Ken Burns' 'The Roosevelts' Explores An American Family's Demons

Sep 10, 2014

Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt did as much to create 20th-century America as any three people linked by blood and marriage.

Teddy was the country's youngest president and an advocate of expansive government, economic reform and America's emergence as a world power. Franklin was his fifth cousin, meaning they shared a shred of DNA from a common great-great-great-great-grandfather; but they shared far more in ambition, conviction and outlook. And Eleanor was a Roosevelt by both birth and marriage. She was Theodore's favorite niece, Franklin's wife and a champion of liberal causes, including civil rights and the United Nations.

On Sunday, PBS launches a seven-night Ken Burns series about them called The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

Burns joins NPR's Robert Siegel to discuss Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor's demons.


Interview Highlights

On how Theodore triumphed over adversity

He's in a family that's susceptible to depression and madness and alcoholism, but he's asthmatic and sickly as a child, not expected to survive childhood. He then suffers this unbelievable emotional blow, losing his wife and his mother in the same house on the same day — Feb. 14. And he flees to the West to sort of remake himself as he had remade his body.

[He] never escaped asthma, but all of his life he's outrunning demons. And if he ever slows down you can feel them sort of enveloping him. Like his favorite niece, Eleanor, who also had to stay in constant motion, this is a dramatic story of trying to avoid that. And Franklin is of course the opposite — he can't outrun his demons because he can't walk.

On Theodore's shame over his New York aristocrat father, who he adored, not having fought in the Civil War

It destabilizes Theodore Roosevelt. His mother was un-Reconstructed [and] wouldn't let her husband fight against her beloved South. ... She's from Georgia. And, you know, this was the man Theodore admired more than anyone else and this failure to go to war is sort of with him all the time and it gives him this very strange outlook. You know, he's reckless on San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill in the Spanish-American War. He pushes his four sons not just to World War I but into combat and danger with unspeakable, tragic consequences. So, you know, as much as we embrace this steam locomotive in trousers that Theodore Roosevelt was, you have to sort of balance it out with this other side of him that is so, in some ways, unstable. And yet, you love him. He's the guy you want to go out and have a beer with.

On Eleanor, who had an alcoholic father, a mother who told her throughout her childhood how unattractive she was and an unfaithful husband

I love Eleanor Roosevelt. She seems like a triumph of the human spirit. How could you possibly escape that childhood, with both parents dying early on and this hopeless situation? Sent with an abusive nurse and alcoholic uncles and pious relatives and feeling responsible for your younger brother who will eventually die in the throes of delirium tremens. This is a great, great story and triumph of the human spirit.

On how Franklin, a polio survivor, used leg braces throughout his presidency, and the strain they caused

It is a remarkable thing. It's sort of hidden from us because he knew that pity, which is what you'd feel, is political poison. And so we think it's sort of a simpler age, but if you just watch — and we've been able to find and piece together the little frames of the arduous attempt, just when they were supposed to turn the camera off and didn't or turned it on a little bit too early — and you see this strain. And then you wonder how it is that he is able to lift us up through the Depression and through the Second World War when he can't lift himself up. ...

Eleanor said, you know, polio never bothered him. He never talked about it. Well, of course it was on his mind all the time.

On Franklin's New Deal as an extension of the Theodore's politics

[Theodore] is a progressive Republican and he's interested in certain policies that are going to help so-called ordinary people. And essentially the baton is handed off to Franklin Roosevelt. And it's summed up — there's a wonderful line in [Franklin's] renomination speech in '36. He says, "Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference."

All three of them would subscribe to that — a kind of passionate, moralistic sense of obligation to lift people up to parity with everyone else. And that you would have a new deal, a fair deal.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt did as much to create 20th century America as any three people linked by blood and marriage. Teddy was the country's youngest president and advocate of expansive government economic reform and America's emergence as a world power. Franklin was his fifth cousin. That means they shared a shred of DNA from a common great-great-great-great-grandfather, but they shared far more in ambition, conviction and outlook. Eleanor was a Roosevelt by both birth and marriage. She was Theodore's favorite niece, Franklin's wife and a champion of liberal causes, civil rights, the United Nations.

On Sunday, PBS launches a seven-night Ken Burns series about them. It's called "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History." And Ken Burns joins us now. Welcome.

KEN BURNS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about Theodore Roosevelt - TR. Not so much a man as a force of nature. And like the other two in your series, a person who triumphs over adversity.

BURNS: This is the story of that. In the case of Theodore Roosevelt, it's most pronounced. He's in a family that susceptible to depression and madness and alcoholism, but he's asthmatic and sickly as a child, not expected to survive childhood. He then suffers this unbelievable emotional blow of losing his wife and his mother in the same house on the same day, February 14th. And he flees to the West to sort of remake himself as he had remade his body - he never escaped asthma. But all of his life he's out running demons and if he ever slows down, you can feel them sort of enveloping him. And like his favorite niece Eleanor, who also had to stay in constant motion, this is a dramatic story of trying to avoid that. And Franklin is of course, the opposite - he can't outrun his demons because he can't walk.

