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James MacGregor Burns, Max Lerner

The American Experiment … It Is Later Than You Think

VTR Date: March 18, 1989

Guests: Burns, James MacGregor; Lerner, Max


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: James MacGregor Burns and Max Lerner
Title: “The American Experiment…it is Later than you think”
VTR: 3/18/89

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

It is said (wisely, I think): “Would that my enemy write a book.” More kindly and gently, one might say: “Would that my teacher and then great, good friend write many, many books…even as we follow ever diverging paths from what once had been our political oneness. Let him point his way and I, mine, and remain ever collegial and embracing.”

Well, so it has been with my guests…from the classroom at Williams College 50 years ago, to THE OPEN MIND today.

The teacher: Max Lerner, journalist and columnist, intellectual historian, master teacher to us all.

The student: James MacGregor Burns. Taught well, a great teacher in turn, Pulitzer-prize winning historian and biographer.

Through all of this half-century, both men have written brilliantly. Now Alfred A. Knopf brings us James MacGregor Burns’ “Crosswinds of Freedom,” the last of his monumental trilogy entitled “The American Experiment.” And soon Transaction Press reprints from the 1930’s Max Lerner’s provocative (now, as well as then!) “It Is Later Than You Think” with a creative Lerner afterword and an admiring introduction by Burns. So, gentlemen, that’s who we are. Thank you for joining me again, and over the years you both have been here. Max, you had the opportunity to hear me putting the needle in Jim Burns on a program we’ve just taped but which is…we’re seeing some time before we’ll be seen…for being terribly optimistic, to begin with, and then making some confessions to the pessimism I like to push, and I wondered how you reacted to that?

Lerner: I found myself, as usual, refusing the ground either to the optimist or the pessimist because I call myself a “possibilist,” and what that means is that I want to see what is happening and then, with some kind of what…for my whole nation, some kind of collective intelligence and collective will, I would to help them to make things happen in ways that will move toward what we call optimism, but I think it does not happen by itself.

Heffner: But why in contemporary political terms does that, has that taken you into a more conservative direction than the ideology or the ideas that you two shared back fifty years ago?

Lerner: Again, I refuse your ground.

Heffner: I figured as much.

Burns and Lerner: (laughter)

Lerner: It has not taken me into a conservative direction. I have…the book that I wrote in 1938 started with the chapter called “Lament for the Liberal.” It was a book fiercely contending that the liberalism of that time was inadequate and attempting to shape a frame for a more militant one. At the present time, I feel that liberalism, after having been through a number of phases since that time, is no longer an adequate philosophy. I do not consider myself a liberal, I have not adopted conservatism. Again, my own ground is that of, what shall I say, the creative center, where…things fall apart. “The center does not hold” wrote Yeats. I would like to see the center hold and that is where I am now.

Heffner: Jim, how do you feel about this?

Burns: Well, the max Lerner who so brilliantly diagnosed liberalism, and critically diagnosed liberalism back in the 1930s, was to the left of the liberal position of the day. And I think he would…I would call him, I will not say what you would yourself, somewhat to the right of the liberalism…

Lerner: Yes.

Burns: …of the day. I think it took a Max Lerner to dissect the flabbiness of liberalism that was no longer an effective thing. The Max Lerner, of course, I would like to see today is someone who dissects the radical cause as mercilessly. But the thing that was so evident in “It Is Later Than You Think” and I’m so pleased that the current generation will see , this is the passion, as well as the brilliance that informed that book. I just, you know how everybody falls in love with a book, and you just think of this book and remember the book and test everything else by the book. This book had me sitting on the edge of my seat, and was so brilliantly written, and it was such an expression of commitment that I was swept off my feet intellectually, as I was by Max Lerner in the classroom. So I had a double whammy operating on me from Max Lerner. (Laughter) I would wish that he would write another book “It Is Later Than You Think” in which he could be as passionate and creative on the left again as I believe he was then.

Lerner: Well, may I say, by the way, and I’m grateful for these words of my old friend, Jim. May I say I have moved, I don’t say I haven’t moved. I have moved and I hope I will continue to keep moving, I think we have to be open-ended in our thinking and I think we’ve got to constantly re-think our positions.

Heffner: Do you think the center is further right now?

Lerner: I think the center is where not only I wanted to be, but where I hoped my friend Jim would be, and my friend, Richard, would be.

Heffner: Why do you want to be at the center, Max?

