This morning I chatted with Ken Burns, the maestro behind the landmark documentaries "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz." His latest project, "The Roosevelts," debuts this weekend.
Burns, who no longer smokes cigars but enjoyed them in his younger days (he told me his greatest meal ever, in Paris, ended with a fine smoke) has worked for the past seven years on this project, a seven-part series that looks deeply into the lives of Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"They are intertwined," he said. "No Theodore, no Franklin."
Asked what linked the men besides their famous names, he called each of them "champions of the working man." He spoke of the challenges each of them (and FDR's famous first lady, Eleanor, who also is a major part of this series) faced in life. Theodore lost his wife and mother on the same day, February 14, 1884, writing "the light has gone out of my life" in his diary. FDR overcame polio as a young boy. Eleanor was orphaned at the age of 10.
"They're all wounded people," Burns said. "We often find that greatness comes in the crucible of loss."
Ironically, Burns feels that these standout presidents would not have made it in today's world, under the glare of a 24-hour news cycle and constant media attention. Theodore Roosevelt would have had "10 Howard Dean moments a day," he said, while he believed FDR's physical struggles would have been exploited as a weakness by his political opponents.
"The sad thing is these are two of the greatest presidents we ever had," he said, "and I'm not sure they would make it out of the Iowa caucuses today."
"The Roosevelts, An Intimate History," begins Sunday night at 8 p.m. on PBS.