Diane talks to McKay Coppins of The Atlantic about President Trump’s use of disinformation as the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway.
For more than 30 years, Ken Burns has been documenting the American experience. Films like “Jazz,” “Baseball” and “The Civil War” have for many become definitive accounts of chapters from our nation’s past. In 2009, he turned his lens on the history of our national parks, for a series that won two Emmys. In his most recent film, he tells the formerly untold story of an American couple who took on a life-threatening mission to combat the Nazis in Europe. This year, after decades of remaining mostly quiet on partisan politics, Burns also raised his voice in protest of now president-elect Trump. Ken Burns joins Diane to talk about politics, what keeps him curious, and why he says we urgently need civics back in U.S. schools.
- 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.
WATCH: Trailer for "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War" (2016)
Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War tells the previously untold story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, an American minister and his wife from Wellesley, Massachusetts, who left their children behind in the care of their parish and boldly committed to a life-threatening mission in Europe. (kenburns.com)
WATCH: Trailer for "The Central Park Five" (2013)
Set against a backdrop of a decaying city beset by violence and racial tension, The Central Park Five tells the story of a horrific 1989 crime, the rush to judgment by the police, a media clamoring for sensational stories and an outraged public, and the five lives upended by a miscarriage of justice. (kenburns.com)
WATCH: Extended preview for "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (2009)
Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular locales — from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. (kenburns.com)
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Ken Burns has become legend for bringing history to life in his documentary films with topic ranging from the Civil War to the history of cancer. Now, he's tackling a new history of the Vietnam War in a year which has meant raising his own political voice in a new way. Emmy-award winning filmmaker Ken Burns joins me from the studios of NPR in New York.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd throughout the hour, we'll be taking your calls, comments, questions, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Ken Burns, it's so good to have you with us.
MR. KEN BURNSIt is my pleasure, Diane. I am so happy to be with you.
REHMWell, you knew I wanted to talk with you once more before I moved off the microphone.
BURNSPlease say it isn't so. I don't know what we'd without you.
REHMWell, we have you and what we have coming up next year is a new film, "The Vietnam War." Tell me why you chose to go back to that war.
BURNSWe had finished a film on the Civil War in 1990 and kind of vowed to ourselves, we sort of shook our heads and said, you know, we're not going to go back to war again. The Civil War soldiers, when they'd been in combat, said they'd seen the elephant. And while we have the luxury of 150 years later, we hadn't seen the elephant, but we'd certainly felt the pain of battle. But at the end of '90s, I heard a statistic that 1,000 veterans of the Second World War were dying each day and that too many of our graduating high school seniors thought we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War.
BURNSAnd I kind of said, whoa, we have to tackle that. Before that film was broadcast seven years later in 2007, I had committed to doing something on the Vietnam War. I really feel -- and today, in the last week, even more passionate about why we made the decision. It will be, when it's broadcast in September of 2017, more than ten years that we've worked on it. And the idea is that so much of the political divisions that have beset our country began to metastasize during Vietnam.
BURNSThe sort of -- our preoccupation with a kind of dialectic that everything's -- we didn't use those terms then -- red state or blue state, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, young or old, all of the things we do to make distinctions between each other rather than selecting for what we share in common. So would it be possible to unpack the Vietnam War and re-understand it, making room for every point of room as we done. We're not there to answer questions about it. We're there to raise some questions.
BURNSAnd hopefully, the war speaks not just in foreign policy terms to what our tactics are with relationship to the world today, although I think it will do that, it can't help but do that, but I think it's a deeper, more existential question about who we are, what kind of people we want to be, how do we reform the bonds that have connected us and made us strong all the way through, you know.
BURNSLincoln appealed to the better angels of our nature, that's been my whole mantra all along, and how you might invoke them and call them, but not being heedless to these very real divisions that exist between people in our country.
REHMYou know, when veterans came back from Vietnam, as many have told me personally on the air, they were spat upon, they were shoved to the side. Many ended up totally homeless. There was that division in our society that said that was a no-good war. We shouldn't have gone there. Why did we go there? And why should we honor the men who were drafted to serve there?
