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A prolific maker of historical documentaries, all for public television, Ken Burns’ films include The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball and The Brooklyn Bridge. His latest, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, limns the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, members of one of America’s most influential families. The seven-part series on PBS starts September 14. Florentine Films, Burns’ production company, has four other films in the works: Emperor of all Maladies: The Story of Cancer, Jackie Robinson, Vietnam and Country Music.

You must have enjoyed profiling three people as compelling and consequential as Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
It was great to get to know them and to spend many years doing a deep dive into their lives. I’m as proud of this film as any we’ve done. It was very satisfying—and, strangely, as famous as Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are, they seem human and familiar, not untouchable and unknowable, and you begin to realize the way in which the past resonates with today. The central question today in our political discourse, however uncivil it might be, is what is the role of government? And what is the main question facing Theodore and FDR? The role of government. As Doris Kearns Goodwin says in the film’s introduction, this is a story unmatched for its drama. And no other family in American history has touched as many lives.

You find the personal side, the humanity, behind their public lives.
It’s not finding it, it’s exposing it. That’s a huge thing, and I think too often we as filmmakers or writers superimpose [material] on our subjects. It tends to smother them. What we want to do is allow these people to think for themselves. That’s why, in addition to a third-person narration, we have first-person voices reading their letters, their journals, their diaries and memoirs, and that’s helpful. And it’s really helpful if you have Meryl Streep and Ed Herrmann and Paul Giamatti and Patricia Clarkson, as [FDR cousin] Daisy Suckley, and Ed Harris and John Lithgow and Eli Wallach and many other people reading for this family, making those people come alive. And Pamela Reed is a superb Sara Delano [FDR’s mother].

A Roosevelt was president for nearly half of the early 20th century.
Nineteen of the first 45 years, but it is less that than what they accomplished, what they did, the kind of world they set in motion. If you know anyone on the GI Bill or who has collected Social Security or is part of a labor union or survived the Depression or served in WWII [and], for example, if you take off from LaGuardia Airport or you go through the Lincoln Tunnel—all things that were a product of, or built by, the New Deal. Probably the library in your little town is a New Deal–built library.

FDR’s New Deal completely changed the government’s relationship with the American people.
Full stop. Exactly. A government that had been a kind of passive presence in people’s lives suddenly became an active force in trying to make their lives better. It is the simple slogan that [historian] Blanche Wiesen Cook says, “We all do better when we all do better.” There’s a Zen-like simplicity to that. What we’re talking about now—it’s been the mantra of the political left but the right is beginning to understand it—is that concern for the underprivileged is a value held by 100 percent of the people. Fairness is a value held by 100 percent of the people. What will we do? These are the fundamental questions that the Roosevelts were raising as well.

Did you want any theme in particular to drive the narrative?
No. We were always trying to let the material talk to us. It’s a kind of Russian novel of many intertwining threads, so it’s really about organization and structure and how you manage the beast of storytelling. It’s always just story, story, story.

Was there one quality they all shared?
They were hugely courageous people. At the heart of this is a sense of what is the nature of leadership, and what does character have to do with leadership, and how is character formed and what part does adversity play.

They each faced a lot of adversity.
We lament the fact that we don’t have any heroes. But that’s a superficial view that assumes heroism is perfection, and I don’t know any human being who’s perfect. What the Greeks have been telling us for thousands of years—and they invented heroes—is that we are a very strange combination of strength and weaknesses. It is the negotiation, sometimes the war between those strengths and weaknesses, that actually defines heroism. Achilles had his heel and his hubris. Those are two glaring flaws, one physical, one emotional/psychological, and that’s his undoing. So heroism is an interesting thing, and that’s what we tried to do, look at the life. That’s why we call it an intimate history, pleading with our culture not to treat this as a tabloid because we’re not getting into salacious rumors. What we’re doing is trying to understand who another person is. It’s ultimately impossible, but you try. That’s the human obligation.