Lerner: Because that is the…no matter what you study, what you find is polarities in it, and where those polarities meet and entangle themselves with each other, that is what I mean by the center of things. And in the case of a civilization, we’re talking about American civilization, and we’re talking also, by the way, about this larger, what shall we call it, community of nations, a larger imperium which has become part of American experience and American destiny ever since Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower. In that kind of a case then, the center is the place at which everything is coming together and it’s fiercely the heart of things, and that is the center also of cohesiveness, cohesiveness.

Heffner: The question I raise is where that center is, and you and Jim talk about liberalism, it sounds almost as though it were the last political campaign with the L-word being used disparagingly and I’m …do you mean that?

Burns: I do because I think liberalism has had its day. Liberalism has been a very ambiguous, flabby doctrine that could easily be attacked. It’s like a great castle that’s filled with divisiveness and tension and crumbles, and I think we have to create a new progressive creed, perhaps we have to go back to that word, it’s a very good word, a new progressivism, and I had hoped that Max Lerner…

Lerner: Yes.

Burns: …would be in the forefront of that. Now back on the creative center, my problem with that is, Max, that if you’re there, then I know it will have the elements that you’re talking about. But it also means you will be attracting people to that center as you attracted me to the liberalism of the ‘30s. and those people will use the center as a resting place, they will use it as a place for improvisation, they will use it, intellectually, as a place for pragmatism.

Lerner: Yes.

Burns: Which, of course, is my view and I think you taught me this too, is a fundamental American doctrine, but greatly overplayed. Great minds are even always described “well, their pragmatic, you know, they build book cases in their cellars or they coach Little League, don’t worry folks, this pragmatic, this ideological intellectual person is really a practical person,” and this is what worries me because I think it’s really the degradation of thought. It’s trivialization of thought, and the quiescence of thought and that’s one place you have never been.

Lerner: I’d agree with you, Jim, but what you’re describing is rigidity. And what happens is that in whatever angle of vision you adopt, whether it’s liberalism or conservatism, and now you say “centrism” the danger is that of rigidifying in it. The danger doesn’t come simply in the center, but it’s there, too. Actually, liberalism, I agree with you about liberalism, I think it has been in a waning stage, and is but largely because of the rigidifying in liberalism as there has been in conservatism.

Heffner: But suppose I raise a question that has not to do with the words “liberal” or “conservative”…

Lerner: Yes.

Heffner: …a central question.

Burns: Let me hit that first because of one of my vivid memories of being with Max, in New York City. I remember one day we were stopped at a stop light, this is years ago, and a shabby man, obviously a very poor man, walked in front of us, and I remember your reaction to that. I think your reaction would be the same, too, today. I wonder, Max, whether you react the way I do when I journey down, take the railroad down by the Hudson into New York City and I got by the still, gaunt homes and apartment houses or great wasted areas of Harlem area. And then I come down into this incredible hotel building for people who need rooms at $500 a night, instead of $125…

Lerner: Yes.

Burns: …and all the rest, the enormous expansion of building. Just take that one example, and we hear you can’t build homes for people, and I know all the problems about doing things for people. I become enraged by this, and it was partly your teaching about compassion. I cannot understand how billions can be poured into unnecessary apartment buildings and hotels, and the like down in this area and they can do nothing about, or not much, not enough about what’s north of us.

Lerner: I agree with you, and I say, in answer to your question “Am I my brother’s keeper?”…yes. You see, I think that there is in liberalism a basic ingredient which has to do with sharing and with caring. And I think that no philosophy, no matter where we locate it, can do without it. The caring and the sharing and the openness, the sense of what liberalism conveys to me, or ought to, is a sense of openness and of generosity. Now similarly there is an element of conservatism, one of continuity in history, the tradition in history, the great thinkers of the past, and so on. A sense of, what, of constraint, a sense that man is not born perfect and that there is no perfectibility in us, but that there are defects within basic human nature, so on…which I think comes from conservatism. And what I’m saying is that we need elements of the liberal tradition including the caring and sharing, and elements of continuity and tradition in conservatism. Now, having once said, I say that I embrace both groups of these elements, of course, one reason I am very comfortable at the center is that I’m able not to exclude either group. And I care deeply what you say and I have always, and always will care, but then comes the question, Jim, “how do you deal with these things? How do you deal with these things?” and is always society’s fault that these people are as you described them? Or is it to some extent the fault of, what, genes, of the whole tradition in our society and is it, to some extent the fault of our lack of collective intelligence and collective will?

Heffner: You raised the question of genes…

Lerner: Yes.

Heffner: …why don’t you carry that a little further?

