If you want to watch the Jefferson Lecture, it will be streaming on the National Endowment for the Humanities‘ website at 7:30 tonight. If you’re in Washington, there will be a standby line for tickets at the Kennedy Center opening at 5:30.
Ken Burns always knew that it was a big deal when William Adams, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, asked him to deliver the endowment’s annual Jefferson Lecture. Lionel Trilling gave the address for the first time in 1972, and in the years since, it has become a way to honor Americans who have made major contributions to the humanities; Burns is joining a distinguished pantheon. And even by the standards of Burns’s 2016, which kicked off when he served as grand marshal of the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., and included an ongoing conversation series with Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Jefferson Lecture loomed large on the agenda.
But when I talked to Burns on Friday, he confessed that NPR’s Michelle Martin had just “terrified” him by describing the Jefferson Lecture as “the highest scholarly honor bestowed by the federal government.”
The address Burns will deliver Monday night also comes in the midst of a series of movies, from “The Roosevelts,” to “The Emperor of All Maladies,” to “Jackie Robinson” and his enormous forthcoming series “Vietnam,” that take new perspectives on the themes that have preoccupied his career, including the roles government and culture play in social change. And Burns, whose recent films and public comments have tackled racism with increasing bluntness, told me that in the Jefferson Lecture “I wanted to find a way to talk about race that didn’t reflect my habitual inclinations but that disrupted my own narratives about it. I’ve tried to do that.”
So how does one of America’s most famous documentarians go about writing a major speech? With a lot of scraps of paper.
“I’ll wake up in the night and come up with a phrase and write it down, or I can’t fall asleep and there’s a phrase that’s happening, I’ll jot it down, and as you wake up and greet the day, you realize that ahead of you there’s this request and it requires something,” Burns said, noting that the speech has preoccupied him for months. “I’ll be in the middle of a screening, I’ll jot down something because you realize that the association in the Vietnam film suggests something else.”
If the Jefferson Lecture is an unusually high-profile speech, Burns said that he has found that writing it hasn’t required an extremely different process than the one he uses to write his films: “I lock myself in the office, and I’ve got a thousand things spread out before me, those scraps of paper and those emails. . . . The one thing that I’ve felt good about is that I have an easier time in throwing stuff out and saying, ‘That sucks.’ It’s kill the little darlings. [If you have] too many notes on the dais, you tend to hold on to the preciousness of a well-formed sentence.”
Burns has held the text of the Jefferson Lecture close to the vest, though he told me it’s an unusually personal speech. One significant theme will be race, though.
“Certainly in the arc of my professional life, where race, and the inability to confront it, or address it, or not turn it into a partisan football, you also have to have a place where there’s sunshine and not where there’s always shadow,” Burns said. “I don’t mean to say I’ve adopted any kind of Pollyannish script. But I say in the speech, if it’s an artist’s obligation to describe a hell, I believe it’s also an obligation to describe a way out of it. I think too often our artists are content to portray hell, among other things. At least within myself, I feel some compulsion to say how do you escape the specific gravity of the mess we’ve made for ourselves.”
The Jefferson Lecture also comes during an election that has not exactly, to use one of Burns’s favorite phrases, brought out the better angels of American nature. During his speaking tour with Harvard’s Gates, both men have particularly singled out Donald Trump for whipping up racist sentiments on the campaign trail, combining bigotry and unrealistic promises for the economy.
“You lament the very process that we’re undergoing ought to underscore the importance of the humanities, of which civics is one. Civics isn’t just three branches of government. It’s how things work, how human beings together get things done,” Burns told me. “We think of ‘Machiavellian’ as a pejorative adjective, and it is in the context we’ve inherited, but most of ‘The Prince’ is a manual for how to get things done. At times there can be a ruthlessness to that, but it’s what we do. When we lament partisan gridlock, we forget what we have a genius for, which is compromise. When we have people who are promoted on the basis of ignorance instead of knowledge, that’s the absence of civics.”
But if the 2016 race for the presidency has made a mockery of civics, Burns is optimistic about at least one contemporary cultural development: the craze for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” a hip-hop musical about, among other things, fiscal policy in the early American republic.
“The white men who decided all of this stuff, the extraordinary white men, had many glaring flaws,” Burns said of “Hamilton,” which he described to me as “the finest piece of art I’ve seen in ages.” “And what happens with ‘Hamilton’ is you transcend that and you see possibilities. It both permits you to be present at the creation, the big bang, and that’s the energy I felt, but it also suggests the possibility that it does not have to turn out in the pessimistic ways we think it’s going to play out. . . . There are black men playing Founding Fathers, and brown and Latino men playing Founding Fathers. What ‘Hamilton’ does is it gets ahead even of our aspirations. I think that’s what all of us are obligated to do.”