed the public perception of him? 

KB: Not at all. No, no, no. In fact, he’s the one who—warned by Albert Einstein that the Germans were going to attempt to do this—accelerated the Manhattan project and made it happen. There’s no question he would have used it. The calculus, it’s very interesting as Monday morning quarterbacking to look back and say, “Oh, this was not a good thing. Harry Truman didn’t really ….” All the thinking was: At that moment the first atomic bomb was dropped, there were 292,000 combat deaths; about 408,[thousand] total deaths, including accidents and missing people in World War II. They were assuming that 500,000 Americans more would die in the taking of Japan. And on top of that, there would be 7 or 8 million Japanese who would die during that reconquering of Japan. So the atomic bombs, over the course of a few days, the two that were dropped killed maybe 250,000 people in total. If you were faced as the Commander-in-Chief with 8 1/2, 9 million people vs 250,000, I think you’d always take the latter. It’s a terrible political calculus; military calculus as well, but was one I don’t think Franklin Roosevelt would have hesitated in doing.

FR: Do you think Eleanor gets the appropriate credit for her role? She’s, of course, going to have the fewest books written about her. When you are working on a project like this, is it your hope to have an effect on those instances?

KB: We don’t want to try to put our thumb on the scale, but I don’t think you could ever oversell Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s, first of all, a testament to the human spirit. She should not have emerged from her childhood alive, and she did. She became the most consequential First Lady, and arguably the most consequential woman in American history. I don’t think we understand and give her credit. She was dismissed as being naive. She did have the luxury of not having constituents so she didn’t have to play a political game, and a very complicated, dynamic, political game that her husband had to do—having control of both houses but having very conservative democrats in the Senate and the House serving as committee chairmen, and having to negotiate a very progressive agenda. She could just be that progressive agenda, far out ahead of him in pure idealism. I think that gave people a sense that she was sort of impractical. In comparison to a practical politician—yes, of course. But she—if you were a minority, you were a laborer, if you were not what most Americans thought an American should look like, a recent immigrant, if you were an interned Japanese, if you were somebody who was just trying to survive—she was interested in you, and she was your most passionate advocate. It’s good to have that around.

There are values that Americans have and different political parties have different values, but the thing that we all have in common is a concern for people less fortunate and a sense of fairness. What all three [Roosevelts] did, and particularly the two Presidents, was perceive that there was huge income disparity and that the rich were essentially controlling the mechanics of government, and that that was anti-democratic. It wasn’t what the Constitution and it wasn’t what the Declaration was about, and they were trying to find a level playing field in which the ordinary working guy could be on the same footing as the rich and the powerful. Now, that’s never going to happen in the long run, but they did their best in their day and time to make sure that that was at least more level. Eleanor was right there, fighting with them.

FR: How was the Roosevelt family established originally? 

KB: They had emigrated from Holland and came to the United States in steerage—or the 17th Century equivalent of 19th Century steerage—and made their fortunes in plate-glass windows and Caribbean sugar and Manhattan real estate. They were established, and 200 years is a long time. They were definitely old money, and aristocracy. They had married, and inter-married, and gone off, and there were several branches of the family. It’s interesting that the important Roosevelts were all born in Manhattan, but they’re known for where they spent their summers, which was Oyster Bay, for Theodore Roosevelt’s side of the family; and Hyde Park on the Hudson, for Franklin’s side. They would see each other at family reunions periodically—Franklin knew Eleanor, and Eleanor knew Franklin when they were little kids from various things. But it wasn’t until later that he merged the two branches by proposing to her.

FR: Where does the political split come between those two branches?

KB: If you’re living in New York City and you’re part of a wealthy class, you’re probably a Republican. That was a party that was trying to level that playing field. That’s what Abraham Lincoln wanted to do, not just with slavery, but the idea that the Democrats represented the interests of the perpetuation of wealth. And James, Mr. James [Roosevelt I] was essentially an old aristocrat who still hung to a Democratic tradition, hadn’t joined the new Republican Party in 1856, and clung to the sort of Jacksonian model. It was at that point the exact reverse of today. The Republicans were, at least initially, around the time of the Civil War, looking to try to level these things out, to say that the rich shouldn’t have an undue influence on legislative and governmental affairs. Then they forgot that in the rush after the Civil War, and Roosevelt represents a progressive movement within the Republican Party to bring it back. Meanwhile, there’s a progressive movement in the Democratic Party because they’re not just old and conservative and southern. They’re now attracting immigrants, and African-Americans, and others, and so they’re now beginning to have to reflect that. So, there’s a progressive wing of the Democratic Party, too. Franklin represents that, and it’s that wing that’s still operative within the Democratic Party. And the Republican Party has all but disappeared, that kind of progressive wing.

FR: You’ve covered American iconography to the point where you have become a sort of icon. Would you attempt a history of Burma or something similar, if the money made it possible?

KB: No, because I could have gone to the money a long, long time ago, 35 or 40 years ago, and didn’t. I’ve stayed in public television because I want to be able to look you in the eye and say that if you don’t like my film, it’s all my fault. Not because somebody didn’t give us this or they wouldn’t let me use this or all the constraints that other filmmakers often say. I’m hopelessly parochial. I’m interested in American history and if I had a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of really interesting topics in American history. So, Burma is not on the table.

FR: Obviously you’ve worked with stars in various pieces. When you’re dealing with someone like Paul Giamatti or Meryl Streep, do you get involved with directing their cadence? 

KB: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Paul and I worked a long time to get the voice of TR. With Meryl, we had given her several quotes of Eleanor’s so she could hear her voice, and when she came in, then I’m just centering. She’s the greatest actor of our generation and my job is made pretty easy when she says “yes.” She knocks it out of the park. I think her performance off-camera is equal to or better than her Oscar-winning performance as Maggie Thatcher. She’s amazing; it blew our minds. The first time ever Jeff Ward has, in 32 years of working together, come into a studio and looked and the first time she opened her mouth his eyes filled with tears. All of a sudden, these words that have just been type on a page are suddenly are alive and breathing and informed with all of the spirit of Eleanor without being mimicry. She really gets an essence of who she was and I love that. I’ve had the great, good fortune and I’m not seeking celebrities, I’m seeking people who are good. It so happens those are the people I’ve worked with—Tom Hanks in the past; Paul Giamatti; Meryl Streep; the late Julie Harris; many, many other people. In this film we have the late Eli Wallach, we have Ed Harris, John Lithgow, Patricia Clarkson—who is wonderful as Daisy Suckley, Franklin’s distant cousin who was his sort of best friend at the end, the last twenty years of his life. They’re all amazing people who bring it to life and are very generous with their time and their talents and so we benefit from those people. I’ve also used folks in my own hometown: Littleton Village in New Hampshire, where I’ve lived for the last 35 years—kids in theater programs; old men with Yankee accents; housewives with beautiful voices. Whatever works.

FR: Have you spent much time in Dallas? 

Yeah, I come here two or three times a year. In fact we’ve got a nonprofit that was founded by people interested in seeing my work go on called The Better Angels Society, after Lincoln’s first inaugural when he’s appealing to “the better angels of our nature.” Many of the founding board members are from Dallas—Bill Lively, Cappy McGarr. Many of our strongest contributors—the File Foundation—are from the Dallas area and we’ve had enormous support here. I’m here often to see them and to talk to others, and I’m very excited about how generous Dallas has been.

The first two-hour episode of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History airs Sunday at 7 pm (CST) on PBS. 

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