DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Documentarian Ken Burns Talks the Roosevelts - Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor

Ken Burns (on right) talks history, film, and the Roosevelts
Most historians would agree that both Roosevelts - Teddy and Franklin - should be ranked in the top 10 White House presidents in American history. But, with the current relentless 24/7 news cycle and the shrill, political cacophony of social media, could either man be elected today?

To renowned director Ken Burns, who describes himself as a historian who uses film to tell his stories, the answer is a resounding no.

"I think Teddy would have been (emotionally) too hot. He would have had his Iowa Howard Dean moment and we never would have heard from him again. And I don't think a cripple confined to a wheelchair could get out of the Iowa caucuses. And that is a disastrous," Burns says.

The director offered concluding remarks this week at a seminar on Inequality Begins at Birth: Child Poverty in America, sponsored by the Century Foundation's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative, the Roosevelt Institute, and the America Pediatric Association.

His remarks followed a viewing of selected clips from his latest documentary on Teddy, Franklin, and FDR's wife, Eleanor, which will be aired for 7 consecutive nights on PBS this September.

Burns said that all 3 of the Roosevelts had appeared individually in many of his previous documentaries, but now he wanted to tell the interconnected story of all 3 in his latest endeavor.

"These were great people, but they were imperfect in personal lives and they were imperfect in their political lives," Burns said, noting that it is the dualities of good and bad and success and failure in all of us that make for great story telling. ""Achilles was a great hero, but he had his heel and he had his hubris," Burns noted.

Burns thought that the greatest attribute of all 3 Roosevelts was their ability to connect to the common people, despite the fact that each had been born into great wealth. "They were to the manor born, but they were willing to go down. All 3 had a willingness to swim upstream and betray their class."

Not surprisingly, Burns said it is important for all of us to study history to gain perspective on our own times. "There really is nothing new under the sun," he said. "The idea of what is the role of government resonates in our times. "(Examining) history gives a chance to mitigate our own over-reactions and restore our confidence.

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