David Gregory Interviews Filmmaker Ken Burns on MEET THE PRESS
In this week's MEET THE PRESS, PRESS Pass conversation, David Gregory sat down with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to talk about the state of our political discourse, view of government, and his new documentary "The Dust Bowl." A full transcript follows:
GREGORY: I'm David Gregory and this is PRESS Pass, your all-access pass to an extra Meet the Press conversation. This week, a discussion once again with the great filmmaker Ken Burns on the American spirit in hard times. His new documentary, called 'The Dust Bowl,' tells a story about one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in this country's history. Ken, so great to have you back and be able to talk about so many things with you.
BURNS: Good to be back, yes.
GREGORY: I do want to start with politics, because I know it's such an interest of yours. We're in this debate season, it's gotten fairly uncivil, particularly in this last debate. What do you make of the race right now and who do you think has an edge?
BURNS: Well it's hard to say who has an edge. I always thought it would be extremely, extremely close. But I've been disappointed by the lack of the civil discourse that we keep trying to promote in this country. The ability to sit down and say, 'We have some really tough questions' -- and you don't score points by the debating team; you score them by getting down and saying, 'Yes, we're gonna have to make some tough decisions as well as you guys.'
It's always the other guy's fault, it's always we blame the other, and 'if only you do it our way everything will be alright,' and we know that won't happen. We're on The Edge of a fiscal cliff and we have the possibility, a real bright possibility, of finding a grand bargain. But we will do as human beings always do; get as close to The Edge of that cliff as possible.
GREGORY: You spend so much time in the nation's past. We're in an historic period where there's a lot at stake, but a reluctance on the part of our leaders to say to the America people, 'You're going to have to do with less, for us to be able to sustain where we are.'
BURNS: Yeah, a lot of it is that, for the last 30 years or so, we changed the dialogue from not that 'my version of government is better than yours,' to just the essential belief that government isn't right. So, the person who believes that the government is a workable, malleable instrument has to fight uphill against just the natural resistance to that. Whereas before, say in the 1930s, during the Depression and the Dust Bowl, during the Second World War, and in other periods, we've been able to summon a sense of shared sacrifice to get things done, that we're all gonna have to give up something, that democracy is the politics of the half-loaf, as George Will sometimes says, that, you know, nobody gets everything.
And I think that when we get to that stage, when we suddenly realize we're gonna have to give it up -- It's always given up in the back rooms, but I think this 'take no prisoners,' just 'my way or the highway' kind of attitude, it just shows an incredible lack of the awareness of what it means to govern in the United States.
GREGORY: And, what government should do to help people, particularly in a distressed economy, what the limits of that are before you start infringing on personal freedom.
BURNS: That's exactly right. This is a huge, huge question that informs almost every aspect of our decade, of our nation's history -- and every decade has an example of it. But, we've gotta go back and find the balance, I think, in the discussion. And history is a good ally in that. In so far as, we do not see government as all bad, and we do not see government as all good. And in that tension and in that balance has been the most spectacular history.
Our government has been a force for good, you know, from the Emancipation Proclamation, and the land-grant colleges, and the Homestead Act, and the transcontinental railroad, and minimum wage, and Social Security, and GI Bill, and interstate highway, and man on the moon. I mean, this is not a bad track record for something that is now painted as one of the villains of all times.
And so, at the same time you don't want to give that government a carte blanche. You want to, and this has always been the American process, center this activity. And that's what I think we've lost sight of. And the media is responsible too, we're responsible too, because we like the fight; we like the blood, if it bleeds it leads. So we forget to say, 'You know, it's unsexy but can we really talk about the budget; can we really talk about what this deficit means, can we really say that if you're gonna solve this problem, X Y and Z absolutely has to happen a priori.' You know, it's not a question of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, this is what has to take place.
And no amount of hundreds of millions of dollars can you throw out in this campaign, in this side or that side, is gonna change an essential mathematics. And in some ways, in a free society, the free press has to step up to the plate. I mean I've been dealing with many films. One on the central park jogger case, in which the media really failed to do its job and sort of bought, hook line and sinker, the sort of drama of an impossible scenario that turned out, in the end, to be not true. But we all bought it.
GREGORY: And yeah, remind people what that's about -- and you're actually fighting the police department on this in terms of they want access to your tapes.
BURNS: Well what happened is, is in 1989 there was a brutal rape in Central Park, and some five teenagers were ultimately charged and convicted of this rape. And it turned out -- they protest their innocence -- and it turned out later that the real rapist had gotten away, and he confessed, and his DNA matched. And so in 2002, their convictions were vacated. A lot of good it did them, because they'd served out their full sentences. And they launched a civil suit against the city, understandably, for this false arrest and conviction and imprisonment. And we made a film about it.
