Ken Burns talks too fast.
Must be because he's learned so much about his latest exploration of history that he wants to make sure you hear enough to get as excited about it as he is.
Last week, Burns was introduced to a packed-house Dallas crowd as the "patron saint of all history buffs." And it's hard to argue with that description.
Burns' 1990 epic documentary series The Civil War breathed incredible life into chapters of the past we all assumed we knew -- and he did it through still photographs, talking-head interviews and the reading of letters crafted more than a century earlier.
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I can't think of Burns without hearing Ashokan Farewell and Sullivan Ballou's heart-rending letter in my mind.
Burns and his teams have explored baseball and jazz, Thomas Jefferson and Huey Long, explorers Lewis and Clark and women's-rights pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Their films are some of the best work to air on public television, demonstrating, as he has put it, TV as a force for good.
Burns' documentary style has been lampooned as well as imitated.
What makes it work is not just the style but the substance. He explores history through the lives of the sometimes-ordinary, sometimes-extraordinary people who made it and shows who they are but also how they are us. Their struggles are like our own, and the lessons of their times can guide us still.
Burns says his latest work could be about American society today: Single-issue politics yielding horrible unintended consequences. Demonization of recent immigrants. Unfunded congressional mandates. Smear campaigns during presidential elections.
Not to mention "a whole people who felt they had lost control of their country and were desperate to take it back."
Sounds like "America at this moment," he told an audience at the Belo Mansion event co-sponsored by the Dallas Bar Association and the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth.
But it also describes America during Prohibition, that era during which the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made it illegal to make, sell or transport liquor.
Beyond the images of gangsters, flappers and speak-easies that most of us associate with that time lies an "extraordinary story" about how support for the amendment came together and then fell apart, Burns said.
Titles of the series' three parts tell it succinctly: "A Nation of Drunkards," "A Nation of Scofflaws" and "A Nation of Hypocrites."
Before Prohibition, Americans were sots, drinking an average of 90 bottles of whiskey per person per year, Burns said. The Anti-Saloon League fervently campaigned to counter the scourge of alcohol on families. And they succeeded.
But people still drank, partying at illicit clubs, running their own stills and widely flouting the law, which was poorly enforced. Later, Congress tacked a five-year prison sentence onto a first offense and made it a crime to not report a neighbor for an alcohol violation. That only made things worse.
The series explores the intensity with which Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the first female assistant U.S. attorney general, enforced the anti-liquor law and the way in which Prohibition turned neighborhood thugs into powerful mobsters.
The film, which is scheduled to air Oct. 2-4 on PBS, also looks at the wet-dry debate during the 1928 presidential election, in which Democratic nominee Al Smith was slandered as a drunk and his Catholic faith was used to scare voters.
The story includes tax policy, corruption, strange bedfellows, class disparities, progressives and conservatives, the evolution of women in American society and overriding questions about the role of government in people's lives. To hear Burns tell it, it is also about zealotry, rigidity, short-sightedness -- and resilience.
It could be viewed as a "painful cautionary tale" or optimistically as an example of when the democratic system worked, he said.
The states ratified the 18th Amendment in 1919, 13 months after Congress passed it. But by 1933, voters were ready to be done with it. The 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th, was ratified in less than 10 months.
The U.S. was "the first government on earth to say we will trust the people to govern themselves," Burns said. "Sometimes they don't know best ... then they get it corrected."
Studying this era -- or any part of history -- provides "a table around which we can still have a conversation," Burns said. "And that's why I do what I do."
Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.