In June, after Donald Trump won enough delegates to become the Republican nominee for president, Ken Burns took the podium in Palo Alto, Calif., to deliver Stanford University’s commencement address. Though Burns’s politics are no secret to anyone who listens to him or who watches his documentaries, which explore major moments and movements in American history from “The Civil War” to “Jazz,” the strength of his attack on Trump took some national observers and graduating students by surprise. One of them, Nathalie Weiss, thought that Burns’s decision to push the graduates rather than to celebrate their accomplishments was inappropriate — until Election Day delivered a result she hadn’t previously thought was possible.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Hillary [Clinton] was going to win, and I almost felt cocky about that,” Weiss said when I talked to her on Wednesday. “I didn’t really think that Trump or Bernie [Sanders] winning was in the cards. I didn’t really take it seriously.” Previously, her model for a commencement address had been cartoonist Mike Peters’s speech at the 2012 graduation at Washington University in St. Louis, “the sort of thing that had a lot of serendipity, a lot of joy and excitement, and still had a message of staying true to yourself.”
After graduation, Weiss watched a number of her classmates go to work in politics, or at least become more actively engaged than they had been in college “by nature of entering the real world, being independent, becoming a citizen, and having an election with the stakes of this one.” And when the results she never expected came in on November 8, she wrote a letter to Burns first published in the Stanford Daily and reprinted here to explain her initial reaction to his speech and to ask what she and her peers should be doing next.
Dear Mr. Burns,In light of this election and its outcome, my thoughts continue to circle back to the speech you delivered to my graduating class at Stanford this June. You probably don’t remember me — I’m sure you shook a lot of hands that day — but I thanked you outside the stadium as you prepared to leave. To be perfectly honest, however, I did not enjoy the speech. One of my largest frustrations at school was the lack of political agency amongst my friends, and I found your reminder of this vexing. Isn’t graduation a time for celebration? Couldn’t we put the world on pause and spend the weekend happily commemorating the past four years with dear friends and family? Shouldn’t our commencement speaker impart words full of optimistic wisdom derived from years of hard-earned success?Apparently not. Instead, you implored us to examine history in order to warn about the perilous consequences at stake in this election. Yet in the moment, it seemed unfit for the occasion. This ceremony, traditionally a celebration, became a platform for our speaker’s agenda. And though I agreed with your message, what I didn’t understand then, but certainly do now, is that you were holding us to a higher standard than you would have in a normal year, because this is not a normal year. You thought we would hear your message. But we were selfish. I regret not listening.Commencement as you explained is not only about reflecting on the past but also about approaching the future and life as an adult citizen. You informed us that this rite of passage comes with responsibilities that extend beyond getting a job and paying bills. During a weekend already shrouded in the heartbreak of Brock Turner’s trial sentence and the scrutiny of sexual assault culture on college campuses, you came to remind us of another threat — one that would define our commencement into the real world. You warned about Donald Trump and how his candidacy confronted our nation with a “ferocious urgency.”I agreed with your message, but chose to remain passive. I chose to celebrate instead of contemplate. To talk instead of do. I allowed this election to unfold by merely voting for Secretary Clinton rather than devoting myself to her campaign. Now the polls have closed. I regret my indolence.I don’t claim that my actions alone would have reversed the results of this election, but I do believe I could have made a difference, especially if my peers had been similarly galvanized. We could have been for something, as you so ardently advised. Many were, but others, myself included, were not. I regret my complacency.The graduation body you addressed had the honor and privilege to obtain the best education this country offers. You addressed us as the future leaders of our generation with well researched sincerity and unfiltered fear. And we, as a student body, did not respond in kind. I regret my inaction.But what now? What do we do with this divided nation of ours that, just a few days ago, stated that our chosen leader will be a man with no political experience, whose rhetoric is laced with sexist, racist, homophobic and isolationist principles (among others)? I’m offended. I’m pissed off. I’m grief-stricken. I’m terrified. I’m confused. I’m still American. So, what now? What do I — what do we — do?One thing is certain: I cannot remain passive. My peers and I no longer study at Stanford nor live in its safety net, so we cannot avoid or ignore the social and economic threats a Trump presidency presents. Armed with our education, we must choose to act and ensure that the future of this country does not regress into a state of “-ists.” We must embrace each other and be brave for each other. We must not forget the shock on election night nor the residual fear. We must be catalyzed to serve our country to work towards a future that is empathetic rather than polarized. We must care, vocally and actively, about each other, about the environment, about education and about so much more. We must ensure that the progressive policies fought for and accomplished over the last eight years are protected and deepened.Though in the wake of this election, we witness race-related hate crimes on the rise, we must recognize that we cannot match anger with anger. The individuals who voted for Mr. Trump do not deserve our hate. It’s hard. It hurts. But as we hurt, we must remember President Obama’s wise reminder: We are all on one team. This team must learn to work together as a nation to yield understanding and achieve progress. On both sides.Thank you, Mr. Burns, for speaking at Stanford’s commencement and for stripping down ceremonial gaieties in order to address the student body with candor, believing that we would not just listen but that we would act. I will not be helpless. I will not be silenced. I will not forget. I will be for our nation and its citizens. But I am still processing. Still hurting. Still learning.I did not listen then, but I implore you now — what do I do?With the deepest respect and gratitude,— Nathalie Weiss ’16
It took Burns a while to write her back. “I suddenly found myself the optimistic Frodo in Mordor,” after the election he acknowledged when we spoke on the phone. But he felt like in Weiss’s frank letter, “she fell on her sword. And so I couldn’t do anything. I found myself just cramped. I was working every day, getting a lot done. It sat on my counter…. I needed that few weeks to just take stock of myself, and to sort of quit shivering.”
