James MacGregor Burns

The American Experiment

VTR Date: January 25, 1986

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: “The American Experiment”
VTR: 1/25/86

I’m Richard Heffner your host on THE OPEN MIND. By this stage of life, I’ve so many papers and notes and files squirreled away in so many places that I couldn’t begin to figure out where I’d find the introduction I wrote 30 years ago for the very first program I did then with today’s guest. Historian, politician, scientist James MacGregor Burns was even then in 1956, very much the object of this erstwhile American historian’s enormous admiration and respect. And his newest book, The Workshop of Democracy, volume two of his increasingly monumental three-volume, The American Experiment, published by Alfred A. Knopf, strengthens the sense that this prolific, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Club award laureate is deservedly at the very pinnacle of his career as a master historian and teacher of Americana. So that today I want to ask our guest to share with us what indeed is the peculiarly Burns vision of America that informs this overarching account of our nation. And to ask too if that vision has changed, let’s say, over the 45 years since he began to teach at Williams College. If, as Charles A. Beard noted, “All recorded history is an act of faith”, how and where have Burns’ histories and biographies reflected his particular faith? Where might they have read differently somewhat if presented by others? Others who worship, shall we say, differently. Indeed, in all these years, has Burns himself moved from faith to faith? That’s the question, Jim, that I’d like to begin with.

BURNS: Well, thank you very much for your comments. Because I’m laboring through the third volume, and at this point I’m wondering if I will make it. But I think I will.

Have I changed my fundamental point of view? I hate to say it. I haven’t to any considerable degree. And one reason I have not is that I was never an extremist either on the left or the right. I was always, like FDR, a little left of center. And I’m not terribly proud of that position. I think it’s kind of cowardly to be somewhere in the center. But I’ve always believed that we can solve the fundamental problems in this country by steady day-to-day efforts as long as we keep at it year after year and decade after decade. I always like a word that, a phrase that Hubert Humphrey used, and that is, he did not believe in a planned society, but in a planning society. And that’s essentially my faith. Let me just add that I do think one has to work for ultimate goals. And I feel that the goals of this country can well be summarized in that marvelous three words: liberty, equality, fraternity. I think we believe in that as a people. And our problem is working out our plan so that we can develop the real freedom, the real equality, and the real fraternity that this country needs.

HEFFNER: Tell me, why did you begin by saying, a little bit sheepishly, that you hadn’t changed, and you felt almost as if you were admitting something you shouldn’t have been?

BURNS: (Laughter) Because today it’s fashionable to move fro the left to the right. We have also many people in national life today, as you know well, and I’m sure you interview them, who have made this tremendous leap. And they always end up so self-satisfied, as though they saw the light and isn’t it too bad that I, for example, don’t see the light of conservatism. My attitude, I’m afraid, is a bit crass. If eel if these people were essentially communists back in an era when it seemed to me that communism was a threat to people’s individual liberty, if they had such bad judgment then, I don’t know that I should respect their judgment now that they have jumped way across the middle. So I only say that because I think it would be much more exciting if I said to you, “Dick, I must confess that I was once a member of such and such, a cell of the communist party. But as a good American I saw the light. And let me tell you about how I moved over to the right”. But for me it’s, I can’t say that.

HEFFNER: But you know, it’s interesting that you take that to be a question about political extremism. Extremism so that you talk about communism, you talk about the extreme right, you talk about the extreme left. I don’t think, I could never have assumed, having followed you all these years, having read, I think, just about everything that you’ve written, that that would have to be the question. The question is a little subtler one about the nuances in historical interpretation. Or do you stand firm there too, saying Burns worshipped in one place and really hasn’t moved even in the pew?

BURNS: Well, I think two things there. One is, even though I talk about still being a centrist, I will have to say that my work in history has tended, if anything, to push me somewhat farther toward the left. Still, the democratic left. I have become more concerned. I’ve become feeling much more urgent about the failures of our country over the last 40 or 50 years. I go back to the New Deal, which is still very controversial. And I fell that the New Deal was never fully dealt. So I have moved somewhat in my political view, but not dramatically. But in terms of my approach to history, I would say that the main change in my view as a political scientist has been to become increasingly aware of the role of what I will call pedantically, intellectual history. That is the role of ideas, the crucial role of ideas. People tend to reject ideas because they are vague and long-run in their ideology and so on. But as I look at the failings of America over the last 50 years, it seems to me that it’s been essentially an intellectual failure, particularly in the last 20 or 30 years, that during the last 60, 50 or 60 years, beginning with the New Deal, we had for about 10 or 20 years magnificent intellectual leaders in almost every walk of life. It’s fascinating to take a field that you or I might be particularly interested in, music, philosophy, literature, history, and look back at the giants of the 30s and 40s and 50s, and then ask yourself the question: Is there today, in the 80s, anyone who compares to the great composer, the great playwright, the great novelist, the great philosopher, etcetera, of that period? And hence, I guess my feeling of urgency today is much more in that realm, that somehow we are now generating that kind of intellectual leadership that will be available in the 1990s and in the 21st century that’s galloping toward us. That’s what worries me.

