Ken Burns Speaks About His Film 'The Roosevelts'

Theodore Roosevelt (screenshot from "The Roosevelts"/
Theodore Roosevelt (screenshot from "The Roosevelts"/
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There aren't many people who are known instantly just by their initials or nicknames. F.D.R is surely one of them. And Teddy. These Roosevelts, along with Eleanor, and their relationships to each other and our country are the subjects of a new documentary from Ken Burns, beginning its run on WVIZ/PBS on Sunday. Ideastream's Tony Ganzer spoke with Burns about his new work, and about what he hopes viewers take away from the history…

BURNS: “They’re the most important political family in American history. This family touched more Americans than any other family, so we’ve got to know who they were, and not just the superficial, conventional wisdom that comes back to us today. No one’s done it as we have, as this combined, interrelated family drama. Let’s remember: they’re all born with the last name Roosevelt, including Eleanor, and they’re intricately related, and there’s no Franklin and Eleanor without T.R. So we’ve got to understand them in context, and we’ve got to understand their central importance in American history. In some ways it’s a shock we haven’t done so before.”

GANZER: “Something interest here is that this is a family of privilege, but a common theme throughout all of their lives is this compassion for the poor, for the working class. Where does this come from?”

BURNS: “It comes, I think, or it’s first articulated by Theodore’s father, Theodore Sr., who said he had a ‘troublesome conscience,’ and was something new in the United States, which was a philanthropist, someone who donated not only his wealth, but his time—two or three days a week—to establish charitable institutions. They all believed—Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor—that we all do well, when we all do well. The issues of their day—income inequality—are the issues of our day. And if people are being forced into a lower class, or be able to collect a lot of money, the system doesn’t work for that long. It may seem great as a rich person that your bank account goes up and up and up, but until we figure out how to deal with the inequality, the lack of fairness—which is a value that every American feels—then we’re going to be lost, and we have the ultimate guide in the Roosevelts.”

GANZER: “We are in an election year, a mid-term election year, and Ohio is this battleground, this swing state now, but it was also a battleground for Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, which led to his breaking off from the Republicans. What did Ohio mean at that time, especially for Teddy?”

BURNS: “Ohio was one of the great laboratories of Progressivism, and it was so interesting, and so sad, and so poignant, that his very best friend, William Howard Taft—the person whom he had groomed to be his successor to take over in 1909—suddenly Ohio became the battleground for these Progressive ideas. And it just seems so sad, and ironic, that Ohio, the birthplace and the home of William Howard Taft, would be the place that was the most in rebellion from what seemed to be a retreat on the part of Republican party leaders from this Progressive agenda that Theodore Roosevelt had promoted, to something that was more favorable to the interests.”

GANZER: “And ultimately he created this Bull Moose Party as it was known.”

BURNS: “And he did carry Ohio in the 1912 election…that this would be the alternative. That this third party would replace what was becoming, in the eyes of Theodore Roosevelt, an increasingly corrupt—as it had once been—party, not dedicated to human rights; but also supporting the ordinary citizen—the merchant, the farmer—against those big interests. And that it had seemed to gravitate in years after the Civil War toward supporting those interests. And the Progressive party was a way to try to do what the Republican Party had done in 1856, and suggest an alternative. Now the Republicans lost in 1856. Their candidate was John C. Fremont, but four years later they had more impressive candidate in Abraham Lincoln.”

GANZER: “As I hear about the battles that were fought in the early 20th century, I feel like you’re drawing corollaries to present day. Am I projecting, or was that intentional?”

BURNS: “It’s not intentional, but it’s always going to happen. The Bible says ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’ All I need to do is engage myself honestly, and deeply in any subject and it resonated with the past. Ohio was one of the laboratories of Prohibition. And if you say ‘I made a film about single-issue political campaigns, that metastasized with terrible, unintended consequences,’ that ‘I was doing doing a film about the demonization of recent immigrant groups to the United States, about smear campaigns during Presidential election cycles, about a whole group of people who felt they had lost control of the country, and want to take it back.’ You’d say ‘Ken, what happened, I thought you were engaged in history.’ And I’d say these are only four themes that our Prohibition documentary engaged in, and of course just north of Columbus is the small town of Westerville where the Anti-Saloon League was founded, and had its headquarters. And that was the single-issue of the political campaign. And they used the wedge issue of immigration, and the smear campaigns against candidates like Al Smith, not only Catholic but wet, in those campaigns. And a lot of their actions remind people of the Tea Party. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And that tells us, I don’t have to do anything. I just tell the story, and that might give us perspective on things now. We always think, and they are, that our times are unique, but they are also governed by the patterns and habits of human behavior. The Bible says it best in Ecclesiastes: ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’”

(Text reflects an expanded version of the interview)

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