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A great evening at the Pratt with filmmaker Ken Burns

PBS filmmaker Ken Burns was honored at the 12th annual Pratt Society Dinner Saturday with one of the library's prestigious Lifetime Achievement Awards, and what a splendid event it was.

Burns, one of the nation's great artists and most eloquent speakers, was in top form, and many of the best and brightest members of the region's philanthropic and cultural leadership communities were on hand to hear him -- and to get the chance to ask a few questions of their own after his talk.

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After some 20 year of writing about Burns and his work, I had the honor -- and that is exactly what I consider it to be -- to introduce him. The Enoch Pratt Free Library lifetime award is a major national honor. Past winners include Norman Mailer, E.L Doctorow and John Updike.

Burns, who has uses the media of television and film better than anyone else, to drive viewers to libraries and bookstores, was especially appreciative of being honored by an institution that so celebrates and preserves the written word. He was generally moved to be placed by the Pratt in the highest ranks of American writers.

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This was an evening dedicated to celebrating the body of work an American original, and not politics -- despite all the election talk that could be heard at virtually every table during dinner. But as Burns discussed his films -- especially The Civil War, his 1990 landmark production -- he referred several times to a "skinny lawyer from Illinois."

Of course, he was talking about Abraham Lincoln. But later in the speech as he discussed "race and space" as two great themes of American life, he talked about Americans at this moment in history being confronted with the chance to address the fundamental contradiction in the nation's DNA between a founding document that insists that all men "are created equal," and the fact that the words were written by a man (Thomas Jefferson) who owned over 100 slaves and saw nothing wrong with that.

A few beats later when Burns acknowledged that he might a little partial to "skinny lawyers from Illinois," many in the hall took that as an endorsement of Democratic candidate Barack Obama and broke into applause.

For the record, as Burns made perfectly clear, the "race and space" quote came from novelist Russell Banks who said it in connection with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in Burns' film on the 19th century author. Banks was talking about the geography of the frontier and America, not outer space.

One of the things I so admire about Burns is his insistence on getting facts and quotes not only right, but also in context in his films -- and reporters owe him the same diligence in writing about his words and work.

As caught up as Z on TV is in this election, and as anxious as I was about getting home to see Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Saturday Night Live, I would not have missed the Pratt event for the world.

As I said by way of introduction, the word  "filmmaker" does not do justice to Ken Burns. He's a cultural anthropologist with a camera -- and the soul of a poet. And we, the people of the United States, are lucky enough to be members of the tribe he has chosen to spend his life studying.

Congratulations to Ken Burns,  Pratt CEO Carla Hayden, the library board of trustees and directors, and all the people in Maryland who contribute to making the Pratt one of the community's most engaged and the country's most valued cultural institutions.

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