The Documentarian

A conversation with Ken Burns, the 2016 Jefferson Lecturer

HUMANITIES, Spring 2016, Volume 37, Number 2

WILLIAM D. ADAMS: Ken Burns! Thank you for accepting our invitation to be the Jefferson Lecturer. We’re really looking forward to it.

KEN BURNS: It’s a tremendous honor, and I will do everything I can to live up to your enormous trust in me.

ADAMS: I know you will. So, it’s our fiftieth anniversary, and it’s now 37 years since our first grant to you for Brooklyn Bridge. How has the relationship evolved over time and how has the agency evolved?

BURNS: I came in when Joe Duffey ran NEH, and have been through Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney and many others. The agency takes on, in some ways, superficially, the personality of its leader, of course. Yet there’s a fundamental sameness about it, too, this rigorously earned imprimatur that a successful application means. It meant the same thing back in 1979 as it did last year. We’re devoting the same blood, sweat, and tears to proving to our peers and an academic panel that our idea is worthy.

Our most important moment came perhaps when I wanted to make a film on Huey Long, and a professor at LSU interested me in the project. He’d been turned down by NEH. And, after reading the proposal, I could see why. But I was drawn to the subject and said, “Look, if you want to give it to me, I’ll do it. But I’ve got to do my own work.”

At that time, the Endowment was resistant to biography. I think part of it was the very real anxieties about hagiography, that it wasn’t the business of the United States to exalt individual people.

ADAMS: Right.

BURNS: My argument was, is, that history, as Thomas Carlyle argued, is biography. That it is possible, without being seduced by the individual you’re covering, to understand the way in which that individual shaped the age but, more importantly, the way that person reflected the age.

Our Huey Long proposal to NEH had to be that much better because we were swimming upstream, and I was happy to hear 10 or 15 years later that some program officers were still sending out that proposal as a model. And, of course, that rule about biography has been relaxed.

ADAMS: Absolutely.

BURNS: It’s always been a part of your mission to insist on critical thinking, in regard to biography and everything else.

A lot of my colleagues complain and moan about the process.

ADAMS: They’re not alone.

BURNS: The second they’ve got a film project that doesn’t have anything to do with the humanities, there’s a “whew.” But on those other projects we still arm ourselves with scholars and advisers. We submit ourselves to the same rigors you demand, and why wouldn’t we?

It makes the films better. The folks who go kicking and screaming into these rules and regulations forget that all of this helps to center your project. Nobody is trying to take away your artistic agency.

We’ve found also that film can contain a multiplicity of perspectives, whether in a film about the Civil War, or about jazz, or about Vietnam, without being boringly mediocre. At the same time, it can speak to all Americans, which ought to be part of our mission.

ADAMS: Another part of our mission at NEH is preservation. Could you talk a little bit about your use of archives?

BURNS: I can’t imagine what I would do without them. I started filming archives right from the beginning, old photographs and paintings and drawings and lithographs. And the envelope with the address written in the cursive of the time, the stamp, the cancellation. All of those have a kind of graphic power and meaning.

It was my intention always to take an old photograph and treat it the way a feature filmmaker would a long shot—a master shot that contained within it a long, a medium, a close, a tilt, a pan, a reveal, a zoom-out—all in an attempt to try to will that old photograph to life.

We spend a good deal of time visiting hundreds of archives. And trying to bring back the best. It’s like having an apron, and you’ve just seen an orchard that is filled with magnificent fruit. But you can only take with you as much as your apron can hold. How do you choose?

It’s been my life’s work to try to wake these photographs up. We trust that they had a past and a future. If there’s a cart rolling in the scene, now with modern sound you can make that sound move from left to right. Or the same with cannonballs firing or ice cubes in a glass, clinking.

It is more than just a visual exploration. It’s also an oral thing aided by, we hope, cogent use of the English language, appreciating the power in the English language, not the uniform terseness that has gotten into a lot of film writing.

ADAMS: So it’s the sound archive as well as the visual archive?

BURNS: Very much so. And you supplement that, as I have, not just with that third-person narrator, but with a chorus of voices reading first-person testimony, which gives you a sense of the style and articulation of that past moment. It’s a phenomenal tool, if done right.

ADAMS: I’m very worried that we’re losing a feel for and a commitment to history and the teaching of history. Do you think that’s happening, and, if so, what are the consequences?

BURNS: I think that started when we changed from teaching history to social studies. And we completely lost civics. It isn’t just that there are three branches of government and one hundred senators. Civics is the glue of how human beings get along.

If you combine that with two phenomena, you can see what’s happening. One is a consumer society, which is trying to convince you that if you just wear the right blue jeans or drive the right car or smell the right way or have this right body, everything will be all right.