Lerner: Yes, I think, for example, I remember once I was in Warsaw, it was after I’d had done “America, The Civilization” and a group there of journalists asked me to define America in a single word, and I said the word is “access.” I said we’re born free and equal, we’re born with basic inequalities of inheritance. Now, nevertheless, there ought to be equal access to equal life chances so that everyone born unequal will be able in some way to deal with his problems, and that’s what I mean by genes. We are born unequal in every country, in every society, and this is part of the diversity, the wonderful richness and diversity of human beings…it comes with their inequalities, but we must not accept these things in terms of excluding the chance to deal with them.

Heffner: I bet your ears pricked up just as mine did…

Burns: (laughter) That’s right.

Heffner: …about the genes. Go ahead.

Burns: Yes, because it seems to me this is another case of where the so-called creative center doesn’t operate very effectively. Going back to this question of equality that I know you’re so interested in…because you often ask about the relation between liberty and equality. You’re really talking about equality of opportunity in a serious way.

Lerner: That’s right. Not of results.

Burns: But, Max, if people took seriously the concept of equality of opportunity there would be such radical change in this country as we have not known.

Lerner: I want them to take it seriously.

Burns; But that means taking that housing up there, and putting aside whether you can do much for the people in their thirties and forties and fifties, who genes and whose life experiences have thwarted them and always will. If you take what’s happening to the children there, that’s the age where I think liberal or radical doctrine can make a big difference. But the implications of that, what you do to improve life chances, you have to intervene, collectively, individually in the lives of people in a way that the old-fashioned liberalism, for example, would not accept. And I don’t think you can do that from the center.

Lerner: I agree with you. I listened to your earlier program and you were saying that in terms of equality over the course of years in American History, there has been considerable improvement. I would put in terms of access. We have moved on access, we have not gone all the way, by any means, by any means, and this is still an invitation to us for collective energy and collective intelligence.

Heffner: But you know, vocabulary interests me and I, I said, Jim, I thought that your ears would pick up with the use of the word “genes” …Max’s use of the word, but then you say “whose genes have thwarted them and always will.” Would either of you have spoken that way fifty years ago when you faced each other in the classroom?

Lerner: Oh yes.

Heffner: Really?

Lerner: Oh yes. I have it in my book, yes, yes. I have it in practically every book. I have always recognized the genetic inheritance.

Heffner: And yet, “possibilism,” as you call yourself a “possibilist”…

Lerner: One of the sentences in “America as a Civilization” is that the final victory is that of the seed, quoting from someone, of course. And I was talking there of America as a confluence of strains from every part of the world, immigrant strains, we are a nation of nations, and every one of those strains has brought different kinds of genetic inheritances with it. This is what I mean. When I say “genes” I don’t mean necessarily inferior or superior. I mean different kinds of genes, and it’s part of the richness of America, and it’s part of the reason I feel so excited at some of the new immigration groups, immigrants groups, especially from Asia that are now coming in that are changing the whole character of the gene pool of America. And one reason for the greatness of America historically, the reason our civilization has cut a wide swath in history, is that we have not depended upon a stagnant gene pool, we have had a continually changing gene pool, of course.

Heffner: Jim, do you think that it would be fair to being up now, since you two are in such agreement, the question of how you voted in the last couple of…

Lerner: By all means.

Heffner: …elections.

Lerner: By all means. I voted for Bush.

Burns: I voted Democratic, I voted for Dukakis.

Heffner: And you voted for Reagan before that?

Lerner: I voted for Reagan before that.

Heffner: Okay. Now, how are you going to reconcile the liberals/centrists who started off fifty years ago, and who end up this way? How do we explain this? Orr is it true that you don’t very much agree?

Burns: Well, oddly enough, I occupied, in my view, the center, the non-creative center, by supporting Dukakis…

Lerner: Dukakis, yes.

Burns: …Mondale and the like. I don’t know what Max Lerner was doing voting for these three people if he really wants to occupy the creative center. I think, by the way, I want to not be one of those liberals who damn Reagan as dumb and idiotic. I think Reagan brilliantly build up the Republican Party, made it the responsibly conservative party of this nation. I wish only that there were Democrats of equal conviction, who would do that with the Democratic party. But having said that, Reagan is a definite conservative person. Bush is showing all those characteristics and hence, how does one vote for these people and be in something called the creative center?

Lerner: You see, I put less emphasis on the labels than you do. Let me say that, in a self-advertising way, that right now I am immersed in a new book in which I’m trying to do some essays on three Presidents of our time; one is FDR, one is Harry Truman, and one is Dwight Eisenhower. And I’m impressed with those three at that time, it seems to me, in terms of leadership, if we’re talking about leadership that was first-rate leadership that we got from all three of them. Now, I do not like the kind of leadership that we have had recently in American presidential history, particularly in what, starting after Lyndon Johnson, who also had his problems as a leader. But I don’t happen to like that very much. Nevertheless, may I say, that if I examined my own votes these last two, Reagan and bush. I look back at Reagan and I say that if I ever get to the point where I will do that third volume of mine dealing with that group about Reagan I think he will do pretty well in the court of history.

