James MacGregor Burns

Selling Political Ideas in Soundbites: Does it Demean the Political System?

VTR Date: August 11, 1982

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: “Selling Political Ideas in Soundbits: Does it Demean the Political System?”
VTR: 8/11/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today is a highly valued friend. Pulitzer Prize winning historian and politician scientist, chronicler of the Roosevelt and Kennedy years, James MacGregor Burns is the author most recently of “The Vineyard of Liberty”, published by Alfred Parafrez, the first of Professor Burns’ trilogy of what he calls “The American Experiment”. Jim Burns, thank for joining me again here on THE OPEN MIND. I’ve been looking at an interview that was conducted by Bernard Weisberger in American Heritage in December ’81 with you, and he asked what the theme of your story is in “The Vineyard of Liberty”. And you say the book is about values. And then you go on, and you say, “Americans are great at general pious formulation. We’re also great at practicalities. How do we do this this morning? How do we do this tomorrow?” you say. “But the linkage between the two is often very weak, so that when people are in power there is no strategy. There are no norms by which to set up a hierarchy among certain kinds of freedom. For example, what comes next when there’s an issue? What do you go for primarily? What are the priorities? Instead, we like to do one thing one day and something quite different the next”. And I wondered how that fit with the notion that this is a book about values, when you almost seem to say that Americans are value-less in that way.

BURNS: I think Americans have, Dick, two fundamental values that have existed from the start of our nation: liberty and equality. Nothing terribly new, but that’s the point. I like to tell my students, you know, “If you’ve got any money in your pocket” – of course, these days, you’re never sure a student has money in his pockets, but – “take it out, and you’ll see on that coin, you’ll see a word. It’s not “Reagan”, it’s not “courage”, it’s not “defense”, it’s not “national security”; it’s “liberty”. And you look at that statue, as the immigrants coming into New York City. It’s the Statue of Liberty. Liberty is the towering belief of Americans. But equality, or perhaps equal liberty, is just as important. Now, my argument is that this is basic in our culture. We really believe it. But it’s very easy to be practical, so that when a specific question comes up like the thought you hate, “You don’t want freedom for the thought you hate”, to quote Mr. Holmes. Or in war, if you’re a little worried about the Japanese-Americans on the west coast, put them in concentration camps, even though we all believe in liberty. So I feel that, on the one hand, we have these values, as great moral principles. And on the other hand, we go day to day trying to carry them out, but we’re lacking the linkage between them, the thing that guides us over time to try to carry these out. And I could give you many examples just on the equality level. But today we know that people are buying very expensive cars, and we know that the nation is building very expensive hotels, on the one hand; and yet we’re being told that it’s a tough time and we must sacrifice and so on. So I feel that somehow we don’t have the political system and the political leadership that links the great values to our everyday decisions.

HEFFNER: Do you think that a nation can carry water on both shoulders at the same time? Because that seems to be what you’re saying. You’re saying, here’s the one principle, and here’s the other, and you seem to be ignoring the incredible dichotomization between the two.

BURNS: They can be opposites, liberty and equality. But I think they’re even more supportive of each other. I don’t think in the long run you can have the kind of liberty that we’re exercising this very moment, happily, to speak our mind. I don’t think we can believe in that kind of liberty unless we feel everybody can speak his or her mind. And you and I know that there are millions of Americans who are in certain situations today, they cannot speak their minds. They’re in southern communities, they’re in northern communities, they’re in families where they can’t speak their minds. They’re even in educational institutions where they may not be able to speak up. Their students may not be able to editorialize in a newspaper, a campus newspaper. We can find many examples. So that I think in the long run liberty means equal liberty, and equal liberty means equality. So they are linked.

HEFFNER: Yes, but when you, your linkage is a negative one. You’re linking them and saying the two really don’t exist at this moment side by side sufficiently. You say there are millions of people, there are students and many others, who don’t enjoy these liberties. And it seems to me almost as if there were a lot of wishful thinking in this formulation on your part.

BURNS: Well, one reason we don’t have the kind of equal liberty today that I think we should is that we have a government, an administration which plays up liberty from government. That is, you don’t have government breathing down our necks. If we’re industrialists, don’t have too many regulators coming around and telling us about how to have safe machines and so on. We’ve heard all that. But it seems to me these people forget another kind of liberty which we achieve, and we achieve it through government, through government. I’ll take civil rights as an example. We have achieved liberty for millions of people in this country, a large degree of liberty, because we had civil rights programs, we’ve had educational programs and all the rest, that have given people some kind of status, some kind of dignity, some kind of security, individual security, so they felt free to exercise their liberty.

Let me just give you one historical example, which is, I don’t think we would have had the Civil Rights struggle unless we had had the New Deal struggle. I think it took the New Deal beginning to help people of low income, including blacks, in order to give people the kind of economic security that you need in order to exercise your liberty of opinion and belief.