My daughter, Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon and I. And the film is very straightforward, very journalistic for, you know, very recent past, very straight 'this is what happened.' And it seems interesting that after we've been to the Cannes film festival and Telluride and Toronto, and are about to release theatrically before a PBS broadcast in April, that they would interrupt this by suddenly, after years of refusing to allow us to interview them, as we begged them to do, to subpoena all our materials.
And it's in fact the city of New York, the Corporation Council, representing those police whose reputations would be sullied if there was wider knowledge of the truth. And those, particularly those prosecutors who also made the essential, critical mistakes that put these five innocent boys, now men in their 30s, in jail unnecessarily.
GREGORY: And you don't intend to give up the tapes that you have as part of the film.
BURNS: No, we think that this is a journalistic privilege. It seems ridiculous and cynical and we're pushing back, we're fighting.
GREGORY: Let me ask you about 'The Dust Bowl,' about this latest film. All your films in some ways -- what can be coaxed out of them is some modern-day resonance --
GREGORY: And we can get to that. But first, talk to me about this period of history and what drew you to it.
BURNS: Well, first of all, we always are drawn to stories. And people forget that the word 'history' is mostly made up of the word 'story.' It's not these boring dates and facts and events that you had to memorize for the quiz next Tuesday. This is just -- it's stories, it's the way human beings communicate, and when you bump up against something and you start researching something that you didn't know that much about.
Look, we all have conventional wisdom; you say the Dust Storm, you have an image, and then you think of Grapes of Wrath. And that's about tenant farmers and the collapse of cotton prices, and the depression and moving out, not only because of that, but drought, out to California. And it mostly takes place in California, the diaspora.
The real Dust Bowl, this area of the panhandle of Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas, a little bit of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico -- that was the epicenter of what was this nationwide drought. But the epicenter of the Dust Bowl was this area of the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.
First, you go, 'Wait, man-made? I hadn't really -- that sort of had gone over my head a little bit.' A decade-long apocalypse that not only killed your crops: Moved more dirt in one day than the entire ten-year excavation of the Panama Canal, dumped dirt in Chicago and Detroit, and people turned on streetlights in New York and Franklin Roosevelt went like this (brushes finger on desk) and had dust in the Oval Office, had Oklahoma on his fingertips in the Oval Office. And then it not only killed their crops; it killed their cattle and their children.
They started dying of what was called the dust pneumonia. And then all of a sudden you realize, 'Wait a second. Who's still alive to tell this story?' And you needed to find that critical mass of people. And we went back and did that shoe leather necessary to find a group of people who were children and teenagers at the time, who would suffer through this ten-year apocalypse. And amazingly enough, you know, I think all of us, after two storms we'd leave and get our children out of there.
Some stayed the whole time and figured out just where that stubborn American streak of perseverance and grit and just said -- no pun intended -- and said, 'We're going to make this happen.' And they learned new techniques, and the government helped them out, and low and behold the weather got a little bit less severe and they emerged from it. But it is one of the most fascinating periods I've ever studied.
GREGORY: The man-made piece of it's fascinating too, because it was sort of that era's decade of a bubble, right?
BURNS: That's right. Exactly it. And this is where you say 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.' 'There's nothing new under the sun,' Ecclesiastes says. And we use this now in every film that we make because this is a classic bubble. It's a real estate bubble, it's an agricultural bubble. You know, 'My house will always improve in value, the land will always increase in value, the crop prices will always be supported, the speculative investments that back this up will never burst,' and of course they always do and we never learn. But, yes. We had an area of the country, the southern plains, that was marginal. It was called no man's land. Someone in 1820, an explorer, said this is a land wholly uninhabitable for people dependent on agriculture.
There were some wet years, we moved in, the government encouraged homesteading to pick up again in there, they had some good years. And then all of a sudden, they had just taken an area greater than the size of Ohio, turned over this buffalo grass that had taken thousands of years to evolve, that held the soil in the midst of very drought-like conditions all the time, and a steady wind, and they turned it over. And they had some good crops and then they planted more. And then they had some bad years and they planted more. More and more soil exposed to the drought and to be blown.
And then when it blew, it was this holocaust, I mean, of biblical proportions. The nature was so out of balance that there were plagues of jackrabbits and then plagues of locusts. I mean, literally, the footage is unbelievable. And thankfully there is this sort of proof, and, more importantly, this is the closest film we've made to an oral history, insofar as the backbone of it is the story of these 26 people that we were able to find, almost everybody we interviewed -- we thought, 'Oh we just narrow it down to 7 or 8' -- who are in there and give you a sense of what it was like in this county in Oklahoma, and over here in Colorado, and up here in Kansas, and down there in Amarillo, Texas and over in Clayton, New Mexico.