HEFFNER: Yet, Jim, you, the overall title of your three volumes, the two volumes that have come out thus far and the one that you’re working on, is The American Experiment. Does that mean that you’re saying that the experiment has failed?

BURNS: No, that it still is an experiment. That the experiment has not ended. But Dick, I don’t know how long we’re going to be allowed to conduct this experiment in constitutional government, in liberal, conservative politics, in parliamentary politics. So that I don’t use “experiment” with the idea that we have forever to prove ourselves. I don’t think we have much more time.

HEFFNER: But let’s use that in term of this concern of yours about the absence of the kind of power of the intellect that you’ve identified with earlier phases of American history. Could it be that the intellectualism of today simply sits in an area that you’re not particularly concerned about, that of technology, that of science? We sort of talked about that when Max Lerner was at the table here with us.

BURNS: Yes, and Max was very impressed of course, with advances in science.

HEFFNER: But you’re not?

BURNS: I am impressed by them, but I don’t think they’re going to save the country in the way that I’m talking about. And I suppose I take them for granted to some extent. We’re a great technological society. We’re a global society in a technical sense. The Japanese will do it if we don’t. Those are great problems, but to my mind they are not the problem of the survival of American democracy as we know it.

HEFFNER: Yet, let’s take this notion that the Attorney General has set forth, the doctrine of original intent. You may disagree with it. I don’t know whether you do. You may. But it is an intellectual, it provides an intellectual framework, whether you agree with it or not, that is somewhat larger on this field of political ballet than we’ve had to grapple with in the last 10, 20 years.

BURNS: Well, if he had advanced that doctrine with a kind of intellectual backing that would be impressive. Then I would say whether I agree with it or not at least there is an intellectual leader. I see that as just coming out of a speechwriter’s or perhaps is own views. But the kind of quickie, superficial view, whichever position he takes. This is a very complicated subject, as you as a historian know, so that I cannot include Mr. Meese as one of the great intellectual leaders of the day.

HEFFNER: Even I wouldn’t ask that. But there are, there’s Bork, there are others who, taking that framework, develop it intellectually.

BURNS: Dick, think of Cardoza, Holmes, Brandeis. These are the people I’m comparing the current legal leaders with. And maybe it’s an unfair comparison. But you mentioned very briefly a moment ago, comparing it to the really great American intellectual leaders and political leaders of the founding period. We’ve talked about this too. If you compare any of our philosophers and political leaders and so on with the quality of people we had back in the 1780s and 1790s, again we don’t look very good.

HEFFNER: Yet, you know, what you say reminds me so much of what Henry Adams wrote in his education, as he looked around him at Washington during Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, and said, “The notion of Darwinism, evolution from lower to higher forms of being. Nonsense. From Washington to U.S. Grant”. Isn’t this a cry we so often hear?

BURNS: I’ve asked myself that question. And I think you’ve got a good point. We do tend to denigrate our current leaders. But you mentioned Henry Adams. He had a right to look around and say, “What’s happened to our current leadership?” But of course one can argue that that era of Grant, etcetera, was followed by the era politically of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Al Smith, FDR, and the like. So if you’re asking where we come out of this slough of intellectual lack of quality, I would say probably by the 90s or the turn of the century there’ll be another great thrust forward. But I don’t know that I believe in the cyclical theory that we kind of stop and then we go forward. I’m not sure that’s going to be good in the American experiment for the long run.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re not willing to bet on it.


HEFFNER: How would you explain thought this dearth, this lack of quality in intellect?

BURNS: I think great intellectual leadership, and indeed great leadership generally, comes out of great conflict; not out of consensus and complacency. The people who we were talking about in the 30s, 40, and 50s had been through the Depression, they’d been through the New Deal, they had been through World War II, and then the Cold War. About 20 years of tremendous foment in this country, great pressure on the country. And I think that makes for people who rise up and who can address issues and arouse people. Since that time, beginning really in the Eisenhower administration, which, as you recall, was a period of some complacency and consensus and blandness, “The bland leading the bland”, that’s when that phrase got started. I think at that point we began not to generate the kind of crisis and conflict that produces this kind of great leadership. We had a fundamental crisis so huge and appalling and overwhelming that almost nobody could rise to its portentous quality, namely the A-bomb and the H-bomb. In a sense, that hangs over us as such an enormous threat that intellectually it’s rather hard to cope with it. So other wise we’re left with a bunch of rather, they may seem important today, but our problems today compared to the problems facing the nation that you and I have seen in past decades really are not very acute.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ve got us boxed in then. The big problem that faces us, survival, is so big, so large, so mammoth, so overwhelming, that it can’t stimulate us to think big thoughts. And the others aren’t worthy of those big thoughts. Then what chance is there that this American experiment will prove to have worked?

