James MacGregor Burns

James MacGregor Burns

VTR Date: September 6, 2001

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: “James MacGregor Burns”
VTR: 9/6/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest once again is an old friend, James MacGregor Burns, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College and Senior Scholar at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

Now last time we discussed his and historian Susan Dunn’s new Atlantic Monthly Press study of the Three Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, who they identify as patrician leaders who transformed America. Of course, all of Jim Burns major books have been provocative ventures in Americana. The Lion and The Fox was the first volume of his magnificent biography of FDR. It’s sequel, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Other Burns studies range from John Kennedy, A Political Profile to the monumental trilogy he called The American Experiment, making my guest the quintessential American historian and political scientist.

But now I want to use the rest of this blessed time together, our first in this new century to parse what other insights into the American experience James MacGregor Burns would share with us and those who come after.

And, Jim, I wanted first to needle you a little bit, because over the past years, and we did our first program together … God help us both in 1956 … we’ve talked about third parties and somehow or other the introduction of what I would call “disparate elements” of the American political scene, and I wonder here in this year following the election of 2000, how you feel about third parties. Or efforts to intrude into the two party system. And the result.

BURNS: Well, what you call “needling” Dick is one reason I always love to come back and be with you, because we get into a little debate, not just a love fest. And I have very strong feelings, as you might suspect about third parties. I say to people in third parties “join one of the major parties and make it better.” Take Ralph Nader.

HEFFNER: No, you take Ralph Nader.

BURNS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I don’t want him.

BURNS: Well, I’ll take Ralph Nader … had a long talk with him on the phone about this one time. About third parties. And inviting him, if I have the right to do so, to get into the Democratic Party, to fight in the Democratic Party primaries, to try to make the Democratic Party a more liberal, a more purposeful, a more honest party instead of sitting out there separating himself and helping produce the horrible December that we went through last year. So, they say to me, of course, “well, these parties are too compromising, flabby and so on”. And I say “that’ right. Come in and make them better”.

HEFFNER: Are you convinced that by making them better, and by that I believe you mean taking extremely different stands on issue …

BURNS: Not extremely different, but significantly different …


BURNS: … stands.

HEFFNER: … let, let me ask about that. What about the definition, the difference between extremely and significantly. What do you think this country would tolerate, could stand?

BURNS: Well, I think an extreme position of the Democratic … for the Democratic Party would be to become in effect or by name the Socialist Party of the country. Whereas, when I talk about being significantly different, it would mean much stronger positions than Clinton took and if I were a Republican I would probably feel that Bush should take much stronger Conservative positions than he’s presently taking. The point is, Dick, to get a choice before the American people; that’s what this comes down to in my view. Why are we getting this decline in the voting turn out? A number of reasons. To me the most significant reason is people say to me, and I’m sure to you, “Why go, there’s no difference between the candidates. There’s no difference between the parties.” So, if only in terms of invigorating our democracy, I think there should be two parties, and I can illustrate it, not … not as wide as this (arms spread wide) or as close as this (arms very close together), but simply giving this choice (arms spread moderately) to the American people.

HEFFNER: On specific issues, how would you identify where they would stand, Social Security, a minimum wage laws, tax levels …

BURNS: Well, on taxes I think it’s outrageous that we had a tax reduction that so much benefited the rich. I’m not the first one to say that, but it just stares me in the face at this point and time. On the minimum wage, and I’m close to a lot of people on the minimum wage, it’s absurdly low, you cannot live on the minimum wage. Take health, now here’s an interesting example that probably is good for your case … better for your case than for me. And that is the Health Bill of Clinton’s, where that was a case of, of the Democratic Party going significantly to my Left here. But the thing that struck me about that, Dick, was the aftermath. It got badly treated, they did not do a good job in bringing it out, we know that back in 1994, 93 and 94, but the thing that bothered me was that once they got that initial defeat, the way Clinton pulled away from that. I don’t think Hillary did, but Clinton seemed almost embarrassed that he had presented this Bill to the Congress. And to me, much of the greatness of leadership lies in persistence, which means conviction. You believe in something so much, you stick with it. And the history of reform in this country, Dick, has been the history of persistence. Take one example, women’s fight for the right to vote. Imagine all the decades that they failed, the way that health bill failed. They could not get the vote, all sorts of problems … they stuck to it. It took much too long. But in a hundred years, women got the right to vote through sheer persistence and a lot of militancy. So, I think great changes take place that are needed by one party, whether it’s the Conservative Party under Reagan, or a
Liberal Party under an FDR- type, or a Republican Party under a TR-type, who really believe in what they’re doing, stick to it, fight for it, take their defeats, come back into the battle, and hopefully, finally win out.