But when he did sit down to write, he had one word in mind: “Engagement.”
“My grandmother wrote every week, every week she wrote her congressman and her senators,” Burns said of the spike in voters calling lawmakers in the wake of the election. “And I was like ‘Grandmother, do they write you back?’ She goes, ‘Always. It’s usually a form letter,’ but she wanted them to know. God bless her. And I did it. As a kid, I wrote to Jackie Kennedy after the president was killed, and I wrote to Lyndon Johnson my opposition to the war and got back three inches of speeches about why he was for the war.”
And so engage is what Burns urged Weiss to do in his letter to her, printed for the first time here:
December 12, 2016Dear Nathalie,Please forgive the amount of time it’s taken for me to respond to your heartfelt and anguished letter. I guess I too have been suffering from the unexpected turn of events, I too needed some time in the fetal position, covers pulled up to my chin, as I tried myself to come to terms with an election that seems to have undermined so much of the progress we’ve made in the last fifty years — on race, women’s rights, the environment, diversity and understanding our role in the world.Do not be too hard on yourself. We are all distracted by comforting routines and habits. It is hard to break from them to do what for many seems abstract: participating in our much maligned political process.But I hear in your anguish a call to action that ought to awaken anyone — including myself — who misread this election. We need to be thoughtful in that action. Blind, angry protest will not help; it will only strengthen those who do not share our worldview. Passivity — as we have both discovered — is also not an option.We must choose a middle ground: engagement. But the engagement we seek must understand that those people who did not vote as we did are not our enemy. In fact, true engagement is walking into the heart of that constituency, offering shared stories and real solutions rather than narratives that are calculated to divide, offering fellowship and unity, where fake news has helped stoke tribal angers.We must understand too that we have also been betrayed by the so-called “mainstream media,” who fawned for months over the clearly unqualified candidate, giving him billions of dollars of free media, betrayed by cynical executives more interested in a buck than the facts of the matter, and betrayed by the lazy paid pundits more interested in protecting their own “brands” than in the well-being of the Republic they pretend to serve.We were betrayed too by pollsters phoning in — literally — their work and by politicians who spoke to their base and did not venture from safe venues, that is to say, they stayed far away from the genuine hurt and the mistrust and the economic dead ends that afflict so many of us.We must try to point out that even with a progressive president who taxed the wealthy, the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown; we can be assured now that this gap will only grow, not shrink. We must engage the business sector — corporate America will play a huge role in helping maintain our equilibrium, either by applying pressure to retrograde political forces or facing the pain of consumer boycotts.We must try to remember that this level of vulgarity, of blatant lying, of demonizing whole groups of people, nearly always backfires, that real change will come when middle class whites, Hispanics and blacks realize they share more in common with each other than those in whose interest it is that they stay divided. This has been a successful strategy for generations in this country: why not blame the other, who might take your job, rather than blame the boss who laughs all the way to the bank.What to do, you ask? A million things, of course. But it begins only with the first step of awareness and commitment, which you have already made.Just go forward. Engage. Don’t despair. Find likeminded people — not from your social circle, but everywhere. Change the opinions of others, not with ridicule, but reason. Finally, remember too that Barack Obama himself has said that the highest office in the land is not president, but citizen.Be one.With my sincerest best wishes,Ken Burns
Prior to the Stanford address, Burns had confined his political speeches to races in his home state of New Hampshire, though in 2015, he and Henry Louis Gates Jr. kicked off a nationwide series of conversations about race in America that ran through this year. He’s looking forward to using his two upcoming documentaries, the first a deep dive on the Vietnam War due in 2017, the second, a history of country music that will air in 2019, to “remind us that we belong to the same family, that we are all relatives, and the demonization of the other is this periodic, political trick that has short-term effectiveness but long-term doesn’t really work.”
When I asked him if he’d continue to speak out nationally now that the result he had warned about had come to pass, he said he truly wasn’t sure. Even the Stanford speech was the result of Burns’s feeling in the weeks leading up to the address that warning against Trump was necessary, rather than a plan long in the making. But focusing on his work, and his general inclination to talk about politics through the lens of the stories he’s telling “doesn’t mean I’m going to sit by idly,” Burns told me. “I don’t want my country to disappear.”