• Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania
  • Theodore Roosevelt campaigning in the 1912 presidential election

Ken Burns came to the Francis W. Parker School Tuesday night to talk first to aspiring high school documentarians and then to an auditorium of PBS fans (most of whom were about as old as you would imagine) about his new documentary miniseries, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. I belong to neither demographic, but I was there too, because I have loved Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin for about as long as I’ve been able to read about them. In this, I was not alone; there were members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association there, and also one woman who proudly announced that she worked at Roosevelt University and had named her daughter Eleanor.

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  • Eleanor in 1944

What is it about the Roosevelts that makes us love them so much? Because they are lovable, some of the most lovable characters in American political history. Theodore was boisterous and adventurous and funny, Eleanor was principled and good, and Franklin, in addition to navigating the nation through the Depression and World War II, was a master at getting shit done while maintaining a cheerful facade. There’s all the inspirational stuff too, the overcoming of illness (in the case of Theodore and Franklin) and an epically crappy childhood (Eleanor), but the wonderful thing about them was that they didn’t dwell on these tragedies, at least not publicly. They dealt with them, learned from them, and moved on with their unusually eventful lives. As Theodore liked to say, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”

They all were, of course, far more complicated than they let on to the public.

“They’re exponentially more interesting when they’re combined into a family drama,” Burns said. “It’s potent and dramatic. The inner dynamics they churn up are universal.” (For the non-Roosevelt obsessives, Eleanor was Theodore’s niece and Franklin’s fifth cousin as well as his wife. Eleanor’s father was also Franklin’s godfather. When Eleanor and Franklin married, Theodore, who gave the bride away, said, “Well, Franklin, there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.”)

Burns claimed that this is the first combined biography of all three Roosevelts. This is not strictly true—The Three Roosevelts by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn came out in 2000—but this is the first time it’s been done on such a grand scale, with 14 hours of TV over seven consecutive nights, plus an companion doorstop of a book, cowritten by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote two excellent books about prepresidential FDR, Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament. The time frame spans more than a century, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. Burns and his crew spent seven years on the project, as he puts it, “distilling” everything that they learned into 14 hours.

  • FDR Presidential Library
  • Franklin at home in Hyde Park, New York, in 1937

In format, The Roosevelts is not a great departure from the usual Burns style. There’s a lot of panning and scanning of old photos (some of which have never been seen before by the public), old film clips (ditto), old-timey music, stately narration (from Peter Coyote), and actors reading letters. (Meryl Streep plays Eleanor, Edward Herrmann Franklin, and Paul Giamatti Theodore, though, perhaps to preserve a sense of presidential dignity, he speaks at a lower pitch than may be historically accurate.) There’s also an impressive roster of historian talking heads—one of Burns’s interns calculated they have 1,350 years of postgraduate expertise between them—including Ward, H.W. Brands, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, and David McCullough, whose book about Theodore’s early life, Mornings on Horseback, is probably my all-time favorite Roosevelt biography. (Curiously, Burns doesn’t seem to have consulted Edmund Morris, whose biography of TR fills three volumes, or Blanche Wiesen Cook, whose two-volume biography of Eleanor controversially suggested that she’d had a lesbian relationship with her friend Lorena Hickok. For the record, Burns says that while Eleanor and Hick had a romantic friendship, at least based on their letters, there’s no historical evidence that they ever went to bed together.)

Although he threatened to screen the entire 14 hours—”You’ll be out by nine tomorrow morning!” he promised—Burns contented himself by showing 24 minutes of clips from the introduction and both Theodore and Franklin’s assumptions of the presidency and then answered questions. There were a lot. It seemed like his favorite was from a Parker student who wanted to know how one went about suggesting documentary topics to him (she thought he should do one about political campaigning, culminating with 2012) and which ones he heard about most often.

“Number one is—wait for it—the railroads,” Burns said. “Number two is labor. But if you’ve got one, just send a letter to me in Walpole, New Hampshire. That’s all it takes.”

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  • Ken Burns

The Roosevelts begins Sunday, September 14, at 7 PM on WTTW (Channel 11). It will also be streaming online starting Monday.