CHAUTAUQUA - Great leaders are often defined by even greater adversity.
Such was the theme of Ken Burns' moving documentary on the Roosevelts, shown in excerpts Friday at the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater - the culmination of a week-long lecture series by the acclaimed historian and documentarian.
Burns, who was joined on stage by Geoffrey Ward, his collaborator and an acclaimed historian in his own right, discussed with panache the insurmountable Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his struggles with polio and the incredible efforts taken to overcome it.
Photo by A.J. Rao
Pictured from left are Ken Burns, Geoffrey Ward and Tom Becker, Chautauqua Institution president.
"People need to understand what handicapped people can do," said Ward, emotionally. "(FDR) did not conquer polio. He just didn't allow it to conquer him."
Indeed, despite being stricken by the disease in 1921 at the age of 39, FDR relied on charisma, optimism and a fair share of performance to convince the country of his political viability.
Upon getting elected president in 1933, FDR suddenly became a symbol of hope and security for a country shattered by the Great Depression and in the shadow of a looming war.
Of course, by his side was Eleanor, his idealistic wife, whose common touch and passion for civil rights made her a trail-blazing First Lady and - as the documentary showed - a perfect match for her sometimes "patrician" husband.
Theodore Roosevelt, who occupied the first half of the documentary shown on Thursday, was not missing Friday. As Burns put it, the "ghost" of Theodore Roosevelt pervaded the life of FDR, influencing his beliefs in the power of responsibility, government and optimism for the future.
The documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," will premiere in September on PBS.
Burns' lectures have no doubt been well received in Chautauqua, each packing the amphitheater to its maximum seating capacity.
His lecture topics included: The Central Park Five, The Civil War: "1864," Vietnam and two days of The Roosevelts.
"I cannot begin to describe how moving (coming here) has been for me," Burns said. "We (have been) blown away by our experiences ... and I don't want this to end."