In a moment of crisis, history provides us with inspiration, direction, clarity and solace. Filmmaker Ken Burns understands this and has been generously directing PBS to stream many of his great documentary series at pbs.org, beginning with “Baseball.” Now he adds to the streaming library with “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” a multigenerational tale of leadership featuring Presidents Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, distant cousins and uncle and nephew by marriage as FDR married Teddy’s favorite niece, Eleanor, a woman who was a formidable politician and human rights activist in her own right.
Both men presided over key moments in U.S. history – Teddy overseeing American global expansion at the turn of the 20th century, particularly with the building of the Panama Canal; and FDR steering us through the Great Depression and World War II. Among the most wonderful moments in the series occurs when historian and biographer Jon Meacham describes FDR’s leadership skills, never greater, he says, than in the run-up to World War II. FDR took a frightened, economically depressed country with an army the size of Sweden’s and, in Meacham’s words, “got us there.”
Neither Roosevelt president was unflawed. Teddy’s strong-headed oldest child, Alice, would remark that her egotistical father was the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral, particularly when he was president. Indeed when Teddy gave Eleanor away at her wedding to FDR on St. Patrick’s Day 1905, everyone was so interested in being with him that the bride and groom were left to fend for themselves.
FDR in turn hurt Eleanor deeply by having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. But the qualities that made the Roosevelts personally challenging also enabled them to succeed on the world stage. “The Roosevelts” is an unforgettable viewing experience of a crucial time and a fascinating family, and it comes with educational materials perfect for the digital classroom and at-home schooling. PBS Learning Media, a free service that provides thousands of contextualized learning materials aligned to state and national standards, will offer educators nationwide resources timed to the rerelease of these films in the “Ken Burns Classroom” hub. This includes a library of videos, interactive media and other materials to help students further explore the complex historical events and issues illustrated in the films. Burns will also participate in teacher forums and online discussions with students.
Burns’s UNUM, a site that uses clips from many of the director’s films to explore the connections between history and current events, will also develop thematic playlists looking at evergreen themes from the series.
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— Georgette Gouveia