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PBS Independent Lens: The Political Dr. Seuss

Independent Lens Series

Ron Lamothe
Filmmaker
Wednesday, October 27, 2004; 1:00 PM

Independent Lens's "The Political Dr. Seuss," Ron Lamothe's fascinating documentary, illuminates the life and work of the best-selling and most influential children's writer of our time, the enigmatic Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

One of Theodor Geisel's superior officers during World War II once described him in an evaluation as a "personable zealot." An oxymoron? Perhaps, but those two words come as close as any to characterizing exactly who he was. Ron Lamothe's revealing portrait traces the evolution of Geisel's art and political philosophy and shows how Seuss deftly combined his delightful, otherworldly creations with moral parables, teaching children not only to be better readers but better people as well.


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Filmmaker Ron Lamothe, was online Wednesday, Oct. 27, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the documentary.

"The Political Dr. Seuss" airs on PBS Tuesday, Oct. 26, at 10 p.m. ET (Check local listings).

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Ron Lamothe: Just a quick note here to introduce myself and thank you all for watching the film. I will be here for the next hour, so please feel free to submit any questions you may have.

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Austin, Tex.: Ron,

I just wanted to thank you for making such a wonderful and enlightening film on Dr. Seuss.

My husband and I made a crazy & exciting midlife crisis decision and few years back and blew all our retiremnet money purchasing a small farm in the western cape of S. Africa out in the country. We hope to emigrate in the next few years. We have no children so we plan to place the farm in a trust and have the money it generates go to providing education to the local workers' children.

When I get enough money saved, I am going to purchase your educational video to use in helping these wonderfully bright children to become critical, progressive and caring thinkers. I have been trying to collect as many Dr. Seuss books as I can and I send them over and take them with me on my trip to S.Africa each year.

Could you please state again what Dr. Seuss said at the end of your film when he was asked what would he like his last words to be? I want to print them out and place them in a prominent place. I want them to be my mantra for my future and those of the children of our small valley.

Again, hats off (pardon the pun) to a stunning documentary.

Sincerely,
Susan

Ron Lamothe: Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And best of luck with your farm in South Africa. I, too, have a love of Africa, having traveled through much of the continent following my college graduation. I'm sure Dr. Seuss would have been pleased to hear his books were making their way to South Africa.

As for his final message, he wrote: Any message or slogan? Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I'm doing I always tell myself, 'you can do better than this.' The best slogan I can think of to leave with the [the kids of] U.S.A. is that we can, and we ought to, do better than this.

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East Lansing, Mich.: When did Theodor Geisel move to La Jolla, California and did this locale have any effect on his views?

Ron Lamothe: Geisel moved to La Jolla in 1948-49, following the years during and immediately after WWII when he lived and worked in Hollywood. La Jolla did not change Dr. Seuss. In fact, there's a story that's told that when he first went to register to vote in La Jolla some Republican friends called him over to where they were registering voters, but Ted said, "You my friends are over there, but I am going over here [to the Democratic registration]." And that's how, I've been told, he became "the first designated Democrat in La Jolla."

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Sequim, Wash.: Having read all Mr. Geisel's Dr. Seuss books to my children and grand children, my all time favorite one is The Sleep Book. And yet, this perticular one never seems to get mentioned in reviews of the great Ted Geisel works. Am I so different in my preferences or is there some other reason for this?

Ron Lamothe: I've only read The Sleep Book a couple of times, and so I'm not too familiar with it. I don't think you are alone, however. I find in talking to people around the country, that many people have favorite Dr. Seuss books outside those better known titles. Unfortunately, I had to choose a limited number of his books, focusing on those that fit into my broadly-defined "political Dr. Seuss."

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think Seuss' less obviously political work is better, more universal, more beloved, than the more overtly political? I'm thinking about Green Eggs and Ham vs. Horton Hears a Who, for instance.

Ron Lamothe: Interesting question. And I think the easy answer is that it's all pretty subjective--depends on whom you ask. However, your point is well taken, and in fact some of his most overtly political works (Lorax and Butter Battle Book, for example) didn't sell as well as some of his less stridently political works and his Beginner Books. Although I would say that even in his so-called "message books," the themes are pretty universal.

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Arlington, Va.: Wasn't Dr. Seuss in the army in either WWI or the Korean War? I seem to recall reading that he drew political cartoons for the Army Times.