Theodore Roosevelt seemed to reflect the spirit of our age at the turn of our century, with his gung-ho attitude about everything.
Yes, but I think it’s important also to paint a more complicated portrait, as many people do in the film, including Evan Thomas and particularly George Will, who note TR’s idea that war is a salubrious thing that we try every once in a while. You watch his delight at San Juan Hill, risking his life but also the lives of other men, and how he took the most casualties and was proud of it and was disappointed he didn’t have a disfiguring wound, and then he campaigned maniacally for the Medal of Honor. The idea that you push your own children into combat, not only into service but into combat, and lose your youngest in a dogfight over France seems a little unstable. So you could be grateful that his presidential tenure didn’t have a great crisis. All of that is offset by many sterling virtues, but I think it’s important when we ask is he reflective of the time: I suppose, but there is also his jingoistic, imperialistic, racist side, insofar as it’s the white man’s burden to try to bring order to the darker continents, and that’s troubling.

What was the origin of TR’s need for physical action?
He was a sickly child, with asthma and other ailments, and his father asked him to get active and remake his life, and he did that. That’s really a wonderful attribute of his…to outrun the demons, not only the great losses [his wife and mother died on the same day], but to outrun his early physical limitations. He remade his body and that’s something very few of us get to do.

He and Franklin and Eleanor were all patricians, yet each had this great empathy for the common man. Where did that come from?
Their circumstances suggest that they wouldn’t go into politics, wouldn’t be empathetic. They would while away the hours whittling away their fortunes. For each one it’s unique. For Theodore it’s the love of his father. Despite his glaring flaw of hiring a substitute in the Civil War, [a decision] forced on him by his wife who was a Southerner and a great Southern sympathizer, Theodore Sr. was also something new in the world, a philanthropist who devoted his fortune and his time to doing good things. He felt there was a responsibility to do good things. This is a great hallmark of the Roosevelt family and particularly of all three of them. They are bored with the mere accumulation of wealth and want to do something. They are hugely ambitious, as we say, but also think it’s beneath any man, or country, to just accumulate wealth. You have to put it into action. Mary Lasker, the great philanthropist, called money in a bank account frozen potential, and that’s what it is. And I think the Roosevelts were talking about it.

Eleanor had such an unhappy childhood—a beautiful mother who called her “granny”—and then was orphaned. But she learned that by being useful she could be loved, so I think she was ingrained with a sense of usefulness. Franklin was himself very ambitious, rather thin and not very impressive. He fell for his fifth cousin Eleanor, perhaps with a mind to make a great dynastic move, but also because she was somebody of substance. And then the polio, of course, changed him; as George Will says in the film, “When the steel went on his legs, the steel went in his soul.” That gave him an enormous empathy for other people. But I think the thing we go back to is this idea that we all do better when we all do better.

Franklin and Eleanor in 1919 with their children (from left): Anna, 13; Franklin Jr., 5; James, 12; John, 3; and Elliott, 9. A sixth child, also named Franklin Jr., died in infancy. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, NY)Was Eleanor the most progressive?
She was definitely ahead of her time. TR and the Bull Moose platform in 1912 was probably more radical than anything Franklin ever suggested. Eleanor, though, I believe is right on every subject except Prohibition, and you have to give her a pass on that—she watched her father die a horrible death of madness and alcoholism, and her younger brother, for whom she felt responsible, died in her arms in the throes of delirium tremens. She was sentenced to a childhood without her parents in a house with a drunken uncle. But with everything else—with race, with women, with Japanese internment, she saw very clearly what was happening in the world and that makes her in the end the most progressive of the three.

And a constant moral spur to her husband, which she acknowledges.
He does, too. He has to be a politician. He’s the guy who has to deal in the real world of politics. He’s trying to pass progressive legislation in a Congress with Southern conservatives, and you have to do it very carefully. He knows that he can get things passed that will help everybody, including African Americans. But maybe an anti-lynching bill is only going to inflame conservatives, and he just can’t get that passed. She, however, is just this spur. She knows her spurring is unwelcome sometimes, but also welcomed. I think Franklin welcomed it, and I think he used her in a good way.

In some respects, FDR and Eleanor had a failed marriage, but they also had a deep bond and respect for each other.
All marriages are unique. They had a complicated relationship, and they end up being the most formidable couple. That’s pretty amazing. I think they are a remarkable, remarkable couple. I think they loved each other to the end, despite all of the betrayal that she felt about his affair with Lucy Mercer and, of course, finding out that he had actually been with her in the end. Lucy was a companion set up by their daughter Anna, because Eleanor had become this person of the world and was gallivanting around and her father was confined to a wheelchair and couldn’t do anything. So Anna brought people to him.