BURNSYou know, it's such a complicated question and you hit the nail on the head, Diane. You know, we lost that war. It's really hard for Americans to say that and so we did everything we could to sort of bury our heads in the sand. We didn't want to know about it. The way we had drafted and trained and shipped and then brought home soldiers didn't lend itself to parades and, you know, ticker tape and that sort of thing.
BURNSAnd so everyone came home kind of alone and felt all of the things that people who go to war feel, all these desperate things that's been happening for as long as there has been war. But they had to feel it alone. And what's so interesting is that we permitted all of the stuff we thought we knew about the war to atrophy and so we've gone back. There's been normalization for 20 years. We've been able to do extraordinary amount of research. There's been scholarly research.
BURNSWe've had access to the country, to their archives. Most important to their people, we've had access to the presidential tapes and scholarship here. And for us to see it again in a new light, without a kind of partisan in any way, we were throwing, as I've done all my professional life, throwing fast balls down the middle of the plate, but including a lot of extraordinary commentary, things that Americans will -- I think every episode, people will go, I had no idea. Time and time again.
BURNSEven soldiers that we've shared it with in the editing room, veterans in combat, said I had no idea. Thank you for telling us. So we look forward to a kind of courageous conversation with a country that may be sort of, you know, inclined to go back to their own safe corners, to their bunkers, to their trenches, when, in fact, we ought to be out in daylight having conversations. History is a table around which we can still have a civil discourse and we can try to sort of put -- we've tapped, over the last four generations, a kind of dark unconscious in the country.
BURNSAnd I'm not sure how you put that genie back in the bottle, but I think we're obligated to do so if we wish to have an American future. And that's, I think, part of what history does is remind us of those moments where, you know, things are fraught. But at the same time, that perspective can arm us for the present and help us go forward in unison rather than in discord.
REHMAnd one of the certain moments in history that you focus on, "Defying the Nazis," the most recent film you've done. Tell me how you came to learn about the Sharp family.
BURNSIt's really a remarkable story. You can't make this up. It's a John Le Carre novel. It's an Alan Furst novel. A dear, dear friend of mine, Artemis Joukowsky, these are his grandparents. And he found out in the 9th grade that they'd done some cool things, as his own mother said. She was sort of troubled by the fact that her parents had left her. What happened was, is that Waitstill Sharp was a Unitarian minister in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Martha was his wife.
BURNSThey lived, I presume, a comfortable, middle class life and, all of a sudden, in 1939, they left their two small children to the care of the congregation and travelled to Prague, to Czechoslovakia, on the eve of World War II and got refugees and Jews out and saved lives. And then came back and returned and did it again in Southern France in perilous, you knew, Versailles, France. And it is one of these things. Artemis had been working on the project for years and years and like a relay race, brought it to me for the last lap.
BURNSSo for the last three years, I kind of refined it. I got Tom Hanks to read the voice of Waitstill Sharp, which, of course, elevates any discourse, and you get thrown into this moment which is not dissimilar from our own with lots of refugees and you can see American heroism and engagement at its finest level.
REHMAnd here are some of the words of Martha Sharp from the film, "Defying the Nazis."
MS. MARINA GOLDMANWe learned quickly that we would have to much of our work abroad in secret. We also learned various methods of destroying incriminating papers, how to ascertain if we were shadowed and various ways to elude followers. We were warned that we would be followed and spied upon throughout our mission.
REHMWhat extraordinary courage they had.
BURNSYou just think, you know, a month before, you've got to assume that the biggest worry was what he was going to say for his Sunday sermon. And a month later, they're dodging Gestapo agents and writing in code and laundering money in foreign capitals and risking their life and the Gestapo are, you know, raiding their offices and tearing up their furniture and they're getting people out and dressing them in sort of peasant costumes and going through, you know, in order to get them safely to England, you have to go across Germany, Nazi Germany.
BURNSIt's just an amazing story. You can't make it up. And I think that's why, you know, I'd started off my dreams of who I would be by wanting to be a Hollywood feature filmmaker, but I went to Hampshire College in 1971. I ran into a bunch of social documentary still photographers and documentary makers and they reminded me, quite correctly, that what is and what was is as dramatic as anything we make up in Hollywood.
