Cable news networks would not allow for Teddy Roosevelt or Franklin Delano Roosevelt to become POTUS today, the creators of PBS’ new Roosevelt family documentary suggested at TCA today. Teddy was too eccentric, and FDR was stricken with polio.
“I’m not sure they could have been president now,” Geoffrey Ward, an authority on FDR and longtime Ken Burns collaborator, told TV critics at Summer Press Tour, where they’d come to plug The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. “TR was very eccentric, and FDR was physically helpless, and in the modern world in which everything is fair game. … I think TV cameras would compete with each other to see who could get the most ‘helpless’ footage of FDR.” Ward said he doubted the U.S. will ever see another physically challenged president.
FDR was maybe the most press-accessible president, holding nearly 1,000 news conferences during his White House tenure, Burns and Ward said. The press “understood” they were not to write about FDR’s polio or vie for the “worst-looking Roosevelt” shot and wrote “more substantive pieces” than they might have otherwise, the producers said.
Asked why, then, they had scoured various sources to find footage of Roosevelt struggling with his polio-stricken limbs – Burns mentions spending a great deal of money after the documentary was wrapped after discovering four seconds of footage of FDR struggling to get off a train in Bismarck, ND — Burns responded, “We’ve got an obligation to do that,” because it illustrates what an effort it was for FDR to get through a day and speaks to his character.
Noting there was controversy as to whether the FDR memorial in Washington should show him in his wheelchair, Ward seconded the notion the world should see how hard FDR worked to deal with his physical affliction, “so anything we can do to show that, I’m proud to have done.”
Various members of the political dynasty have popped up in Burns previous docus, on America’s national parks, Prohibition, the Civil War, etc., but this is the first time the two presidents and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s stories have been woven into one narrative by the filmmaker. The 14-hour program, premiering September 14 and running seven consecutive nights, runs from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. In between, Theodore was elected president and his niece, Eleanor married her fifth cousin, Franklin, who became president.
The docu, Burns said, “is a fairly complex narrative — we’re asking questions: What is the role of government, what is the nature of leadership?”
In what PBS chief Paula Kerger called “an experiment,” each episode will be repeated the night of its unveiling, and there will be a daytime marathon the weekend of September 20-21. PBS also will make available all of the episodes, via streaming, the day after the first episode debuts.