Geoffrey Ward, your writer, talks poignantly about FDR’s polio and its effect on his life.
Geoff is a polio victim himself and has written two superb books on the early life of Franklin Roosevelt, Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament. He was a phenomenal entry into FDR’s polio ordeal, but he was also the beneficiary when [FDR confidante] Daisy Suckley died. Every historian had dutifully gone to visit and interview her and all she said were polite bromides about the president. Then when she died, her family asked if Geoff would like her trunk of letters. It blew open this sense of who FDR was, [which was] controlled entirely by Eleanor and colored by her sense of betrayal and her idea that he never was depressed a moment in his life. Here you have letters describing him struggling with polio, describing him as unhappy, his braces chafing, and that gives you a dimensional portrait of a person. The last thing you want with someone as opaque as Roosevelt is to continue the mythology of that opacity.

The way FDR and his staff managed his disability, his inability to walk, was surprising.
We found every available frame of footage that would reveal that. He had more than 900 press conferences. The press knew very well about his infirmity, and they said this isn’t a subject. Today Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t get out of the Iowa caucuses. And that’s bad news. We have less access today to politicians, because it’s a more controlled media environment. Jack Kennedy couldn’t get away with his infidelities now, and that means Jack Kennedy wouldn’t be president. A lot of people that we depend upon in our historical pantheon couldn’t be elected president, including slave-owning George Washington and sleeping-with-teenage-slave Thomas Jefferson and the unstable Theodore Roosevelt. They are all pretty complicated. That’s three out of four on Mount Rushmore, and if I take the depressive Abraham Lincoln…somewhere along the line someone would suggest shock treatment for him, and then he wouldn’t be able to run for president. So we’d miss all of Mount Rushmore, and that tells you what kind of world we live in now. It doesn’t tell you about them because we’re all flawed.

What made FDR such a comforting, paternalistic figure to Americans?
I think he understood, as Theodore Roosevelt understood, that the presidency was a position of moral persuasion. And he understood, perhaps unlike any other president, how to use the new medium of radio. He didn’t need to shout. He had an empathy that he had developed that was second to none. He had a kind of confidence, and I think we can’t oversell that.

He comes across as a preternaturally secure man.
Well, Sara Delano comes down as the dragon lady because her history was written by Eleanor. She’s a tough mother-in-law. And Eleanor had no parenting models, so she was an absolute failure with her own kids. There were 19 divorces among them. But what FDR’s father, James, and Sara poured into him was confidence. How could you possibly, confined to a wheelchair, get us through the two greatest crises since the Civil War—the Depression and World War II—without having a reservoir of confidence and empathy? That’s what makes Franklin Roosevelt—and you’re talking to a Lincoln man—so extraordinary in my mind.

Perhaps the most consequential?
Let’s just put FDR and Lincoln in a tie, because there’s nothing more important than the Civil War. It’s the most important event in the history of the country.

There was animosity between the Oyster Bay (Theodore) clan and the Hyde Park (Franklin) side of the family. Was it just that they were on different sides of the political fence?
It was a combination of things. One was that Franklin was a Democrat whereas the Oyster Bay Roosevelts were Republicans. And it was the fact that Franklin seemed to be rising faster than the Theodore Roosevelt heirs—Theodore Jr. and Kermit—apparently wanted. They went with the conservatism of the 1920s and felt, therefore, the tinge of the Depression on them. Then they hopped on the antiwar bandwagon until Pearl Harbor. So they found themselves kind of caught in their own reactionary positions and didn’t come out looking very well, particularly [Theodore’s oldest child] Alice, who said she’d rather vote for Hitler than FDR.

Did anything surprise you about the Roosevelts?
Everything. Every day was a revelation. I don’t make films about what I know. I make films about things I want to know. So rather than telling you what you should know, I’d rather share with you our process of discovery of just how incredibly complicated and interesting and exceptional these three human beings were.