BURNSEvery single word that you hear in this film is true and we don't have a narrator even to interpret it. We have just the voices of Waitstill and Martha and then most remarkably, people now in their 80s or 90s who were children when they were saved by the Sharps. And, you know, when we say 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, that becomes a kind of opaque figure and we don’t -- can't really gain access to it. But when you meet representatives of just the few hundred that the Sharps saved and you see that they're professor emeriti of French or Russian or they become a great mathematician, you understand the potentiality of all who were lost.
REHMKen Burns, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. His latest documentary is called "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War." Short break here. Your calls, your comments a little later in the program. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. Emmy Award-making filmmaker Ken Burns is with me. He's working on a film to be released next September titled "The Vietnam War." But here's a Facebook post from Ruth, who says, as important as all of Mr. Burns' documentaries are, at present I think the most important is "Central Park Five." This week, says Ruth, I apologize to those of the Central Part Five, who are friends of mine. In this election our nation failed again. And after we hear this excerpt from "The Central Park Five," we'll get Ken Burns' response.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANIn New York City this morning, a jogger is fighting for her life after a brutal attack in Central Park.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANViciously battered and unconscious, wearing only a jogging bra, her hands tied over her mouth...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMANThe suspects are 14- and 15-year-olds who blazed a nighttime trail of terror...
UNIDENTIFIED MANAssaulting an elderly man, attacking a male runner, hitting another person with a lead pipe. At one time the group was running in a pack of more than 25 youths.
WOMANThe victim is now in critical condition at Metropolitan Hospital...
WOMANWith two skull fractures, a significant loss of blood and advanced hypothermic.
WOMANIf she lives, it's likely she'll suffer from brain damage.
MANEight suspects were arraigned this weekend, aged 14 to 17.
MANSome of the young men told police they were just out wilding.
WOMANWilding is a word you won't find in Webster's.
MANWilding, New York City Police say that's new teenage slang for rampaging and wolf packs, attacking people just for the fun of it.
MANThe district attorney's office says the teenagers have confessed. The spokesman said some of those confessions are on videotape.
REHMKen, that is such dramatic taping. And I had the honor of talking with that young woman, who was attacked. Tell me your take on that crime.
BURNSIt's interesting we live in a world, Diane, today, you know, with the Internet and Twitter and Facebook and all of this stuff, the -- a lie goes around the world three times before the truth can get started. This is back in a supposedly more innocent time, 1989, before the Internet, and yet we do have a kind of media cascade of facts, and the facts are, that we now know, is that these boys were innocent, they didn't do it, they had -- their confessions were coerced. Someone else came forward after they'd served out their full jail terms in 2002. His DNA matched the missing DNA that their contradictory statements and the evidence, you know, suggested.
BURNSAnd they were exonerated, their convictions vacated, actually, and recently the city of New York settled with them. But it leaves us unsettled because there was such a rush to judgment, and we forgot who they were, and this has been a kind of recurring motif in American history. We were a country that was founded on the most noble principle yet advanced in humankind, that all men were created equal. But the guy who wrote that owned more than 200 human beings and didn't see the contradiction, didn't see the hypocrisy and, more important, didn't see fit in his lifetime to free any one of them.
BURNSAnd so American history has been constantly having to struggle with a question of race, and that's what we come back to again and again and again in our films not because we're looking for it but because it's there. So this film, "The Central Park Five," was made with my daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. She had written a book on it just wondering how these things still happen in modern America.
BURNSAnd as we know, the Central Park Five are not the last to have been railroaded or even killed by authorities, and so we're constantly as Americans forced back on this, you know, inherent discrimination that's there and try to figure out a way, how to free ourselves from the specific gravity of what many historians call our original sin, the sin of slavery, and then our ability to address the subsequent racism after emancipation. So this is a film that just has to question who are they.
REHMAnd Ken, in all these years, you've managed up until now to stay free of political involvement and political commentary in the present.
REHMIn other words, you've looked mostly at the past. But here are some words of what you said in your 2016 commencement speech at Stanford University.