HEFFNER: But in an effort to win, the media are used, and public relations devices, let me not just use the term “the media”, but public relations devices, spin control. All of that is used to obfuscate differences at the very time that you’re talking about emphasizing differences, give us a choice, every campaign is designed, it seems to me, certainly in the last generation, to obfuscate, where obfuscation seems likely to get more votes here or more votes there.

BURNS: Well, by obfuscate do you mean that they play up the differences ….


BURNS: … more than they should?

HEFFNER: No. I mean just the, the opposite, that there can be a determination … you and I can identify one party with one stand on health matters …

BURNS: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … but, when you get to the election period there is such an effort to pretend that all people are all things …

BURNS: Well …

HEFFNER: … in all positions.
BURNS: Yes. And there’s a tremendous emphasis on that magic word “consensus” …

HEFFNER: So, how are we going …

BURNS: … or another one … bi-partisanship. And I think these are terrible words in a democracy because the essence of democracy is conflict. It’s disagreeing, it’s presenting different points of view. And I think you’re right, the media doesn’t seem to understand that. They do play up a lot of sort of trivial conflict from day to day, of course, because it makes news. But when it comes to examining the leadership of the country, any time somebody is, is particularly bi-partisan, negotiating with the other party, sitting around the table and making agreements, they play this up as wonderful leadership. I don’t want people sitting around the table making deals, I want two parties to go to the people with different programs and to give the people a choice.

HEFFNER: You know, it seems to me that when you ticked off and I was very happy to hear you tick off issues, it seems to me that one could easily say, “But Jim Burns, on those issues, we know that the Democrats, by and large, stand here. And the Republicans, by and large, stand there.” Don’t we have that already?

BURNS: I don’t think sufficiently. I don’t think Clinton made it that clear as to the differences between him and the Republic opposition. There was a great deal of negotiation during that period. But there’s one other element, Dick, we should bring in here, and we’ve talked about this. We have a system that makes it very hard for there to be two strong parties. Because, let’s take the now Republican House and the Democratic Senate, that it turned out to be …

HEFFNER: The now Democratic Senate …

BURNS: That’s right.

HEFFNER: You’ve got to be fair.

BURNS: That’s right. And the cases we’ve had of Presidents and Congress and sometimes the two Houses of Congress being of different parties. So, that puts an enormous burden on the President, to be a negotiator to begin with. And I recognize that. The question I raise is, when do you rise above negotiation? And usually that happens in an election, which sort of clarifies where people stand and where the politicians stand. When the election fails to do that, which I think happened a lot last year, then you’ve got the combination of the checks and balances as awkward, old fashioned political system we have, on the one hand, and you’ve got fudging in the election on the other. So you end up with a pretty lousy situation politically.

HEFFNER: Jim, let me ask. We’ve talked together all these years. As you look back. What changes would you make in the fundamental … well, let’s call it the instrument of government or instruments of government? What would you do differently?

BURNS: Well, you’ve got me in kind of a corner here, Dick, because I happen to be one of those who feels that the Framers …

HEFFNER: Knew what they were doing.

BURNS: … the most brilliant feat of what I call “transformational leadership”, in the history of the West by, collectively, again, working up this Constitution, which I think was very appropriate for let’s say the nineteenth century, but is not appropriate for this century. What would I change in this masterwork of the framers?


BURNS: I would do away with the two year terms for Congressman, for Representative. I ran for Congress once and I knew that if I won, as soon as I won I’d spend most of my time simply raising money for the next race. I would shorten the Senate terms from six years to four year. I would have President, Congressman and Senators all running at the same time so we could elect a Republic government or a Democratic government and get stronger leadership in Washington. Now if that probably doesn’t curl your hair enough. I could probably offer some other radical ideas.

HEFFNER: Should we call it parliamentary government?