HEFFNER: But Jim, what would you say to someone who said, “I hear what you say, Professor Burns, but I think we’ve moved backwards in both of those revolutions, in both of those changes, both of those acquisitions of liberty?”

BURNS: Well, I’m not saying that we’re making steady progress. I think the pendulum goes back and forth. I think there are periods in history, for example, the abolition of slavery, and many other periods where we have had a lot of forward movement. But we can easily retrogress. And you and I are perfectly aware that the Bill of Rights under certain conditions in this country could be repealed after having been installed 190 years ago. So I don’t mean to be complacent about it. I’m simply saying that we can have both if we work for both, if we fight for both politically, economically, socially, educationally, everywhere we can.

HEFFNER: But this time, on this program, I’m not going to do what I did once on another program together, because I waited until the end to ask you what your prophecy would be. And when you prophesied, it wasn’t all that optimistic. You talk about the swing of the pendulum. And I pinned you down and said, “If you had to make your bets…” They weren’t quite such positive bets.

BURNS: Well, I can’t be rosily optimistic. But let me say this much. I think there will be another great forward movement in this country, by my biased lights, granted, but I think there will be another great movement that rivals the Jackson period and the Lincoln period and the Theodore Roosevelt period and the rest of these periods where we have gone back to the battle for both liberty and equality. There have been periods in this country where we fought for a kind of liberty, back in the late nineteenth century. That liberty was defined as simply getting ahead, the rags to riches.

And that was a very important kind of liberty. A liberty to rise up as an office boy and get to be head of the company. I honor that kind of liberty. But it’s not enough. And we’ve not, in the twentieth century, move into these great programs to protect liberty, and above all to extend equality. I think, partly with the reaction against the Reagan administration, there will be in 1984 or 1988 another one of these great liberal movements that we associated with the Bryans and the Wilsons and the Roosevelts and the Kennedys and the Johnsons of this country. And my own prediction is that that will turn on the two values we started talking about: liberty and equality.

HEFFNER: Yes, but do you think that this reaction will come because of an ideological split or because of plain, hard, economic, recession and depression?

BURNS: Well, I think both of those are very important. The Republicans have given us the ideological script. And I’m rather impressed by it. I’m not one of these people damning Ronald Reagan in terms of what he’s trying to do. I happen to disagree with what he’s trying to do; but I think he has every right tot try to do it. I think what happened in the Republican Party is really rather impressive. They were divided, as you kwon, between a kind of liberal wing and a king of a conservative wing. And they made up their minds that they were not going to shilly-shally it any longer. Reagan led them. He failed in 1976. Unlike most politicians who if they fail sort of back a way and try something else, he stuck to his conservative beliefs. He and thousands of conservative Republicans brought the Republican Party around to being the committed conservative party of this county. I think we need that in this country, What we’re waiting for, it seems to me, is for the Democratic Party to pick up its cue and to b e the party that goes back to the past, goes back to its great heroes of the past, starting with Jefferson and Jackson, renews its faith in the present. So that the Republican Party, in a sense, has taught the Democrats that you can be principled, you can have values, and still win an election. That’s what the Republicans proved in 1980 against all the people like Ford and the others who said, “No, you’ve got to compromise”, and so on. They showed it can be done. If the Republicans can do it on the right I say the Democrats can do it on the left.

HEFFNER: But the Republicans’ success, isn’t that an indication to you that that is where most Americans are?

BURNS: At the moment, or at least they were in 1980. But it could be very different in 1984.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but Jim, what will have changed in 1984? Ideological shift, or again the question of the lack of economic success?

BURNS: Well, I think obviously the depression which seems to be deepening is producing the conditions of another 1929-32, and another election of a liberal Democratic president.

HEFFNER: But then if you were to ask, “What kind of people are they, these Americans?” you’d have to say, “They swing”. Ideologically they’re identified with liberty or equality only as their own oxen are being gored. And that’s hardly a devotion to principle.

BURNS: Well, I think what happens is that people look in terms of self-interest, but the great leaders connect up. And this is something that Roosevelt did. It’s a very important point you’re making. FDR was a tremendous teacher as a leader, and he taught Americans who had this individual success ethic, you know, “I’ll get ahead, even if I have to walk over other people, I’ll get ahead”. He taught them that we are one people. He preached to them. And he said that we are linked in a common destiny. Well, now, that sounds rather trite and obvious. But people were so scrounging and desperate and fighting to exist in the Depression that someone had to come along and say, “Let’s work together to get out of this mess”. And I’m expecting that again the great teachers of our values in the future will go back to that. And I should add a third element to the trinity, or make it a trinity. And you’ve guessed it, it’s the old French trio, liberty, equality, fraternity. And I think that’s what’s been missing in this conversation here. And I want to bring it in. I think that along with getting what we need, your point about people being very practical and getting what they need from day to day, I think one thing we’ve got to try to establish in this country, probably for the first time, is that sense of comradeship, of fraternity, of people working together. And I think that trinity is the great system of values that will go on into the 21st century.

