Guest Host: Susan Page

Democratic politician and the 32nd President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) with his wife, the noted humanitarian activist, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 - 1962), circa 1935.

Democratic politician and the 32nd President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) with his wife, the noted humanitarian activist, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 - 1962), circa 1935.

Emmy-award winning filmmaker Ken Burns has been making films for 30 years. His historical documentaries include “Jazz,” “The Civil War,” and “The War.” His latest project chronicles the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three members of one of the most influential families in American politics. Between them, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt occupied the White House for 19 of the first 45 years of the 20th century. They redefined the role Americans have with their government, and redefined America’s place in the world. Join guest host Susan Page for a conversation with Ken Burns about his latest film: “The Roosevelts.”


  • Ken Burns Documentary filmmaker. He produced and directed the series "Jazz" and "The Civil War," and "The War." His films have won twelve Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations.

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Watch a preview of Ken Burns’ documentary “The Roosevelts.”
Credit: PBS, Florentine Films and Ken Burns.

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  • 11:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment. She'll be back soon. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns has made dozens of historical documentaries. His latest project is the first film to chronicle the interconnected lives of three members of one of America's most prominent political families. His seven-part series on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt is titled "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History."

  • 11:07:26

    MS. SUSAN PAGEFilmmaker Ken Burns joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:31

    MR. KEN BURNSThank you, Susan, for having me.

  • 11:07:33

    PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation and you can watch a live video stream of this interview with Ken Burns by joining our Google Hangout. You can find the link on our Facebook and Twitter pages. So each of these three Roosevelts, fascinating character in their own right. But what makes your project so distinctive, I think, is looking at how they were interconnected. How did you decide to go -- to embark on this project?

  • 11:08:03

    BURNSWell, I think all of those of us involved, particularly Geoffrey Ward, who had polio as a young boy and as an author of two volumes on the earlier life of Franklin Roosevelt, but also our producers, Paul Barnes and Pam Baucom, we were all concerned with the fact that this family has touched more American lives than any other family in American history.

  • 11:08:27

    BURNSAnd it's interesting that we kind of default to a superficial conventional wisdom about them that suggest that because Theodore was a Republican and Franklin was a Democrat that we can take them apart. But, in fact, they're all related. They're all born of the last name Roosevelt and there's no Franklin, no Eleanor without Theodore first. And there are differences, but the similarities are extraordinarily important and it's the interconnectedness.

  • 11:08:56

    BURNSThis is an American "Downton Abbey" with the added virtue of being true. I mean, once you dive into it -- and this is intimate -- not tabloid, but an intimate portrait and we're trying to see them -- usually I'm engaged in some balance between top down or bottom up history. This is inside out history in which we are trying to understand how adversity forms character, how character, in turn, shapes leadership and how leadership, of course, shapes the United States.

  • 11:09:24

    PAGEAnd, of course, one of the great threads that links these three, all three faced enormous personal challenges and overcame them.

  • 11:09:32

    BURNSWell, this is the, you know, each one of them, you could assume that that adversity in each one of their lives could destroy them and it didn't. They not only were able to escape the specific gravity of these horrible, horrible events, but they were then able to translate that into something that worked for other people, that somehow, you know, this basic unifying philosophy that they had, that we all do well when we all do well, they transformed their own limitations into something and then actively went forward and transformed the lives of millions of their fellow citizens and gave us a reminder of that inner continuous spark that Americans has that we're not independent free agents, that we're bound back to each other.

  • 11:10:20

    BURNSTheodore Roosevelt used to say the government is us, you and I. Now, today, the government is always now kind of other and to some an enemy, to other a friend. But you forget that it is us. And if you don't like what's going on in Washington, you have only one person to blame, the person in the mirror.

  • 11:10:37

    PAGEAnd each of them undertook lives that put them at odds with the milieu in which they were born.

  • 11:10:46

    BURNSThey are two -- the manor born. These are people of privilege who then became champions of working people and that earned, you know, the anger, the enmity of all those they had grown up with. And they were called traitors to their class, both of them labeled as socialists, even communists. And it's very, very interesting that this basic thing that Americans share in common, the sense of fairness, level playing field and concern for the less fortunate, they engage sort of 100 percent of the time.

  • 11:11:17

    BURNSThese were philanthropists that weren't just giving their money, but giving their lives. And I'll give you an example. If you just think about the oldest image of Theodore Roosevelt that you have. He looks about 85 years old. Well, I'm 61. Theodore Roosevelt died when he was 60. I mean, he spent his life -- Franklin Roosevelt who looked at the end like a cadaver, like he was 95 or 100 years old, was 63. And you begin to appreciate the amount of energy, of sort of being that was expended in service of other people.

  • 11:11:51

    BURNSIt's really a wonderful story and it's not without the betrayals and the affairs and the, you know, animosities and the tensions and all of that that is the stuff of life, which makes it, I think, such an extraordinary drama and has the virtue, I said, of being true.