SIEGEL: Theodore Roosevelt adored his father, who was a New York aristocrat and believed in philanthropy and noblesse oblige. But the fact that Theodore Roosevelt's father did not serve in the Civil War is something that really changes American history.

BURNS: It destabilizes Theodore Roosevelt. His mother was unreconstructed -wouldn't let her husband fight against her beloved South...

SIEGEL: She was a Southerner.

BURNS: ...Yeah, she was from Georgia. And you know, this was the man Theodore admired more than anyone else and this failure to go to war is sort of with him all the time, and it gives him this very strange outlook. You know, he's reckless on San Juan Hill and Cattle Hill in the Spanish-American War. He pushes his four sons, not just to World War I, but into combat and danger with unspeakable tragic consequences.

So you know, as much as we embrace the steam locomotive in trousers that Theodore Roosevelt was, you have the sort of balance it out with this other side of him that is so in some ways unstable and yet, you love him - he's the guy you want to go out and have a beer with.

SIEGEL: There's a great line about his sons in the war, that if they weren't fighting in combat he wouldn't think much of them. And if he didn't want them there, they wouldn't think much of him.

BURNS: Yeah. One son said, we have to rather do what father preaches.

SIEGEL: You have many of Theodore Roosevelt's lines read by actors.

Paul Giamatti reads this line on challenges. This is - also gives us some of Theodore Roosevelt's humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY")

PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Theodore Roosevelt) A man has to take advantage of his opportunities, but the opportunities have to come. If there is not war, you don't get the great general. If there is not the great occasion, you don't get the great statesman. If Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). He was a man in search of the conditions for greatness.

BURNS: In search of his own destiny. And it's funny because he proved that you could have a great presidency without having a major crisis.

SIEGEL: Eleanor Roosevelt's adversity was also very intimate - an alcoholic father, a mother who told her throughout her childhood how unattractive she was, a husband who betrayed her with women who, as she would say, could provide him with the uncritical admiration that she couldn't.

Do you think she was a fundamentally unhappy person?

BURNS: I think she was a fundamentally fearful person. I love Eleanor Roosevelt (laughter). She seems like a triumph of the human spirit. How could you possibly escape that childhood, with both parents dying early on and this hopeless situation sent with an abusive nurse and alcoholic uncles, and pious relatives and feeling responsible for your younger brother, who will eventually die in the throes of delirium tremens. And this is a great, great story and triumph of the human spirit.

SIEGEL: Yes. After FDR's death, she really comes into her own and is deeply involved in the creation of the United Nations and in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY")

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men, everywhere. Man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature.

SIEGEL: So we have to explain to our children and grandchildren that we grew up hearing Americans who still spoke like that, actually.

BURNS: Exactly, exactly. And these are all three people to the manner born. And yet, and they had a sort of simple philosophy which I've kind of distilled from my own shorthand, which is, we all do well when we all do well.

SIEGEL: FDR suffered a physical adversity - the pain of surviving polio and concealing his dependence on braces through 13 years of his presidency.

BURNS: It is a remarkable thing. It's sort of hidden from us because he knew that pity, which is what you'd feel, is political poison.

And so we think it's sort of a simpler age, but if you just watch - and we've been able to find and piece together the little frames of the arduous attempt, just when they were supposed to turn the camera off and didn't, or turned it on a little bit too early. And you see the strain and then you wonder how it is that he is able to lift us up through the Depression and through the second World War when he can't lift himself up.

SIEGEL: You include a clip of FDR. It's near the end of his life. He has returned from Yalta. And this is a very rare moment; he's speaking to people and he is seated.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY")

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: I hope that you will pardon me for an unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me, not having to carry about 10 pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.

SIEGEL: He's been carrying that steel around on his legs for about 20 years. This is the first mention of it.

BURNS: The first acknowledgment. In fact, Eleanor said, you know, polio never bothered him. He never talked about. It wasn't - well, of course it was on his mind all the time.

SIEGEL: As you describe it in the series, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's new deal - that's a huge expansion of the federal government to help get people out of the Great Depression - this was a fulfillment of the politics of Theodore Roosevelt, who although a Republican, had been the man that FDR admired tremendously.

BURNS: Of course, TR is a progressive Republican and he's interested in certain policies that are going to help so-called ordinary people. And essentially, the baton is handed off to Franklin Roosevelt. And it's summed up - there's a wonderful line in his re-nomination speech in '36 - he says, better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

All three of them would subscribe to that - a kind of passionate, moralistic, sense of obligation to lift people up to parity with everyone else and that you would have a new deal; a fair deal.

SIEGEL: Ken Burns, thanks for talking with us about "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," which starts on Sunday on PBS.

BURNS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.