James MacGregor Burns, Max Lerner

America’s Past and Future Greatness, Part I

VTR Date: March 2, 1985

Guests: Burns, James MacGregor; Lerner, Max


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Max Lerner and Jim Burns
Title: “America’s Past and Future Greatness”
VTR: 3/2/85 Part I

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Today’s program, as will its sequel next week, represents a particularly touching coming together for me, for one of my first television guests back during the second Eisenhower presidential campaign of 1956 was political scientist/historian James McGregor Burns of Williams College. And one of my most frequent Open Mind guests, at least in our early years, has been Max Lerner, whose brilliant writings on American themes have now enlightened generations concerned with where as a nation, as a civilization we’ve been, and where we’re going.

So, gentlemen, I’m pleased to greet you both here again after all these many years, and, Max Lerner, I’d like to begin, referring to the fact that last evening I was reading through again your “Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes” which first came out in 1943, and in your foreword you say, “If it be asked why I present such a volume now, in the midst of the most terrible war in history, and while America is caught in the greatest peril of its career, I can only answer that today, 1943, more than ever, we need the first-rate minds of our past”. As I read that I wondered whether you thought that today in the mid eighties we are getting the value of those first-rate minds of our own time?

Lerner: We continue to be a creative civilization. I’ll make that a pretty basic proposition. But I think that we’re channeling it into different channels. No longer history and political theory and social theory, but much more biogenetics and brain research and information theory and the life sciences. Though there’s be a change of direction, but I don’t’ believe a change in creativity.

Hefner: Jim Burns, I find that to be a rather grim estimate. Do you, or do you feel otherwise?

Burns: I feel even grimmer about it. I think there’s been a catastrophic falling off of particularly political and intellectual leadership in this country since the days when Max Lerner and I first met as teacher and student. Just take personalities. Compare the people on the Supreme Court in the 30s and 40s with the people on the Supreme Court today. Compare the White House, not just the president, but the White House people of the New Deal period, the people who had access to the White House, with the people today. And I could extend this in many other walks of life, but we simply are not getting the kind of intellectual leadership and creativity that I think we desperately need, and I might say particularly in my party, the Democratic Party.

Lerner: May I suggest that in part, Jim, it may be because the great creativity came as a liberal creativity, particularly from the start of the century on, from the 1910s on. And I agree with you. I’ve asserted it, that there was a real flowering of the kind you describe in Supreme Court and in political thinking. But I think the liberal era has very largely ebbed, and has exhausted itself. And the conservative era in culture and in thinking has not yet really begun. So that we are in midway between a world that is ending and one that has not yet come to birth. And, but I see the beginnings of it coming to birth again in what I’ve talked about…

Heffner: In the sciences.

Lerner: Yes, and in the…mostly in the life sciences. That’s the interesting thing. In the life sciences. The emphasis is on life, on the nature of the brain, the nature of the gene, the…the nature of the psyche, the continuity of life. And this, we’re spreading this around the world. This is being picked up.

Heffner: of course, as I remember very well back in the 30s, reading your columns, Max, and reading what you were writing, 30s, 40s, always aware of that sense of optimism that you gave expression not, and now you’re expressing it again and, as thinking about this table, three men sitting around here dating back…you two knew each other almost 50 years ago. Student, teacher, researcher on the Holmes book, writer.

Lerner: May I add a footnote on the optimism, Richard? I’m not either an optimist or a pessimist, both of which are determined, as one says, “it’s bound to be better”, the other “it’s bound to be worse”. I call myself a possibilist.

Heffner: Well, do you …

Lerner: And I was then in the early days and i still am a possibilist. I don’t think these things are, you know, recorded forever. I think there’s no blank check about what’s going to happen, but I think that with collective intelligence and collective will we can make things pretty good.

Heffner: But there is, of course, a question of the present climate of opinion. And i know that over the years…once on the Open Mind, 25, 26 years ago, you said, by definition, you said just what you say now, when I ask you something about optimism or pessimism, you said, “I’m a possibilist”.

Lerner: Yes, I admit it.

Heffner: And I have always quoted that. But, Jim, you, your, you see that maybe there aren’t quite as many possibilities today?

Burns: That’s right, and I want to go back to a point that Max made about eth poverty or exhaustion of liberalism and argue that maybe he and I both, particularly max Lerner, ought to go back then to another great dichotomy which is conservatism versus radicals. I would hope in both our cases we might become the radicals of this period in order to cope with the power of conservatism today. I feel that great ideas – going back to your first question – that great ideas and creative ideas come out of great conflict, not out of consensus. And that liberalism has had a tendency toward consensus. And I miss the Max Lerner I knew back in the 30s and 40s. I miss the man who wrote “It is Later than you Think”. By the way, not a wholly optimistic book. I miss the radical of that period because i think the best world today, considering the intellectual power that Max Lerner had and has, would be if there were a radical Max Lerner today dealing with the Buckleys and the rest of the prominent conservatives of the day. And I feel I lost this man that I knew and loved. I still love him, but I feel there’s been3 a divergence in our paths, and since I have this tremendous respect for him, I’m a little disturbed for myself as well as for him.

