Burns, Ward show sneak preview of ‘The Roosevelts: An Intimate History’

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward speak about the Roosevelts during the morning lecture in the Amphitheater Thursday.

On Sept. 14, PBS will begin a week of broadcasting Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward’s upcoming documentary series on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, titled “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” Broadcast in two-hour-long episodes over seven days, the 14-hour series will cover 104 years of history, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt’s birth in 1858 and ending with Eleanor Roosevelt’s death in 1962.

In their 10:45 a.m. conversation on Thursday in the Amphitheater, Burns and Ward discussed the making of the series with President Tom Becker and played 33 minutes of footage from its first three episodes.

Burns compared the themes of war in the first three morning lectures this week: of New York City against its own citizens in “The Central Park Five,” the U.S. against itself in “The Civil War” and the U.S. against Vietnam in “Vietnam.”

“Today, no wars — except those that take place within complicated psyches of three remarkable human beings,” Burns said.

The collaborative team decided to make a film about the three because, Burns said, “nothing has been done on the three of them. Nothing acknowledges this as a complex family drama about three people who were all born with the last name Roosevelt, who were all related to each other from the moment of birth.”

The lives of the Roosevelts, whom Burns called “three extraordinarily interesting people,” bring up questions of the role of government, the nature of leadership and character and the nature of heroism, he said. In a modern media culture that both defines heroism as perfection and bemoans a lack of heroes, Burns reminded the audience of the Greek definition of the hero as an individual who fought an internal war between strength and weakness.

Theodore Roosevelt, Burns said, was “one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever gotten to know in the course of my professional life. He is extraordinarily complex.”

Candice Millard, author of 2005’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, spoke in “The Roosevelts” about the melancholy that ran in the Roosevelt family. Theodore Roosevelt wrote that “black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” language that Burns said was “a 19th-century way of saying you could outrun your demons.”

The robust, energetic Theodore Roosevelt did all he could to do just that, Burns said.

“He spent his whole life outrunning his demons, and his favorite niece” — Eleanor Roosevelt — “spent her whole life outrunning her demons as well,” Burns said. “If they stopped, if they slowed down, they were overtaken by a darkness that is really interesting to watch. This is not a made-up psychobiography here.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s war-happy “bellicosity” was the result of his shame in his father, who Burns said bought a substitute in the Civil War so that he did not have to fight. Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, shot his opponents in the Spanish-American War with gusto, feeling disappointed that he did not leave with a disfiguring wound.

Considering Theodore Roosevelt’s “foolhardy” enthusiasm for battle, Burns said, “It is a great testament to his presidency — nearly two full terms — that we weren’t in any war.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s personality and presence resonated so loudly that it made him a highly influential politician in an era before film was common, Ward said.

“He simply embodied a turn-of-the-century American optimism and dynamism in an incredible way, to an incredible depth,” Ward said, recalling his own grandfather’s lifelong pride in having voted for Theodore Roosevelt and distaste for Franklin Roosevelt, who he saw as “a pale imitation of the great man.”

Ward’s father, in contrast, proudly voted for Franklin Roosevelt but saw Theodore Roosevelt as a “perennial shrill adolescent.”

“They’re both wrong,” Ward said. “These are two absolutely extraordinary, fascinating, compelling human beings. And to put them together in one film is the joy of my life.”

Burns recalled a letter that the English Romantic poet John Keats wrote about William Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” the ability to hold, in tension, opposing aspects of a person without casting judgment.

“All of us contain in ourselves these complexities and these dualities — perhaps not on the grand scale of Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt or Eleanor — but certainly we understand this,” Burns said.

Exploring this complexity through the Roosevelts’ intimate lives, Burns said, will allow audiences to make better sense of larger events, such as the Cold War, the Depression, the Gilded Age and both world wars.

The Roosevelts were born into privilege, but lived out “the flipside of the more common American story about bootstraps,” Becker said. “Here are three people who really didn’t have to do anything in life in order to be comfortable, certainly, and to enjoy themselves, and yet there’s sort of this urgency of committed action.”

Ward attributed the Roosevelts’ social conscience to Theodore Roosevelt’s father, an heir who founded the New York Orthopedic Hospital, donated large amounts of money to the Newsboys’ Lodging House and the Young Men’s Christian Association, organized the Bureau of United Charities and served as a commissioner on the New York State Board of Charities. He also served as a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History.

“I find people who don’t have to do that, and who do it, terribly admirable,” Ward said.

That ethos of “we all do well when we all do well” was not unique to the Roosevelts, Burns said. What the Roosevelts’ friends may have seen as a “troublesome conscience,” Burns said, survives in such prominent families as the Kennedys and the Bloombergs.

