James MacGregor Burns

The Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor

VTR Date: September 6, 2001

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: The Three Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor
VTR: 9/6/01

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

Now with its wonderfully evocative title, I think I’ve always most enjoyed the first volume of my guest’s magnificent biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, The Lion and The Fox. Though, of course, it was his second FDR volume, Roosevelt, The Soldier of Freedom that won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Then, of course, there were all those other provocative James MacGregor Burns studies, ranging from John Kennedy, a political profile, to the monumental trilogy on what he called The American Experiment that have made my guest the quintessential American historian and political scientist.

Most recently, The Atlantic Monthly Press published his and historian Susan Dunn’s new study of The Three Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, who they identify as “patrician leaders who transformed America.” And I want, first, to ask Jim Burns what new perspective about our nation and ourselves he brings to or derives from the Roosevelts, nearly a half century after The Lion and The Fox. Jim?

BURNS: Well, first of all, Dick, I’ve always been one of those who sort of frowned on Teddy Roosevelt as just too much of a character [laughter] and a, you know, the whole San Juan, running up a hill and so on. But the more I got into TR … Theodore Roosevelt … the more impressed I was with something that I think is crucial to leadership, it’s one word: conviction. This man really believed in what he was doing. And he showed it in every area. Sometimes excessively. And sometimes in the wrong area. But there was that kind of conviction. And I think this also is true of FDR, who also made mistakes, but who, in two ways … first of all in the New Deal, showed his absolute belief in reform. And then was able to conduct a huge transformation of his own Administration to meet the menace of Hitlerism. And there he, too, showed his dedication and conviction. And then Eleanor Roosevelt who was sort of … for Susan Dunn and me … sort of our hero, or heroine … she was right in there on every major issue that came up in this country. In the political realm, on the civil rights realm. And she, too, had that dedication and that consistency that I think is the essence of great leadership.

HEFFNER: You know what interests me, Jim, you talk about conviction and you talk about Teddy Roosevelt in that regard and you talk about Eleanor Roosevelt in that regard and I’m very sympathetic to those points of view. Why, then, were there so many people and have there been so many historians who saw Roosevelt as an opportunist, rather than a man of conviction … Franklin Roosevelt.

BURNS: Well, because he was that, too. And you kindly mentioned the title of my FDR book, The Lion and The Fox, he was a fox, as well as a lion. But he made his fox-like tactics serve his lion-like strategy, his lion-like vision. So, it raises the most fundamental question about leadership: to what extent do you follow the followers? To what extent are you expedient? To what extent do you keep your ear to the ground? And, sort of do what you think the people want. And to what extent, if you really believe in something, the way FDR, for example, believed, was convinced that Hitler was a menace and that we would have to face up to it … this ability to bring the people along with somewhat fox-like devices in order to bring about the great strategy of defeating Hitlerism.

HEFFNER: When we come closer to our own times, it’s true, isn’t it, that you’re not quite so generous with the fox and the lion qualities of Bill Clinton.

BURNS: That’s true. You can carry fox-like …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

BURNS: … qualities too far. Not that I would say that Clinton was just a fox. I think he was a small lion. I think Clinton did lots of very good little things. But did not do the great things that I think were possible.

HEFFNER: Jim, do you think … let’s set Ronald Reagan aside for a moment, because he is such an exception. Do you think it is much less possible in our own time for find the lion? To find the lion in the clothing of the fox? Or the fox in the clothing of the lion?

BURNS: Probably yes. Because we don’t face the great crisis that we have in the past. There were a lot of very fundamentally underlying crisis that we should be more aware of. But what these leaders did, all three of them, was, in a way, take advantage of huge crises facing the country, particularly FDR, of course. And, it’s awkward to have to say this, but to some extent, great leadership depends on … on great crisis.


BURNS: Formidable crisis …

HEFFNER: So we should hope in a sense for times that don’t cry for leadership and its absence may be simply a sign of going along and getting along.

BURNS: That’s right, but also hope that if there is a huge crisis, and I think there will be in this century, that there will be a leader who lives up to the needs of that crisis.

