James MacGregor Burns

Max Lerner 1902-1992: An American Original

VTR Date: September 3, 1992

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: “Max Lerner, 1902 – 1992: An American Original”
VTR: 09/03/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…joined today by my good friend, Williams College Pulitzer-prize winning historian and biographer, James MacGregor Burns, to discuss our mutual friend, that late great American original, Max Lerner: inspiring teacher, brilliant lecturer, prolific author and journalist, learned historian and political scientist, and all-around popular scholar extraordinary.

Max Lerner lived to his 90th year. At Williams College he was young Jim Burns’ classroom teacher…his mentor, too. For me, as for many other Americans, so many other Americans, his influence over the years came at a somewhat greater remove…but was profound and enormously memorable nevertheless.

Some years ago, on one of the many occasions over a period of almost four decades when Max was my guest here on THE OPEN MIND, we marked the publication of the 30th anniversary edition of his now-classic study: “America As A Civilization”…and, indeed, of a program that Max and Gilbert Seldes and Virgilia Peterson had done here the very day before that magnificent volume first appeared.

Well, I took the occasion then to note that one of the rewards of growing old, and older still, remains the ability simply to think back warmly and gratefully upon the men and women whose genius you have greatly admired and whose friendship you have dearly valued. And sometimes, too, an even more cherished reward of age is – later on, much later on –the opportunity publicly to thank those whose words and whose thoughts have so effectively informed your own.

Which is precisely what I did by inviting Max Lerner to this table so many times over the years…and, when their schedules permitted…by joining Max and Jim Burns for one delightfully probing discussion or another. Teacher and student, both so accomplished, it was always wonderful to watch these provocative thinkers deal with the seminal issues of our times, even as they grew ever further and further apart, politically speaking.

Of course, one thing was always certain to me: that the best clue to understanding Max Lerner was his self-descriptive: “I am a possibilist.” But now let me ask Jim Burns how he best identified this wonderful man for all seasons. Jim?

Burns: I couldn’t pay a more eloquent tribute than you have done, Dick. I think you’ve hit it right, squarely on Max’s personality…what he offered. To me he was the great teacher. There’s a lot of Max Lerner left in me, obviously. Maybe there’s more Max Lerner left in me than was in Max Lerner toward the end of his life. We might come back to that. But my memory of him is at Williams college, this amazing teacher who was so graphic and so vivid, but not only a great teacher, he understood what was going on in the world, and he was this man, Dick, who first made it clear to me that Hitlerism was an enemy to the whole globe. That it was a merciless effort by, by a merciless homicidal man. So he awakened me to that. At the same time that he awakened me to a lot of the ills in the American culture.

Heffner: I don’t want to wait until later…I want to get at this, this point that you made that there may be more left in James MacGregor Burns now of Max Lerner, of those earlier years, than there was in Max at the end. Tell me what you mean?

Burns: I mean that the Max Lerner I knew had just written “It Is Later Than You Think”…the book that served as a clarion call for many in my generation, this was back in the 1930s, and he…while I was already of a liberal tendency intellectually, as well as emotionally, he strengthened my liberalism, he gave me a grounding in American history, in American political thought, and in political philosophy for that kind of liberalism. So, what happened with me was, as the “mentee” and he as the mentor, the “mentee” went on through life still responding to that kind of teaching and the teaching of many others and to events, that’s not strange. What is strange, and I never would have predicted is that Max later on in his career became, I won’t say “more conservative” because Max, you recall, rebelled against that word. He became more centrist, might be a nice way to put it…more mainstream, and he became the thing you just mentioned, he became a “possibilist”. And I’ve never quite understood what a “possibilist” was, and thought maybe you and I could sort this out…because I think he was trying to say something very important about that.

Heffner: But wait a minute, are you saying he was…in identifying himself, it was, it was…he probably said it many, many other times…this was on a program 30 years ago in which I asked the same question that that young whippersnapper reporter asked of Franklin D Roosevelt, you know…well…

Burns: Yeah.

Heffner: …not…I didn’t say “are you a Fascist, are you a Communist? But what are you?. But I asked him what…how he would characterize himself, and he simply said “possibilist”…why…well, I won’t say “why do you take exception to that” but it doesn’t set well with you, that notion.