“Thank goodness for us that we inherited, if you will, the wealth of their generosity,” Burns said.

The Roosevelts’ wealth, however, was less important to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s respective presidential campaigns than were their character, Burns said.

“These are people who are willing to go down into the ‘lesser’ classes, get dirty and transform the political process of the United States of America,” Burns went on.

Ward agreed, adding that both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were both “consummate politicians.”

“These guys knew how to get the job done,” Ward said.


Q: Given Theodore’s sense of the sacred obligation of the wealthy — a speculative process, to be sure — but if he were alive today, and part of the political landscape, where would he most fit in?

Ken Burns: Boy, you know, it’s really unfair. He operated in a political space — he happened to be a Republican, as most men of wealth were and Northerners were in the post-Civil War years — but he found himself in the left wing of the Republican Party, committed to progressive policies that he felt his hero Abraham Lincoln’s mission had been abandoned by more commercial things. He saw the disparity. He saw the poverty, the big cities crowded with immigrants. He sought to improve that. That used to be the province of the Republican Party — in my lifetime as well. Franklin occupied a more conservative side of the Democratic Party, but one that nevertheless intersected with many of the progressive objectives. So it’s sort of a fool’s errand to say, ‘Well, we know T.R. would be a Democrat today.’ Franklin was deeply conservative in his philosophy in terms of fiscal things. We don’t think of that with regard to the New Deal, but he was, and there are things that happened in his presidency where he exhibited that kind of conservatism — and to the country’s great problem with what’s called the Roosevelt Recession in 1937. So it’s a very complicated dynamic. The lines between the parties — the Democrats were the party of the South. They are not that now. I assure you.


Geoffrey C. Ward: I just wanted to add, speculation like that is very hard, as Ken says. I think, though, that Theodore Roosevelt would be astounded that it had taken a century to get any kind of federal health care, because he called for it in 1912.

Q: What was the role of faith, religions, spirituality in the lives of the three people that you’re doing your work on here?

KB: You know, we have a line coming up in a clip tomorrow that sort of spells Franklin Roosevelt out so clearly that I hate to sort of ruin it for you tomorrow. They were Protestants, and active in that. Particularly Franklin’s father and that side of the family. They inherited, I think, a Christian obligation, not just a political and American and Republican or Democratic obligation to those less fortunate. And to fairness — remember, that’s a hallmark of both men, particularly Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas. And I think it’s rooted not only in Christian symbolism, but Christian practice.

GW: I think it was not an accident that Theodore Roosevelt called the presidency a bully pulpit. He loved to preach. And when Franklin Roosevelt took over, he said, ‘I’m going to be like my cousin Theodore. I’m going to be a preaching president.’ And I think they meant that not in any narrow sectarian sense, but in the sense that they thought they should be setting some sort of moral standards. Theodore Roosevelt especially did that. People said he was born with his mind made up. [Laughter.] He saw every political issue as, by the time he really threw himself into it, as a struggle between good and evil. And guess which side he was always on. And he was enormously successful.

Q: How did the Roosevelt family earn their money to begin with? What are the sources of the family wealth, and how did that change over time?

KB: This is a big Dutch family that came early on in the 1600s to the United States, settling in New Amsterdam. And their money was in West Indian trading, plate glass windows, sugar and then, of course, as the succeeding generations went on, finance and investment. They were all extremely comfortable with what we’d call “old money” then. It wasn’t preposterous sums of Carnegies and Mellons and Rockefellers and Astors. But older, older genteel money, we might sort of say. There were numerous occasions when you can, in the series, visit a sense of their net worth by understanding that half was put up collateral for Warm Springs. Or the possibility that if you were going to have a divorce, your mother might disinherit you. There is not the sense that it was an unlimited well from which they drew.

GW: They also, at least, the high part branch — maybe I shouldn’t talk about the high part branch today. But it was not an accident that the Vanderbilt Mansion — I don’t know if anybody has gone up the Hudson and seen that gaudy, amazing place — it was FDR’s idea to save that. And I’ve always thought it was not an accident that he really wanted people to see what vulgar money could do as opposed to his. [Audience laughter]

KB: And the contrast between that Vanderbilt Mansion and Springwood, which is quite imposing, but also modest in its construction, has that genteel shabbiness to it.

Q: So the women acquire the right to vote in the ‘20s. What was T.R.’s feeling about women in society?

GW: That’s a big one. He came to favor women’s suffrage. He ran on it in 1912, and he toyed with it before that. He had a very colorful view of the role of women, which was basically to bear children. And he made a lot of speeches — probably one here, who knows?  I don’t know — saying that for women not to bear children was as cowardly as for men not to go to war. And he really believed that. He had some very unusual views.

