Last week I had the awesome opportunity to attend a private talk with Ken Burns. For those who don’t know, Burns is the man behind those massive American documentaries on PBS. Among his most famous works are The Civil War (1990), Jazz (2001), and The National Parks (2009). These multi-part epics are astoundingly popular and shown all over the world. I was somewhat familiar with his work before I attended the presentation, but I had no idea to scope of his influence. As I entered the room, it was clear to me I was the youngest one there by quite a large margin. I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Before the presentation there was some time to mingle with the other guests and actually meet Burns himself. My grandmother pushed me passed some important looking suits to meet the guest of honor and I actually got the chance to talk with Burns one on one for a few minutes. We talked about inconsequential things; where I go to school, what I want to study, his family, etc. But it was still pretty cool
The presentation that evening had a focus on Burns’ upcoming documentary centered on the Roosevelt’s; specifically Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor. What struck me immediately was how passionate he seemed to be about his work. It was obvious how much he loves what he does. But beyond that, it was obvious how much he loved the subject of his work, namely American History. I cannot even explain (but I’ll try) how refreshing it was to hear from someone who legitimately loves this country. The overwhelming political rhetoric of today is how far this country has fallen and how doomed we are to fail. Both sides of the aisle are guilty of this fear mongering. It can be exhausting. So imagine my surprise when instead of telling us how much better the country used to be, he was telling us how great it is today. He mocked the Occupy Wall Street protestors by comparing our recession to the horrors of The Great Depression. He wasn’t cynical or terribly sarcastic, instead, he was genuine in his love for the United States. Frankly, it was inspiring.
My favorite part of the presentation however was how he talked about Abraham Lincoln (his favorite American of all time). Burns impressively quoted him at length entirely from memory. There was one quote in particular that struck a chord with me. It stuck in my head all night because it rang incredibly true, “As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Lincoln said this when he was only 27 years old. Its accuracy is stunning. There is no foreign power that can ever destroy us; I believe that wholeheartedly. If we as a country fall, it will be at our own hands. That is why what Ken Burns does is so essential and so important. He ensures that we don’t forget where we came from; the mistakes and the triumphs, the glory and the shame. He keeps our history alive at a time where we tend to forget it. So overall, the night was memorable for reasons I didn’t quite expect. I don’t hesitate in saying that Burns is a genius and I am anxiously awaiting his next project.