  • 11:12:08

    PAGEWell, let's listen to an audio clip. Now, this comes from early in the film when Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt are being compared. Let's listen.

  • 11:12:19

    MR. PETER COYOTEThey belonged to different parties. They overcame different obstacles. They had different temperaments and styles of leadership. But it was the similarities and not the differences between the two that meant the most to history. Both were children of privilege who came to see themselves as champions of the working man and earned the undying enmity of many of those among whom they'd grown to manhood.

  • 11:12:50

    MR. PETER COYOTEThey share the sense of stewardship of the American land, an unfamed love for people and politics and a firm belief that the United States had an important role to play in the wider world. Both were hugely ambitions, impatient with the drab notion that the mere making of money should be enough to satisfy any man or nation. And each took unabashed delight in the great power of his office to do good.

  • 11:13:23

    MR. PETER COYOTEEach displayed unbounded optimism and self confidence. Each refused to surrender to physical limitations that might have destroyed them and each had an uncanny ability to rally men and women to his cause.

  • 11:13:40

    MR. DAVID MCCULLOUGHAnd you can't expect people like that to happen all the time. The exceptional presence are the exception. And these two Roosevelts were exceptional with a capital E, underscored.

  • 11:13:57

    PAGEThat was a clip from Ken Burns new documentary, "The Roosevelts." Tell us who was speaking.

  • 11:14:04

    BURNSWell, first, you heard the voice of Peter Coyote, who has been our narrator for many of our projects, just a wonderful narrator that seems to inhabit the meaning of the script that, in this case, Geoffrey Ward wrote, my long-time collaborator. And then you heard the great historian and author David McCullough sort of commenting on the exceptionalism of these two extraordinary outsized personalities.

  • 11:14:30

    PAGENow, how long have you been working on this?

  • 11:14:32

    BURNSIt's almost close to seven years from sort of the moment of deciding to do it and then head out, you know, in public television, we're dependent on the support of others and wrangle the support of Bank of America and contributions from individuals from The Better Angel Society and from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation.

  • 11:14:54

    BURNSSo that's a big task. And then the research and the writing, you know, we have, in the finished film, perhaps 2200 photographs, but we collected a database of more than 25,000 kind of grist for the mill and an equal sort of proportion of footage that we have to collect, interviews we have to conduct and then, the great long period of time in the editing room where you distill this. This is all done up in a small village in New Hampshire where I've lived for the last 35 years and we also, in our town, make maple syrup.

  • 11:15:26

    BURNSAnd it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup and we sort of think of our process in that patient kind of way.

  • 11:15:33

    PAGEYou know, you started this project knowing a lot about these three Roosevelts, but was there anything you discovered that came as a surprise to you?

  • 11:15:42

    BURNSEvery single day. You know, you're right. We bumped into Franklin and Eleanor and Theodore in many films that we've done. But I think when you then focus your attention on them, then each day is the revelation or the excavation of just important things. I think with each one of them, you know, this was not hero worship. We were interested in showing not just damaged people, wounded people, but people who are deeply flawed.

  • 11:16:08

    BURNSI think we inherit this just pathetic ideal of heroism now. We think people need to be perfect and we're always disappointed when they're not and we're rubbing our hands and saying there are no heroes the way we used to have. Well, these are three very, very flawed people and we were anxious to do that. And I think getting to know them in both a historical, but also a literal and personal sense was the great wonder and joy of this production and really diving very deep into that complexity and withholding the judgments that we so like to impose today, particularly when we're so dialectically preoccupied.

  • 11:16:46

    BURNSRed state, blue state, right, wrong, you know, gay, straight, young, old, male, female, rich, poor, all the stuff we do. It's so nice to hold things in a kind of tension and withhold that judgment until we can get a fuller, fuller portrait.

  • 11:17:01

    PAGENow, Theodore and Franklin were part of two branches of an old New York family. Did those two branches get along?

  • 11:17:07

    BURNSThey did for the most part. I mean, they were relatives. Theodore went into politics. Franklin's branch of the family, they were known -- they were all born in Manhattan, but they were known where they had their summer places. And Franklin's family was up in Hyde Park in Duchess County and Theodore's family was in Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island. And they were very proud, even though Franklin's father and he were a Democrat that their fifth cousin had become president of the United States, voted for him, supported his policies.

  • 11:17:36

    BURNSAnd then, when Franklin went into politics and got the blessing from Theodore to be a Democrat and continue this sort of progressive legacy, then I think you see the friction among his descendents and the Oyster Bay that he's too progressive or, wait a second, I thought we were the crown princes and what about us. And so you begin to see as the new deal takes shape that you get a lot of opposition from Alice Roosevelt, the president's wayward daughter, first child, and even his sons.