Lerner: I would be disturbed, Jim, if I had remained the max Lerner that you knew. I would be deeply disturbed because I happen to believe that one of the things that developed in my thinking is that the, the political system, the economic system, the social system are organisms. They’re not mechanisms. They’re organisms. And they are living things, and our minds are living things, as our personalities and characters are living things. And I hope I’m open-ended3and, and growing and changing. I wish, Jim, that I could find in the new James Burns or Jim Burns the Jim Burns I use to remember who really practically made a cult of change. And here is Jim Burns pretty much sticking to the old Jim Burns that he was, never moving at all.

Burns: (Laughter)

Lerner: Forgive me if I say that it is I probably that have continued to believe in change. Change not only in my country but change with myself. And I don’t think that we get change within our country unless we first think about change within ourselves. Now, I know you have changed too. You’ve changed in many ways. But what I’m really saying is that, that the idea that you have changed your views is not a catastrophic thing. In fact, it’s an affirmative thing, provided that there is continuity in that whole, that whole succession of changes.

Heffner: Max, I’m not against change, obviously, but does change have to be toward conservatism? As I grow older, do I have to think that I will follow almost the standard path of intellectuals that they have to move toward the middle at least as they grow older? Why could you not have moved, changed in a more radical direction?

Lerner: Well, you might have, and this has happened at various times. Bertrand Russell, for example, that that was true of him. But I don’t, I don’t…first of all, may I say that I, I think that liberalism and conservatism have been, become very outworn as counters. I, I, I think they are angles for vision through which we see life, perfectly possible. But they’re not the crucial things. They, they often enslave us as categories. And I do not regard the direction in which I’ve been moving as a conservative one. If you’re going to play with words I think the true radicalism is one that sees, and the literal meaning of “radical” is “root”, is one that tries to get to what the root of things is. And I feel more and more—forgive me if I don’t sound humble enough – but I feel more and more in recent years, in the last 20 years, that I have been searching for what is at the root of things, both for myself and my associates and for our nation, our civilization. And, and I would say in that sense that to become a radical is to try to get closer and closer to the root of things. And as I say, my, at present, when I spoke of the human sciences, I mean my own interests as well, because fundamentally, what I, what I’ve been moving toward is seeing our civilization as an organism. And an organism is something that does have a root or center. The center. Wherever the center is. And in that sense I suppose a radical centrism is one of the things that I have been moving toward.

Heffner: But I see the root of the thing, we’re leading very much to what you consider to be the root of the thing in the old days. I see it still. To me, today the root of the thing is, in political and social terms, not personal terms, to be the fact that we still have a radically, an egalitarian society. I cannot come to this city of New York, but is true of other cities, without being enormously depressed by two things: The city is a city of enormous affluence, and a city of extreme poverty. Not just the poverty we see on the streets or in Grand Central Station, but the poverty of the subway, the poverty of life, the poverty of newspapers and the rest. I have to say to you, and this is the old Max Lerner that is with me…

Lerner: Um hm.

Heffner: …I feel passionate about this. I feel horrified by it. And I feel that perhaps not you but many of my old associates have lost the sense of injustice that still seems to dominate me. And maybe I am a prisoner of these old feelings, but i think that’s a benign imprisonment.

Heffner: Jim, do you, do you, you talked before about the standard path of intellectuals, and you decry the fact that so many of your former colleagues in political arms have tired, perhaps, of the struggle? Don’t have the, the, the, the impetus to protest as much as before. Standard in the nature of mankind? Except for Jim Burns?

Burns: Well, I would want Max to speak on this. It’s very close to his biological interests. I do not think it’s a standard path intellectually. I would argue…

Heffner: But you said it was. You talked about the standard path.

Burns: It has been for these people I’m mentioning, but you’re asking, “Does it need to be”? It does not need to be. It has been the case of these people. I ask, “Why”? Is it a slowing down of biological processes that make us tend to be cautious and more conservative? I don’t say this is true of Max literally, but of this group as a whole. Or is it that we were wrong? I ask myself the question, as a liberal or radical, “Did we go for easy solutions? Were we trying to throw money at problems” and all these other old clichés. I think we have a lot of rethinking to do. That’s part of our intellectual need. But what concerns me is the lessening of a passionate feeling about injustice. Now whether that’s intellectual or biological maybe Max would want to comment.