Ron Lamothe: He was in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during WWII, stationed out in Hollywood at "Fort Fox," as it was called. That's where he worked with Frank Capra and many others to produce educational and propaganda films for American soldiers. As for the editorial cartoons, most of these were drawn for PM, a left-wing New York newspaper. If you're interested in seeing more of them, check out Richard Minear's "Dr. Seuss Goes To War."

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Clifton, Va.: Can't wait to see your show - what a great idea! I knew that Dr. Seuss was vaguely revolutionary when I was reading him growing up in West Texas (yes, GWB's home town!). Have you seen the exhibit of his original drawings and drafts at the Children's Museum of Manhattan on the Upper West Side? I was entranced.

Ron Lamothe: Thank you. Although I have not seen those exhibits, as you can imagine, I've seen many of his original drawings and drafts over the past several years working on this film. One thing I was hoping to demonstrate in the film--that these certainly show--was his creative process, particularly the fact that these were not frivolous creations knocked off on a Sunday afternoon. The Cat in the Hat, for example, took him a year and a half to write!

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Washington, D.C.: Ever since reading "The Lorax" ("I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees!") as a child, I suspected that Dr. Seuss had an ulterior motive in his stories. Didn't stop me from loving them, though!

"The Butter Battle War" (is that the right title?) was another one--about the arms race. And there was a third about aliens landing on a planet and utterly polluting it.....

Of course, now I am reading "The Foot Book" to my toddler. I don't see any hidden messages in this one!

I look forward to the PBS show. Thanks for doing this!

Ron Lamothe: The Lorax, by the by, was his favorite of all his books. I'm sure he would have been disappointed that you detected his "ulterior motive," as you put...In writing that book he was trying hard not to be too preachy, and although he recognized it was propaganda, he wanted it to be enjoyable to read (it seems he succeeded here). He later said it was "the hardest thing I've ever done."

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Arlington, Va.: Given that Dr. Seuss had such strong political convictions, why do you think it was that he never returned to editorial cartooning once he was financially-secure? Did he feel that he wouldn't be taken seriously since he was 'only' a children's book author by the 1960s?

I'm afraid I only taped the show last night because it ran so late on MPT, but I'm looking forward to watching it. And the website looks good too.

Ron Lamothe: I think that, though he really enjoyed his time drawing editorial cartoons for PM, he was ultimately happier writing children's books. With the books, he could take, more or less, as long as he wanted to create them, whereas editorial cartooning operates on the daily news cycle and this didn't suit his temperament quite as well.

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Evanston, Ill.: My mother in law did her PhD dissertation on The Sneetches, and drew several very sharp sociological lessons from that story. I would love to tell her that you printed my question, namely this: have there been other serious studies making use of the Sneetches, and what is your own view of this classic story?

Ron Lamothe: I'm not aware of any out there. I think the point Michael Frith makes in the film is a good one: that one of the best things about The Sneetches is that by making it about these "goofy-looking, bottle-shaped, bird-like things," and having the prejudice based on whether or not one has "a star on thars," it makes the point clear and obvious; there's none of the baggage and gray area that would come if one were to try to make the Sneetches represent particular races/ethnic groups/etc.

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Long Beach, Calif.: How would Dr. Seuss deal with the present day, in your opinion?
I can easily imagine a story about rumors, and fears, and how it infected everyone's happiness, and sense of well-being. And of how revenge does not work. Does imagining the present thru Dr. Seuss's eyes allow us to see more clearly?
I think so. How about you?

Ron Lamothe: I've often felt in the past year or so that, if Dr. Seuss were alive and well, he would--as he did during WWII and again during the 1980s--feel compelled to address our current situation in America and the world. As I mention in the film, he always had a keen eye for demagogues and bullies, and although an idealist at heart, it never prevented him from using his sharp and satiric wit to attack that demagoguery and, as he put it so wonderfully, "the dissemination of stupidity." I don't know how this would have manifested itself--whether via a book or some other form. But I do feel he would have used all of his many talents to get his ideas into the discussion. In his opinion, and mine, it is not being "pessimistic" to criticize one's government or society; it's the most patriotic and democratic thing one can do.

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Ron Lamothe: So sorry we're out of time. But thanks again for your comments, questions, and interest in the film. Ciao for now (see what this film has done to me!).

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