BURNSBefore you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much-maligned but subtle art of governance.
REHMNow Ken, you never uttered Donald Trump's name, but I presume you were talking about him. Tell me why you decided at this point in your career to speak out politically.
BURNSWell, I've always been an active citizen. The president said that the highest office of the land isn't president but citizen, and I've always taken that at face value and participated in our political processes. But my own work has been completely free of that. As I said before, I'm throwing fastballs down the middle of the plate, but this year was different, and it's been true for almost every historian I know that it was impossible not to step forward and say these circumstance are unprecedented in American history that for the first time in 216 years of often very bitterly contested elections we have always enjoyed two candidates who were clearly qualified for the office and that there were too many code words and too many other things that went along with this campaign that I felt it -- my responsibility as a private citizen, not as a filmmaker producing films on public television but just someone who had been asked to address at Stanford University questions of history and the moment to do exactly that.
BURNSAnd I'm very glad I did. A lot of historians reached out to me and created a Facebook thing called Historians on Trump, just to talk about how anomalous it is. But, you know, now the voters have done -- it's very clear that more -- that a large section of the population was being ignored, and they rose up and got active. It's really important now that we not permit the other half to have been -- to be denied some of those things, that was have to first of all denounce hate wherever it comes, we have to find common ground with our democratic institutions.
BURNSWe cannot pull up the covers, nor can we go out and start a revolution. We have to be involved in civic engagement, and that's what's required of all citizens. And I think we're at a hugely important inflection point in our entire history of our republic. I think it's very, very perilous times, and we just have to make sure that these enduring American values don't get lost in the kind of media environment we live in today, which permits non-truths to gain traction in a way that they have never had before.
REHMYou know, we spoke about this very thing, fake news, earlier. The question is how does the mainstream broadcast news media reach out to those who are not paying attention to anything other than Facebook or Twitter. How do we as journalists, as documentarians, make that leap?
BURNSI'm not exactly sure, Diane. I think this is the $64,000 question. In some ways over the past year and a half, the mainstream media has sort of abandoned their role and permitted the sort of circus of it all to obtain. And, you know, there's $3 billion, it's been calculated, or more of free media that was given to one candidate just because you were waiting to hear one outrageous comment or another.
BURNSAnd what happened was before mainstream media woke up and began to say in the late spring, wait a second, this is not true, and began to be a little bit more firm, the genie was out of the bottle again. And it's going to be very hard. I think there are lots of people. they are soul-searching at Twitter, as we know. There ought to be soul-searching at Facebook. I hope that that's going on. I think that mainstream media should realize the number of mistakes it made across the board, including, let us say, ignoring the vast number of people who voted for the president-elect and who had real and legitimate grievances.
BURNSThe only worry is, is that with those who seem to be listening to their grievances, or at least they felt were listening to their grievances, comes along with them comes a huge number of extremists who threaten the very fabric of American life, the continuity that we have enjoyed from the moment that Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in a bitterly contested election of 1800, and the republic went on, or 1864 in the midst of a Civil War, and the republic went on in all of these important moments.
BURNSAnd I think that it's really important for all Americans, regardless -- and I spoke at Stanford when I did, and it's the first time I've ever done anything like that. I said that this was not a Democratic or a Republican issue, this was an American, that will we remember in this media culture, where it's all about the buzz of the moment, will we actually remember what the Constitution, what our traditions are about, what the peaceful transfer of power is all about, what -- you know, whether we are vindictive towards those who have been defeated, whether we follow the rules of transparency, revealing your taxes, not getting involved in nepotism, not having a kind of junior oligarchy developing as a result of this.
BURNSThese are all important questions, but we have to begin at that moment of renouncing hate because we have seen just in the last week an unacceptable uptick in the number of just individual moments against women, against blacks, against Muslims, against Jews. These are un-American activities.
BURNSAnd I know that the president-elect at one moment on "60 Minutes" said stop it, essentially. I think he has to do more than that. You cannot put into your White House, in a secondary position, someone whose views are so far outside the mainstream with regard to women, more than half the population, with regard to African-Americans, a significant minority in our country, already beset and besieged by so much that's going on, to immigrants and to other groups, Muslims, people of different faiths.