Lerner: Well yes I do. There are two things that I hope I haven’t lost. The first and most important is hunger. I was always a hungry young man, and I hope I’m still a hungry older man. Hunger. Hunger for life. Hunger for experience. Hunger for relationships. Hunger for doing things that really count in life. And i don’t think there’s necessarily any biological end to that kind of hunger. One of the things that we have discovered in this very creative period of ours is a new sense of what the aging process really is. And we’re moving away from our stereotypes about the aging process. And we’re finding that creativity is not specific to any particular phase in the life journey, that creativity changes with each phase of the life journey and that there is creativity in the latter decades which can often be very remarkable. And that there is an upwelling of energy that comes. So that I don’t think that it is an organismic thing that we’re talking about. Because i say, one thing I hope I will never lose is that sense of hunger. Now the other is a sense of anger, which is linked with a feeling of injustice in life. And I hope I haven’t – I still get angry at very many things, but I don’t let my…

Hefner: But both of you are talking fairly enough about Lerner and Burns, and the question I ask really has to do with something else. Whether in, as historians, whether you make the judgment that in the normal course of events, absent Lerner and Burns, it is, as you said, Jim, the standard path? Whether this isn’t something that, if not inevitably, at least historically, has been the path that most of us have taken?

Burns: Yes, I think there’s a tendency for intellectual leaders, particularly on the left, to pass through a great cycle.

Heffner: Why on the left?

Burns: Well…

Hefner: Are they the ones you’re angry with?

Burns: Well, I’m disappointed with. I don’t have great hopes for intellectual leadership on the right. The right is not supposed to lead, the right is supposed to oppose and slow down, in my book. But on the left, where I want intellectual leadership and creativity, et cetera, I don’t, I don’t see the continuation of that kind of leadership. You ask why and is it not natural for it to be the other way around, and my answer is, yes, I think there are cycles that people go through, that generations go through when you do more or less exhaust yourself. But, the test I would apply is how do you basically solve the problem ha t that generation of liberals and radicals was addressing? The problems of injustice in this country. We, I think, have made great progress. We could make a long list of all the things like Social Security and so on. But, as you look at our society, it is still, in my view, a grotesquely unjust society, and hence I don’t think we have a right to lay down the burden. I don’t think we have a right to follow the usual path of exhaustion and, and rust and sumptuism until we’ve fulfilled our great historic task.

Heffner: Do you find that in our political leadership today?

Burns: Well, the political leadership…

Heffner: Or the lack of …

Burns: …today, or course, is on the right, and, as I say, I don’t expect them to be concerned about problems of injustice. They are concerned about efficiency and pretend to be concerned about budgets and so on. It’s tomorrow and people. It’s to the Lerners and the Burnses, and I’m, I’m willing to talk about us because I’m willing to take my share of the blame here. It’s to people like us that I turn passionately to carry on that battle until that particular battle is won, and we can move on to perhaps more interesting, the kinds of things that Max is so concerned about rightly, and that is what’s happening in the life sciences and so on.

Lerner: I find this very moving expression, Jim, of what you think and feel. I still feel, Richard, that your question was a very searching one to him. And I would, myself, answer that question of yours in rather different ways. And I would say that the almost obsessive interest in left/right – which by the way has to do with body image to a considerable extent – but the almost obsessive interest that Jim has expressed and the sense that you have, Jim, of a certain amount of guilt for what you have not done and of a desire for atonement and so on. Both of which are good religious feelings. I think both of these have to do with our time. Our century. And I think what happened in our century was that we began with the feeling of possible Utopia, particularly with World Wwar I, and then after World War I we had this, you know, this feeling “Why haven’t we really done away with war”? And the same thing happened with World War II and after World War II. But the, if you ask why there has been a movement of the kind of that Jim describes, I would say it’s historical, and it has to do with the experience of our century. And the experience of our century was that we had certain Utopias in mind. And of course the great Utopia was the Russian Revolution and the soviet society, and…

Burns: It was not a real Utopia, though. You were never realistic about…

Lerner: I was fairly realistic but I certainly was part of the culture that Franklin Roosevelt was part of, his feeling that he had to deal so tenderly with Stalin and with the Soviet Union. That was part of his culture, not just personal. And i was part of that. I don’t feel guilt, and I don’t want atonement, but I do say that we went through an experience historically, not jus we in America, but through the whole of Europe and other continents we went through this historic…and then of course there was the experience we had with Hitler and with the nature of evil. And what an experience that was too. And what I’m really saying is that we have now moved away. We have moved away from the Utopia of the Soviet Union and to a considerable extent we are rethinking the new Deal. And in a book I’m working on now which is on the presidents, and with respect to Roosevelt I am also rethinking the New Deal. So what I am saying is we have learned from experience.

