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TV Producer Dayton Duncan - Historian from Iowa

posted on December 19, 2008 at 5:46 PM


In 2006, Dayton Duncan, historian, documentarian, and politico, visited the Iowa Public Television studios. In this clip, he speaks with Morgan Halgren about his love of history, Lewis & Clark, and National Parks.

MORGAN HALGREN: Award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker Dayton Duncan was born and raised in Indianola, Iowa.  After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania he settled in New Hampshire and before long became involved in state and national politics.  But a fascination with American history eventually consumed him and he has pursued that passion ever since. 

Among his pursuits are nine books on American history and politics.  For fifteen years he has served as writer, consultant and co-producer for Ken Burns' celebrated television documentaries, mainly The Civil War, Baseball, Mark Twain and Dayton's favorite topic, Lewis and Clark. 

Dayton Duncan, welcome back to Iowa.

DAYTON DUNCAN: It's great to be back here.

MORGAN HALGREN: At what point did your fascination with history kick in?

DAYTON DUNCAN: I think it was my time in politics that actually ignited my interest in history.   then I got into politics working as a chief of staff for a governor in which you're seeing decisions being made and somehow the connection started to fire in my brain if I was reading about American history that they're just like me, those people are just like me only in a different time. 

They're trying to do the best they can, making decisions that they don't know how they're going to turn out but that they do know could have an effect, that ripple effect on the future.  And that humanized it for me I think.

And it was right around the same time that a friend gave me a copy of the one volume edition of the Lewis and Clark journals and I read that with a real veracious interest of seeing it with new eyes, that these were people, they weren't just facts, they weren't just names, it wasn't just dates to remember.  There were stories to tell and that changed my life.

MORGAN HALGREN: Do you think it is also the stepping back in time that fascinates you about history?

DAYTON DUNCAN: I love the notion of going back in time. And it's sort of that conjunction of the similarity of humanity and the different place in time that fascinates me.

MORGAN HALGREN: You mentioned that you got into history sort of via politics.  Are you still involved in politics?

DAYTON DUNCAN: Well, you know, I was the Chief of Staff for a governor of New Hampshire, one of the few Democratic governors our state has had. I was very involved in Walter Mondale's campaign in 1984, press secretary for Dukakis in '88. And so I get involved in state politics as an advisor to friends of mine, one is now a governor and I get involved in the presidential campaigns every four years I give free advice and that is about what it’s worth.

MORGAN HALGREN: Well, now you have, in your book, Scenes of Visionary Enchantment, your latest book you have readily admitted that you have an obsession with Lewis and Clark.  And I wondered how deep does this obsession run?

DAYTON DUNCAN: I've got it as bad as you can have it.  I caught Lewis and Clark it is a contagious disease, infectious.  Once you've got it, it is incurable and it starts off with the desire to read everything you can about it and stage two is you want to go to all the places that they were at. 

Stage three is the place where you might wake up on September 3rd and say okay, September 3rd, well in 1804 they would have been just past Sioux City, Iowa and in 1805 they would be about to enter the Bitterroot Mountains and then you'd walk down and realize that it's your birthday 

It's an endlessly fascinating story. You can think you know it and it turns out there is still more things to learn because of the journals, because there is this wealth of information, of the firsthand accounts, of the first American citizens to see the western United States before it was changed forever.

MORGAN HALGREN: Let's talk about your latest obsession which is the national parks, the story about a five part series, right, about the national parks.  Why did you want to tell that story?  And when will we see it?

DAYTON DUNCAN: The idea of a national park we sort of take for granted now.  But it was an idea that was born here in the United States in the middle, actually in the midst of the Civil War. 

The notion of taking a beautiful, special place, in this case Yosemite, and setting it aside, saving it not for the royalty, not for the richest people, not for the political insiders but for everybody that was as radical an idea in 1864 across the world as the Declaration of Independence had been 100 years earlier.

Our plan is to have the national park series completed in 2008 with an air date sometime in 2009. 

MORGAN HALGREN: When you're writing a book you can paint the picture with words but if you're talking about 200 years ago and you don't have an image for what you're trying to show what do you, how do you fill in?

DAYTON DUNCAN: Each film presents its own challenges and its own complications and sometimes its own opportunities.  The Civil War, the visual bread and butter of that film are the old, beautiful glass plate negative photographs taken during the Civil War

When we did Lewis and Clark they were very inconsiderate of documentary filmmakers by embarking 40 years before the invention of photography.  So, there weren't any photographs to use.  There were only a few paintings, portraits of Lewis and of Clark and of a few of the men to use 

So, rather than looking into their eyes as we had done in the Civil War series we became their eyes and we were traveling with them 

MORGAN HALGREN:   it seems to me that you make a real effort not to glorify history.  You talk about these fallible people and less than perfect human beings, but how do you resist that temptation to glorify it when you are so entranced by it yourself?

DAYTON DUNCAN: I think what Ken and I feel is that, you've got to be willing to look with clear eyes at a historical person or a historical moment and with clear eyes can also give them credit where credit is due but to show a person warts and all Meriwether Lewis took his own life three years after the expedition. 

William Clark was a slaveholder who refused to give York his freedom for many years after the expedition.  That is part of who they are.  I still think they did heroic things and there is much of what they did that I admire.

And to white wash their shortcomings would be unfair to history and to a certain extent unfair to them if only perfect people can be heroes there can't be any heroes because nobody is perfect but if imperfect people, fallible human beings are capable of doing great and heroic things well then maybe we're all capable of doing that  

MORGAN HALGREN: In your experience of researching and writing and producing the Lewis and Clark story can you paint a picture for us of a golden moment for you in that whole process?

DAYTON DUNCAN: I just happened to be in a group of people canoeing through the White Cliffs of the Missouri with what was described to me as some professor from New Orleans.  It turned out to be Stephen Ambrose who turned out to make my fascinating with Lewis and Clark seem like puppy love.

And we camped the first night right across from these beautiful, white, sandstone cliffs pretty much in the same place that they camped on May 31, 1805 when Lewis wrote one of my favorite passages from the entire journey about what he called scenes of visionary enchantment. 

And as the sun went down Steve did what he would always do whenever he was anywhere on the trail is he got out the journals and he made us who were with him look out at the scene and then he read Lewis' words.

And I can still hear his voice to this day fifteen years or more, twenty years had a lot of great adventures along the trail.  But that first time at that campfire at the White Cliffs will remain right here.

MORGAN HALGREN: Wonderful, thank you. We’ll just look forward to all of your upcoming projects.

DAYTON DUNCAN: Thank you very much.

Tags: Dayton Duncan documentaries filmmaking history Iowa national parks parks politics

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