BURNSWe were founded on the notion of religious freedom, and when you hear people talking about starting a registry of Muslims, you have to hit pause. I think that the -- most of the people who voted for Trump really felt their voices weren't being heard and that they hoped they were and were not subscribing to the kind of extremism that seems to be also coming along in the wake of this victory.
BURNSAnd so I think we just have to stop and say, you know, we are Americans, we renounce hate, we renounce these kinds of discriminatory actions. We are still all the same country, and we have to look to both parties to try to instill some order and not do the kinds of things that our history books have shown us other, now fallen, empires of the past have succumbed to.
REHMTwo things, first you have your next film laid out for you in this election. And second, you're talking primarily about Steve Bannon.
BURNSYes and I think other extremists that you hear about that come with that, and I think that that's -- it's really important to just say no, no, no, that doesn't work. We are a country about compromise. You know, George Will once told me that democracy is the politics of the half-loaf. We don't get everything. And when you get everything, you wake up, and you're not in a democracy anymore.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We have some callers, and I'm going to go first to Apollo Beach, Florida. James, you're on the air.
JAMESHello Diane, thank you for taking my call.
JAMESI would like to go back to the theme about Nazi Germany and so on because as I was thinking about all of this, I spent the last half of my life in Germany, the last few years. I've been in Germany 36 years, but I'm a native of Tampa, Florida, here, and I've been through a lot of things that really, I mean, for me historically and for the history of the country of Germany and America, all very relevant.
JAMESAnd it goes through such a twist of ideas and everything, but we got on this thing about the responsibility of people to note forget, and, you know, in Germany I've experienced so many, many older people there in Germany who are actually the last living eyewitnesses of Nazi Germany. These people are dying out, just like my dad, who is 92 is dying out, you know, his generation is dying out here from Second World War times.
JAMESAnd how does one not forget? I mean, these are things that many, many people a generation a little bit younger, maybe, that were adults during the Second World War, get mad and upset about so many Nazi movies coming out, so many books are still being written about that period of time, and all this stuff is going on. Why can't we just forget it?
BURNSThis is the great gift of history, that history tells us what happened before. If we are armed with what happened before, we have a kind of armor that permits us to understand the most difficult times in the present but also prepares us in a way that we can avoid the mistakes of the past. You know, I had the most devastating moment when we were screening "Defying the Nazis" in Los Angeles, and two women in their 90s, survivors of the camps in the Holocaust, came up to me and said, is this going to happen again.
BURNSAnd I just thought how is it that we had come to this moment where two women who were now in the United States separated by two mighty oceans might think that this would happen again, and it reminded me of a quote that a young Abraham Lincoln said in 1838, just before his 39th birthday. He said whence shall we expect the approach of danger. Shall some trans-Atlantic giant step the Earth and crush us at a blow? And then he answered his own question, never, all the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track in the Blue Ridge in the trial of 1,000 years. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live through all time or die by suicide.
BURNSNow Abraham Lincoln came as close as anybody ever came to presiding over that near national suicide, and I think it is incumbent upon us to continue, however discomfiting, whether it's the Vietnam War or some other subject, to tell our stories so that we are armed in a way to avoid the mistakes that history clearly reveals to us.
REHMKen Burns, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. His latest documentary is called "Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War," and we will take a short break here. We'll be back to take more of your calls, your email, stay with us.
REHMWelcome back to a conversation with award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns. And just a postscript to the discussion we were having just before the break, a Facebook post from Sharon, Ken, who says, "Please, make this past election a subject. I would love to see a cohesive view of this experience." Are you thinking about that?
BURNSOf course. But, you know, when you're in the history business you need, Diane, 15 or 20 or even 25 years distance between the subject. You know, it was said that journalism is the first rough draft of history and that's true. And we're going to have to sort through this in a journalistic fashion, a traditional way. And clearly now, with these new medias, a new alternative way.