  • 11:18:08

    PAGEWe're talking to Ken Burns, the filmmaker, about his new documentary, "The Roosevelts: And Intimate History." It premieres this month on PBS. We're gonna take a short break, but our phone lines are open. You can give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. You can join our Google Hangout where you can watch live video of Ken Burns in our studio. Find the link on our Facebook and Twitter pages. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:02

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And if you're just joining us, a reminder that you can watch live video of this interview with Ken Burns through our Google Hangout. You'll find the link on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Well, Ken Burns, we're talking about your new documentary on the three Roosevelts. Teddy Roosevelt, the youngest president in American history, 42. What's his legacy?

  • 11:20:27

    BURNSIt's a complicated one. I think if you enjoy going to national parks, if you love the idea that there are national forests and wildlife reserves, if you think that big monopolistic companies ought to be regulated, perhaps even broken up, if you like the idea that your kids aren't working seven days a week, 14 hours a day in a coalmine, if you love the idea of the presidency as this energetic sort of place of moral, you know, very simplistic moral things.

  • 11:20:57

    BURNSBut you also have to understand that this is quite a belligerent man. And he loved and adored his father. But his father had bought a substitute in the Civil War because his mother was an unreconstructed southerner. And it troubled him all his days and it made him incredibly belligerent. He inherited his mother's sense of this old kind of, capital R, Romantic idea of war, Sir Walter Scott.

  • 11:21:18

    BURNSAnd I think, you know, he was incredibly reckless on the famous day in battle that he had at San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill. He was very, very happy to the army's horror that his regiment had had suffered the worst casualties. He was disappointed that he hadn't had a disfiguring wound. He lobbied, which is, my God, what you do not do for the Congressional Medal of Honor and, of course, did not get it as a result of that lobbying and probably didn't because of his recklessness.

  • 11:21:46

    BURNSAnd then, more importantly, more seriously, he pushed his four sons towards not only World War I but combat with unspeakable consequences and tragedy on the end of it. So, I think, you know, it's hugely important to balance this. He was probably the most beloved president that we've ever had. People just loved him. And you have to understand, he had Coke bottle glasses, he spoke in this kind upper-crust Harvard patrician accent and, you know, he would be out west and say, hasten forward quickly there and, you know, crack up the cowboys.

  • 11:22:19

    BURNSBut they grew to love him and understood that he was something that we rarely see today in our political world, authentically himself. And they were drawn to him. I mean, if you were going to have a choice to go out with one of these three for a beer or to drive across the country, you would pick the only authentic genius, I believe, that we've ever had as a president, Theodore Roosevelt.

  • 11:22:41

    PAGEWhat a personality he was. Let's listen to an audio clip from your film that talks about Theodore Roosevelt's personality.

  • 11:22:50

    COYOTEFueled by cup after cup of coffee served to him in a special mug his eldest son said was as big as a bathtub, Theodore Roosevelt raced through his day. Letters were answered upon receipt, a lifetime total of 150,000 dictated to shifts of weary stenographers.

  • 11:23:12

    MR. CLAY JENKINSONJefferson wrote 22,000 letters and we regard him as one of the great correspondents in American history. Roosevelt wrote at least 150,000 letters. He's the writing-est president in American history by far and a number of his books are American classics. So he's an intellectual. He read a book a day, sometimes three books in a day when he had some leisure. You think of Jefferson as America's renaissance man, but it's really Roosevelt.

  • 11:23:44

    MCCULLOUGHHe would not stop talking. He was a one-man gas bag. But it was so interesting that most people didn't mind. One of my favorite stories is when he heard that there was a famous big game hunter in Washington and he said to some of the people in his staff, get that man over here. I'd really like to meet him. So this big strapping English fellow was taken into the president's office and the door was close and people outside the office heard this talking going on.

  • 11:24:18

    MCCULLOUGHFinally the man emerged about an hour and a half later looking like just beat down as though he'd been through a storm. And one of the president's staff said, what did you tell the president? He said, I told him my name.

  • 11:24:36

    PAGEThat was a audio clip from "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," the new documentary by Ken Burns who's with me in the studio.

  • 11:24:43

    BURNSThat was the historian Clay Jenkinson and our narrator Peter Coyote, and then also David McCullough. And, you know, I think it's also important when you're balancing out this full dimensional portrait of Theodore Roosevelt that you also realize that he's unstable, that he's depressive. It runs in his family. There's lots of alcoholism, there's lots of mental illness. And he always felt that he had to be in continual action to escape these demons.

  • 11:25:09

    BURNSHe said black care can rarely sit behind a rider whose pace is fast enough, which is a 19th century way of saying you can't outrun your demons. He tried all his life. And when he slowed down, he felt those demons sort of overwhelm him. And that's something we also have to consider as we're considering the whole person.