BURNS: Not really, because parliamentary government does not have the Presidency that we have …


BURNS: … and the Presidency that we have with all it’s dangers is the great strengthening force. I think we could get a combination of parliamentary government and Presidential government the way the DeGaulle did, to some extent, in France.

HEFFNER: You think it could happen? No, you really don’t …


HEFFNER: … you don’t think we’re going to do that.

BURNS: … no, I think we consider the Constitution to be sacred. I think the Bill of Rights is sacred, but I don’t think the Constitution, itself, is sacred because it’s just a structure of government. And I think it should be modernized. But do I think it will happen? Too much Constitution worship in this country.

HEFFNER: As an alternative then, what’s you … what “back off” position do you have?

BURNS: I think we’ll continue to turn to the Presidency during crisis and put a greater and greater burden on the White House. And I worry that some time in this century, Dick, there will be a Constitutional crisis that will lead to a kind of Presidential dictatorship, such as we’ve never known. I mean we’ve had quasi-Presidential dictatorship … actually under Abraham Lincoln, but to put it more simply, I think that with an old-fashioned Constitution and with what’s likely to happen in the 21st century, we’ll have a Constitutional crisis, and I’m just worried that we might do very bad things at that point. One reason I work on this whole question of Constitutional reform, like the little changes I suggested, is to have something in place in case that should ever happen.

HEFFNER: Why do you feel that this will happen in the 21st century? What are the elements that will bring about this situation.

BURNS: I think it’s going to happen because of the fundamental thing that’s happening in this country, in my view, and perhaps in the whole world. It is the contrast between the enormous changes that are taking place in this country, let’s say, in industry and finance, in the media, in science, in technology, in medicine … many other areas. Tremendous changes on the one hand, and a feeble, incrementalist government trying to catch up with, to do something about, to cope with these changes. And at a certain point, I think, in this century, as these non-governmental changes take place, the government will still be this ponderous old machine that we watch. There will be such a gap between change on the one had and lack of change in government that there will be a crisis because, Dick, the only thing you and I and the rest of the people control to some extent is the government. We can’t control these great corporations, the media, nor do we really wish to. And so, my guess is that at a certain point that gap between the two will be so obvious that we’ll have a Constitutional crisis.

HEFFNER: And we can ???? to that kind of Constitutional crisis …

BURNS: I think …

HEFFNER: … steel strike, something like that?

BURNS: Well, that’s a little example. You’ve got a … you’re a good historian to think of that. That’s a good example of what could happen on a small scale. I’m thinking of things happening on a large scale. And to answer your question, I say to my students, in my lifetime, and I can say in your lifetime this will not happen. I think it will happen in their lifetime.
HEFFNER: What will change though, just in a, a continuing expansion of the powers of the private sector?

BURNS: Well, I, I think if things become … if the private sector becomes so irresponsible that there is a huge reaction against, as occurred actually both during TR’s time and under FDR, that there might actually be the possibility of fundamental changes that would modernize government, strengthen government to cope with what’s going on in the private sector. But I would say the chances of that are about two out of five.

HEFFNER: Where do you see in the present … and we just have a few minutes left, where do you see in the present political scene, on the present political scene signs of lions …

BURNS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … prowling around.

BURNS: I don’t really see them. I, I look at some of these Congressional leaders, like a Daschle, that’s a possibility there. I will say to you, as someone who’s talked with Hilary Clinton and watched her across the border from Massachusetts, we get a lot of New York State news and followed that campaign closely, I think there is a potential President of the United States, which would be, of course, presumably the first woman President, unless Elizabeth Dole on the Republican side, I’ll be bi-partisan here, takes the lead. But it may be that this lack of great male potential leaders makes us look more at the women in this country.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting, on that score, on others too, I realize that you and I have experience today, in the two programs that we’ve done, a lot of discussion about change, about leadership … we haven’t said anything, and it reminds me of the criticism of FDR, in his first Inaugural Address, we haven’t said anything about the world outside.

BURNS: Well, I did make the point that FDR faced up to his … to the great menace of Hitlerism and so on …


BURNS: … that was a brief comment …

HEFFNER: … that was later on.

BURNS: Well, in the foreign policy area you do have to have strong executive leadership and typically we do provide that to the President. The President has really got quite a lot of treaty making power and executive foreign policy making power that makes it, I think, less of a critical situation.