Burns: Because I think it might be a code word for “centrist”, and we had quite a discussion of that on this program…

Heffner: Yes.

Burns: …on a couple of occasions. What did it mean to be a centrist? And you remember Max was so eloquent about relating politics to the body, and he would talk about how the body needs to have an equilibrium, and that society needs to be in equilibrium. That the two sides, liberal and conservative should try to find some kind of meeting point. Well, to me, that’s just not, not the way I think. To my mind progress comes not from centrism and the mainstream and consensus. It comes from conflict, it comes from intellectual conflict, not blood in the streets, but people arraying themselves whether like good conservatives, or good liberals in a continuing battle over what is America, what it can be and the rest. And I had a feeling, finally, that Max was finding a kind of refuge in “possibilism” that enabled him to talk very generally, and as usual, very eloquently, without being placed, and I think at that point, he didn’t want to be placed.

Heffner: You know, it’s strange to me, Jim, that you, you…I hear what you’re saying, but it has always seemed to me that if you were to use the dialectic, if you were to use the notion of opposing forces they, they come together to make the next basis for the dialectic. He seemed to me simply to say that at any one point he knew that there was a “possible” position that we could reach through this opposition of the person on, if you want to use the directions, on the Right and on the Left. You see the concept of “possibilist” in a much more negative way than I did. I was thrilled when he said that, that he was a “possibilist” and I, I see the exception that you take to it.

Burns: Yes, I guess, Dick, I believe in the impossible. I believe in the impossible dream, that too, has been a great thing in my life…that music and that idea. Yes, being quixotic, trying to do big things…falling short, trying again…whether it’s the history of liberalism in this country, which you know, as a historian has great efforts to move ahead and then you fall back. I don’ think you move ahead with “possibilism”…what is possible. I think you move ahead with a dream, with a great goal, and I think Max was that way in early years, and infected me with that. If you read his early writings they were about what our society could be. I still believe that. He, when he talked about “possibilism”…I think another clue to it, Dick, is pragmatism. And I’m against pragmatism. You know in American life what, what works. And if “Time” magazine or “Newsweek” or whether talking about some, some great leader who really believes in something, “but don’t worry folks, he’s a practical man…he coaches Little League and he…and he builds chairs in his basement”…that sort of thing, so don’t worry…well, pragmatism for me is another code word for conservatism, for doing short-run expedient things, which I think by the way is something our political system encourages instead of taking the long vision that, for example, President Bush discourages, but that’s a kind of thing I believe in. Vision, tested by values.

Heffner: But you, you told me not so long ago that…stop me if I’m wrong…but I’m sure you said to me that you were returning to a study of an era that you have been so valued in studying and writing about…the New Deal…FDR…you were returning to that. Did you not value the pragmatist in FDR?

Burns: I valued the pragmatist to a certain extent, but the pragmatist, in my view, has to be tied in with a visionary. And Roosevelt was this curious combination, and in the end he turned out to be a visionary. But in his case, and in the case of so many others who have forgotten the visionary Roosevelt, the man I call the lion, and remember only the fox, the pragmatic…

Heffner: Right.

Burns: …the trickster type thing…they, they have gone over only to the pragmatic and that’s what I mean when I say that today people are glorified because they are practical and don’t worry if they are visionary.. Roosevelt is a fascinating case in point…I am returning to him, now, to re-asses him, and he was, in my view, the greatest leader in this century. However, the tragedy of the New Deal, Dick, was that it was never full dealt. And that was largely because of the system, and because of the opposition, but it was also because of Roosevelt because over and over again he would take the short-run expedient step, which was politically very effective, but compromised his longer-run goals, so that’s why I’m a little bit off on pragmatism and possibilism.

Heffner: You’re, you’re saying the same thing about FDR that you’ve said about Max.

Burns: That’s true.

Heffner: And yet you return, you’re embracing the study of the man again, at any rate, and of the period.

