Self-Proclaimed Yellow Dog Democrat Ken Burns Denies Political Bias in His Documentaries

September 13th, 2014 3:25 PM

Tomorrow evening begins the first of Ken Burns' 14 hour documentary on PBS, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The good news about this documentary is that we can be sure it will be free of any political advocacy since Burns has no bias and.....

Huh? Am I kidding? Of course I am. The fact is despite Burns' laughable denials, he is a bitterly partisan Democrat to the extent that he gave a speech  in 1998 in which he declared himself to be a "Yellow Dog Democrat." The speech was also chock full of scathing attacks upon Republicans which makes his later denial that he is only a Democrat because he inherited that political party from his family even more hilarious. And now a documentary in his own words about his politics, Ken Burns: Why I Am a Yellow Dog Democrat:

I was asked to speak...because some in our party thought that as a student of history, I might have a perspective on our doings.

They were also curious as to why I am a Democrat. Let me tackle the easier question first...why I am, in fact, what is called a yellow dog democrat.

First of all, I want to be in a party that looks like my country...that represents all of its people, not just the narrow interests of a moneyed few, who have by force of that unnatural wealth, been able to appeal to the lowest common denominators of fear and prejudice to advance an agenda not of positive change, but of self-interested retrenchment.

And now Burns attacks Republicans. Generously he allows as how Republicans should exist...but only so their evil can stand in sharp contrast to the wonderfulness of his beloved Democrats and highlight how fantastic they are:

Though it is sometimes difficult and painful to say, I am pleased I live in a world with Republicans, if only to set in spectacular relief the overwhelming good sense of my party...its staggering achievements over the last two hundred years and its positive message of growth and hope for the coming millennium.

I am proud to be in a party that has for most of its history taken the high road, refusing to divide people from each other, all the while offering a powerful vision of a prosperous, united America....all pulling in the same direction.

Remember, it is the modern Republican Party that has, for the first time in our history, run against our government...not just its policies, run against our government. Just think of it. We live in the freest, richest, least taxed country on earth, and still to them the best government ever invented is somehow not good enough. There is, of course, a honorable tradition throughout the two centuries of our history to rein our government, to ask tough questions of our elected representatives, to demand a more accurate accounting of its finances and affairs, to insure the power of states and individuals in exquisite tension with the Federal Government, but it has been the strategy of the Republican, for the first time in our history, to run against government itself.

The rest of the speech is replete with his hatred of both Republicans and conservatives:

Our opponents constantly insist they occupy a moral high ground – selectively applying only those aspects of our shared traditions which comfortably and conveniently fit; and encouraging as they go along a form of extremism which goes against nearly every precept of our inclusive, knowledge-seeking, generous Judeo-Christian ethic.

And all in the name of conservatism.

But is it conservative to want to invade the bedrooms of every marriage in this land to impose a state-enforced version of morality, while neglecting at nearly every turn, the lasting health of its citizenry?

Is it conservative to squander the natural wealth and beauty of this great land for the short-term improvement of the bottom line of a select few men of privilege?

Is it conservative to neglect our most important resource – our children – by refusing to join in this administration’s (Clinton) efforts to establish obvious and needed standards of achievement, to set goals and priorities for an increasingly competitive world?

Oh, Burns does finally concede that there was ONE and only one good Republican President:

In the midst of the Civil War;, the first (and last) great Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, said “Fellow Citizens, we cannot escape history---the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation”

So Burns was basically saying that Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and, ironically, Teddy Roosevelt covered in his documentary tomorrow were not so great Presidents. Of course, when he later realized that his highly partisan Yellow Dog Democrat speech would open him up to charges of the political bias that he clearly displayed, he suddenly pretended that his being a Democrat was simply an incidental matter that he somehow inherited from his family as you can see starting at the 22 second mark of this video:


REASON TV: In a 1998 speech you talked about why you were a Yellow Dog Democrat. What does that mean or what do you mean by that and how does that influence your work?

KEN BURNS: You know, my work is without political advocacy. I am trying to speak to as many people as possible. I happened to have been born into a family of Democrats.

REASON TV: For our viewers who are not familiar with what a Yellow Dog Democrat...

KEN BURNS: Yellow Dog Democrat is sort of a Democrat for life. And that was just the expression that you had. I would have voted for Abraham Lincoln. Who knows if it had been the 1860s I would have been a Yellow Dog Republican. But that is just the circumstances of my birth. My job is just to tell a good story and to tell it well and to tell it fairly. And so the films are attracting everybody. There are some people who are into political advocacy that don't make a single convert. They preach to the converted, they preach to the choir and that's what it is and that's a perfectly legitimate thing. I want to reach as many people as possible and I do on both sides of the proverbial aisle and my politics are in some ways irrelevant other than the fact that I am sure it influences responses as I do it. But we work awfully hard and work with people of different political persuasions to just tell films that are general and to share... I mean, we have lost this ability to have a civil discourse...