And you begin to have a geographical relationship to a whole cast of characters, like a Russian novel, who are Americans that you recognize, people who you could have had Thanksgiving with. And what they're surviving is no ordinary time, Doris Kearns Goodwin would say.
David Gregory: You know, the Ken Burns effect can be found on anybody's Mac, but the craftsmanship of it is so interesting, and it seems sort of obvious, but you said it just a moment ago, but first-person storytelling to really understand history. It's not dense; your storytelling is not dense. You talked about this project that you're working on, about the Vietnam War, or whether it's World War II, or whether it's the Civil War. It's the voices; it's waking the dead, as you've said. What is that about?
KEN BURNS: That's exactly it. What it's about is what you do to too; it's listening. We don't do very much listening in our world. We always do a lot of telling. And if you listen, you learn unbelievable amounts of things. And, so what if you listened to a still photograph? What if you said, 'That still photograph is not some arrested static moment, but a representation of some place, some moment in time that had a past and will have a future?' And what if you moved in it the way your eye would move in it if you were living in it? The way you might walk through it if you were living in it. And what if you listened to it? Is that cartwheel turning, are those cannon firing, are the bats cracking and the crowds cheering? What are the things that would will that now-inanimate moment alive again; trusting in its secret, that it's some portal to that time.
That's part of waking the dead. What if you just didn't impose a third-person narrator, the voice of God, but you allowed first-person voices – newspapers, diaries, love letters, the way people spoke then -- to help animate that period. And what if you added period music, and not only the complex sound effects, but the commentary of people that have spent so much of their lives studying it that it's almost there.
One thinks of Shelby Foote in the Civil War, when he was referring to the Gettysburg Address; he said Lincoln sat down, he tilted his head, he said 'that speech won't scour' -- he said to his friend Ward Lamon. And you just think, 'Jeez, if I just pull the camera out next to Shelby, will it be Ward Lamon, and if we pull that a little bit farther we'll get to see Abraham Lincoln.' And people who can put you in that moment, and together the aggregate of that is the Ken Burns effect.
And when I say Ken Burns, there are so many people who work with me, great producers on 'The Dust Bowl,' Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey. Dayton Duncan wrote the script here. So it's a lot of people who work on it, but the idea is to will that past alive, to wake the dead and to find in the past, not some homework set of lessons, but to find resonance with today.
So if you are armed, as I think the past can do, you're not only prepared to understand the dynamics of today that much better, but you can obviously help shape your future. When Mitt Romney sat on this program and talked about, 'Oh, I'm not going to rid of all of the health care.' You're going, wait a second. We found the footage of Franklin Roosevelt mocking Alf Landon for, sort of saying, 'Well, I'll accept a little bit of the New Deal.'
And we intercut it, and it's just hilarious to see what, how much you could have Franklin Roosevelt talk to Mitt Romney and Mitt Romney talk to Franklin Roosevelt. And you realize, we think this is all the phenomenon of today and now and everything -- This has been going on since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson got angry and started fighting at each other in the election of 1800.
David Gregory: Let me end on a very passionate subject and that's baseball.
KEN BURNS: Oh no.
David Gregory: I remember now. So, here I am, I grew up in Los Angeles, a Dodgers fan. I still am, but I love the Washington Nationals and my kids do –
KEN BURNS: Of course.
David Gregory: And I remember saying – I have ma 10-year-old son, and I have 7-year-old twins -- I said, 'I can remember the first time the Dodgers won the pennant.' I was 7 and Bill Russell came home, and I remember, what I remember is the beer flying through the air, which is such a wonderful memory. And I said if only that could happen for the Nationals for my kids. And I was at that game, Game 5, with this epic collapse and I thought two things. One, the universe is just isn't right. It wasn't supposed to end like this.
KEN BURNS: It wasn't supposed to end like that way. And all of us became Nationals fans. We were so excited. The best record in the National League; this incredibly exciting team. And even though you were sitting Strasburg, everything seemed to be going right, and then you run into these people who are like somebody getting into the subway just as the door closed -- the Cardinals, for the second year in a row! Suddenly they come and this epic thing, and you can only think of my suffering now as a Red Sox fan, not just last year's collapse but all the collapses in the past.
And just know that patience, my child -- and then I remember what Bart Giamatti said, that baseball's designed to break your heart. And that's why it will always remain. I love all our American sports, and they get my heart pounding in every way, but there's something elevated about baseball. It's the best sport ever invented. The defense has the ball, the man scores, and it is designed to break your heart. It's a lot like life, and it will teach you hard and difficult and tough lessons, that is unbearable in this case this year.
David Gregory: Our friend Mike Barnicle, said to me just today, he said, 'Well, the Nationals had a good year.' And he said, 'You'll be amazed how fast 86 years will fly by.' Ken Burns, thanks as always. Great to have you.
KEN BURNS: It's been my pleasure.