It’s well known that FDR went through great lengths to avoid being pictured in his wheelchair. But last Tuesday I learned that Teddy Roosevelt played this game as well. He forbid reporters from taking pictures while he played tennis. He thought that Americans saw it as the sport of the rich. Effete tennis playing did not go well with his personal brand of a war hero, boxer, game hunter and all around badass.
That any politician deliberately created a public persona will surprise no one, but the Roosevelts did it so well that even today both of them remain larger-than-life figures. Ken Burns believed these were stories worth telling again, and he was on hand at the Ace Hotel for an early showing of seven excerpts from the The Roosevelts, a fourteen hour documentary that will air this fall on public television. The documentary focuses on Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin, reportedly the first major work that has reviewed them as a family.
That this type of event was occurring in DTLA was reason enough to walk down the street. In the past, more often than not, to see established figures discussing their work required a trip to the Westside. And in the genre of historical documentaries, no one is more established than Burns.
I have seen portions of his work, but it wasn’t until Tuesday when I came to firmly understand why he has become the foremost chronicler of American history in our day. Much like the tone of winning presidential campaigns, Burns exuded an optimism about the American experience. He and his writer Geoff Ward spoke of the “rising road” of American history, which almost sounds like a campaign slogan. Burns further said that he refused to portray our history as merely a series of white European crimes. Also, like a successful politician, he peppered his comments with quotes from the Bible in a way that made him seem morally grounded but not like a religious zealot.
Burns provided the audience with insights about how he approaches the process of creating a documentary. It always begins with The Word, as he described it. Ward starts the process by drafting the script and the images, music and clips from experts are rearranged to match that script. In the case of The Roosevelts, Burns began with a library of 25,000 images. In one of his more revealing comments from the evening he said that an image used in the opening sequence about FDR showed a spiral staircase. From the sequencing of the images, the viewer would tend to believe that the spiral staircase led to FDR’s actual law office. But according to Burns, it was just a random image of a spiral staircase in an office from that time period.
This sleight of hand works rather effectively and should not discredit the greater accuracy of Burns’ work. However, it does underscore that the history we learn has been filtered twice. First, the Roosevelts deliberately controlled and limited the images that were made of them. Now Burns has deliberately chosen how to connect these images and tell their story.
Over the course of the week as I considered The Roosevelts and the talk by Burns I had several thoughts, all of which were only vaguely connected.
The first, if politicians since Teddy Roosevelt have deliberately constructed their brand to avoid the appearance of wealth, how in the world did a guy as smart as Mitt Romney blather on about knowing other Nascar team owners? Next, are there any images of George W. Bush clearing brush on the ranch after his Presidency?
But on a deeper level what I wanted to know is whether today’s oft-repeated mantra of building an authentic brand is actually correct? The Kennedys, especially Jackie, avoided photographs that showed them smoking. Meanwhile photos of the family playing football in Hyannis Port remain the gold standard of political imagery. Vigorous, young and healthy – the opposite of smoking.
We believed Bill Clinton darting into a McDonald’s, but Michael Dukakis never outlived the tank incident. Obama successfully played basketball, but he survived his forays into bowling only because it was just as ridiculous to see Hillary taking shots of Crown Royal. Reagan deliberately used jelly beans to burnish his brand. Images survive of the Gipper with a jar of jelly beans in Cabinet meetings, the Oval Office and on Air Force One. Gramps was a charmer, to be sure.
Thus we’re told that a brand needs to be authentic. But, at least in the political realm, the most successful purveyors of a personal brand – Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton – took deliberate steps to build it. It’s hard to reconcile such premeditation about these things with the word authentic. Perhaps a better word is believable.
What has changed since the time of the Roosevelts, of course, is that now all of us are in the business of managing our own brands via social media channels. What is the information we post saying about us? Burns’ image library for The Roosevelts seems quite small in comparison to the terabytes of data being stored about each of us – and much of it doesn’t seem deliberate. I wouldn’t expect images of your family playing flag football to look as effortless as the Kennedys. But I doubt a strong personal brand has ever been built on complaints about air travel.
Los Angeles, California