  • 11:25:27

    PAGEHere's an email from Luke who writes us from Caledonia, MI. He writes, "Teddy Roosevelt is one of the most harmful presidents along with Andrew Jackson, in my opinion. These two gentlemen eroded the separation of powers of the presidency, making the president more of a monarch than an executive subject -- than an executive subject to congressional approval to the point where I would now argue has more power than the kings of England."

  • 11:25:52

    PAGE"I know historians admire decisiveness in leaders like TR. And this is fine if you have a good leader you trust. But when the restraints were put in by our founders are all unburdened by well, meaning heads of state, there is nothing in the way of an evil leader eventually harnessing this unleashed power."

  • 11:26:07

    BURNSThis is a huge point. And, you know, everything about the Roosevelts resonates with today. What is the role of government? And these are two presidents who enlarged the role of government. I would direct loop to Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, the greatest violations, the greatest sort of monarchical power were assumed by Abraham Lincoln. And we would hope that people would be in agreement of it.

  • 11:26:29

    BURNSI think the Constitution is an elastic document and we're meant to -- the times demanded certain things. We are now debating this huge disparity in income today that we're seeing an eroding middle class. We're worried that as the rich get richer and more and more fall into a lower caste, that the great engine that is the American economy, the American marketplace is faltering. Well, these were the central questions of Roosevelt's day, and then later Franklin Roosevelt's day.

  • 11:26:57

    BURNSAnd each did take what were to be assumed greater powers than other presidents around them had. But I think in all, most people would agree that this is the risk you have to run in democracy, that the hard times demanded some decisive moral leadership. And all three -- all three of them, Eleanor included, provided it. But we are always on the razor's edge of these kinds of questions. And that's the central. Luke asked the central question.

  • 11:27:26

    PAGEOur phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Dale. He's calling us from Belleville, IL. Dale, you're on the air.

  • 11:27:35

    DALEKen Burns, I want to gush first off about the brilliance of "The Civil War." It is so wonderful. And I listened -- I watch it about once a year and enjoy the fact that you discovered Shelby Foote. I've got -- I've got two questions. The first is, it seems to me a clear difference between the two men -- FDR and Theodore -- would be that FDR, it seem to me, was very restrained about going to war, at least for the best for our country. He seemed reluctant.

  • 11:28:13

    DALETeddy Roosevelt was always jingoistic in his calling for our involvement in Europe in 1950, 1960, 1970. I'd be interested in your comment. My second is that Geoffrey Ward's second book on Franklin, I wish he would write more. His second book shows the strength of Roosevelt's Christian beliefs. I wonder if Teddy Roosevelt had strong Christian beliefs. Franklin Roosevelt even was so strong in trying to, I don't know, witness to Joseph Stalin that Churchill was a little embarrassed. I'd just be interested in your thoughts on war and on their religious beliefs. Thank you so much. I'm going to hang up and listen.

  • 11:29:12

    PAGEAll right, Dale, thanks very much for your call.

  • 11:29:13

    BURNSThank you, Dale. Thank you for your kind words about "The Civil War" series, which Geoffrey Ward also wrote. I think that the general conceptual -- you know, conventional wisdom is that TR was the warmonger, FDR was the reluctant warrior. He was chafing at the bit, FDR was, as assistant secretary of the Navy believing very much in what his -- the ex-president, his fifth cousin was spouting and chomping at the bit to go to war.

  • 11:29:42

    BURNSAnd, of course, he redirected the (unintelligible) towards active engagement. But I think there is a real personal visceral attraction to war that TR had that Franklin didn't have. I agree with you, Geoffrey Ward has two great books, "Before the Trumpet" and "A First Class Temperament" that deal with the early life of FDR. It's only the beginning. But I think you'll find in this series he's moved on from his election as governor of New York and covers it and does it quite eloquently in this medium of film.

  • 11:30:12

    BURNSYou know, Franklin Roosevelt was once asked what his philosophy was and he said I'm a Christian and a Democrat and he left it at that. And that's a wonderful sense as we debate today this tension between pragmatism and idealism. And Theodore Roosevelt, I think, inherited a much more rigid formal protestant sense of the order of the world and the noblesse oblige and the sense of the white man's burden that might be cringe worthy today and the simplistic-ness of a black and white version of things.

  • 11:30:42

    BURNSBut I -- but I think they both shared -- as George Will says in the film about Franklin Roosevelt, I think it would apply to Theodore equally as well, that they held a Christian belief that the universe is well ordered and the American belief that history is a rising road. And I think both men, for whatever their flaws are, and I think Luke enumerated it in the previous question, took us by the hand and led us along that rising road.

  • 11:31:09

    PAGEFranklin Roosevelt idolized Teddy Roosevelt.

