Burns, Ward discuss dramatic history of Roosevelts



The Roosevelts were an American family like no other, from the rough-riding Theodore Roosevelt, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressing the Great Depression and then World War II while paralyzed, to his wife Eleanor, who shaped the role of the first lady and  campaigned relentlessly for human rights issues.

At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, documentarians and longtime collaborators Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward will have their first discussion on the Roosevelts and their latest film, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

The documentary spans from Theodore Roosevelt’s birth in 1858 up to Eleanor’s death in 1962, and the two morning lectures — today and Friday — will be broken down chronologically, Burns said.

“It’s a Shakespearean drama of the most complicated proportions,” he added.

This documentary is the 17th that Burns and Ward have worked on during their 32 years of collaboration. Burns said the film profiles the Roosevelts in a way never seen before because it combines the stories of all three family members.

“These are the two most muscular presidents that enlarged the office of the presidency — first Theodore and then Franklin — and they’re all related to each other,” Burns said. “And Eleanor is the most consequential first lady in history and perhaps the most consequential woman in all of American history.”

The documentary does not place the famous American family on “pedestals,” Burns said.

“They’ll be seen from their interior lives and they go through betrayals and divorces and deaths and illnesses and misfortunes, as well as the high points and that makes them very human and accessible and familiar,” he said.



“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” will be shown nightly for a full week in September on PBS. Meryl Streep, Ed Herman and Paul Giamatti  read the letters and journals of Eleanor, FDR and Theodore, respectively, Burns said.

“Since we’ve got these extraordinarily great actors reading their diaries and their journals, you get an intimate sense of who they were and that helps you understand arguably the most important 104 years of American history,” Burns said.

Ward suffered from polio when he was a child and said that he is especially proud of how, as filmmakers, they tackled the issues of FDR’s infirmities and illnesses.

“The one thing I want people to understand from this film is the incredible difficulty he had just getting through his day,” Ward said. “That’s something that tends to get glossed over in accounts of him because he didn’t let on that it bothered him.”

Ward has written three books about FDR and said that, out of all three family members, FDR is his personal favorite.

“All of them are great and fascinating and interesting and compelling in their own right, but to me he is a such an enormous figure in American history,” Ward said.

Ward said writing about FDR for his books and for the film was a “wonderful challenge” for him.

“It’s like writing about the Sphinx,” Ward said. “You never know what he’s thinking.”

Burns said that very few people fully understand the scope of FDR’s accomplishments, like handling the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II, “the two greatest crises since the Civil War,” all from the confines of his wheelchair.

“He did it as an invalid in a wheelchair, unable to walk, and I think this is an accomplishment that very few people are able to understand,” Burns said.

Ward said he realized something about the Roosevelt family as a whole that differentiates them from other political families in history.

“I think the family had an enormous sense that, because they were privileged themselves, they owed an obligation to their fellow citizens,” Ward said. “That is something you don’t see very often. As Ken likes to say, all of them wore themselves out in public service.”