But it will not be all right. The inevitable vicissitudes that visit everyone will visit them, and they’ll be completely unprepared.

The second thing is the Internet. One of the great promises of humankind is also something that has promoted a great atrophy of attention. It’s promoted incivility and doesn’t permit us to live anywhere but in a narcissistic present.

Right now, on the Internet, you can see these now famous on-the-street interviews with Texas Tech students who couldn’t tell you who won the Civil War, who couldn’t say when or from whom the United States declared its independence, who couldn’t name the vice president of the United States, but they knew every bold-faced name. I mean, we fought a revolution to take the bold off of typeface and make us all equal. But now we’ve resubmitted to a tyranny in which I think history and the humanities are the only way out, at least a bulwark against the entropy this inattention and slavish devotion to celebrity promotes.

ADAMS: It leads me to ask about a passion of yours, and that’s the topic of race. I wonder, How does history matter as we grapple with life since Ferguson?

BURNS: Let me just back up and say that I don’t go looking for the question of race. It’s just there.

The first theme in American history is freedom, but you quickly find out that the guy who wrote the American creed, that “all men are created equal,” owned more than a hundred human beings and didn’t see the hypocrisy.

I get a great deal of mail. I would characterize some of it as hate mail from people who think that I “black up” American history. And I’m taken aback by that.

After the inauguration of Barack Obama, there was, “Now can we stop talking about it? We’re done with this.” I said, “No, no, wait and see. It will get worse.” And it has.

When we think about slavery, we just assume that Americans respond with charity and atonement, that we are like the slaver who gives it all up and writes Amazing Grace. But, in fact, a not insignificant portion of us react with anger and bitterness and violence to the guilts, the “old guilts,” as Robert Penn Warren called them.

I’ve just finished a film on Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson is addressing Ferguson. Jackie Robinson is addressing everything that’s been going on in our newspapers for the last few years.

Now, perhaps sadly, people aren’t saying to me, “Ken, it’s not about race anymore.” I’ve had people come and say, “You were right.”

When an African American is killed almost every day by a policeman in America, when you see the warehousing that goes on in our prisons, you see the kind of Internet trolling of the president that takes place for only one reason, the color of his skin. When you see the new subtle code words of the birthers or “I don’t know if he’s a Christian” or “He’s not one of us,” it’s just another way of saying the N-word.

History is a table around which we can still have a civil discourse. So that Jackie, like most films we’ve worked on, I think, has the possibility of being a kind of Trojan horse that gets a real conversation going where the heat of the present moment might prevent that.

You know, we just had an incident when a fight broke out over integrating a swimming pool in Texas. Well, Jackie had that. We talk about driving while black. Jackie had that. We talk about the disproportionate arrests of young African-American males. Jackie had that.

And it continues. In 1974, Hank Aaron was getting thousands of letters a day, much of it hate mail, as he was on the verge of breaking the cherished homerun record of Babe Ruth. And we don’t do a very good job of talking about it.

After the Charleston massacre, I was very upset. I was actually on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard with my family, and I just wept. My little girls were stunned. I called up Mayor Riley, and I said, you know, “What can we do?” He said, “Come.”

I thought it would be presumptuous of me to come and lecture about race, so I took my friend Skip Gates. We are both finishing films, our Jackie Robinson film, his is on Martin Luther King. People came and filled a 1,800-seat auditorium, and we said, “Look, it’s not enough to remove the Confederate flag.”

Symbols are important, and that’s a hugely important symbol. But we’ve got to continue to have a conversation, and I don’t know how. People even mock the notion of conversations today. But we wanted to talk deeply about what race meant in Charleston.

Nobody is trying to take anybody’s history away. That Confederate flag was a symbol not of the Civil War era, but of resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. So that’s a no-brainer. We’re just taking away the symbol of your resistance to what the American creed is, that all men are created equal.

But we’re not trying to take away legitimate history. We just want to expand it. You know, when Carter Woodson created Black History Month, he thought it would be a temporary thing. Well, we’re still insisting on segregating African-American history into our coldest and shortest month, as if it’s some politically correct addenda to our national narrative and not, as it appears, the burning heart of it.

ADAMS: Ferguson made me aware in a new way of the importance of revisiting history in light of contemporary events. That the contemporary pushes us back and deepens our connection with the past.

BURNS: With every film I’ve made, one of the things that leaves you gobsmacked in the editing room is just how contemporary it all is.