HEFFNER: Jim, do you think we are missing qualities, or elements to American life today that were present and that were used, and I don’t mean crises alone, that were present and that were used by Teddy Roosevelt, by Franklin Roosevelt and the others you would identify as formidable leaders. And I know you feel that way about Reagan.

BURNS: Yes. I think we’re not getting today the kind of quality that I can best illustrate by saying what it’s like to walk around my little town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. And remembering the other day when I was talking with some students, about World War II in Williamstown … now we were absolutely convinced that Adolph Hitler would consider attacking Williamstown as absolutely crucial to his strategy. But, the interesting thing is, not only did people in Williamstown do all the ordinary war work that we know about. But they would go up and man the little mountain area to be on the look-out, it may sound rather, almost funny at this point, but to be on the lookout for German bombers. And they would go up there night after night, month after month, year after year and show that kind of dedication. I don’t know that we have those qualities today.


BURNS: it may be again because the great crisis evokes it. I mean we had a real sense of crisis, even in Williamstown, Mass that there was a huge menace to civilization and to our country, of course, and Hitlerism. But I’m not sure that if we had another crisis like that that there would be the same qualities of community concern and commitment and the like, conviction, that we had in those days.

HEFFNER: You think what others, and you, have called “the American character” has, in a sense changed. Is that, is that true?

BURNS: Yes. I think probably we’ve become more individualistic, and I’m thinking especially of the last, past, decade when we were doing well, we think financially, economically. And that brings out the individualistic element in us … “getting ahead, beating out the other guy”. So that, again, so much, Dick depends on the times we live in.

HEFFNER: But you say “individualistic” and you know, that smacks to me, Jim, of an earlier, better quality. Americans were individualistic. Isn’t that a, an inappropriate, forgive me, word to use about what you’re describing today. Selfish, perhaps, but individualistic … that means self-reliant, doesn’t it?

BURNS: Well, that’s a nice spin to put on it. It can mean the worst of our capitalistic system … getting ahead, beating out the other guy, no matter how you do it, and all the things that we know happen in the marketplace. So it’s a whole, it’s a question again of balance between individualism and collectivism. In the study of leadership, in talking about leadership we emphasize “collective” leadership such as we had, let’s say, during the founding period in this country, where people really worked together. Today, if you look at American politics … look at primaries before you look at the general elections, the vicious primaries, money dominated primaries that we have. So you see it in the political world, too. Whereas a hundred years or so ago, you would have had much more of a party collective type of individualism in politics. That is people would be working in a party more than they do today.

HEFFNER: Let’s go back to this … you used the word “capitalism.” We thought, didn’t we that Franklin Roosevelt had driven the money changers from the temple. We really did back in the thirties. They’re back. Is that a fair statement?

BURNS: I think they’ve always been there. You know, they were subdued and less vocal … well, I was going to say “less vocal during the New Deal period”, except that they were very focal in attacking FDR. But America has always been capitalistic going back into the 17th and 18th century you find this kind of individualism. And I agree with you, it’s very important. The question is how do you convert individualism into collective betterment of a people?

HEFFNER: Well, he did … FDR did, didn’t he?

BURNS: But not by being capitalistic or being individualistic … in fact, he would constantly emphasize not rugged individualism, the way that people like Herbert Hoover had, but working together in business and politics, education and so on.

HEFFNER: You think that rugged individualism … you don’t believe that that’s the essence of this country. That isn’t what you had celebrated in your many, many books about America.

BURNS: No, not at all. I’m the one here talking about collectivism … collective action, cooperation, community … that’s what I think built America.

HEFFNER: Then what’s taking us back to the money changers, the Social Darwinians. What’s … and we have moved back … that individualism, or your use of that word before referred to selfishness.

BURNS: Well, I think prosperity … I mean look at my students where my college and my university … students who, in the old days went into medicine and law and teaching, and so many of them go right into the market, don’t even bother to go to business school. You find that a year later, after they graduated, they’re just doing great, making a lot of money … at least they were a few years ago. So, it’s a changed situation. But, Dick, I think we’re talking about where there’s been a balance for decades between these forces … of leadership and follower-ship; between individualism and collective-ism, or cooperation to use a better word. And to me the fascinating question is whether leaders can evoke from people a sense of public service the way JFK did with his various programs, some of which we still have. And that’s what I find lacking, to some extent today.