Burns: what do you see is creative about him in the center there?

Lerner: I think what’s creative is, as with Roosevelt’s principal creativity lay in the dialogue with the people in terms of psychological shrewdness. It was the psychological approach of giving the people confidence that served as the frame for the New Deal. I think it took him a long time before he understood the menace of Hitler and Hitlerism. It took him even longer before he understood Stalin and Stalinism. Nevertheless, I find him a great leader. Now with Reagan I find a similar psychological shrewdness, ability to communicate with the people and to enspirit them, to give them a sense of confidence. I also find a capacity to deal with the welfare state liberalism that had accumulated for a long time, and turn it around, and in that sense give America some alternative, and in that I find myself very comfortable with my vote for Reagan.

Burns: But, Max, along with…I think that’s a very brilliant comparison of the two men, I agree with that. But Roosevelt left major legislative and administrative accomplishments. He left legislation that changed the course of history.

Lerner: You see…

Burns: Where is the creative aspect of Reagan?

Lerner: I think the legislation of the New Deal was necessary legislation after the long bleakness of the 1920s with those curious Republican precedents. There was a point at which the legislation was not necessarily good. I think we began moving in the 1960s to the point where it was not necessarily that critical. Now, I do not count a President in terms, simply, of his legislative initiatives. One of the things that I found a little at fault with your earlier discussion, if I may say so, when you were talking about equality and freedom. There is a third element in it, and that third element has to do with the very essence of the civilization as with a human individual, and that is a sense of equilibrium, a sense of cohesion within the civilization. And I think Reagan brought some kind of equilibrium back into America after ford and carter, jest as I think that Truman and Eisenhower brought equilibrium back.

Burns: But what does that equilibrium mean to the average person? You can’t …you can eat Social Security, you might say. You can’t eat equilibrium, or drink it, or even feel it, can you?

Lerner: Jim, I willy-nilly whether it’s good or for bad. I’ve tried to be a civilization watcher, and I care about the overall health of the civilization, just as we care about the overall health of individuals. And I think that the average person is better off within a civilization whose larger organismic state is that of health and equilibrium. I define, by the way, I define health in terms of an equilibrium of the organism, the individual organism. I define illness as a breaking of the equilibrium. And that is one reason why I find myself in the center, that’s where the equilibrium is.

Heffner: Do you agree with that, Jim? That definition, that way of identifying whether it’s all been for better or worse?

Burns: Well I would say that Roosevelt also did a great deal for the psychology of the people because he was doing things that Reagan has not followed through on the great promise of the 1970s, that Bush does not show much sign of doing this now. I don’t see the creativity. The equilibrium aspect bothers me because I think it’s the bias toward equilibrium in the social sciences, particularly, that has been a very great problem, and you evaded that in “It Is Later Than You Think.” It was a challenge, intellectually to all those people back in that time who felt that balance, equilibrium, the checks and balances, bipartisanship, consensus, all these were good things, and this was a marvelous challenge and intellectual stimulus. So when we talk about equilibrium today, my old suspicions come back.

Lerner: I didn’t evade it, if I may say so, in that book. What I did was to try, by pushing liberalism forward in a healthier direction create a new equilibrium. And I look at everything that you do, my friend, at everything you do. From my perspective, it is trying to push America into the direction where a better equilibrium can be established.

Heffner: It’s interesting, you both use the word…are willing to use the word, you insist Jim is willing to use the word “equilibrium”, balance, it seems to me you’re talking about a mean, and below that mean, it seems to me, there are more and more individuals about whom Jim was expressing concern, those who could eat social Security, so to speak, but who cannot eat…

Lerner: I don’t mean a “mean.” Mean is a statistical term, equilibrium is an organismic term. And if you’re talking of the larger organism, which I think we have to do, that one of our problems, by the way, is that we don’t see our nation in organismic terms. One of our problems is we think that these are two different universes, individual life and the national life. The fact is they’re the same universe, and I really am pleading that we should, all of us, begin to look at the civilization in the same way in which we look at ourselves as individuals in organismic terms, and therefore, it is not a “mean,” it is an organismic equilibrium.

Heffner: This is the point where we should begin another program, but it’s the point at which I’m getting the sign that we have to end this one. Thank you so much for joining me today, Max Lerner, and James MacGregor Burns.

Burns: Thank you.

Heffner: 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.