In that is a kind of optimism, too. Friends would say to me when the economy melted down in ‘08 or early ‘09, “This is a depression.” I said, “No, it’s not. In the Depression, in some American cities, the animals in the zoo were shot, and the meat distributed to the poor. When that happens, I’ll agree we’re in a depression.” There you go, history provided a bit of perspective . . . and reassurance.

I had the burden and honor to give a commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis in the spring of 2015 after Ferguson, and I needed Huck and Jim to help me through that. I couldn’t do it without Abraham Lincoln and his “better angels of our nature.” I couldn’t do it without that kind of historical triangulation, knowing that, as the crow flies, Ferguson was but five miles from where I stood.

History provided me with the wherewithal to make some sense of what had taken place, of a senseless act.

ADAMS: So, you’re just finishing up this massive film on the Vietnam War. And NEH has been a part of the project. I’m wondering how your understanding, of what happened there and what it meant, changed.

BURNS: Almost everyone’s baseline opinion about Vietnam has been shaped by their political disposition. But most of what we know about Vietnam is untrue, and most of what is knowable was unknown at the time. So our responsibilities as filmmakers are huge.

And let me just say this “our” is not some pretentious royal “we.” The film is codirected by Lynn Novick. It’s written by Geoffrey Ward. The lead producer is Sarah Botstein. And we are assisted by an inner cadre of a dozen, dozen and a half people, and then hundreds of others.

Film, as I said before, makes it possible to represent a variety of viewpoints. There’s a wonderful moment when a Viet Cong soldier is peering through the bushes, and he says, 45 years later, “I saw the Americans crying over their dead. And it made me think that Americans loved each other the way we Vietnamese loved our own people, that they were as human as we were, and I hadn’t really thought of that.” That makes you stop and reconsider the “other.”

There are times when Richard Nixon is brilliant. And there are times when his venality is evident. I don’t have to say it. It’s so clear. And that’s what reminds us of the complexity of the past.

Let us also remember that all history, particularly biography, is failure. The person closest to you remains inscrutable in some way to the end. So how could we have the temerity, the presumption, to go into the past and resurrect an Abraham Lincoln or a Jackie Robinson or the brave people who fight our wars?

We’re obligated to try, of course, to create, to write books, to write symphonies, to make films, to raise families, to tend gardens. This is the human responsibility.

ADAMS: I was thinking that in 1965 there was a confidence that government could do great things. It seems to me that one of the casualties of the war was that confidence.

BURNS: Our government misled us, from Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Americans accumulated 30 years of deceit. It made them hugely suspicious of government.

Think about the marginal tax rate. One of Dwight Eisenhower’s great achievements was to lower the marginal tax rate from 92 percent to 91 percent. But, in that 91 percent, you could build an interstate highway system. You could put a man on the moon.

Now we’re at 39.6, and people say, No new taxes. But if you added 5 or 10 percent, you’d have no deficit. You’d be paying down the debt. You could repair the infrastructure. But it’s out of the equation, and a lot of that was born at Vietnam.

There’s a beautiful photograph of LBJ in our Vietnam film looking up at a painting of his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And you realize he wants to do all the things that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did, to create his own New Deal, the Great Society. But for the rest of our film those efforts are always compromised by his prosecution of the war.

Right now, our edifices, our confident edifices of opinion about Vietnam are informed by air, by presupposition, bias, and conspiracies that never happened.

We thought we were fighting Ho Chi Minh as the leader of our enemy. He had been marginalized by the late 1950s. He was still a beloved figure and a symbol, but there was another guy running things. Doesn’t that color your basic notion of Vietnam? Of course, it does.

I think if we can build up layers and layers of trust, there will be a moment when, no matter what you believe in—left, right, or center—you’ll be really unhappy. But then the next moment, you’ll go, Well, good, they’re also showing that side of things.

Black and white photo of a soldier with an M16 and a guitar slung over his back.
Photo caption

In The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’s next NEH-supported epic, the filmmaker explores an especially gritty history of war and politics in the era of rock ‘n’ roll.

—© Bettmann / CORBIS

ADAMS: Sounds like catharsis.

BURNS: I think that with an authentic expression of memory catharsis is the desired result. You want to be able to relax your grip on that gun. Soldier, the battle is over. The firing has stopped. Thank you.

But, somehow, we Americans continue to grip the gun of partisanship and incivility long after the Civil War, long after World War II, long after Vietnam is over.

There’s a woman in the film who was a protestor against the war. Very near to the end of the film, she breaks down and cries. She says, “I just want to say I’m sorry. We were young, too.” And then, all of a sudden, you think, Of course, you know, who is fighting these wars? Eighteen-, 19-, 20-year-olds.

ADAMS: Right. Then and now.

BURNS: Are the protestors infallible? No, they are not. Are any of us infallible? No, we are not.

