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Ken Burns: FDR ‘Couldn’t Get Elected Dog Catcher Today’

TCA 2014: Renowned filmmaker says that polio-stricken politician’s career probably would be torpedoed by Twitter

Having exhaustively researched the life of Franklin D. Roosevelt for his upcoming PBS series “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” Ken Burns has come to a conclusion — FDR wouldn’t have much of a political career in these modern times.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association press tour on Tuesday, with his writing partner Geoffrey C. Ward, Burns reflected on the physical hurdles that Roosevelt, who suffered from polio, had to overcome. Discussing the depression that Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt suffered, as well as FDR’s physical impairment, Burns opined that none of them would likely achieve office under today’s social media microscope.

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“In this culture where we’re constantly tweeting and observing and watching,  Theodore and Franklin and Abraham Lincoln and Meriwether Lewis sort of couldn’t get elected dog catcher today.”

“My view is that probably none of these people, I’m not sure they could have been president now,” Ward concurred. “T.R. was very eccentric, and Franklin was helpless … I think TV cameras would compete with each other to get the most helpless footage of FDR.”

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The irony, of course, is that Burns and Ward are about to unleash a sprawling, 14-hour exploration of the Roosevelt family that bills itself as intimate. The pair addressed that while responding to a question about Eleanor Roosevelt’s rumored bisexuality.

Ward, a historian, acknowledged that Roosevelt’s sexuality is “a debate in the field.” Saying that the First Lady surrounded herself with people that she felt she could help, Ward opined, “My belief is, she didn’t have sexual relations with any of them. Now there are people who differ, but in the film we presents the facts.

“Our era focuses on things like that far more deeply than anybody else has before,” Ward added. “We make all sorts of assumptions based on how some people behave now that things were the same then.”

Seeking to distinguish his upcoming exploration of the Roosevelt family from lurid speculation, Burns noted, “This is an intimate history, not a tabloid history.”