Ken Burns seems to own the term “gripping,” for it is used to describe nearly every film he has produced in his long and distinguished career. His much-awaited 18-hour series, “The Vietnam War,” begins on television September 17 and the viewership is likely to be as large and as engaged as any that watched a Super Bowl, or a World Series. Or a presidential debate.
It won’t be the same kind of audience, at least in frame of mind, or disposition. The Vietnam war holds the conscience of generations, a war that Burns calls one of the most consequential, divisive and controversial events in American history. Every American who experienced this war – lived through it, or during it – holds a piece of it, a part of it that transforms and cycles and eddies in the mind to this day. Burns’ documentary of that war, he says, is the most ambitious project he has ever attempted. Vietnam along holds a long and complex and anguish-ridden history.
Burns’ films never fail to captivate, educate. Thus, as either a prelude to “Vietnam,” or as its postscript, another of his works deserves viewing, one that is far less publicized but in this case as important as any he has produced – and especially relevant today. Consider it an American primer.
It is Burns’ engaging and telling documentary, “The Congress.” It was released 29 years ago, in 1988, and is both informative and reminiscent; it reminds us how things once were, when government ran on an elaborate system of compromise. It offers grave lessons for today.
The film is about a time when our Congress embraced the sensibilities and common sense of Americans across the land. It traces back more than two centuries to the beginning, to John Adams, the obligations and responsibilities of a Congress that reflected a people who were supreme. It tells of a different kind of Congress and Washington. Those earlier years may not have been such good old days, but for the Congress and the president and most Americans they were far more productive.
What change has wrought: A Congress today of intransigence and ignorance, of shrillness and platitudes, of misfeasance, phobia and demagoguery, all rising like swamp gas through the Capitol’s hallowed halls.
One of the lessons drawn from “The Congress” is that our current version of Congress could not write the better laws that others had once fashioned; indeed, it is incapable of conceiving them, much less debating them.
Consider what was accomplished when our legislators and the president were vibrant and supreme: Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal, its Robber Baron-busting enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act; Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, its banking laws, gold standard, Social Security, Depressionending public works, soil conservation and flood control programs; Truman’s Fair Deal, its provisions for farm aid, unemployment compensation, public works, a minimum wage; and Truman’s Marshall Plan, which saved postwar Europe from ruin – none of these glorious reforms, not to mention many others, would have a chance in the melee that is Washington today.
Every major component of Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society – the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, the space program (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo 11, the moon!..), the Peace Corps, Consumer Protection acts including meat inspection, weights and measures, clean air and water legislation, and more – would be filibustered out and foamed off to history’s ash heap, consigned to insignificance by today’s Congress. Indeed, much of this magnificent legislation, the agencies and policies it created, is under real threat from the Trump Administration. Ken Burns’s “
The Congress” is rich with tragic irony. In a way, time has turned this film from a portrait of a great institution to the tale of a failed one. Its history tells us what Congress and the president are no longer capable of doing. Even such basics as health insurance, road and bridge maintenance and improvement, and education are beyond reach. We can no longer conduct even a clean election. We are able to go only to war.
Washington was once a place that welcomed ideas. Then it became a place where ideas went to die. Now it is a place where ideas don’t go at all. *
– JOHN MARSHALL