Burns: Yes, but I’m doing it from a very different standpoint now, I’m doing it much more from the standpoint of women and minorities and the grass roots, whereas before I approached FDR in terms of…not exactly a great man approach to leadership…you and I would not favor that, but…approach in the conventional terms of “here are the great gladiators” operating on the stage. Well, I’m increasingly finding that so-called followers of leaders are themselves the leaders, and what happened with Roosevelt, in a word, is that come 1934 and ’35, after he had had that great first year in the White House, he had so aroused the people as to possibilities, to expectations and hopes and entitlements, that the people were turning back on FDR and saying, “We want more”. Labor was you remember of course, CIO and sit-down strikes and so on…Huey Long and Father Coughlin. So that Roosevelt had to follow them which he did brilliantly in 1936 when he got that big re-election because he had enough astuteness to follow the followers who had become leaders like Long and Coughlin, but then things fell apart in a second term where I think he could have more effective.

Heffner: Well, you know, I was looking through transcripts of programs I had done over the years with Max Lerner and, and some of the ones that you and I did with Max. I came across this transcript, 1985, march 2nd, 1985 and there’s this wonderful, wonderful statement of what you’re saying now: “Burns: That’s right and I want to go back to a point that Max made about the 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 radicalism. 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…which you’ve just said…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. And I feel I lost this man that I knew and loved…you said to Max…I still love him, but I feel there’s been 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.” And then Max said “I would be disturbed, Jim, if I had remained the Max Lerner that you knew.” And in, in a funny way I could see Max standing for change here. I mean you, you identify him in his later years with stability, not with change, but with a status quo. And he’s saying that the very movement that he made, that he would have said, that the young Jim Burns didn’t move all that much, but Max Lerner did. Now how, how do you respond to that positioning?

Burns: I thought that was Max Lerner at his best. He was a great dialogue person, as you know having had him on the program so often. I don’t think we thrashed that out quite as much as we might have. Perhaps we should have gone off for a few beers and few more hours afterward…

Heffner: (laughter) Well, let’s do it here.

Burns: Right. I feel that Max did make that shift towards the mainstream. I feel that I have continued to embrace a doctrine that is a doctrine of change…to my mind liberalism does recognize the imperatives of change, and this was one great message from FDR. He would often talk about change and the role of the liberal. The liberal recognizes it and deals with it and anticipates it. The conservative tends to protect what is. And that’s a very good kind of dialectic, as you were saying earlier. So, I was saying to Max…look, I have been moving with liberalism…I haven’t stayed in the middle of liberalism, I have frankly moved to a…you might say the Left Wing of liberalism. And hence, I still am trying to cope with change…of all sorts. Whereas Max…I was saying…I feel that by being in the center and talking so much about consensus and equilibrium and the like that, that you’re not in a position to deal with the great changes. Now, I think in fairness to Max we should bring in the fact that in the later years of his life he was dealing with illness and he was relating this kind of question, I think, and this, Dick, is a question for you now because you’ve watched him so closely…I have a feeling that Max, with that very serious illness that affected him some years ago, and which he fought and mastered for a time, was trying to find in the society the kind of equilibrium and balance that he was trying to achieve in his own body.

Heffner: A sound mind in a sound body.

Burns: Yeah.

Heffner: That kind…that, that metaphor doesn’t hold for you, does it?

Burns: I think if I were in Max’s physical condition I might well have felt the same way because I think in that kind of situation one does cast about for ways of dealing with it. But I’m trying to interpret his later philosophy in terms of his bodily situation. Do you,, do you agree with that at all, yourself?

Heffner: The problem with it for me is that it seems to be that in terms of Max Lerner, the political…increasingly the political conservative, I see that as moving way, way far back past the onset of his illnesses. I see Max Lerner a long, long, long time ago or thinking of his columns as moving, looking for a central position, saying, saying “Now, now, children…”, to the Left…to the Far Left and to the Far Right, saying “you couldn’t possibly…either camp…have incorporated the wisdom of the years, the wisdom of the years is in the, is in the center”, so I see it as coming long before illness became, as you suggest, his personal illness became a metaphor. He made use of it. He did on the program we did together…the programs we did together. But I see that other movement from, from much earlier. Just, just before you sat at this table, Ed Koch was sitting here and he said that same kind of thing that Max had said, talking about becoming more conservative. He said, “Of course I’ve gotten older”. And you, you have no room, have no place for that, I gather.

Burns: Myself?

Heffner: No, no place for that idea. You, yourself, have no place for that idea?

Burns: That one naturally becomes more conservative as he becomes older?

Heffner: What was it that Clemenceau said…what was it…any man who hasn’t been a radical…

Burns: Yes.

