The Thrill and the Honor of Participating in Ken Burns' The Roosevelts

"It was my crowded hour!" 

Theodore Roosevelt on July 2, 1898—the day he led the charge up San Juan Hill.

The response to Ken Burns' latest documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History has been overwhelming. All credit to Ken Burns, who is a genius, and Geoffrey Ward, who has been researching and writing Ken's scripts for many years, and who is the shining star of "talking heads" in this 14-hour epic about TR, Eleanor (his niece) and FDR (TR's 5th cousin).

Working with Ken Burns has been one of the principal honors of my life. I was one of the talking heads in his documentary on Jefferson (1998), and an historical adviser to the film. I was in The National Parks: America's Best Idea. And now I have had the joy of being a commentator about Theodore Roosevelt in this film.

The wonderful outpouring of congratulations and praise I have received has moved me beyond my ability to describe. It is so strange looking at a television screen, seeing George Will, Dorris Kearns Goodwin, H.W. Brands, Patricia O'Toole, and others giants of our time, and then suddenly seeing myself. It's a little disorienting, and of course I half blush and half cringe to see a: what I said; b: how I said it: c: how it fits into the larger context of the film.

I was interviewed several years ago for the film, at Ken's home and studio in Walpole, New Hampshire. One sits in a chair about three feet from Burns, with a film camera rolling and a separate audio track, and there is no rehearsal, no hint of what he might ask. He just starts with some provocative statement, and his questions, his penetration, his visual responses, his followups, all bring out of the interviewee (or at least this one) much more than we came to say or thought we had in us.

Then you leave for the airport, cursing the day you were born, wishing you had said that differently, and thisbetter, and that more succinctly. Whenever I come home from Walpole, I write a formulaic letter begging for a second interview. This never happens. Ken says, "The best way to stay off the cutting room floor is to 'stick the landing.'" 

After that, you (or at least I) actually half forget that I was interviewed at all. And I assume that what I had to say, even if it helped to inform the script, would surely have wound up on the cutting room floor.

Finally, often several years later, when the film airs on public television, I like everyone else have to watch to see what's in it. As someone who makes documentary films himself, I am always astonished by Burns' genius as an editor.

Frankly, I wish in The Roosevelts I had said a few things I did not, and wish I had not said, or said differently, a few things that wound up in the film. In particular, I wish I had softened a little my statement that Roosevelt was a killer. He WAS a killer, to be sure, and in some ways a jingoist and a warmonger, but that needs to be contextualized very carefully before it can fully make sense. TR lived in a more "heroic" age than ours, and it was still widely felt then that war was the grand test of a man's character and a nation's destiny. TR's thirst to kill quadrupeds was not so much bloodlust (though perhaps there was some of that) as a desire to dominate the world around him. The same dynamics that characterized Roosevelt led Europe into the most disastrous war in its history in 1914. Millions of young man sang and exulted as they marched off to bloody and muddy death in the trenches.

At any rate, there is so much more to admire in TR than to criticize--it's a shame to spend much time questioning his actions or motives. He is one of the most fascinating, most exuberant, most energetic, curious, questing, intelligent, and well-read men of American history. He is so much larger than life that the phrase doesn't do him justice.

I feel honored to have had the opportunity to study him, and to be one of those to try to make sense of him for America's greatest documentary filmmaker.

Two people have contacted me to tease me for using the phrase "writingest president." One of them is one of my dearest friends, my old secretary Naomi Brooker of Grass Valley, CA. The other is an Australian woman I have never met, who said, "at least you did not say threepeat!" I stand by my phrase, though I actually borrowed it from one of the greatest historians of our time, Donald Jackson, who wrote about Lewis and Clark as "the writingest explorers of all time."

I've reconnected with old lost friends in the last few days, and made some new ones. Two of the historians I most respect in the world have taken the time to write letters of praise. I'm on cloud nine, humbled, moved deeply, and of course RESOLVED to get better, learn more, master more, become better read and better educated, and to make this one of the moments which increase one's creative life rather than cap it.

I think this is Ken Burns' best film ever, no thanks to me, and that the episodes on FDR and Eleanor are, if anything, dramatically better than those on Theodore.

Again, to all of you, heartfelt thanks. Bully.

Further Reading:

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
by Edmund Morris

Mornings on Horseback
by David McCullough

Theodore Roosevelt: The Strenuous Life
by Kathleen Dalton