  • 11:31:12

    BURNSCompletely, and really attempted to follow in his footsteps. I always think of it as a snowfield in which you see the footprints of Theodore sort of -- and he's up ahead. And Franklin is trying to match each one. And early on, he seems a little too thin, too charming, too ambitious and not the substance of a TR. And then later when he's stricken at age 39 with infantile paralysis, when he can no longer walk, when he cannot take a step unaided, he suddenly develops this extraordinary empathy, this extraordinary power that's able to lead us all through the two great crises.2

  • 11:31:50

    BURNSTheodore Roosevelt knew that he thought -- he feared that a president couldn't be judged great unless he'd faced a crisis. And he didn't face a major crisis on his watch. And so fear that history would not record him. And I think he's proof that a president without crises can be a great president. But Franklin Roosevelt, of course, inherited the two great crises since the Civil War -- the Depression and World War II.

  • 11:32:12

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. We'll read your emails, You know, it's such a life lesson that a tragedy that struck FDR, his polio, transformed him in a way that made him a great figure.

  • 11:32:33

    BURNSI think this is true for so many of us, maybe not in the huge sort of super human dimensions that the Roosevelts seem, but tragedy does seem to be one way, you know, a kind of crucible in which people are tempered. They become stronger. Something is annealed. And I think with all three of them, when you think about the childhood asthma and the great tragedies and Theodore Roosevelt's and Eleanor's hopeless, hopeless orphanage in early childhood, how they could possibly escape.

  • 11:33:03

    BURNSAnd then, you know, how could you be president of the United States if you can't take a step? I don't think he -- Franklin can get out of the Iowa caucuses today, but we'd be missing the greatest president of the 20th century. And arguably, and you're hearing from a Lincoln man, arguably the greatest president, along with Lincoln, of all time.

  • 11:33:21

    PAGELet's listen to a part of the film that talks about Eleanor Roosevelt.

  • 11:33:28

    COYOTEThe two Roosevelts belong to two branches of an old New York family whose members sometimes viewed one another with suspicion. The living link between them was Theodore Roosevelt's best loved niece and Franklin's wife, Eleanor. She had learned to face fear and master it, long before her husband declared that the only thing Americans had to fear was fear itself. Her own character and energy and devotion to principle would make her the most consequential first lady and one of the most consequential women in American history.

  • 11:34:09

    PAGEWe're listening to a clip from "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," the new documentary by Ken Burns. Ken Burns who joins me in the studio. You can watch a live stream of our conversation through Google Hangout. You can find the link on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Eleanor Roosevelt.

  • 11:34:27

    BURNSYou know, Geoff likes to say that she's just a miracle of the human spirit. I -- I couldn't agree more. Here is a woman whose father was a hopeless alcoholic and mentally ill who dies when she's young. Her mother was a great, great beauty and hypochondriacal and aloof, disappointed in her daughter's looks so much that she called her own daughter granny. She's -- she dies early.

  • 11:34:50

    BURNSAnd by 10, she's an orphan, feeling responsible for her younger brother, sent to sort of grim and pious relatives where there's an abusive nurse and more alcoholic uncles. And the fact that she survives to become Eleanor Roosevelt is something else. And you would think that she had -- it was said in our film on the national parks that came out in 2009, Stewart Udall said that Teddy Roosevelt had distance in his eyes.

  • 11:35:13

    BURNSI think all three of the Roosevelts did. And she can see beyond the horizon. She understood the issues of the day about health, about race, about women, about poverty, about immigration, all of the issues that we still grapple with today. She understood. And with the exception of prohibition when she was four and I think was wrong about, and you can give her a pass because of all of that alcoholism crowding in on her, she is just remarkable.

  • 11:35:39

    BURNSAnd it doesn't hurt to have Meryl Streep read off-camera the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt in an extraordinary -- I think if you -- if you loved her as Maggie Thatcher in that film for which she won an Oscar, she is equally deserving in this film in the way she brings the little-known writings and personal material of Eleanor's life to light just as Paul Giamatti for TR and Ed Herman does for FDR.

  • 11:36:05

    PAGESo when you're casting voices in a documentary like this, do you try to get voices that actually sound like the person?

  • 11:36:13

    BURNSKind of. I don't know a better and more namby-pamby answer than that. You don't want it to be authentic. You don't want it to be impersonation. You want people to understand the meaning and inhabit the words and give it larger meaning. But at the same time, you want Meryl Streep, the greatest actor of this or any other generation, to channel Eleanor and understand an essential part of it. And she does that.

  • 11:36:39

    BURNSYes, there are attributes of her voice that are very much like in the high-pitched range of Eleanor, but it is still Meryl interpreting this person. And that's the way in which we hand things off. It's the way we tell stories. And so just with her great talent and her voice reading words, Meryl does a service to our film by sort of exponentially enlarging our understanding and reception of that question, that burning question, who was Eleanor Roosevelt?

  • 11:37:07

    BURNSAnd, of course, the childhood stuff doesn't end. She has this horrible betrayal when her husband has an affair with her own social secretary, the beautiful Lucy Mercer. The story goes on and on.