HEFFNER: You found that, though, as a function of that capacity for leadership … it was the lion … Kennedy was the lion there.


HEFFNER: And the creation of the Peace Corps and the other means by which our youngsters could manifest that fairly well-endowed American trait of wanting to help.


HEFFNER: He led, he led us. But, you haven’t mentioned the media. And, of course, since that’s my bete noire I wonder whether it’s possible for a President, unless he is an absolutely extraordinary lion to get over, to overcome the results of mass media entertainment today and lead us in directions that you want us to go in.

BURNS: I think so. If he, or she, is a very strong leader … again getting back to my conviction point … that you know you’re dealing with somebody who has very strong views, very powerful objectives, high vision, to use that old word … but I think it’s a good word. If you have that sort of person who is willing to lead his or her party in new directions, maybe new conservative directions or new liberal directions, a person like, like a TR, simply impresses his personality on the media. The media cannot escape him.

HEFFNER: Well, TR was made …

BURNS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … for the media. His “bully pulpit” was, was made for him. His charge up San Juan Hill … or Kettle Hill whichever you want to chalk it up to … does it require that kind of ebullient personality:

BURNS: I think so. Yes. And you mentioned Reagan briefly, and we don’t need to talk about him yet, but I think talk about ebullient personality that comes over. But I think it’s more important that, when you look at this man … the think is about Roosevelt when you looked at him, or heard him on radio, you knew who was talking. You knew he stood for something, and again that he was very controversial. We kids in school, in college, would cluster around the radio and listen to him. We knew our parents hated him. I would go home near Boston to my Boston uncles and sit around the table and I was the only one there for Roosevelt. And that gave me a lot of attention which is rather nice. But they could not believe that this wimp of a boy would stand up for Roosevelt and we’d have these long arguments. But the point is nobody could escape FDR, not because he was just a good radio voice, or had a good media facility, but because, again, he stood for something. Like it or not.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I was fascinated, something I didn’t know. Everybody knows that Walter Lippmann, when Roosevelt ran was dismissive, didn’t think that he had those qualities that you tell us about now. But that John Dewey and others thought that his pragmatism, the very thing that many of us now … well, in The Lion and The Fox, you find the pragmatism enabled him to achieve the objectives he really had. How do you account for the fact that there were so many early on who didn’t see that about him?

BURNS: Because, first of all they thought, that he was an intellectual lightweight, FDR. And secondly, because they did not understand, to get back to our earlier discussion, they did not understand the way pragmatism can be used, practicality, expediency, compromise, negotiation, and all the rest can be used to bring about great changes. We think of FDR standing up there and being a very dominant figure. And he was. But he was a superb negotiator. As LBJ, for example, was a superb negotiator. And these intellectuals, who by the way, criticize almost all Presidents … and I’m one of them, I must say …

HEFFNER: I was going to say that if you hadn’t said it, Jim.

BURNS: [Laughter] For being inadequate and compromising and not really people of conviction. I think we should look more carefully, and maybe I should have looked more carefully at the way that Roosevelt used compromise, used pragmatism, used practicality to achieve his objectives.

HEFFNER: Do you think it may be that in time you will look back … you and I have never talked about the present President of the United States, George W. Bush, but that you might look back and find him wily enough to have become President and that behind expediency is real concern.

BURNS: I think we’re finding in George Bush that he’s a much better tactician, or if you wish, much better fox than we had realized. He not sort of a dumbbell out of Texas. He’s a shrewd politician. But again, when it comes to the lion aspect of this, the vision aspect, it’s not very clear to me as he gives his speeches and talks about the broader aspects, essentially conservative, I don’t have a sense of great commitment that his heart is in it. You always had a feeling the Roosevelt’s heart was in it. Eleanor, too. Or TR, too. I don’t know whether his heart is really in the big things he talking about, or the people prepare for him to talk about.

HEFFNER: Could Eleanor Roosevelt have been not just First Lady, but President of the United States?