We can give Richard Nixon his due as a master politician. But we can also understand the political paranoia that destroyed him. We can understand where pragmatic foreign policy descended into cynicism. We can understand how deception on the part of Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson undermined their own military objectives and that those military objectives were always colored first by domestic political considerations.

But if everybody is doing it, then what can we learn? Not that all Republicans are bad or that all Democrats are bad, but that mistakes were made. Do you hear the echoes of Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria in this? You bet you do.

ADAMS: Last year, Congress commemorated the beginning of the Vietnam War. This big, splashy event in Emancipation Hall in the Visitor Center at the Capitol, and I was invited. You know what was amazing? Right below the surface of all this politesse and these benign statements, We’re not going to get political here. We’re going to just be nice and be civil, you could feel just below the surface . . .

BURNS: All the conflict.

ADAMS: . . . and people were trying not to go there, but you could feel them going there. And the most dramatic moment came, and the only really authentic moment, I would say, in the whole thing came when Chuck Hagel got up to the lectern.

About 10 people spoke. He was last, and he said the most crushing and memorable thing. He said, “There is no glory in war, only suffering.” And the place was just shut down. I mean, it was amazing.

BURNS: This is what we do. The barnacles of sentimentality and nostalgia encrust, particularly with war and the past in general, so that the Second World War, which killed more human beings than any other war, is looked upon as “the good war.”

Now, I know why it’s called that, but honestly there’s no such thing as a good war. What happens is our default position, as in any discussion of race, is to just adopt something that’s so sanitized that you don’t get any further than the politesse, as you say.

And what you need is somebody to burp and interrupt the ceremonies, the rituals of obfuscation, and all the things we do to make our past pretty so we don’t have to suffer for what actually took place. But a little bit of the real stuff actually brings us closer together, if you’re willing to understand it.

ADAMS: But then in the lead-up to, say, the second Iraq War, all that seemed to disappear. The memory of that seemed to disappear, and there was nothing but a kind of . . .

BURNS: I call it an enthusiasm and kind of appetite for war. You know, in August of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And Americans got very excited.

ADAMS: Right.

BURNS: A month and a half later, The Civil War was broadcast. Approval for going to war was at a fever pitch—something like 80 percent of Americans wanted to go to war. But after the series on the Civil War aired, which showed old daguerreotypes of Americans killing other Americans, that enthusiasm shrunk by a quarter, some commentators said. I consider that our best review. The further we get from battle, the more we get distracted from war’s realities. We get distracted by celebrity politicians and generals who don’t do the fighting and the dying. We get distracted by strategy and tactics, which abstract the real cost of war.

We get distracted by armaments and guns, and that obviously keeps you from understanding what those arms do to human flesh. And we get distracted by the evil of our enemy.

And, so, all of this has the effect of turning war into the most simplistic sort of cartoon or metaphor, rather than understanding fundamental truths such as generals make plans, plans go wrong, and soldiers die.

ADAMS: The other thing that strikes me as unique about your film is that it’s the first I know of that made a serious attempt to see the war from the Vietnamese point of view.

BURNS: We were so lucky. One of the men most responsible for persuading Senators John Kerry and John McCain and Bob Kerrey into supporting normalization was an ex-Marine named Tommy Vallely. And he’ll give all the credit, quite rightly, to McCain and Kerrey and Kerry. But he was behind the scenes, and he was a persistent, guiding force.

He’s been a senior adviser to our film, and we also interviewed him. He introduced us to Vietnam. We’ve got a couple of North Vietnamese that look like they came straight out of central casting, talking about “the glorious struggle” and “the imperialist puppets.” But most of them sound exactly like our GIs and our Marines.

But they also don’t sound alike, just as our Marines don’t. And you learn things. For instance, they had problems with their draft. The sons of the wealthy got exemptions. They went to Moscow and Beijing to escape the war. It was the poor who were sent to the meat grinder of war.

We have North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong soldiers admitting to participating in atrocities that their government still denies ever took place, particularly in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive at Hue, where we believe some 3,000 civilians, most of them allied with the Saigon government, were brutally assassinated as the VC and the North Vietnamese were finally permitted to retreat after more than three weeks of fighting.

With the South Vietnamese too, we assume a kind of uniformity of opinion. Instead, you find a deep complexity and diversity of thought. People protesting the Diem regime and getting beaten up and thrown in prison. They are Catholics. They are Buddhists. They are young, old, soldiers, diplomats.

ADAMS: How and when did you decide to become a filmmaker?

BURNS: My mother died when I was 11. She had been sick with cancer for almost a decade. My father was a cultural anthropologist and also an amateur photographer. My first memory is of him building a darkroom in our basement in a tract house in Newark, Delaware.