HEFFNER: I, I don’t understand that. Really, Jim. Because it seems to me that things are going on outside of our borders, beyond our borders that put us in so many, make us vulnerable in so many areas.

BURNS: I agree … outside our borders, but in terms of our response to what’s going on, it seems to me that the President’s foreign policy making and Commander-in-Chief powers gives the government more strength than we have in the domestic arena.

HEFFNER: I see, you say we have the, we have the capacity …


HEFFNER: … do you feel that that capacity has been tapped, used?

BURNS: No. On the whole I think that’s one of the great failings in the post-War period that we have not had the strong, visionary leadership. TR actually won the Nobel Prize, people forget this, for his leadership in foreign policy. FDR was …

HEFFNER: Ironically, the Peace Prize.

BURNS: Yes, that’s right. [Laughter] Good point, the peace prize. And we know about FDR, we know about Eleanor and the magnificent universal declaration of human rights. We don’t, we don’t have that today.

HEFFNER: Well you say we don’t have that today. You’re not saying we don’t have the opportunities for the exercise of that kind of leadership?

BURNS: I think we have opportunities. More optimistically as I see students, I feel that we’re developing a student interest in international affairs that really will pay off in the coming decades.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m so interested in your most recent book, The Three Roosevelts, you’re talking about three internationalists, three leaders in the outside world … my sense, as I talk to my students, different from yours, different sense … I, I don’t have the sense of people who are basically interested in the outside world. I don’t have the sense of people who fundamentally are as interested as our generation was, in the crisis of the times, maybe because there aren’t such crisis. But don’t you have … ah, that’s a stupid way for me to put it … why put it that way … it seems to me that there is a growing isolationism and I gather you don’t quite …

BURNS: Well …
HEFFNER: … feel that.

BURNS: … I may be influenced by the fact that Susan Dunn and I had lunch yesterday with a student who definitely plans to be Secretary of State …


BURNS: … in the next few decades. I mean we think that’s great, too. And he’s willing to admit it. That’s just one example. But, I just have to say that the students I run into make me more optimistic than evidently in your case.

HEFFNER: Their interest in the world outside.

BURNS: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: That’s, that’s quite fascinating.

BURNS: And they’re out there, they’re traveling. They’re doing these foreign programs, they’re spending years abroad. They’ve always done this, but there’s much more of this today … junior year abroad is a big thing, for example.

HEFFNER: MmmHmmm. And the voting public of this great republic of ours? What do you think about it now in terms of the world outside?

BURNS: I think it’s pretty well oriented to it. And I must say here I give the media a lot of praise. I think the media does play up, at least maybe I read the media that does it. But the media does emphasis foreign policy much more than when I was a student.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting. When Walter Isaacson, when he was Editor-in-Chief of Time itself, Time magazine itself was here, I took out a group of, I guess Time was celebrating its 75th anniversary, and I took the Man of the Year covers, one for each decade, every ten years, I drew out the … and for fifty years they were all involved, some way or other, with our stance overseas …

BURNS: Really?

HEFFNER: And suddenly they became Hollywood stars and television stars …

BURNS: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and that’s why I guess I feel so differently than you. I feel this great sense of withdrawal, and when I read about the Three Roosevelts I think essentially of a dual focus on this country’s problems and an understanding that we had to deal with the world outside.

BURNS: Well, I was trying to be polite to you as a prominent member of the media in talking about what’s happened in the media, but I’ll have to say that the, the degradation of the media, the commercialization of the media … we’ve talked about this, of course, for years, indeed, for decades in this country. But it’s just getting beyond anything I’ve known in earlier years. And I praise the media for dealing with foreign policy, but in terms of the commercialism of television and even radio, it’s just, I think a tragedy.

HEFFNER: You know, media people, even news departments now don’t support the kinds of news gathering individuals in offices overseas that we once had. We’re not, as a people, interested in that, that’s not quite as entertaining as what we get mostly on television and on film, so why bother? And they’re bothering less, they’re saying they’re not teachers anyway. Jim, I didn’t mean to push you into a position that you don’t want to be in. And I’m getting the signal that lo and behold I’ve filibustered so that our time is up. But I do want to thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind. These are our first programs in this century, you’re going to have to make sure we do many more before you and I aren’t around. Thanks again for joining me.

BURNS: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.