National Press Club

Ken Burns promotes new PBS series about the Roosevelts at Club Luncheon

September 16, 2014 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver |

Ken Burns speaks at a Club Luncheon.

Ken Burns speaks at a Club Luncheon.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Documentarian Ken Burns returned to the Club Sept. 15 to promote his new PBS series, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

"The Roosevelts" is a seven-part look at Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that is running on PBS stations through Sept. 20.

“We are dealing with a century -- 104 years -- an American century – in a place and a time where so much of the modern world was created and these three people are as responsible for that world as anybody that I know,” Burns said. “No other family has touched as many Americans as the Roosevelts.”

An honorary Press Club member, Burns received his new membership card along with the traditional mug at the end of the luncheon from Club President Myron Belkind.

Burns said his project shows the Roosevelts to be a “complicated Russian novel” with “dozens of secondary and tertiary characters.”

There is an “avalanche of information about the Roosevelts,” Burns said. “One of the default positions of this excess of information is we tend to form superficial, conventional wisdom about the subjects we think we know about.”

All three Roosevelts dealt with the press, Burns said. Eleanor held twice-weekly press conferences with only women reporters. Franklin, who had been an editor of the Harvard Crimson and considered himself a newspaper man, held 998 press conferences while president from 1933 to 1945.

“Theodore (was) equally adept at manipulating the press and making them feel like they were friends, ushering him into his private world,” Burns said. “He would often confide to the reporter the reason he criticized them so heavily had less to do with the writing than with the SOB who owned the paper.”

Burns said he wasn't sure that either Theodore or Franklin “could have gotten out of Iowa” in today’s media climate, he said, referring to the first-in-the-nation caucuses in presidential elections. The media would have been distracted by Franklin’s struggles with polio, he said, as well as Theodore's temper that could have resulted in "10 Howard Dean moments a day.” Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean sought the Democratic nomination president in 2004 and had a meltdown after losing in Iowa.

Theodore was the most fun, Burns said. “I invite you to revel in all of the great strengths and delights of getting to know Theodore Roosevelt," he said. "Of the three he’s definitely the person you go out and have a beer with or drive across the country with.”