A couple weeks ago I wanted to run into Costco in Dedham to pick up some delicious whitefish salad I had spread onto a bagel at my mother-in-law’s house, but I wasn’t allowed in. “Costco’s a private club,” she said. “It’s for members only.” I came back a couple days later, paid $50 and joined. As I write in The New York Sun, “Costco, like Manhattan’s Union, Century, and Harvard clubs, is a private organization — as I was informed several weeks ago — but it is one anybody in search of great quantities of Coca-Cola, paper towels, and baby formula can join for $100 or less.”
As I sped into the food section to purchase some delicious whitefish salad, I noticed a lonely sign. It advertised a book-signing by Ken Burns, America’s documentarian who has made the phrase “Ken Burns Effect” part of our lexicon. Burns is the director who produced the masterful PBS miniseries “The Civil War,” and “Baseball,” among many, others. His most recent project is the majestic film, “The War.” I had recently read Nick Wapshott’s essay about a screening for his film at the Modern Museum of Art in Manhattan and couldn’t believe that Burns would be making an appearance here of all places.
But here he was. Burns sat dressed neatly in a blue blazer in front of a large display of Vizio 60-inch and 42-inch big-screen HDTVs as eager fans lined up to meet him.His Costco appearance drew a cross-section of the public: aging war veterans, dental hygienists, and suburban parents. Mr. Burns’s gathering offered a glimpse into the American spirit at a time of war. And while a fair share of gift seekers in search of an autographed book for a loved one showed up, so too did Americans, ranging in age between 11 and 86, in search of a connection with the history of armed sacrifices for our republic.
Hugo Sweeney was typical: an 86-year-old former chief boatswain’s mate who manned the cutter Tampa as she escorted ships harassed by German U-boats between the American coast and Greenland. Sweeney remembered being on the convoy that saw the torpedoing of the transport ship Dorchester. Mr. Sweeney’s job was to help ferry the survivors to Boston from Iceland. Sweeney said he saw no difference between the American servicemen of his day and those currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The only problem is that the people aren’t backing them wholeheartedly.”
For his part, Burns said the public reception of his recent film was the most profound of any project he has been involved with. “It’s been more than the ‘Civil War.’ It’s been beyond belief,” he told me. “It evokes a much more intimate response. People have watched it with their dads, repaired relationships with their fathers, or felt their dead father was present.” One viewer, he recalled, sent him dirt from Omaha Beach; another mailed him buttons from a grandfather’s military uniform constructed in Waterbury, Conn. — one of the places Burns focuses on in his film.
Because of the subject matter, Burns captures a sense of the public mood when he does book and movie appearances. “I travel around the country, I always ask people how many know somebody in Iraq. If it’s 2%, it’s a big deal,” Burns said. “In World War II, on every street in any town in America, there wasn’t someone who didn’t experience, suffer from that war in some shape or form.”
Burns said a disconnect exists between the armed struggle taking place right now and the public. In his film, for instance, Burns included a Movietone newsreel titled “Everybody Joins the U.S. War Effort,” in which the narrator reports, “The country has asked the people to invest a billion dollars in one month to help pay for the war.” Burns said, “Everybody was involved. Today, we’re all independent free agents. We don’t give up anything.”
At the same time, Burn’s film depicts monumental disasters, such as the surrender of 78,000 American and Filipino troops to the Japanese at Bataan and the early defeats and embarrassments of the American forces in North Africa. “No one teaches that. We thought it was really important to tell the truth of what really happened,” he said.
One wonders if the American public could withstand such low points today. Burns has taken a painstakingly bipartisan approach to his project, appearing at the World War II Memorial in Washington and visiting the United States Military Academy in West Point three times. “Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said there’s too much pluribus and not enough unum,” Burns said, adding that his focus was on bringing Americans together.
Surprisingly, the patrons at Costco demonstrated grit when prodded about what their country could accomplish. Judy Kaz, who drove all the way from New Hampshire to purchase three signed copies of Burn’s book, said, “Americans are resilient people. We can do whatever it is we set out to do.”
I also asked Burns about a prior World War II documentary I liked, “The World at War.” Burns gave it credit, but said his was the first major documentary that handled the major events of the war in chronological order and simultaneously. For somebody walking into Costco not expecting an interview, Burns was great.