KB: And a lot of them were sort of inculcated by his mother. We tend to focus on the influence that his father had, but his personality is more like his mother, who was an unreconstructed Southerner, who sort of filled him with stories of the chivalry of that gallant South, pre-Civil War. And I think he came with what we would consider in a modern age, a fairly warped idea of what men and women were supposed to do in their brief passage.

Q: Do you chart the arc of change, and if so, can you describe it, of Eleanor’s insecurity in public life?

KB: This is one of our favorite characters — ever. I’ll let Geoff take this, because she is a miracle.

GW: She’s an astounding person to me. The sheer devotion she gave to the world — given that childhood, that you just had a taste of there — I mean, you can’t imagine a more emotionally arid upbringing than that. And somehow, she became this extraordinary woman, who was reviled. We all think everyone loved her. They did not. A lot of people — especially, I’m afraid, a lot of women — did not like her in her lifetime. She was a meddling, adventurous person who should stay home. There are stacks of letters at the White House: ‘Stay home.’ ‘Don’t waste gasoline.’ ‘Don’t travel around the country.’ ‘Be nicer to your husband.’ [Laughter] And somehow — there is no real explanation for it — I think she’s a miracle of the human spirit, I really do. I’ll give you one quick story. I got interested in the Roosevelts when I was very young. And I wrote her, at the age of 11, a somewhat challenging letter. Saying that I greatly admired her husband, that I couldn’t understand why he’d run for a third term. Why I wrote this letter, I have no idea. [Laughter] She answered me within a week — with a handwritten letter. And part of that is the same thing that made Theodore Roosevelt so active, which is that if she was alone, and sitting down and had nothing to do, the darkness would descend on her. So, you know, even an unknown 11 year old’s letter was worth spending time at 3 in the morning, I’m sure, answering.

KB: And let’s remember that she was, with the exception of Prohibition — which we have to give her a pass, because her father was a hopeless alcoholic, she watched her own brother for whom she felt responsible for, die in the throes of delirium. They are those drunken uncles you needed to lock the door from who were spraying buckshot — Besides Prohibition, she was right on every single issue. [Applause.] These are issues way ahead of her time, though. She is remarkable. [Applause.]

Q: Including our Women’s Club, by the way, she was a great friend of Mrs. Pennybacker in that she had the Chautauqua Women’s Club to the White House. We have a great picture of all of them. We don’t get there very often anymore. [Laugher.] So let’s go back to Theodore for a minute, and talk about the environment. Is Theodore’s relationship with John Muir treated in the overall film? What would you want to tell us about it?

KB: Well, you know, we document in our second episode his presidency. The extraordinary stewardship of the American natural resources. Not just the expansion of the national parks, not just the bravery to energetically use one of the greatest gifts the president’s ever been given, which is the Antiquities Act, to set aside not small places like Devil’s Tower or the Muir Woods, but to set aside 880,000 acres of the grandest canyon on Earth when he thought developers might be interested in mining it. But because we had covered it so extensively, the ins and outs of the relationship, of the president and Muir and Gifford Pinchot, and the difference between interior parks and national parks, saved forever as kind of sanctuaries, versus national forests, agricultural department kind of things, crops, and the tensions between them. And the Solomon-like choices, political choices as well as gut choices that T.R. had to make. We had documented so extensively in our 2009 series called “The National Parks,” that we felt we could acknowledge here, and not go into the greater detail there. So American history is a warp and woof of a lot of different stories. And we’ve gone through them in a lot of different films, we’ve done the Roosevelts in a lot of different films, but not focused entirely on them. So those of you who need the more detailed parsing of that complex relationship, we refer you to the National Parks film.

Q: Question about your process: there are several questions here about how you go about selecting your narrators and commentators. Can you tell us something about that?

