In the late 90s, I did some archaeological fieldwork in Israel, and I loved gazing over the dig sites thinking of all the stories beneath the soil. Every stone we uncovered was one that a little kid might have crawled on and in thinking of the life of that little kid thousands of years ago, I could daydream forever; piecing together stories, histories, conversations, ideas, everything.
In a lot of ways that is what it is like for me right now while working on a 3-part documentary series on the American safety net called American Compassion for FindHelp.org. Listening back to archival recordings, reading letters, legislation, and biographies, and hearing speeches and interviews, I am digging up lost histories and weaving together narratives that illustrate just how much compromise, thought, empathy, strategy, and negotiation went into making the safety net system we have in the US today, and how much ideologies around compassion itself have changed over the last 100 years.
But what about everything that is left on the cutting room floor? What about the stories you know are there and out there somewhere, but you just can’t connect the dots?
One such story for me is that of the intellectual framework of the safety net and the relationship between one of its creators, Frances Perkins, and the person who developed the vision for the safety net with the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson.
It is well documented that Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt knew each other very well and even worked on safety net programs together, but Frances Perkins was an integral part of the architecture of the New Deal, and I can’t help but think that if she and LBJ talked their conversations would have been a vital part of how LBJ imagined especially Medicare and Medicaid.
When I spoke to Robert Caro for the show back in April of 2022, I asked him if he knew of any connection between Frances Perkins and LBJ. He said that at one point he asked that question but that he couldn’t find any evidence that they knew each other.
I also asked the archivists at the LBJ library and museum in Austin, TX if they knew of any connection between FP and LBJ, and they found only one exchange between the two, a letter from FP to LBJ congratulating him on his election to the Senate in 1948, and one from LBJ to FB thanking her for her note.
I can’t seem to find anything else that points to their conversations outside of these notes, but I will keep digging.
That said, there are a lot of ways you can use clips that just won’t fit into the stories you’re putting together for radio pieces or podcasts. For example, I have this incredible clip I recorded of Mark Updegrove talking about the animatronic LBJ they have in the museum. I mixed it with a recording I did of the animatronic LBJ for KUT Radio’s Sonic ID program in the early 2000s.
We can use this for social media promotion of the podcast, or just to share with the team to get them excited and give them more insight into the project.
It’s like the cutting room floor has come alive and for me, that is very exciting!