  • 11:37:18

    PAGEWe'll tell more of that story after we take a short break. We'll take your calls, we'll read your emails. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:01

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Ken Burns is with me in the studio. He's talking about his new documentary, "The Roosevelts: And Intimate History." And if you're just joining us, you can watch live video of our interview through Google Hangout. Find the link on our Facebook and Twitter pages. You know, before the break, you were discussing Eleanor Roosevelt and some of the trying times she endured.

  • 11:40:25

    PAGEHere's an email from Tom who writes us from Alexandria, Virginia. He says, "my grandfather always told me that we were related to Missy LeHand. A few years ago, I found the proof and I've been fascinated by her ever since to the point that I'm trying to write a screenplay based on her complex relationship with FDR and William Bullitt among others. I'd like to know if Mr. Burns will be revealing any new information regarding the character of her relationship with Franklin Roosevelt."

  • 11:40:52

    BURNSI think it was one of the closest relationships Franklin Roosevelt had with any, perhaps only his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley was more intimate in that way. But I don’t mean intimate in the sort of tabloid sense that we mean today and I think it's kind of fashionable, but just fashionable to sort of presume certain things about Eleanor's sexuality or certain senses that the White House was a kind of harem of all of these gals.

  • 11:41:19

    BURNSFranklin Roosevelt was a lonely man. He could not walk. He needed around him people who were adoring, who supported him and in Missy LeHand, Margaret LeHand, he had one of his most devoted secretaries and aides. And she plays an important part, but I'm unwilling, as I think historians in general are unwilling, to then infer and to read into that. I can give you letters of Abraham Lincoln with these, oh, so romantic letters to his partner, Joshua Speed.

  • 11:41:48

    BURNSI long to be in your warm embrace when we next meet. They sleep in the same bed in an Inn and if people want to infer he's gay, I suppose that they can. But I think we're in different times where the power of friendships, particularly for these three people, particularly for Franklin and Eleanor, mean a great deal. And Eleanor has, herself, a great deal of, as Franklin said, lady friends, some of whom were committed to one another, but she also has three, you know, extraordinary male relationships throughout her years.

  • 11:42:18

    BURNSAnd the last one, David Gurewitsch, a doctor, she said, I loved you more than I loved anyone else in my life. So I think you need to just take this for the evidence that we have.

  • 11:42:28

    PAGEAnd maybe be modest about what we can know for sure.

  • 11:42:32

    BURNSThat's right. We know a lot of things. And in the end, it becomes more -- and this is true of Missy LeHand. He was so devoted to her that he supported her after she fell ill.

  • 11:42:44

    PAGELet's go to Warrington, Virginia, and talk to Dustin. Dustin, hi, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:42:50

    DUSTINHello. How are you doing?

  • 11:42:52


  • 11:42:53

    DUSTINFirst, I'd like to say, Ken Burns, it's an honor to speak with you. I'm a humongous fan. Your jazz documentary is on my shelf. I watch it constantly as well as your Mark Twain biography. But my question is, you know, I've heard that Mark Twain, my first favorite person in history and then Theodore Roosevelt, my second favorite person, apparently Mark Twain despised Theodore Roosevelt and called him an imperialist and even refused to shake his hand on one occasion.

  • 11:43:30

    DUSTINAnd I was just wondering if you have any insights or if you can elaborate on that, if that's a fact that that happened, just any thoughts on that and if...

  • 11:43:45


  • 11:43:46

    DUSTIN...address in the new video, by any chance, about...

  • 11:43:52

    BURNSWell, we do refer to it a little bit. These are two outsized personalities, about as outsized as you can get in America, Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt. And it is true that Mark Twain was a vociferous critic of what was our sort of late to the table imperialist tendencies, the seizing of -- or the fomenting of revolution in Panama, the Spanish-American War and the seizing of Cuba and with it, the Philippines as well. And so he was quite a vociferous critic of the president.

  • 11:44:24

    BURNSI wouldn't say detested him or hated him. I think there was a great deal to admire and I'm sure Mark Twain did and it was both ways. But many people arrayed themselves for and against the beginning imperialist tendencies. We weren't like the European nations that had carved up a good deal of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia and South America, but we did in the Spanish-American War begin that "empire" in quotes and a lot of that is, of course, Theodore Roosevelt.

  • 11:44:55

    PAGEDustin, thanks so much for your call. Let's go to Kyoko calling us from Rockwall, Texas. Kyoko, hi, thanks for being with us.

  • 11:45:02

    KYOKOThank you. My husband and I attended the talk with Ken Burns last week in Dallas and he mentioned that his father never cried, you know, and when he was watching the movie, which made him cry, that made him to become a -- decided to become a filmmaker. And I was wondering what was the movie and if his father's still living or now.

  • 11:45:33

    PAGEAll right, Kyoko, thanks very much for your call.

