Ken Burns, whose film series have illuminated American history on PBS for decades (The Civil War, The National Parks, Jazz, Baseball and on and on), is arguably the leading documentarian of our time. Now he and his talented team from Walpole, N.H., have completed The Roosevelts, a 14-hour series that will spread over seven successive nights next fall, two hours of prime time per night. A few weeks later the nation will hold a mid-term election.
Burns is well aware that his films have had timely political effects, though he says the timing is always accidental. Prohibition, for example, is a cinematic polemic that aired in 2011 and may have affected public opinion on the subject of the current prohibition against pot–and contributed to recent state campaigns to end it.
Recently Burns put an hour and 15 minutes of excerpts from The Roosevelts on display in Warm Springs, GA before a family reunion of 160 descendants and spouses of the Oyster Bay (Teddy) and Hyde Park (Franklin and Eleanor) branches of the Roosevelt clan. Warm Springs, an hour and a half from Atlanta, is home to FDR’s “Little White House” and also the Roosevelt Institute for Rehabilitation that FDR founded to assist sufferers of polio and now serves handicapped persons generally.
It’s evident from the excerpts shown in Warm Springs that The Roosevelts–focused on both branches–has a perspective that will not be lost on viewers in advance of next year’s Congressional elections. Burns, an ardent Democrat, sees in his lead figures three leaders who loved America greatly, but the Constitution rather less. In the first half of the 20th century they believed that the Constitution should be stretched to accommodate the needs of a changing society.
This is hardly a novel dogma in the liberal faith, of course. In my own memory I hear Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., associate professor of American Intellectual History at Harvard and his lubricious nasalities on this theme. Liberals are ever impatient with Constitutional checks on executive authority, especially when a liberal is the executive. So they are happy to claim Theodore Roosevelt the trust buster and Bull Moose as well as FDR who tried to pack the Supreme Court that resisted his New Deal. And they love Eleanor, the unelected queen of the United Nations and late night confidant of Hillary Clinton.
You cannot argue with the Burns saga as it applies to Franklin and Eleanor, or even with how it applies to much of TR’s career. And you also can’t judge a 14-hour series on a hour plus of excerpts (as Burns took pains to insist to the Roosevelt families). And to his credit, Burns’ treatment of TR’s 1912 Progressive Party campaign does make it clear that while he and Wilson both opposed the trusts of the time, Wilson wanted to bust them, while TR wanted to regulate them. He also doesn’t try to escape the history that TR made the US into a major military power. But it will be interesting to see in the series as it airs in full how Burns covers TR’s return to the Republican fold after 1912 and the speculation–before he died suddenly in 1919–that he was the most likely GOP candidate for president in 1920.
Regardless, if some hope that The Roosevelts will make people of the 21st century conclude that our Constitution needs even more elasticity, and that the Democrats of the Obama Inquisition are just the ones to put it on the rack again, they may be disappointed. This series was developed several years ago when Obama was still fresh and issues like Obamacare seemed chic and exciting. Now their prospects are about as good as those of, say, Democratic progressivism after World War I. In 2014 it may be hard to find many Congressional candidates in either party willing to advocate openly for a more powerful presidency.
The Roosevelts is to be a memorable visual treat, with such signature Burns film techniques as still photos achieving fluidity as the camera moves over them and actors reading family letters to sustain the personal, somewhat sentimental stories of participants. It is Burns’s treat, to be sure, and not the only version of history. But it is his art and he deserves respect for it.
As for the Roosevelts, history is where they reside, not in contemporary politics. Fortunately, that history is entertaining as it is significant.