BURNS: Well, first of all, on the big issue: I think a good example of where we lack the kind of leadership that I’m talking about is in the peace movement. The peace movement. That should be the great response to the threat to our survival, implicit in nuclear war. As I look around at just the peace movement and look for the great leadership, the people with fresh ideas, I don’t see it. I see no peace movement as such. I see a lot of individual peace movements: Nicaragua, the freeze, and perhaps a dozen others. I don’t see the overarching political movement. I don’t see the over arching intellectual leadership. Compare that with the women’s movement of about 10 or 20 years, when you had a stellar collection of magnificent women thinkers who broke new ground intellectually and gave the kind of impetus to the women’s movement that was needed. Yet I don’t see that intellectual leadership. They’re still living off the leadership of about two or three decades ago.

HEFFNER: Well, one might comment though that that was appropriate, that was an issue that could be dealt with and was dealt with appropriately. And that your unhappiness as not finding that intellectual strength in the peace movement is a refection of the nature of the movement and the nature of the people in it. But let’s not get into that. What I want to do is get back to something that you said, wrote, speech you gave before the American Historical Association in 1981, reprinted in parting The – and I have it here – from The Los Angeles Times’ opinion section, when you were talking about Ronald Reagan. You said, “One year down and three to go”. And you were raising questions about how he would surface in terms of a historian’s judgment. Well, it’s four years, five years down now. What’s your evaluation?

BURNS: Well, first of all, in that talk, which came very early in Reagan’s first term, I did, I’m glad to say, instead of taking the usual liberal viewpoint – “He’s an idiot and dummy” – it seemed to me pretty clear early on that Reagan was an impressive political leader, even though I disagreed with almost everything he was trying to lead us toward. And by the way, one reason I felt he was an impressive intellectual leader was that he had embraced a cause, conservatism. His, not mine, his cause. And he had stuck with it though thick and thin. He had lost with it in ’76, and then he won with it in 1980. And I’m impressed by that kind of committed thinking. So I felt that he would be fairly successful in his first term if only because he really knew where he wanted to go at that time. And he did have a very good first year, and he had a good second year. And then I think what happened to Ronald Reagan on the right is what has happened to so many American leaders on the left: he began to be defeated by the system. Selfishly, I was glad he was defeated by the system. But I also felt that he had a right, he was elected on the basis of certain views that he very clearly put forward, on the basis of a Republican platform which was very definite in 1980. He was elected to do certain things. I thought he had a right to do them. If we do have an experiment going on there, let’s let him try his conservative experiment and really try it. What I think began to happen was that all the forces of centrism and the workings of the checks and balances and the fact that he had a House of Representatives under Tip O’Neill, a Democratic House, all these things began to erode the momentum that he had once achieved. And hence, more because of the system than because of failings in Ronald Reagan, we have not had that one-term experiment in conservatism that the American people had a right to see.

HEFFNER: I find that so strange to hear, because I’m sure there are others who would say – we’re taping this program at the end of January 1986 – who, looking back not that far, not that long ago, not that far back, to his overwhelming victory in 1984, the popular support, and the popular support that the polls indicate that he enjoys today seem to say that Ronald Reagan has surfaced as the kind of leader you have, in your many, many, many writings, always looked for. Almost the quality of the Roosevelt you wrote about or of the Kennedy you wrote about. Unfair? Unfair conclusion?

BURNS: No, but very good parallel, because both Roosevelt and Kennedy were largely defeated by the system. And Reagan has been largely defeated by the system.

HEFFNER: How do you measure defeat?

BURNS: Well, in the case of Roosevelt, he was never able to solve the economic problems. He tried in the late 30s a whole new economic program. Congress would not support that. He tried the Court Packing Bill; they would not support that, etcetera. Kennedy was being defeated, as you will recall. In every one of his three years he was not getting his economic program through. His Kennedy Program was not going through. And the same thing has happened to Reagan. This is why I end up feeling that we have a system that destroys leadership, whether it’s of the right or of the left. It destroys principal leadership. It tends to turn leaders into this great popular thing, pragmatist. You’ve got to be a pragmatist today a practical man, into opportunists. And I think one thing that’s happened to Reagan is he keeps giving us the rhetoric of the right. It’s fascinating. He never changes the rhetoric of the right, but his actual actions are very gradualist and incremental, day to day. And I think he’s lost his way.