Burns: I am going back to the New Deal these days too. We both are. It’s interesting. And I will make a very simple statement about the new Deal. The tragedy of the new Deal was that it was half dealt, and the other half o the New Deal remained to be dealt, and until the broadest implications and hopes of the New Deal are realized, you and I should struggle together for a full dealing of the New Deal.

Lerner: On our own terms, but not in the terms of a welfare state centralism and a whole set of development of agencies and so on that we got out of the heritage of the New Deal. Look, this is a new world. I have a constant sense of a new world . Now, I don’t like to live in the past. I like to learn from the experience of the past, but my ideals are not the ideals of the past. My ideals are the ideals of a possibilism of the future.

Burns: But let’s talk turkey here. You were never a social welfare man. I mean, that was not the big thing you were teaching.

Lerner: I was a Roosevelt groupie.

Burns: You were planning…let’s talk specifics about the New Deal. You were a planner. A planner for the whole nation and particularly for the under privileged. That’s the Max Lerner I recall. It doesn’t have to be great bureaucracies and so on. That seems to me something that was never picked up. Remember the old Moley and all those people, Tugwell and so on?

Lerner: Tugwell was a planner, Jim.

Burns: Yes. What’s happened to that heritage? I’m still working on that?

Lerner: I see. Well, I’m afraid that you and I diverge there, because as I look back to some of the things Tugwell was involve with, I say, “Good riddance”. I’m glad we didn’t go in that direction. I’m delighted by the way that you and I, who were so much part of each other in the early days, have to some extent diverged. Which gives me a hope for the possibilities of life and of thinking.

Burns: (Laughter)

Heffner: You diverged. Let me ask as we move toward the end of the program – I hope it’s not dirty pool—have you diverged totally in your present, your contemporary political evaluations? Would you find yourselves together in the question of Mr. Reagan? Would you evaluate him differently as important and good for the country?

Burns: I think we would have to explore that. I think we might be more in agreement on some of these presidents than we are on some very basic principles here.

Lerner: I think Reagan is an effective president. And I think he has shown one of the things that was in question during the Vietnam War and during Watergate and during the hostage crisis under Carter when we really asked ourselves, “Is America governable? Is there someone who can govern this people, or is the people capable of being governed”? And Regan has answered that: Yes, America is governable, and yes there is a president who can govern and who has the nerve to govern. That I would assert.

Heffner: Jim, when Max says that, do you stand pat on your statement that you think you probably are more in agreement than disagreement?

Burns: Yes, because I have been saying since the start of the Reagan first term that this man was a strong leader, we should reckon with him as a strong leader. But it’s one thing to govern strongly and something else to govern rightly.

Heffner: Yes, because of…

Burns: And he doesn’t govern rightly in my view but he does govern strongly.

Heffner: If I remember correctly, you made the point of the Regan administration. This man governs. Let us use this as the means for bringing ourselves together, meaning the more liberal or radical elements in society. I don’t think that Max necessarily means that.

Lerner: What I mean is more and more that what has been wrong with America in the last couple of decades has been a fragment, fragmenting of American life. A disintegration. And I think that what we have needed has been greater cohesiveness in this society. And I think that Reagan, whether he governs wrong or right, left or right, whatever it is, has been governing toward greater cohesiveness in the society. For me may I say there is a somewhat ideal period in the past of the presidents that I’m studying, and it came with Truman and Eisenhower from 1945 when Truman first came in and began to set things right on foreign policy to the end of the 50s, toward the end of the 50s, ’57 or ’58. And I think what we had there was a greater cohesiveness in the society. And more of an equilibrium than I can recall during my entire memories, my political memories of political experience. And I would say that if Reagan continues after his first term, in the current term, if he continues with this direction we may again get that kind of cohesiveness.

Heffner: Cohesive is not sufficient for you, is it Jim?

Burns: no, it’s not. But I do think we Democrats, we liberals or radicals could learn a great deal from Reagan. He showed it was politically effective to move his party to the right. I think we should show that it’s politically effective to move our party to the left.

Heffner: Do you think the Democrats will do that?

Burns: Not in the foreseeable future.

Heffner: And 30 seconds the signal I’m getting. Why not?

Burns: Because they think they can do it the way they‘re doin g it now, winning congressional races, and keep hoping to win a presidential race, and I don’t think they can do that. I don’t think they’ll win the presidency until they stand for something.

Heffner: That’s the point at which I say I stand for something and that is that I’m getting the signal that we’ve got to get off, and you gentlemen have promised that you will sit where you are, and we’ll go on and do a sequel to Lerner and Burns and Burns and Lerner. Thanks so much Max Lerner. Thanks so much Jim Burns. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time and the Open Mind. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”