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Conversation With Ken Burns

The filmmaker, whose latest documentary, ‘The Roosevelts,’ premieres Sept. 14 on PBS, talks about their fears, personal struggles and sense of duty

Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker, "The Roosevelts" film.

David Yellen

Excavating stories from America’s past, filmmaker Ken Burns discovers every day how modern, how contemporary, every moment in history is.

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After the Civil Warbaseball, the national parks and jazz, what drew you to the Roosevelts?

Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are three of the most consequential people in all of American history. They also have a connection to each other, which people rarely explore. This is a complicated family drama.

How were the three related?

Franklin, a Hyde Park Roosevelt, was the fifth cousin of Theodore, an Oyster Bay Roosevelt. Franklin was also the fifth cousin of his wife, Eleanor, who was the daughter of Theodore's younger brother, Elliott.

What were the differences and similarities?

Theodore was a Republican, Franklin was a Democrat, but what they shared in common was amazing. They were able to overcome adversities in their lives; the childhood asthma of Theodore, the infantile paralysis/polio that Franklin got at age 39. They were both great with people. They both had unbounded optimism and a sense of direction. They were concerned with people less fortunate.

We don't imagine rich patricians as fearful, yet overcoming fear is a central theme.

Overcoming fear is the central theme, and it's obviously true with Eleanor. Her father was a hopeless alcoholic and insane. Her mother was incredibly cruel to her. Both were dead before she was 12. She was sent to live with her maternal grandparents, [who were] very severe.

Describe Theodore's escape from depression.

Theodore lost his mother and his wife on the same day, Feb. 14, 1884, in the same house. His wife, Alice, had given birth a couple of days before to their only child. Theodore went to the West, to the Dakotas, and remade himself. He said, "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough." He's saying you can outrun your demons. He and Eleanor had that all of their lives. They had to keep going.

You have alcoholism, depression, rehab, probable ADHD, helicopter mothers, multiple divorces — not how we envision the past!

As someone who has spent almost 40 years trying to excavate stories from American history, the thing that hits me over the head every single day is how modern, how contemporary, how very much like today every moment in history is, and nothing is more so than the story of the Roosevelts.

Few political marriages have been as analyzed as the marriage between FDR and Eleanor. Why did he marry her?

He married her because he loved her. He married her because she had a conscience. He married her because she was really smart and could challenge him.

And he betrayed her.

Yes, he betrayed her once, with Lucy Mercer, but he did not have a harem of mistresses. Franklin and Eleanor were very complex people, and they found a way to go on and become the most formidable husband-and-wife team to occupy the White House ever.

Whom did you like best as a person?

It's hard not to feel that Eleanor was — as my colleague who wrote the film, Geoffrey Ward, said — a testament to the human spirit.

What other president would you like to create an intimate biography for?

I'm working on a mammoth history of the Vietnam War, and one of the most interesting and tragic characters in all of American history is LBJ.