Heffner: Before he was 25 or 30 was a, was a fool…any man who was after that was a knave?

Burns: Something like that…yes, that’s very good. I reject that myself because first of all I think Max would have. I don’t think Max would have agreed that aging tends to produce conservatism even though and I could point to many examples of that. I think he would reject it in his own situation. I don’t think he felt there was any hardening of the intellectual arteries as far as he was concerned.

Heffner: But you see what you’re doing…you’re, you’re identifying that with hardening of the intellectual arteries, rather than with the, the philosophy that one equates with experience and the wisdom that one associate with, with experience. You’re, you’re sticking to your guns alright.

Burns: Well, it’s a question of how you interpret experience. And I go through experiences that sober me, but I have to watch myself and ask “if you…if I get mad at teachers out on strike, let’s say, with classes beginning and the kids suffer, as usual, and the parents…is this, is this a change because after all I’m a teacher, I should be sympathetic with teachers…they’re not out striking just for the fun of it, they must have very tough conditions”. So I have to monitor myself and I suppose one problem here is, Dick, that when you were seeing some of the later writings of Max Lerner, I was probably re-reading (laughter) some of the earlier…

Heffner: Earlier ones…(laughter)

Burns: …writings, so I’m still thinking about the old Max Lerner. I think there’s one other dimension of this that you and I have to confront. And that is really in the end Max politically was not just mainstream because he did say, I won’t say he admitted, he didn’t, he didn’t try to hide this…or apologize for it…he, I believe I’m right in saying, voted for Reagan twice and bush once. Well, now that’s not exactly mainstream, I would say. Even though I happen to, as I’ve said on this program, respect Reagan because I think he made the Republican Party an honestly conservative party…

Heffner: Wait, wait a minute…excuse me…I’m sorry to interrupt…

Burns: Well…

Heffner: …you mean that’s not mainstream liberalism? Obviously it’s mainstream. We, the American people, elected them…

Burns: By a majority. I think the mainstream was somewhere kind of a wavering course in between Reaganism and whoever the current Democratic candidate might be. But I mean Max is talking about being a “possibilist” I think that puts him in the mainstream. I think he would accept that. If you’re in the mainstream, you have to make a choice between…let’s say a Dukakis and a Bush, or between a Mondale and Reagan. Well why vote Reagan? I mean you might not vote at all, you might vote for a third party, you might damn both the candidates, but I’ve never quite understood why Max went that far to the Right.

Heffner: I must admit I can’t…and couldn’t understand it. Never pressed him on it because I didn’t want to hear the answer I guess. But, you know, it’s funny. When you sum it all up, Jim, it seems to me…you talk about the impossible dream, you always felt that you could relate to that notion. That’s what I identified with this notion of being a possibilist.

Burns: I see.

Heffner: Anything is possible.

Burns: Anything is possible.

Heffner: And we, we can do it. And that’s why I, I never understood in this student/teacher relationship between you and Max, this notion of yours, this critical approach to the concept of possibilist?

Burns: You see I would argue that to be a possibilist means not any…not only that anything is possible, and the way you put it very well…but anything is excusable. That you can explain a vote, let’s say, for Reagan, because that is part of your possibilism. So that possibilism becomes again a kind of a refuge. It’s a way of not having to make great choices, and I have a feeling that’s where Max wanted to be and that’s why I’m all the more curious about how he voted. Not that I should make a big thing of this more than I’m doing, but it meant…he had to say to friends, this is Max Lerner, the, the radical of the ‘30s and ‘40s…saying to friends, proudly, “yes, I voted for these to Republican candidates three times.”

Heffner: Let me ask you this…we have 45, 50 seconds left…how do you think Max will be remembered?

Burns: I think he’ll be remembered by all those who met him and saw him and heard him and were taught by him, and people like you who were close to him, as the greatest…one of the greatest teachers of this century. He was above all, a great teacher. I think he’ll also be remembered for some of his work in political science. We haven’t’ talked about this, but this was a professional in political science. And will be…we’ll remember him for his wonderful writing, and speaking…and incredible combination of writer and speaker.

Heffner: James MacGregor Burns, thank you for joining me today. Thank you so much for joining me on this discussion of our old friend, the late Max Lerner. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of Omaha.