BURNSBut once we have the passage of time, once we gain a perspective, once we're able to triangulate some facts we can make some historical judgments or make some historical narratives that will help us understand a little bit better what takes place. And I'm sorry to say, one wishes to have those kinds of hard and fast answers that historians bring, but really do need to watch things progress and see it from a distance.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Indianapolis, Ind. Rashad, you're on the air.
RASHADHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
RASHADLet me preface this by saying my first exposure to a Ken Burns documentary was in high school. And we watched the Civil War series. And since then I've been an enormous fan, and really, Mr. Burns, it's a privilege and an honor to be speaking with you right now. And I have a question, though. Several years ago, one of my favorite documentaries that I watched of yours was "Unforgiveable Blackness," the Jack Johnson story.
RASHADAnd for me, I mean, you're not afraid of tackling big things like the Vietnam War, which is coming up and the Civil War and other things like that. It seems the obvious subject would have been Muhammad Ali. But why did you choose Jack Johnson and your topic for that documentary?
BURNSWell, you'll be very pleased -- and thank you so much for your kind words, Rashad. We are actually underway, in the early stages of a biography of Ali. We wanted to do Jack Johnson because Jack Johnson did all the things that Muhammad Ali did. Muhammad Ali did these things in a decade dedicated, we know believe in retrospect, to civil rights. And we still see him as a hero with regard to the uphill battles that he fought.
BURNSThe decade of Jack Johnson's prominence, from 1915 to 2915, more African Americans were lynched for looking sideways at a white person. And he did all the same things that Muhammad Ali did. And, in fact, when Muhammad Ali was a young boxer sparring, someone would yell, ghost in the house, ghost in the house. And that ghost was Jack Johnson.
BURNSAnd so a lot of the rope a dope that we associate with Muhammad Ali is in ways a sort of 60 year later interpretation or 50 year later interpretation of those kind of things that Jack Johnson was doing. It was a very interesting story. So once again, you need to, you know, if I were given a thousand years to live I wouldn't run out of topics of our extraordinary country.
REHMAh, that's great. Ken, tell us a little about your own growing up, your own perspective from your parents and what began as your passion for filmmaking.
BURNSWell, it's interesting, Diane. My father was a cultural anthropologist and he was an amateur still photographer. The first memory I have is of him building a darkroom in the corner of a basement that we lived in in a tract house in Newark, Del. He was the only anthropologist in the state of Delaware. And my mother had cancer and had it for 10 years. And died when I was 11 years old, just short of my 12th birthday.
BURNSAnd afterwards, my father had a fairly strict curfew for my younger brother and me, but forgave if there was a movie on TV that he wanted me to watch that might be 'til 1:00 a.m. on a school night. And -- or take me out to an 11:00 o'clock screening of an old film, you know. And I loved being with him. And for the first time, I saw my father cry. It was an old film by Sir Carol Reed, called "Odd Man Out," about the Irish troubles.
BURNSBut he cried not about that. He cried because film has a powerful ability to sort of perform, if you will, an open-heart surgery. And I watched my dad cry. I had never seen him cry before. And I suddenly realized at age 12, it was just a few months after my mom died, I wanted to be a filmmaker. And that meant, you know, that meant becoming Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or Howard Hawks, the big directors of the mid '60s. And when I went to Hampshire and all of my teachers were interested in that power of what is and what was, I became a documentary filmmaker.
BURNSBut if you think about it, what I do for a living is I wake the dead. I try to make Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln come alive. And there might be a personal connection of what it might mean to use the past in a way that isn't (unintelligible) , that isn't essayistic, that isn't about dry dates and facts and events, but is a kind of emotional archeology that might be getting at something bigger. You know, we go through life absolutely convinced that one and one equals two. But what -- really what we want in our faith, in our relationships, in our art, in our literature, in so many things is for that equation to be one and one equaling three.
BURNSAnd I think that's what I've looked for. And I've spent my life waking the dead, born out of a photographer/anthropologist father, that seems right, and a mother who struggled way longer than she was supposed to with this terrifying disease, the emperor of all maladies and left me with the kind of courage to do the kind of things that I've tried to do. And I want to make it clear that, you know, there's sometimes a misconception about public television that it's some sort of blue state manifestation.
