James MacGregor Burns

Sweet Land of Liberty

VTR Date: March 18, 1989

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: “Sweet Land of Liberty”
VTR: 3/18/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Our paths have crossed too infrequently over the decades since we first talked before television cameras during the second Eisenhower campaign…but each time so rewardingly for me and for my viewers. And each time I wonder again at the skill and commitment my guest, the Pulitzer-prize winning Williams College historian, biographer and political scientist James MacGregor Burns, brings to his life-long study of this “Sweet Land of Liberty.”

Alfred Knopf has just published “Crosswinds of Freedom,” the final volume of his monumental study of what he characterized as “The American Experiment.” And I would like to begin our program today by asking Professor Burns just how well the experiment has worked, this reconciliation of freedom and equality, of liberty and order…this last great hope of mankind. Professor Burns?

Burns: Well, just take freedom itself, that’s the highest value…freedom or liberty, in this country. Yet we pass a Constitution in 1787 without a Bill of Rights, people have to rise and demand a Bill of Rights. We fight a Civil War to abolish slavery, and yet following the Civil War, Blacks go back into a situation almost as bad as slavery. Roosevelt promulgates the Four Freedoms, a wonderful moment in the history of American freedom, and yet Japanese are put into what really were concentration camps. I could give many other mixed verdicts, but those are three outstanding ones.

Heffner: Yes, but you’re talking about tensions between one aspect of this and its opposite. Surely, you have a sense of overall…of the success or the failure of the experiment?

Burns: Overall I think there’s been a great deal of progress. Obviously, we abolished slavery, I don’t think we’ll ever go through a McCarthyism again, I think McCarthyism has become a bad word in American politics. So I think there’s a long, long improvement, but there are so many dips and sideways motions that, that’s why I call this book “The Crosswinds of Freedom,” freedom is buffeted, it’s not steadily broadened in this country.

Heffner: Yes, but if it’s buffeted, one gets the sense, too, of standing still, and you talk about progress. Where is that progress? Where do you see it?

Burns: I think, Dick, there’s, just to begin with, more tolerance in America. Even since, for example, when I ran for Congress about thirty years ago. I don’t think the kind of McCarthyism I experienced in my run for Congress would be experienced by almost any candidate today. I think that the Supreme Court has made very important decisions that have strengthened our freedom, I think that there’s been various legislation passed. There is improvement, but it’s terribly slow. This goes back to some of the discussions we’ve had in the past. In this country there is progress, but it usually comes fifty, a hundred years too slow, as let’s say in the abolition of child labor. I want my country to move faster in this day and age.

Heffner: But you know, as I read Burns, and as I have read him over the years, I’m terribly aware of the institutional concerns that you have, your sense of the failure, maybe that’s the wrong word, but your sense of the downside of our political institutions, and you seem to wonder here, in this great book…where leadership will come from in the future, given what has happened in the past several decades to our political institutions. Is that too strong a reading on my part?

Burns: Not at all, I would be much more dubious, pessimistic, about the state of leadership in this country, than the state of freedom. I end this book with two chapters, one of which is the decline of political leadership, and the other is the decline of intellectual leadership in this particular era. And I think something very interesting has happened here, and that is, in the old days I have a feeling that there might have been a period of political progress, and intellectual stagnation, followed by another period of the opposite. That is, the 1920s were a period of political quiescence, if not stagnation, but there was a great deal of intellectual creativity in the 1920s. The New Deal was just the opposite. The New Deal was a period of great political tumult, there was not a great deal of intellectual excitement during the New Deal. Today, Dick, it seems to me we have neither. We have neither great political leadership, nor great intellectual leadership.

Heffner: but it seems so strange to be that you say, when I talk about leadership, you say “Well, I was referring to freedom.” How in the world can we make an assumption that leadership can be underplayed, but freedom expanded?

Burns: IT may be that freedom expands incrementally all through the crevices of society, whereas we expect from leadership great creative acts, not necessarily relating to freedom, perhaps relating to survival, or a “new deal” that is mainly concerned with economic and social matters.

Heffner: Well you have this wonderful…you refer in your books let’s see…talking about the Founders, and you say “Some of their findings…” of historians who have studied the personal or the leadership qualities of the Founders, “Some of their findings are summarized in a capsule explanation of mine,” (of yours) that you quote “They were well-bred, well-fed, well-read, well-led and well-wed.”

Burns: (laughter)

Heffner: And I wonder whether the decline in leadership is a reflection of the fact that one couldn’t say that quite so easily about leadership today?

