A letter from Ken Burns

“Life is what you make it,” Eleanor Roosevelt once said. “Always has been, always will be.”

In that simple statement there’s an extraordinary optimism, one Eleanor shared with her Uncle Theodore and her husband (and fifth cousin) Franklin. Together, these three people, probably more than anyone in the 20th century, tackled the great public questions of their time, questions that are very much still present in our own lives: What is the role of government? What should a citizen expect of that government? What are the qualities of lasting leadership? What is the correct balance between principle and pragmatism? And for Eleanor in particular, what responsibilities do we have to those less privileged, both at home and throughout the world?

Many of the themes and events covered in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History can be found in our other films. It is after all a history that covers more than 100 years, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. In between there was a Civil War, the end of Slavery, mass immigration, the industrialization of America, two world wars, a great depression and much more.

But just as importantly, this story is an intimate history. It’s the story of an American family. Their lives appear different from the rest of us – their riches, fame and historical importance. But as individuals they battled issues familiar to all of us: betrayal and forgiveness, grief and self-doubt, courage and cowardice, loyalty to family and the need to be one’s own self.

To appreciate just how great this family’s impact on America was, recall that Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were in the White House for nearly 20 of the first 45 years of the 20th century. They created what we think of as the modern presidency and changed forever the relationship between citizens and their government. Their accomplishments were endless, many of them today taken for granted: the end of child labor, pure food and drugs, millions of wild acres of national parks, unemployment compensation and Social Security, and federal commitment to equal opportunity and high empowerment, to name just a few.

For Franklin and Eleanor, beyond the great historic challenges of the Depression and World War II, there was also an unprecedented intellectual and personal partnership. It was often a complicated relationship, as marriages can be, but it was one nonetheless united by respect and common cause, with Eleanor providing a moral compass and Franklin the political craftsmanship to reshape America.

The Roosevelts believed that they had an obligation to help their fellow citizens. They saw public service as the highest calling and frequently spoke about their partnership with America. I had the great honor of working over the last six years with my long-time writing partner, Geoffrey Ward, one of the great Roosevelt scholars of our time. In addition to writing the screenplay for the film, and the companion book, Geoff appears in the film, the first time he has appeared on camera in the many films we’ve made together.

My other partner is Bank of America. Since The War in 2007, Bank of America has provided us with the support that allows us to tell America’s stories. Beyond that, they have also helped us spread the word about these films, encouraging us to engage our fellow citizens in a wide-range of conversations about leadership, the environment, baseball, equality and our country’s collective history.

I’m honored by the confidence Bank of America has in our work. And all of us who make these films are thrilled to know that they – and you – will be with us going forward, with upcoming stories about Jackie Robinson, The Vietnam War, Country Music and Ernest Hemmingway. The Roosevelts – Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor – often spoke about our collective responsibility.

I hope you have a chance to watch The Roosevelts. For more information about the film, and the various ways you can watch it on PBS and their digital platforms, visit the web page: www.pbs.org/theroosevelts.

Thanks for your support,

Ken Burns


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