Um, Ken, speaking of losing the ability to have a civil discourse... Have you read you own bitterly partisan Why I Am a Yellow Dog Democrat speech? No wonder Burns looked uncomfortable giving his absurd excuse about inheriting his politics from his family much as people inherit their brown or red hair. He wants us to believe that had absolutely no choice in the matter.

For a more trenchant observation of Burns' incredibly lame political inheritance excuse check out The Lab of Doom blog:

So the interview actually starts with Nick Gillespie (NG) pointing out that KB has previously stated that he was a "Yellow Dog Democrat". If you are not familiar with the term, a Yellow Dog Democrat derives from the Southerners so incensed by the Republican Abraham Lincoln and his actions in the revolution, that they swore that they would "vote for a yellow dog before they voted for any Republican" ie yellow dogs vote exclusively on party lines, regardless of issues or character. This is about the most ass backwards view on politics any human being could ever take. Ken Burns not only embraces the idea, he goes onto say that this is a product of his parents' upbringing. You see, he simply sees his views of politics as an inheritance by his family.

Who does this? Certainly not freethinking individuals. Even if you end up agreeing with your parents in the long term, at some point, a rational human being questions and tests the assertions of truth laid out before them. You come to your own conclusions, even if they were biased by your upbringing, a rational person comes to those conclusions on their own terms, not just because their parents saw the world the same way. Dogmatically sticking to a worldview presented to you by your parents shows a very closed off mind, and is a sign of indoctrination rather than free thinking.

Burns states that his work purposefully straddles the proverbial aisle, and his politics are irrelevant to what he produces. Sure, you would rather vote for dogs than Republicans at the ballot box, a very polarizing stance, yet you have no bias that leaks onto film. That is a tough pill to swallow, when that stance makes you much more biased than most of the population in general.

So will the Ken Burns documentary tomorrow night be an unbiased production of the self-proclaimed Yellow Dog Democrat? This article from Reason.Com leaves us with some reason to take the documentary with a grain of salt considering the bias that Burns claims he doesn't have:

...But The Roosevelts is by no means a flawless film. For one thing, it sometimes fails to present an accurate picture of the family's political opponents. Indeed, the film leaves the distinct impression that only reactionaries and fringe loonies ever dissented from the New Deal.

Burns himself certainly seemed content to leave me with that impression during our interview. For instance, when I suggested that Al Smith, the Irish-Catholic Tammany Hall veteran and four-term New York governor who started out as an FDR ally and ended up as one of Roosevelt's sharpest critics, might have come to question the New Deal on principled grounds, Burns dismissed the thought. "What often happens with recent immigrant groups, having felt the sting of prejudice, as many Catholics did in the United States, and [Smith] certainly did as a presidential candidate [in 1928], he then became what he despised," Burns said. "He became that narrow-minded, xenophobic, 'real American,' if you will, that saw in Franklin Roosevelt incipient socialism. I think it is a huge everlasting discredit to Al Smith that he would have responded to Franklin Roosevelt’s genius with such vituperative overreach."

Smith did attack FDR in vituperative terms. Addressing the Liberty League in January 1936, Smith savaged the New Dealers for what he saw as their betrayal of the Democratic Party. "It is all right with me if they want to disguise themselves as Norman Thomas or Karl Marx, or Lenin, or any of the rest of that bunch," Smith announced, "but what I won't stand for is to let them march under the banner of Jefferson, Jackson, or Cleveland."

But it's wrong to ignore Smith's principled arguments. A committed liberal, Smith not only championed progressive causes like the minimum wage and state support for the destitute; he was also a fierce opponent of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol. And as Smith explained in 1933, the ugly lessons of prohibition taught him a thing or two about the dangers of an overreaching central government. The Eighteenth Amendment, Smith wrote, "gave functions to the Federal government which that government could not possibly discharge, and the evils which came from the attempts at enforcement were infinitely worse than those which honest reformers attempted to abolish." In the words of biographer Christopher Finan, Smith "began to believe that the danger of giving new power to the federal government outweighed any good it might do.... He was putting himself on a collision course with the New Deal."

Exit Question: Is the Yellow Dog Democrat who merely inherited his politics finally done with Bush Bashing?