BURNSLet's remember, this is where William F. Buckley, for about four decades, had a television program, "The Conservative." I get high ratings in places you'd expect, like the Upper West Side of Manhattan or in Nob Hill in San Francisco. But I also get great ratings in Alaska and Oklahoma and Arkansas and West Virginia. And that's the way I want it. I'm interested in telling my country's things.
BURNSSo if you have Lincoln's scary quote that I, you know, I've committed to memory and gave you a few seconds ago, we do have the last sentence of his first inaugural, when he says, "The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature." That's what I look for. I'm unafraid of controversy and tragedy in the works, but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit.
BURNSAnd particularly the unique role this Republic plays in the positive progress of mankind. That my creative, my mantra, Diane.
REHMAnd the problem is that not enough young people are being schooled in that approach to government or approach to history.
BURNSThat's exactly right. We don't teach history. We've called it social studies for the last several decades. And when we teach it, it's sort of dry dates and facts and people don't like it. We've completely eliminated one of the dirtiest words in all of education, which is the -- and yet one of the most central, which is civics. Civics isn't just there's a 100 senators and 435 representatives and three branches of government. It's how things work.
BURNSSo people can debate STEM or STEAM in their educational stuff, but unless you have the glue of civics, to know how to get things done, then we're all just independent free agents in which we -- there's no obligation to join a collective sense of our past. We can just do whatever we hear on our Twitter feed or whatever our Facebook posts. And we can believe these false narratives. We can believe only what we self-select.
BURNSBut if we are citizens, the highest thing to aspire to in a democracy, then we are obligated to learn these things. And then to put them into use, which means we have to actually bump against other people, bump up against other people who have ideas that we don't share, and listen to them. Right now we don't listen. Everything is an echo chamber. Everybody is absolutely certain. And there's an old great jurist named Learned Hand. Could there be a better name for a judge than Learned Hand?
BURNSAnd he said, "Liberty is never being too sure you're right." Where's the doubt? Where's the questioning? Where's the study? Where is the fact that we can agree to a certain set of values that are embodied in our conception, in our inception and in our development, and that we can take these things and move forward. And it doesn't mean you have to be a liberal or a conservative. It means you just have to be an American.
REHMAnd part of the problem has become that everybody who goes to college, who is fortunate enough to go to college is encountering the loss within those colleges of humanities studies. Those studies are being slowly, slowly eliminated.
BURNSEroded. You know, I had an experience very early on in my professional life, Diane, where I was raising money and I met an executive from a blue chip, you know, Fortune 500 company, just a senior vice president. And he took me out to lunch and he sighed and he said, you know, I wish I had more of you. I've got all these new MBAs -- this is the late '70s. And he said, they don't know how to write a letter. They don't know about history. They don't understand ethics. I can teach you what you need to know about business and all of those things. I can't teach them the ethics, the literature, the history, the things that used to be stuff that we all held in common.
BURNSAnd, you know, I'm not trying to go back to some earlier simpler time when there were just three networks and we all sort of basically got the same thing. That is gone and done with. But what we need to do is rededicate ourselves. As Lincoln was pleading at Gettysburg in the middle of the Civil War, we need to rededicate ourselves to those principles that brought us to this moment, that have delivered us, you know, as he said, the last best hope of Earth. And then, you know, we'll save our country. But unless we -- if we don't do that, we don't have a chance to save our country.
REHMHere's an email from Alex, who says, "How do you think we can do a better job of teaching history to children in our schools?"
BURNSIt is -- the word history is mostly made up of the word story, plus hi. So you walk in and you say hi, let me tell you some stories. And then you have history. And that's what you do. If you suddenly think that you've got to hit benchmarks so that everybody knows it's this event and this thing happened, that stuff will come along. If you tell a good story, there is nothing that will be lost in a child's imagination at any age group. And so that's what we've done. And people told us, oh, no one will look at a film about the Brooklyn Bridge, that was my first film.
BURNSAnd, you know, as they said, an hour? Shouldn't it be five or six minutes? And I said, oh, I'm having hard time keeping it to an hour. And millions did. And so too with the Civil War and some of these other things. If you remember that the way human beings communicate to one another is with stories, we live in a complex, overwhelming universe that seems chaotic and random. And what we do is we tell stories to one another. We superimpose the frame of a narrative.