In 1963 we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mom died in 1965. And I remember shortly after my twelfth birthday, just a few months after my mother died, my father, who set a very strict curfew, would allow me to stay up and watch movies with him. And I watched my dad cry for the first time.

He hadn’t cried at my mother’s funeral. None of us had. We were all sort of shell-shocked. But here was this thing, this movie that had given my dad an emotional safe harbor. And I remember saying right then, I want to be a filmmaker.

ADAMS: So that’s very early.

BURNS: Very early. At that point, being a filmmaker meant being Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or Howard Hawks, who were the great Hollywood directors of the 1960s.

ADAMS: Pretty good models.

BURNS: John Ford said, when faced with the fact or the legend, print the legend. And there was something about that that didn’t sit well with me.

In Ann Arbor, there was a 40,000-person university that I could go to for free, but I decided to move east to Hampshire, a tiny little college that had started the year before and was adding a few hundred people to the couple hundred already there.

All of its film teachers were social documentary still photographers and filmmakers who correctly reminded me that there is as much drama in what is and what was as anything the human imagination makes up. So I had my molecules rearranged.

I came out of Hampshire still unaware that my métier was history. I knew I was going to be a documentary filmmaker, but if you had told me then that, 41 years later, I would still be making historical documentary films, I’d say you were crazy.

If you think about what I do for a living, I wake the dead. I make photographs come alive. And I think my watching the slow decay of my mom, she was incredibly heroic, is part of that.

I was lucky at 12 to see that film was a way to express higher emotions. Not sentimentality and nostalgia. But the higher emotions our Founders wrote about and spoke about, emotions they thought would be liberated in people who were free and who could govern themselves. Adams said, “I must study politics and war . . .”

ADAMS: So that my children . . .

BURNS: So my children can study commerce and industry so that my grandchildren can study art and music. A paraphrase, but that’s it.

We always focus on the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson. I know I do. Beginning with his statement, “All men are created equal.” But at the end of it, he could have said, “Life, liberty, and property.” And that would have changed us immeasurably, but he wrote that inscrutable phrase, “pursuit of happiness.”

Happiness was not the acquisition of objects in a marketplace of things, but lifelong learning in a marketplace of ideas. Happiness with a capital “H” was the humanities. It didn’t ignore religion. It embraced it. It understood religion was a part.

So, in the last years of college, I had a calling but hadn’t refined it. And, then, all of a sudden, the last film I worked on at Hampshire was my senior thesis on Old Sturbridge Village, and one of the last shots of that film, which is all cinéma vérité, with reenactors out at these very authentic early nineteenth-century buildings and farms, was a pan across a painting of a farm over to a factory.

Little did I know that I had just walked into my future, that it was going to be trying to take old photographs, putting them on the wall, and trying to make them come alive. So, at 22, I knew that I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker in American history. I’m 62 now. That’s 40 years . . .

ADAMS: Forty good years.

BURNS: I just feel like I have the best job in the country. It educates all of my parts. I work with extraordinarily talented people.

The approach of Monday is not to be feared. Friday is not a liberating moment. You know, Emerson said in his essay “On Self-Reliance” to do only what “inly rejoices,” i-n-l-y. I think that’s the greatest thing I’d ever heard. I think he made the word up, “inly.”

ADAMS: A shorter version of inwardly.

BURNS: Because of the vicissitudes of life, we do settle; some of us just have jobs. And yet in us is that impulse towards the divine, towards the thing that is bigger than ourselves.

When we made the film on the national parks, someone said that Denali, I think it was, made you feel your “atomic insignificance.” And I love that. It is the great paradox of life and of the humanities. Feeling that insignificance, you are, paradoxically, inspirited and made larger, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard.

ADAMS: Now, the environment in which film is seen and watched is changing rapidly. Yet your work seems to stick, irrespective of these massive changes around all of us. Why is that?

BURNS: In this tsunami of information, we’re starved for curation.

I’m going to sit here and watch this thing and have it unfold, and that’s really great. It reminds us that all real meaning accrues in duration. That’s what I’m interested in, real meaning.

ADAMS: Ken, thanks so much for spending time with me this afternoon. And I just want to say on behalf of all your admirers at NEH, we’re enormously proud of your body of work and so pleased to have been involved over these 37 years.

BURNS: You know, I have to tell you that earning your grants, which are not easily obtained, have been some of the most satisfying experiences of my professional life because they don’t come with just a check. They come with an expectation of excellence.

And I think we’ve become better filmmakers because we’ve not only submitted to your process, but have been willing to subscribe to your ideals.