Viewers anticipating “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary epic that previews on PBS Tuesday, June 17 (check local listings), will find themselves treated not only to a healthy helping of early 20th century U.S. history via the exploits of Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the latter’s first lady Eleanor, but also a family drama to rival “Downton Abbey.”
“This is a family that touched more American lives than any other family in American history. Why wouldn’t they be interesting?” Burns tells Zap2it. “And strangely enough, there’s been lots on Theodore and lots on Franklin and lots on Eleanor, but nothing that puts them all together and they were all born with the last name Roosevelt. And so it is a very complex, interrelated family drama, as well as an access to 104 years – from 1858 to 1962 – of the most interesting time in American history.”
Each, says Burns, had their demons to overcome. Theodore, who was chief executive from 1901 to 1909, had asthma and and other physical infirmities as a child, and suffered the dual traumas of losing his mother and his wife on the same day and in the same Manhattan house. His nephew Franklin, the president from 1933 to 1945, suffered from infantile paralysis due to polio from age 39 until his death at 63. And Eleanor, Teddy’s favorite niece and Franklin’s fifth cousin, grew up an orphan who struggled with insecurity, shyness and fear for much of her life.
And, Burns argues, it was these demons that drove these three people to excel in public service.
“(They) are at the center of what it means to be Americans,” he says. “It’s the center of our story. Everything that they dealt with then is topical now. What is the role of government? What can the citizen expect of the government? What is the nature of leadership? How does character form leadership? … What’s the nature of heroism? Isn’t heroism, in fact, a very complex negotiation, sometimes war between a person’s very obvious strengths and their equal and perhaps not so obvious weaknesses? (So this story) has three of the most amazing human beings you’ll want to get to know.”