  • 11:45:34

    BURNSYes, thank you. I was at the Windspear in Dallas last week and had a pretty in-depth conversation with a couple thousand of my closest friends. My mother died of cancer when I was 11 years old. You can imagine she'd been sick for a long time. Our household was a grim and demoralized place. And my father had not exhibited much emotion, but after he died, though he had a strict curfew, he would permit me to stay up late and watch movies on TV on a school night or take me out to the movies.

  • 11:46:04

    BURNSAnd it was watching a movie, "Odd Man Out," about the Irish troubles with James Mason by the great director Sir Carol Reed that I watched my father cry for the first time and I instantaneously understood the power of the films to provide a kind of expression for emotion, for human beings of all sorts and a way to perhaps express emotions when the stuff of life makes it harder to do or the facades we erect to protect ourselves do.

  • 11:46:33

    BURNSAnd I vowed then to become a filmmaker. I didn't think it would be a documentary filmmaker, but I thought it would be at least a feature filmmaker. And unfortunately, my father is no longer alive. He died just a month or two after 9/11, which we celebrate or think about today, in 2001.

  • 11:46:52

    PAGEHere's an email from Ralph who writes us from Greenville, North Carolina. Ralph says, "perhaps Ken Burns could take a minute to tell us about changes in video production states of the art between, say, his civil war and his Roosevelts productions."

  • 11:47:06

    BURNSThat's a really good question. You know, we know live in a digital community. When I made the civil war series, everything was analog. We shot on film. We still try to shoot as much as we can on film, but all the research was firsthand. We went 163 separate archival sources and set up our easel with our magnetic board and two umbrella lights and would film by hand all of these images. Now, we just scan them. They're put into our digital system and we effect all the moves there.

  • 11:47:37

    BURNSBut the digital editing has liberated us in so many other ways, adding a dimension of seeing various effects and, of course, how we release a film is important. It's true that we're still broadcast television primarily and PBS plans to run the series starting Sunday night, the 14th of September, and playing each episode twice so episode one at 8 o'clock and then again at 10 o'clock, from 8:00 until midnight for seven straight nights.

  • 11:48:04

    BURNSBut now, not everybody are gonna stay home and watch it so the next morning, the 15th, it's available for free streaming, the entire series, so the binge-watching that we love to do, which has vindicated my long form, I must say, and the next day, the 16th, the DVDs are available, the companion book by Geoff Ward and the earlier caller was interested in Geoff continuing in this Roosevelt saga where he has done it in this magnificent companion book.

  • 11:48:30

    BURNSI think it's the best of our companion books and I'm really looking forward to sharing with people. It's now out. And so we feel that there's lots of ways and that's what this new digital world permits us to do, not just in production techniques, but in the platforms that we're able to share it with everybody. And now, we give everybody a kind of democratic chance to see it when they want to and how they want to so you can gobble up all seven episodes if you want in one gulp.

  • 11:48:55

    BURNSThat's 14 hours, a great commitment. Or spread it out when you're able to do that and we're thrilled at that kind of democratic, ultimately democratic availability.

  • 11:49:05

    PAGEClint is calling us from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Hi, Clint, you're on the air.

  • 11:49:10

    CLINTOh, thank you so much for the opportunity to speak. I really enjoy the show and I'm a huge fan of Ken Burns' work. And I just had a quick question. I'm also a big fan of the book "The Big Burn" and it kind of goes into the relationship between Gifford Pinchot and Eleanor Roosevelt and I'm a big fan of both. And so I didn't know if there was an opportunity to elaborate on that relationship within the documentary.

  • 11:49:32

    BURNSI, too, am a huge fan of Timothy Egan's wonderful book, "The Big Burn." He also did "The Worst Hard Time" that was a huge help for us when we were doing our series on the Dust Bowl and spending so much time out in your beautiful state. We did in our 2009 film on the national parks, called "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" dealt more deeply with the relationship between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt.

  • 11:49:58

    BURNSNot to the extent that Tim was able to do so masterfully in "The Big Burn," and understand -- I think we got to in our film a little bit about the tensions between preservation and sort of sustainable use, the difference between a national park in the interior department protected for life or a national forest in the agriculture department, think crop. And these are hugely important tensions that have political ramifications and, of course, helped propel the, you know, the conflagration that is the big burn and that terrifying narrative that Tim mastered so well.

  • 11:50:30

    BURNSSo you won't be satisfied, I think, in "The Roosevelts" 'cause we felt we had done a little bit more of that in "The National Parks," but I would refer to that documentary.

  • 11:50:39

    PAGEClint, thanks so much for you call. Here's an email from Allen. He writes, "I'm concerned that Ken Burns seem to brush over Teddy Roosevelt's effect on racial policy in the U.S. Yes, he invited Booker T. Washington to dinner. I believe that was the first time an African-American had been invited to dine at the White House." But Allen goes on write, "he treated him badly afterwards. His actions and inaction regarding the Brownsville massacre were reportedly disgraceful. FDR's policies were moderately progressive, but often their execution left much to be desired regarding the integration of the armed forces, fair employment and new deal policies."

