1. Opinion

Column: TR and FDR couldn't get elected today

Writer Geoffrey Ward, left, and Ken Burns discuss their seven-part documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.
Writer Geoffrey Ward, left, and Ken Burns discuss their seven-part documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.
Published Oct. 6, 2014

After binge-watching Ken Burns' 14-hour documentary on the Roosevelts, I moved through the world at its deliberate pace. I was scheduled to meet Burns for breakfast and panned across the restaurant looking for him the way his camera helps you find a young FDR in a Harvard group photo. A trusted narrator in my head described the scene, accompanied by a piano. I expected David McCullough would be letting us know about the specials on the menu.

The pace quickened upon contact. Ken Burns is not like a Ken Burns film. He is fast-moving and speaks in riffs, nearly the linguistic opposite of his carefully constructed documentaries. Over 45 minutes our conversation touched on Harry Potter, the shooting in Ferguson, Vietnam, the Affordable Care Act, money in politics, shredded attention, restraint, the press, Mitch McConnell, Tolstoy, Ecclesiastes, steroids in baseball, the missing Malaysian airliner, and the nature of art.

And yet we still had time for the crowded lives of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the more than 100 years of American history contained in The Roosevelts, which aired last month on PBS. Despite the range of subjects we covered, our conversation was mostly about pace. Burns is in a great hurry to get people to slow down. He would like them to watch 14-hour documentaries, of course, but also to understand the complexity and tensions at the heart of history. It makes for more meaningful lives, he believes, and a better understanding of events, including the ones unfolding before us in the present.

"We are in a media culture where we are buried in information but we know nothing," said Burns. "Because of that superficiality, we expect heroes to be perfect, but they're not. They are a strange combination of strengths and weaknesses."

He points to two of his main characters as examples. "Franklin and Theodore couldn't get out of the Iowa caucuses (today). Franklin is too infirm. CNN and Fox would be vying for the worst images of him unlocking the braces, the sweat pouring off his brow, the obvious pain and that kind of pity that it would engender would be political poison. And Theodore is just too hot for the new medium of television. There would be 10 'Howard Dean' moments a day."

It's impossible not to think about these two presidents in the modern context, because the issues of the last century are the issues of today. What is the role of government? What can a citizen expect from that government? What is the right balance between idealism and pragmatism? How does character shape leadership? How does adversity shape character?

Teddy Roosevelt and his fifth cousin expanded the modern presidency and put the federal government to work for the people in a way it never had been before. "The Constitution was made for the people, not the people for the Constitution," TR said.

It is sometimes said that presidents make their own weather. This may be a fanciful understanding of the power of the office, but if this theory has any merit, it is in part because of these two men. When President Barack Obama is criticized for not using his power to do more, he can blame 26 and 32 for setting such a high standard.

Times were different. As Burns points out, the Roosevelts could never get elected in today's political world. Still, there is also a relentless activity from both Roosevelt presidents that makes it hard to imagine that, if they did win office, they would be stymied by today's political gridlock. "They reveled in the contact sport of political persuasion," said Burns. They might fail in confronting their adversaries, but the effort would be spectacular.

Both Roosevelts were always on the move, clashing with the prevailing order, whether it was the party bosses or members of Congress. They often won. FDR had the Depression to create the sense of crisis that gave him free rein, but Teddy Roosevelt had no such calamity. He worried about that, saying that Lincoln would have been a forgettable president without the Civil War.

Teddy had no such war, and yet we still talk about his bully pulpit and quote his aphorism about carrying a big stick when talking about presidential power. He took on the monopolies, threatened to send federal troops to operate the coal mines, and battled for the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

You'd love to see Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson in a cage match for toughest president. Both men survived being shot at by assassins, but Roosevelt was actually hit by a bullet and then gave an hourlong speech, opening his shirt to show the growing bloom of blood. The opening lines of his remarks? "Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose."

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of "On Her Trail." © 2014 Slate