Burns: I laugh because you’ve picked out my favorite quote from the book, and I want to thank you for that.

Heffner: (laughter)

Burns: I think what I was trying to say in that thumbnail summary is that these people, of course, were exceedingly well-educated, often they had tutors, a one-to-one, as you know as a teacher, one-to-one teacher/student ratio is pretty good, and also they had leisure, partly because in those days wives would often bring a thousand or two thousand acres of land to the marriage from Kentucky or Tennessee or someplace, so that the men had the leisure, you see, to do the kind of thinking that had to be done. We think that’s a very nice custom that brides used to have, that might be resurrected. In any event, they did have that kind of leisure, and they did have a chance to talk. And, Dick, as I go through the correspondence of the people of those days, the long letters they would write with their goose quill pens, and I think of the staccato intellectual relationships we have today, the sound bites and all that you’re so familiar with, it seems to me there is a tremendous difference in the kind of intellectual preparation they had, the kind of communication they had. And also, they came out of an era of great conflict, where they made these enormous commitments of their lives, and fortunes and sacred honor, and today I don’t see that kind of commitment because I don’t see that kind of conflict. Today it’s a time of bi-partisanship and consensus and getting around the table. And I think we should have much more sharply aligned parties that fight, and I think if we have that kind of combat intellectually and politically in this country, we might have some of the genius of those days back to us.

Heffner: It’s interesting, you wrote a piece for LIFE magazine in the fall of ’87. You say “Our leaders tend to run as loners, with much finger pointing and buck passing. They have become individual entrepreneurs pursuing their own ambitions in an endless game of king of the rock, mobilizing big money and exploiting the media that money can buy. These entrepreneurs show their skill in every aspect of politics, except running a government.” Now, your description of the Founders in the earlier volumes, descriptions of men that fit your well-read, well-led, well-fed, etc. characterization. What chance do we have, since those were the men who set forth our ideals of freedom, they were the ones who formed the structure under which we have governed ourselves for so long, what chance is there really that the men you describe here, and women you describe here, will foster freedom?

Burns: Well, I think first of all, does that kind of person get into positions of power, particularly women, get into positions of power today where they can even begin to foster freedom. But, secondly, to what extent is something called “freedom” on the docket, and as I watch the politicians of this day deal with day-to-day policies, I don’t see them thinking in terms of the long-run expansion of economic and social freedom as well as protection of the Bill of Rights. I think they would cave-in on Bill of Rights questions. I don’t see the old commitment to freedom, expanding it. I don’t see them looking at very complicated aspects of freedom, privacy and many others that we’re both familiar with. I don’t see this kind of concern. It seems to me their emphasis is entirely on short-run economic matters, on improvising, compromising, accommodating. That kind of burning commitment that we saw in these people in the 1780s doesn’t exist.

Heffner: But you know, Jim, we’ve known each other for a good many years…we’ve done a number of programs together, and I wonder, this is a strange question, you’ll feel, why did it take us, oh, maybe 10, 12 minutes into our program for you to make that kind of statement that sounds so much more pessimistic about the lot of freedom today? Why don’t we realize that what you’re saying now is so direly true, that it doesn’t make much sense to talk about freedom today and its expansion, and be as optimistic as you were ten minutes ago.

Burns: Well, my response ten minutes ago was a mixed verdict, and again, one can point to achievements over time. But that was a mixed verdict on the whole American experiment, of two hundred years, how have we done? That’s mixed. If you ask me how are we doing at the moment, yes, I am very pessimistic about that. And I don’t see the intellectual creativity exploring dimensions of freedom, and I don’t see the political commitment today.

Heffner: The word “commitment”…I worked it into my introduction because I see it here, I read it, I know how much commitment means to you in terms of your description of the real leaders, of the fundamental leaders of our nation. Now we seem, you use the word “entrepreneur,” leadership seems almost to be a marketplace phenomenon, and I don’t know how well freedom does in the marketplace despite the presumed dictates of the free marketplace of ideas and the free marketplace of products.