HEFFNER: Gradualist and incremental, but if one looks at the increments, if things move as they have been moving, maybe at a slow pace, don’t you think fairly fundamental changes will have taken place, a reversal of the way we were going, not necessarily of the way we were, but of the way we were going?

BURNS: I would agree with that to a great extent. A lot depends on this very crucial 1986. I think if Reagan cannot make it in 1986 with his economic program he’s not going to make it at all. And if he doesn’t make it with his foreign policy program, where he’s always making these sweeping statements about what he’s going to do…He never does very much. And thank God he doesn’t do very much. (Laughter) But in terms of his program, I think he’s got about one more year to show that he really means business abroad, in his terms.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you say that what was much more important was the domestic program, and that the foreign program, the flag-waving, the anti-Soviet position was a means to an end, the end being a domestic political one? So that we have to look at what he achieves…

BURNS: I think that’s a fairer test. Yes, I agree with that.

HEFFNER: You know, I was thinking too that, you remember one of the networks sent me up to interview you the day after John Kennedy was assassinated. And I find it passing strange that you would say that in a sense he had failed because wheat he began was completed by Lyndon Johnson. Johnson would not probably have pushed in that direction himself, would not have been able to achieve what he did achieve without the death of the fallen leader. You’re not going to demean his achievements, are you?

BURNS: If you put this in terms of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration, I think there was magnificent progress there, particularly on civil rights.

HEFFNER: And the Roosevelt Administrations? Failure?

BURNS: It was a failure in the central promise that Roosevelt made to the American people in 1932 and again in 1936 was to get the country out of the Depression. And at the end of the 1930s there were still nine to ten million Americans unemployed.

HEFFNER: But wouldn’t you say, despite that statistic, that we were out of the doldrums that he found this country in?

BURNS: Yes, in terms of morale and psychology. And I’ve made the same point about the Kennedy program. I was answering your question very much in terms of what actual programs went through. And not many did under Kennedy. But if you’re talking about both Roosevelt and Kennedy in terms of their impact on the country, the excitement, the morale, the feeling we are moving forward, there was a tremendous feeling of that sort. Both of them made us feel better, even though maybe we didn’t necessarily eat better. But, you know…

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. We did eat better, didn’t we? When they were out of office, we were eating better, weren’t we?

BURNS: Well, most of us were. But there were still nine million people at the end of Roosevelt’s domestic period who were not. Now, I don’t want to be in a position of denigrating two great presidents, because I think they were in many different ways. Their foreign policy…

HEFFNER: Particularly since you’re their biographers.

BURNS: (Laughter) Right. But I want to just go back to the point you make about Johnson and Kennedy. Yes, Kennedy’s death brought Johnson into office. It brought into office a Johnson committed to civil rights. Is this the way to run a government? Was it necessary to have an assassination in, say, Lincoln’s case and in Kennedy’s case to break the logjam? We’re a very lucky people. Even with a tragedy like Kennedy. We have great luck in that something seems to happen at some point that we kind of muddle through. But in another president like JFK, let’s say someone elected in 1992 or 1996; I see a repetition of the same problem, a liberal democrat coming in with a very strong program, and the same thing in a year or two the old stalemate taking place, which of course is why I believe not that our leaders are failing us as much as the system is not letting our leaders succeed.

HEFFNER: How would you…We have, I think, 90 seconds left. How would you change that system?

BURNS: I would try to develop a stronger party system. I would try to make our national institutions more responsive to the majority. I would try to produce changes such as dropping the midterm election, which I think hurts presidents, as it has hurt Reagan…I think will again in ’86.

HEFFNER: How about the six-year presidency, one term?

BURNS: I’m against that because I don’t want any president to be an automatic lame duck the moment he or she steps into office.

HEFFNER: Would you also eliminate the amendment to the Constitution that was so anti-Roosevelt because it prevented a third term?

BURNS: Absolutely. And I think it’s a real tragedy for the Republican Party they cannot nominate Reagan for a third term.

HEFFNER: Is that because you are so pro-Reagan?

BURNS: (Laughter) No. It’s that I am pro-Democracy. I want the American people, if they want a conservative president, to have one. And when they want a liberal, left-wing president, then I want my chance to put that program through.

HEFFNER: Twenty seconds. Who’s your candidate for the next presidential election, the democratic candidate?

BURNS: I honestly, Dick, at this point don’t have one. My man from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, who I was studying for that role, had not made up my mind, dropped out. But I would say that Cuomo and Hart look like very promising candidates.

HEFFNER: And that’s the point to thank you again for joining me once more on THE OPEN MIND, Jim Burns. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. And meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.