Note written 9/20/16:
A friend is watching the PBS series The Roosevelts for the first time. I was immediately reminded of its impact on me several years ago, and of a note that I wrote at the time to Ken Burns and Geoff Ward. The series celebrates the promise of political life that is decent, a promise that has no place for Trumpist curses, ignorance, name-calling, death-threats, and titanic braggadocio.
Dear Geoff Ward and Ken Burns:
You call your work on Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor an intimate portrait. Intimate portraits bring out the more special and sometimes private lives in focus, and if done with care, will touch us intimately as well. At several points I shed a tear, the sort of thing usually reserved, in my case, for touching musical moments.
In the broad sweep of many episodes of The Roosevelts, we are touched by sadness, goodhearted laughter, many sorts of love and affection, wonder at the complexity of human living, grief at terrible tragedy, pride and relief at victory over obstacles, applause or deep satisfaction when common decency shines. Each of these moods, emotions, feelings can set us aglow or draw a tear.
You give us the intimacy of close friendships, of close (and trying) family relations. You give us the hidden sides of political life, and show how the impersonal engines of wars and the economy enter the intimate lives of citizens and children.
These intimacies, along with the utterly respectful way they are revealed, shook me deeply though I could not say at the moment what exactly was so stirring. It reminds me that a moment can be cherished despite our lacking words to convey exactly what moves us.
Later on, I wanted to pinpoint what made intimate portraits so successful. I think we’re naturally curious about what makes people tick, especially public figures who often mask their intimate lives. And the Roosevelts each experienced setbacks in early and mid-life that would have defeated lesser persons. Our imaginations are captured by tracking personal struggles and triumphs, by someone’s overcoming adversity, especially when outward circumstance signals privilege. But there is a third factor in your work that captures the heart.
There is the deep respect, admiration, caring attention, and even love that you show for the people whose story you so delicately and intelligently tell. There is an utter lack of the “know-it-all” critique from the sidelines, or the “here’s the dark underside of it all” tone that soils so much cultural, historical narration.
I’ve taught literature and philosophy for years, and come to believe that my vocation is not just passing on knowledge. It’s passing on a sense that there are decencies, that there are things worthy of knowing as reminders of human decency. Of course decencies are offset by true horrors. But through it all there are lives and events that can be recalled – should be recalled — in a mood of applause, affirmation, and wholehearted gratitude – in a tone rising above commonplace irony, scoffing, condescension, judgmentalism, unmasking, and debunking.
Your “intimate portraits” remind me how rare it is for me — and so many of my acquaintances — to just rise in wholehearted applause and acceptance – rise in a simple and deeply felt pride at being human, knowing that there are unforgettable times and places where human decency shines. Such moments create bonds of solidarity across differences. And in affirmation we also find strength to forgive, or at least to set aside fixation on human indecencies, from petty foibles to horrific acts. The triumphs of decency merit circulation and applause.
I remember the moment that all the delegates at the London gathering rose to applaud Eleanor Roosevelt. This was a composure-dissolving moment. I shook. But such moments also arrived in the small and mid-sized events and encounters your story presented.
It’s a strange and wonderful thing to be exposed to so much that might have been pictured otherwise — might have been told in another, less affirmative voice, eliciting a viewer’s despair, shame, anger, or condescension. It is part of the moral genius of your work that these are never given any air time.
You never abandon honest, intimate admiration and gentle thankfulness. It’s as if a soft voice whispered — “This is what a person, a family, a march, a dance, a walk of eloquent generations, can be!”
We see a rare and precious faith in human decency – I’m grateful.