Burns: Well, it’s interesting you used that term “marketplace” because any description of most leadership today is what I call “transactional” leadership, same idea. Most leadership today, as I see it, consists of negotiators, compromisers, in many cases lobbyists, lawyers and so, simply trying to adjust, simply trying to pull together all the fragments of power in order to get something done for tomorrow. And ordinarily, because it’s so difficult to get people together and funding is limited, and so on, the result is a short-run, improvisation that deals with part of a problem today, but very little vision of the future. When you compare this to what I think is the greatest act of political planning in the history of the Western world, namely, the Constitution of 1787, the kind of vision involved there, the kind of creative thinking, just plain thinking and the fact that this was done not by two or three men in a room, but 40 men working collectively, it seems to me that nothing like the Constitution could be created today by people doing what I call “transforming” leadership. That is, trying to change institutions. Now I’m speaking rather academically and historically about what I think is a very urgent problem, that our political system is not working. Partly because this brilliant Constitution, after having served us pretty well for a couple of centuries, in my view is simply not going to be able to give us their leadership, the vision, and the effectiveness that we need for the next 50 years or so. I talk a lot to students, you too, and I think of these students as I see them in classes and assemblies, they’re going to live into the middle of the 21st century, into the third millennium, and I think of what’s going to…what may happen in the next 50 years. I go through a very dire list with them because I want to shock them into some kind of awareness, they’re not, you know they sit there, they’re very attentive, but you don’t know whether you’re communicating. And I feel sad about this, to come in with this unhappy message. But I think the pressures on the American political system in the next 50 years will be far greater than anything we’ve ever seen in a previous 50 year period. And I tell them this. And why I think so. And it comes down to the inability to plan ahead for, let’s say, enormous population expansion around the world, something I particularly dwell on, which is migration across borders. I think that’s going to come to something we haven’t even dreamed of yet. I think particularly of their contemporaries as I see the contorted faces on television in the Middle East and elsewhere, these millions of young people, usually jobless, sometimes quite well educated, who are the explosive materials of the next 50 years.

Heffner: How do you…

Burns: And we’re not planning a head for that, it seems to me.

Heffner: How do you think our political institutions could be, should be modified, to enable us to do what you think we must do to meet the challenges that you set forth?

Burns: Well, my motto of an effective government is one team is in power and taking responsibility and another team is out of power and taking responsibility for opposition. I want that to be as clean cut a fight as what I see on the football field. One team has the ball, it’s a team, it doesn’t argue among itself. The other team doesn’t have the ball, and wants to get it. There are no bi-partisan meetings between the two captains as to how “we’ll play this next game” but they do have rules and just as we have a court system, that by and large enforces the rules. But within the rules, this is a sharp combat, and the team that has the ball, has the power and so on, with the ball. I want a government in office that has that kind of power, and Dick, I’m just describing the British government. I’m not talking about the parliamentary system, let’s not get off on that. But that when a party is in power, as the Conservative Party is in power today in Britain, it rules and then takes responsibility.

Heffner: So that you ask for changing our structure so that Senate and House are elected for 4 years, concurrent with the Presidency?

Burns: Yes.

Heffner: And so that each time the winds of change will sweep in the victor and the power to accomplish what the…what that party wishes to do.

Burns: There’s a Presidential Congressional team for 4 years.

Heffner: Certainly what’s happened now in our time is just exactly the opposite. What chance do you think there is a) of the realization and b) of the achievement of such a change? The realization of the problem that we have?

Burns: I don’t think there’s much realization of the problem, and I think the chances of any Constitutional changes are very small, until there’s a great Constitutional conflict which I would predict within the next fifty years.

Heffner: In what area?

Burns: Probably a conflict between the Supreme Court and the rest of the government. For example, a Supreme Court pact with very conservative nominees, and we have recent evidence that the court is a solidly conservative court, that is the majority is, against a very liberal or somewhat left government that might come in, in ’92 or ’96 or the year 2000. In other words, I think there might be a repetition of the Supreme Court fight of the 1930s only on a much more worrisome basis. That is the stakes would be even higher than they were in the 1930s.

Heffner: Yet in this magnificent book you describe the conflict and its resolution, you describe people who give. Roosevelt himself pulling back a little, the Supreme Court enabling him to with a…that switch in time that saved nine. Why do you assume that now, when we’re such masters at compromise, when we’re such masters at hiding conflict, that we’ll be less well able to do so?

Burns: Because I think Bush will respond to Right Wing pressures to appoint durably conservative members of the court because there are all sorts of judges at the lower levels of the federal judiciary who are very conservative, most of them picked by…a very large number picked by Reagan, and because I think the stakes will be higher and because there may not be, on the court, at that time, the kind of swing man that we had. We had conservatives back in those days, who were good conservatives by any test, but were able, again, to have the kind of vision that I don’t see today. I don’t see members of the court today, the conservative members, recognizing that there are great stakes, whereas in those days people like Roberts and Stone and others and Hughes, were willing to make the switch that saved time, that you mentioned.