BURNSHoney, how was your day, does not begin, I backed slowly down the driveway, avoiding the garbage can at the curb. Unless, of course, somebody T-bones you and that's exactly the way you tell it. What we do is we edit human experience, the seeming random chaos of events, and we put a frame around it. Sometimes it's the artist's frame, sometimes it's the storyteller's frame. But we put a frame around it and that's what we have to do with our kids. We have to go in and light them on fire. Not just with history, but with literature and all the other subjects.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Ken Burns, I want to play a clip here from the President and first lady, who are talking about Jackie Robinson.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAI think any time you're involved in an endeavor that involves enormous stress, finding yourself questioned in terms of whether you should be where you are, to be able to go back and have refuge with someone who you know loves you and you know has your back, you know, that's priceless.
MICHELLE OBAMAJust being able to find that solace and that peace to withstand all the negative energy, you know, it's hard to do that alone. So there's nothing more important than family, then a real partnership, which is probably what made him such a great man. Because he had the judgment to find a partner that -- well, I think that's true.
OBAMAI mean, I think that's a sign of his character, that he chose a woman that was his equal. I don't think you would have Jackie Robinson without Rachel.
REHMDo you agree with that comment?
BURNSI do. And it was one of the most moving moments of my professional life to be able, obviously, to have the great honor to interview the president of the United States and the first lady. I had seen that Jackie Robinson, in 1947, had gone through a door no other African American had ever gone through. He could not have gone through that door without the loving support of his wife, Rachel, who's still alive, '94, a formidable force of nature and a great contributor to our film.
BURNSAnd so when the president had agreed to the interview, I had an opportunity to ask the first lady if she would also participate. And she did. And I think you begin to realize that Barack Obama went through a door that no African American man had ever gone through before, and he would not have been able to go through that door had he not, as they said, you know, somebody who loves you at home and has your back. This is what all of us want.
BURNSThis is what all of us want.
REHMAnd yet, having spoken with Jackie Robinson's daughter, I do know that there was a great deal of stress and hard times that that family went through.
BURNSOh, enormous. Can you imagine? He was asked to turn his cheek for three years. One in the minors and two in the major leagues, against the thousands of racial threats, slice -- slights and abuse that he would face. And he did so with an extraordinary poise. But it was eating him alive.
BURNSAnd what was great is that Rachel was there to witness it, so that they could come home, she said, and then it would not be part of the daily life. And you can tell that this, that the White House is the same way. This president has had opposition only because of the color of his skin. You know, The Onion Magazine, when he was inaugurated said, "Black Man Given Worst Job in World -- in Country." And that's, you know, in large part. But they were able to find a sanctuary at home. And that's what we all want.
REHMI don't want to let you go without hearing a few seconds about your new children's book, titled, "Grover Cleveland, Again."
BURNSOkay. So, Diane, I am the luckiest man on Earth. I am the father of four daughters, 34, 30, 11 and 6. I -- they are my most important co-productions. And when they were four or five I would put them to bed. This is the great, you know, problem of having Ken Burns as your father, drilling them on the presidents. So I would say, George, they'd say, Washington. And I'd say, John, they would say Adams. And when you get to about the middle of the pack, you go, you know, Chester, Arthur, Grover, Cleveland, Benjamin, Harrison, Grover, Cleveland again.
BURNSAnd the girls would squeal with delight as they all committed it. And my youngest now knows it. And so I -- after the first one, Sarah, I said, you know, I got to do a book. And after Lily, I said I got to do a book. And finally, when Olivia, who's 11, memorized it a few years ago, I just said I have to do it. So we started off to do a book. And by the time Willa, my youngest gal, has it committed to memory, we were able to do a history of the presidency in a way that makes them all human.
REHMAnd that is exactly what filmmaker Ken Burns does with each and every film. Ken Burns, I'm so glad to see you and to have known you. And I wish you well.
BURNSThank you so much. The same to you, Diane. And -- but you're not getting away from me that quickly. I'll track you down.
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