BURNS: I think with better timing. She was pretty elderly, of course, by the time the other two Roosevelts had got through. I don’t think we yet, at that point, were ready for a woman President. I think an Eleanor Roosevelt today would definitely have a good chance of running for President, in one of the major parties. And a good chance of winning.

HEFFNER: You’re very generous to her. You dismiss some of those early attitudes, which you attribute, as with FDR and TR to their backgrounds.

BURNS: Yes, Eleanor had, of course, as you know, a very difficult up bringing and she inherited some of the prejudices of the class that she grew up in. There was, strange to say for this wonderful woman, a little tinge of anti-Semitism. I mean, you know, the kind of casual things that people say about Jews. And she grew out of that, of course, but she had to grow, Dick. She had to do her learning process, too, to become the kind of person, the kind of leader she did become.

HEFFNER: And you feel, too, that she was of enormous strength to him. To FDR.

BURNS: Politically. Yes. Personally. No. Politically she was backing him, she was moving ahead of him, she was supporting him, behind him, flanking him, all the way through his Presidency. And helping take on some of the tougher problems, like civil rights that he was rather cautious about.

HEFFNER: But personally?

BURNS: Personally, she simply was not there. And this goes back, as you know, to the revelations in … during World War I about his affair with Lucy Mercer and other activities of his that she might have thought were the case. Whatever the real truth. And she was really operating independently of him. Almost like a Vice President. Out in the country a lot. Away from the White House a lot. She was not there weeks and weeks at a time to give him the kind of personal support he might have wanted.

HEFFNER: Now, everyone must ask you, how do you compare FDR and Eleanor with Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton?

BURNS: Well, Bill Clinton is no FDR. I think Hillary could be an Eleanor.

HEFFNER: Not an FDR? .

BURNS: Well, I’m …

HEFFNER: Forget the sexual … seriously …

BURNS: Eleanor as an FDR?

HEFFNER: Hillary …

BURNS: Hillary as an FDR? That’s a very enticing thought. [Laughter] I think she has to go a long way before she can do that. But I think she has the qualities of courage and imagination and vision that FDR did. Yes.

HEFFNER: You, you’ve written so much about all of these leaders. That I’m interested in what I would consider the tentativeness with which you approach the answer to my question about Hillary.

BURNS: Well, it’s because she’s not yet really proved on a national scale. She was, I think, an excellent First Lady. I had the good fortune to have a good long talk with her and was enormously impressed talking with her. She fought, I thought, a brilliant campaign in New York State’s, although New Yorkers might disagree. And I think she’s turning out to be a good Senator. But whether she could fill an office like the Presidency, of course, we cannot tell. And the trouble is, the more you get into the Senate mode, which again, is very much a mode of constant compromise and negotiation, the less effective you may be in the White House.


BURNS: Well, LBJ is the great exception to that. Of course, he didn’t win the office on his own. But he was quite remarkable because he had been the prime negotiator, the fox, of the U.S. Senate, who made this amazing transformation into a very strong lion.

HEFFNER: Well, I mean, he didn’t initially get into office … that office on his own, but by gosh and by golly, he overwhelmingly won the Presidency when he did run.

BURNS: That’s right. Of course, he had a relatively easy opponent. Barry Goldwater. But he helped … Johnson helped make Barry Goldwater into a relatively easy opponent.

HEFFNER: We just have a minute left, but I want to ask you about that Senate being a bad place to produce … for the production of Presidents. Explain that a little better.

BURNS: Well, I can illustrate this, Dick, by telling how I used to talk with Jack Kennedy when he was in the Senate …


BURNS: … about when he was a Representative, and he would always be dismissive … he would say, “Where we were just worms there”. And then when he got to be President and I talked to him about the Senate, he would say, “Ah, we were just worms there”. And I’ve always thought that was a strange expression to use. But I think there was something in that, in that he felt the people in Congress are so much part of a vast machine of compromise and negotiation, that they don’t have the leeway that a President must exercise.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind, Jim, it’s a pleasure to talk about worms and compromise and lions and foxes. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

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

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