Heffner: But surely you and I have paid our respects to Mr. Dooley…

Burns: (laughter)

Heffner: …so many times that the Supreme Court follows the election returns. Are you suggesting they will not understand the depth of feeling that will be represented by the election returns?

Burns: I think if the election returns continue to go conservative for Presidential election after election, as has been happening and may continue to happen, there really will be a very solidly conservative court.

Heffner: But then, Jim, we’re talking about the people judging. Judging wrong, perhaps, in your estimation, and perhaps in mine, but the people judging.

Burns: But if there is a very left, liberal Labor Progressive government trying to get through what it considers to be vitally important measures, perhaps in a crisis situation, like another Depression…and the Court stands against this, then I think that might be the kind of crisis. But I would give a second answer to your question about the form of a crisis, and that would be that it may be a much less dramatic crisis, it may just be a slowdown in the political system. It may be Senate versus House. It may be Congress versus President, as today. It may be a quiet slow-down that we don’t know the dimensions of until it’s too late, kind of a stagnation, and that might be the worst kind of crisis because it would not be so evident as the other would be.

Heffner: But you’re not saying, I gather, you’re not sanguine necessarily, that the changes that you think are necessary to meet contemporary needs, will come from that kind of crisis.

Burns: No, because that change would have to be built through Constitutional Amendment. There’s another way to do it, and that is, of course, restoring the old party system. I’m old-fashioned in this sense. I think if we had a good party fight between two strong parties it would help a lot to get teamwork and good opposition. But, of course, you know, the parties have declined in the last few decades.

Heffner: You describe that decline. Is there any reason to assume that there would be a resurgence of party involvement, party loyalty which you point out is so important?

Burns: There is some sign, Congress is becoming much more of a party divided institution. You see this in many of the votes, party line-up, party leadership, party whips and so on. But I’m afraid, again, I have to be rather pessimistic. I think the impact of television, of money, of king-of-the-hill politics, everybody running on his or her own, and all of this together makes it impossible to revive that party system.

Heffner: If the Founders, those wise men whom you describe so well…were able to establish a government structure that fit who we were and what we were two hundred years ago, do you think it’s possible to re-construct, not re-institute, but construct a different kind of polity out of today’s realities?

Burns: I think it’s possible, and there are people working on this. There is a group in Washington that debates these things, headed by such non-radicals as Senator Nancy Kassebaum, and Douglas Dillon, and many people who’ve been through the mill in Washington, and they come up with proposals for change. Nobody pays any attention, the press is not interested in dull questions like maybe setting up a stronger Cabinet system, maybe letting the President choose a member of his cabinet, or her cabinet, from Congress. You know that’s not very exciting to people. So there’s not a sense of urgency, there’s practically nobody in Washington advocating even minor changes in the system, and anytime anybody tampers with the Constitution, there is still so much Constitution worship that there’s an outcry from the press “Don’t, you know, it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” becomes the ruling doctrine.

Heffner: When you began the first of three volumes that made up “The American Experiment,” now publishing “The Crosswinds of Freedom,” the third, final volume, what shift, we have about two minutes left, what shift in your own sense of what the past has been, of what the American experience has been, not experiment, experience, has been, have you gone through?

Burns: Well, the experience as a whole has been enough for me to end with my little ode to liberty, my ode to America, and I really believe that. My ode to this nation. There’s been so much good, and there have been so many wonderfully creative people, there’s been such tremendous efforts on behalf of freedom by women and Blacks and labor and other groups that have insisted on having their freedom, that despite these gloomy statements I make, I have to feel that the American experiment is going to work, that the American experience has been good…experiment as many experiments, discussed in the book. The great experiment is the one you started out with, and that is freedom and I have faith that, through education and maybe changes in institutions and through commitment and better leadership, we’re going to get back on the old tack.

Heffner: You know, it’s such an amazing thing to hear you say that. I know you feel that way, and the last words, “Sweet Land of Liberty,” the words of the song and your own, I know that you believe that, it’s hard for me to ever find out why, when we talk about today and the future, you have the…there is such a need to repeat the future, to see the future in the same roseate e terms as you see the experiment in its entirety.

Burns: Well you know, I have this faith, this hope, and then I go back to the record, and then again the record is so mixed, we can do a lot better.

Heffner: James MacGregor Burns, thank you so much for joining me today, “The American Experiment” and “The Crosswinds of Freedom,” a great book and a great trilogy, and I hope that you won’t abandon Americana now that you have brought us up to date, and that you’ll join me again. Thanks so much. 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.