KB: People say, how do you get those celebrities? And we’re not interested in their celebrity, we’re interested in whether they’re good or not. And for the last several years, we can’t imagine anyone better qualified to handle Geoff’s extraordinary prose than Peter Coyote. We’ve used other people: David McCullough, as you’ve heard earlier. We’ve had many different people, but we really enjoyed working with Peter Coyote recently. And we’ve continued, as we have for 40 years, using first-person voices to bring to life the diaries and the journals and the love letters. And you heard today Amy Madigan, who’s a terrific actor, and Paul Giamatti, who read T.R. You’ll hear tomorrow Ed Herrmann reading FDR, you’ll hear Pamela Reed as the voice of Sarah Delano Roosevelt, you’ll hear the extraordinary actress Patricia Clarkson reading Daisy Suckley, the unknown cousin of Franklin who had this incredible intimate friendship with him and correspondence that has given us, opened for us a whole new wing of our understanding of FDR. And Geoff was privileged to be at the fore of those extraordinary discoveries. And we were able to get a little-known actor named Meryl Streep to do Eleanor. [Laughter.] She’s picked not for her celebrity, but because Geoff — you’ve heard, we’ve worked together 32 years — the first time Geoff has ever come to the recording session was to hear how Ms. Streep would do Eleanor. And the first thing out of her mouth — I looked up to Geoff, and we were like, in tears. And in fact, that continued. We had academic advisors on this film, either appearing on camera as you’ve seen, like Doris or Jeff or David McCullough, but also off-camera, who advised us throughout that had, we calculated, 1,350 years of graduate, postgraduate experience in one or more of the Roosevelts and/or adjacent presidential administrations. And to a person, to see them go through an early screening of the film and see them suddenly realize mid-quote or the third quote in that that was not Eleanor, and that we had done such diligent research to have found this private recording she’d made of a letter she’d written, was just a wonder to behold. And it provoked for many of those advisers really powerful emotions. And we’ve worked with some great people: Tom Hanks, all of the other names that I mentioned. I can’t think of a film where someone’s voice had such an extraordinary contribution to making a human being as important as Eleanor Roosevelt come alive. Meryl Streep is the bee’s knees. [Applause.]

Q: So neither of you has come to the subject of the Roosevelts in a neutral sort of way. You had profound, intense kind of feelings about them. How did your feelings about the Roosevelts change over the course of this project?

GW: I’ve written about Franklin Roosevelt a lot. And I’d read a lot about Theodore Roosevelt. I must say, he’s a much more substantive person — I guess I’d shared my father’s view, initially. My father was very influential. There’s something absolutely extraordinary about him, with all his strange flaws and glitches. I really got to understand why people loved him in the way that they did. You can sort of see it in the crowd there. When he waves, those people are waving their hands back at him. But it’s not a standard greeting. It’s, ‘Oh my God, he’s here.’ He had an extraordinary power, which comes through the printed page.

KB: And he’s speaking in a Harvard, kind of upper crust accent, and he’s bespectacled, and he’s being himself, as David McCullough reminded us, and everybody loved him. It was just — I agree completely with Geoff. These are three extraordinary people. It’s the dimensions and the complexity. When he died, a police captain turned to someone at the funeral and said, “Do you remember his sister? Do you remember the fun of him?” And that’s not just a simple fun. It’s a fun on so many complex levels. It’s not that you forgive the bellicosity, it’s not that you ignore it, but you take it in. You’re forced to a generous, negative capability with Theodore Roosevelt in a way that the flaws of the other two we do not hesitate to present, that do not diminish in the same way that the flaws of Theodore do.

GW: I think all three Roosevelts, but especially the two presidents, made people feel that there was a way Americans could be, and they embodied it. There was just something about them that made you think we’ll get through whatever we’re going to get through, that we can do whatever we want.

KB: In the opening moments of the film, when you see Franklin Roosevelt say, ’10,000 years from now…’ — this is 1936 — If you can imagine 10,000 years where human beings were, the amount of change that had taken place in the 10,000 years preceding 1936, and he’s got an optimism that Americans, not just the world — God knows we haven’t blown it up before then — that the world is going to be there, and Americans are going to be there, and Americans are going to wonder what kind of government they’re getting and what kind of land they’re inheriting. I mean, I am a Lincoln man, as I hope the day before yesterday communicated to you. Franklin Roosevelt, doing this film, rose up to a kind of startling parody, and a lot of it is an optimism first feigned in trying to emulate his more famous cousin, and then one fully embraced. Geoff is absolutely right: they felt there was a way we could behave, a way we could be Americans — and it doesn’t mean you have to be a Democrat or you have to be a Republican, you have to be rich or you have to be poor — it was something that we owed each other. Theodore said it: the government was us. You and me. And we now live in an age where you have to get out of bed and make an argument for government. They not only assumed that government was good, they just wanted to make it better. And they did.


GW: I agree about both of the presidents. But I was thinking, when you were talking, we have in the film, the first Roosevelt to tell the country about Pearl Harbor was Mrs. Roosevelt, who had a radio program, a syndicated radio program, the night before her husband spoke, the night they attacked. And she ends it, in the film — and it’s in her voice, in that case, not Meryl’s — by saying, basically, ‘We’re going to get through this. We are the unconquerable people of the United States of America.’ And that — if the hair rises on the back of your neck — they had that gift, all three of them.

—Transcribed by Ryan Pait