  • 11:51:13

    BURNSAbsolutely. And everything that the caller -- absolutely everything that the caller said is in our film so you can't judge a film until it's out and it doesn't start until Sunday and you will see in episode two the Booker T. Washington and the shameful Brownsville incident, you know, put out with all the warts and all and also the great strides that Franklin and Eleanor made in welcoming African-Americans into their cabinet and supporting the aspirations of African-Americans, but also his tardiness on trying to put through and anti-lynching bill that Eleanor had supported and, of course, all African-Americans had, but -- and also the integration of the military and the fair employment.

  • 11:51:51

    BURNSAll of that is detailed in a film that has yet to be released. So please give us the benefit of the doubt. I don't think you will be disappointed in how critical we are and how much we hold both these men's feet to the fire for their failures with regard to racial progress in the United States.

  • 11:52:07

    PAGEHere's another email from Ray, who writes us from Whitefield, New Hampshire, "please comment on FDR's decision on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II."

  • 11:52:16

    BURNSYeah, we've covered this in so many films in our World War II film, in our national parks series. It's here, too, in kind of a modest way because of our inside out way of doing it. But it's a shameful moment. It was assumed it was a racial decision. Italian Americans and German Americans were not locked up and, though, they were our enemies as well. But Japanese Americans were and one of the great ironies is that Japanese Americans volunteered to fight in regiments, the most decorated of regiments, the 442nd, the 101st and they -- I mean, not 101st, but they went on and performed bravely.

  • 11:52:50

    BURNSAnd can you imagine a death notice coming back to a parent at an internment camp saying, you know, your son has given the ultimate sacrifice and, by the way, if you move a few feet, I'm going to have to shoot you? Eleanor was so aghast when she realized that there were not fifth colonists. The accept wisdom is that there were Japanese spies throughout the Japanese community. There were not and that these were loyal Americans. She wanted to invite a family to live at the White House and the Secret Service said, oh, my goodness, you cannot do that.

  • 11:53:16

    BURNSSo this is one of those hugely important fault lines of race and ethnicity that constantly beset the United States and are often the test of really truly great leadership.

  • 11:53:29

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Brook. He's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida. Brook, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:38

    BROOKYes, hi. Just a bit of interest. My parents lived in Teddy Roosevelt's stable in Oyster Bay. And my dad's great uncle went up San Juan Hill with Teddy. And I wanted to find out from you what the role -- what your thoughts are about the role of San Juan Hill in the history of the U.S.

  • 11:54:01

    BURNSWell, in the history of Theodore Roosevelt, it's very clear. It made him. I mean, he moved right from there to the governorship of New York to the vice presidency and then, with the assassination of William McKinley, ascended to the presidency. As Susan said earlier, the youngest president ever to arrive at that office. You know, it's a less clear thing in American history, this, as our previous discussion was talking about, sort of represents a kind of American imperialism, his day, that day as I suggested is more reckless than it is heroic.

  • 11:54:32

    BURNSBut it made the career of Theodore Roosevelt. It got us Cuba and the Philippines and lead to the very complicated dynamic of whether we, as the original anti-colonial power or country, should have an empire.

  • 11:54:49

    PAGEAll three Roosevelts left a legacy, significant legacies, for the country. Let's listen to a clip from your documentary that has FDR talking about his legacy in a speech he gave at Mt. Rushmore.

  • 11:55:02

    PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELTI think that we can perhaps meditate a little on those Americans 10,000 years from now, I think we can wonder whether our descendents, because I think they'll still be here, what they will think about us. And let us hope that at least they will give us the benefit of the doubt, that they will believe that we have honestly striven in our day and generation to preserve, for our descendants, a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.

  • 11:55:41

    PAGEKen Burns, that was FDR's speech.

  • 11:55:44

    BURNSIt's just that is FDR. I moved that up to the very beginning of the film because I just find this so revealing. I think when he says "us," he means all of us. He's saying this without notes. He's not reading a speech. These are just off-the-cuff remarks and it's a perfect, perfect paragraph without an "um" or an "er". And more importantly, it just exhibits his just unbelievable optimism and confidence that we would all depend on as we got through the depression and the second world war.

  • 11:56:14

    BURNSYou know, if you think, this is 1936 and he's saying -- 10,000 years before, human beings are in caves. He's assuming that not only will human beings have not blown up the planet or destroyed themselves in 10,000 years, but there will still be Americans and there will still be people who are looking to the continuity of the American way of life and that, in essence, is all three Roosevelts, the sense of who we are and, more importantly, what we can become.

  • 11:56:44

    PAGEKen Burns, his new documentary "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History." Thank you so much for being with us.

  • 11:56:49

    BURNSIt's been my pleasure, Susan.

  • 11:56:50

    PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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