Ken Burns: Historians "aghast" at Trump's campaign traction

Ken Burns takes on Trump

When Ken Burns blasted Donald Trump during his Stanford commencement speech in June and said the presumptive Republican nominee was not qualified to be a presidential candidate, it marked a departure from the Oscar-nominated filmmaker's more famed and journalistic role of telling America's stories through documentaries.

"I've spent my entire professional life being straight down the middle, non-partisan, just trying to tell American facts. I try on public television to reach all audiences. ... But there comes a time when we have to stop and say, each [former president], even Zachary Taylor who had had no previous experience, was qualified for this office," Burns said Thursday on "CBS This Morning. "That is not the case this year. And those of us who know just a little about history are aghast at the amount of oxygen this candidacy has gotten."

Burns, who directed documentaries including "The Civil War," "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" and "Jackie Robinson," said Trump is "temperamentally unsuited" for the highest office in the United States.

"I can't psychoanalyze him, but he's riddled with lies and inconsistencies and will say whatever it takes," Burns said. "He didn't give us any information on his own finances. But more important, if you're interested in having a healthy economy, if he does half the things he's promised, we're going to make the recession of 2008 and 2009 look like child's play. If you're interested in world stability, what he said about NATO and what that will then produce with Russia and China, who will become more aggressive and adventurous and how he'll react, we don't want that war."

After his commencement address, Burns and David McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, formed "Historians on Donald Trump" and enlisted others to share their thoughts on Trump's campaign within the context of U.S. history.


Fittingly, Burns also released his first children's book this week called "Grover Cleveland, Again!: A Treasury of American Presidents," featuring illustrations and "fun facts" about past American presidents. The idea began when he used to drill his daughter, Sarah, now 33 years old, on the commander-in-chiefs.

"We'd lie awake and I'd go, 'George,' and she'd say, 'Washington,' and I'd say, 'John,' she'd say, 'Adams.' And then I said to her, when she finished it, she'd always get to the two non-consecutive terms of 'Grover Cleveland,' and go, 'Grover Cleveland, again!' Exclamation point. And then I said we should do a book," Burns said.

Now, as his youngest daughter, 5-year-old Willa, memorizes the presidents, he is releasing the book with hopes to humanize the presidents. The book divulges facts like John Quincy Adams had a pet alligator, Andrew Jackson was a practical joker and Abraham Lincoln was the tallest president.

Burns tries to convey the information, he said, "without the judgment that we spend our adult lives making about these people."

"All of these presidents have deep, human flaws, as we all do. And what we have to do as human beings is try our best not to make the other wrong. Try our best to sort of balance these out. To understand that heroism isn't perfection, but a kind of interesting negotiation between strength and weakness," Burns said. "And that's what we try to do here for children to understand that there's issues of race and slavery that are affecting almost all of the -- so far -- men here. There's a lot of things about finances and also of mistakes they've made."