HEFFNER: You know, I was involved with Channel 13 here in New York back in the time of the 100th anniversary of FDR’s birth. And we did a program about eh efforts that FDR made at bolstering the spirit of this country through the arts, that aid that was provided to the creative people in this country. From that, for the first time, I had the notion, as a one-time historian, that the notion of that, the element of fraternity again was – and I don’t mean to be too cynical here – was a very pragmatic, is a very practical matter. And FDR was able to appeal to it because he was saying to those people who listened to him when he announced that we had nothing to fear but fear itself, he was saying to them, “You have nothing to fear but fear itself. We will aid you”. There was something very much along the lines of, “Your pockets will be a little bit fuller, your stomachs will be a little bit fuller if you participate in this revolution”. Therefore, I find it hard to accept this notion that what you’re talking about is a value. It seems to me you’re talking about a condition. Empty stomachs, empty pockets, fraternity, equality, liberty. Full stomachs for those who are in power. Fuller pockets. And somehow or other, civil rights revolutions are reversed. Somehow or other than there’s a demand for deregulation on the level of government. And I find it so hard to have your optimism.

BURNS: Right. Well, I think one problem here is that when, perhaps when you think of values, you think of something different from what I think of. You know, we’re talking about great principles, great goals. Values, as we’re using the term, do not have to be great cloudy things floating up there in the air. Values – and this is where Roosevelt was so great — can be translated into very simple ideas. He would emphasize the family and the home, the fireside chat. All this had the great symbolism of a family. As we all know, he talked in very practical terms. But the greatness of Roosevelt, and I think this is a greatness of leaders like Gandhi and Jefferson and Churchill, is the ability to take the little aspirations of what we call “the common man” – that’s a terrible term, but the small man, as it’s – take his or her little aspirations and make them part of a great effort, a great national effort. Let me just add one little p.s. to that. I’m not so utopian that I think we’re all going to be one great nation, everybody united. In fact, I don’t want to live in a country like that. When I talk about fraternity it’s the fraternity of the poor in one party, in one set of organizations like civil rights organizations; and it’s the fraternity of the rich involved. And then, by God, you get those two fighting against each other, and may the best man, or should I say the most numerous group, win. So I’m talking very practical politics, even while I talk values.

HEFFNER: You mean it? Let the best man or let the best group win?

BURNS: Well, in a democracy it’s the most numerous group. And as we say, God made more poor people than rich people. So that’s why I’m optimistic that in the long run the people will win out.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting. You talked before of the old Horatio Alger notion of from rags to riches. And I wondered how much today that notion, that social Darwinian notion, characterizes American thinking.

BURNS: I think we’ve gotten pretty cynical about that. I think there’s a feeling today that there’s a lot of nepotism, that you get ahead if you’re the boss’s nephew sort of thing. So we don’t have much…You know, Dick, I don’t know if you remember this, but I sort of grew up on those Horatio Alger, you know, “The Ragged Dick”, and all. I loved that stuff. I sort of read it behind the barn because the family didn’t look, or rather wanted me to be reading Shakespeare or something. But, well there’s a wonderful ethic to that which I don’t think we should lose completely. I do think getting ahead is important and the like. Again, it’s a question of whether you make this a servant of great goals or whether the thing sort of goes wild. And I think one reason we talk about the 1920 and F. Scott Fitzgerald and all that is it was a period when, it was a frenzied stock market, it was a frenzied business community where people were still living out the old Horatio Alger ethic of rags to riches in a new century when that did not have the meaning. They were living in a corporate world and all the rest. It was not that open competition that existed at one point in our lives.

HEFFNER: When we were young, there was an assumption of upward mobility.

BURNS: Yeah.

HEFFNER: There are people now who are writing and talking about the phenomenon of downward mobility. And the free enterprise system, the notion of from rags to riches, the notion of enterprise, I think it’s produced a lot more cynicism than we might have expected because of this downward movement, downward mobility.

BURNS: Well, I think this is partly a depression phenomenon. Obviously at the moment, in my world of education the numbers of talented people who go through 16 years of education and then can’t get a job – and we all know about this – its just a terrible, frightening thing to see what happens to people in this situation. But I think we’ll get out of it. You know, “Ah, here’s the optimist”. I think this nation has the resources if we can just get things together, if we can get a political system that operates, if we can solve some of our economic problems. I’ll be the daily optimist here, Dick, if you’re sort of going over the hill.

HEFFNER: I am over the hill. And I’m amused at this juxtaposition of positions because I wondered whether you might not have concluded that in the revolution of rising expectations we came to expect more than it is possible to have, more in term so the movement from rags to riches, more in terms of what we each might have. Where is it written that those anticipations of ours for our children rather than for ourselves would be realized?

BURNS: It’s written in our history. It’s written that this nation, because of God-given resources, human resources, immigration and the like, the nature of our continent and all the rest, it’s given to us that we are an enormously wealthy nation. The wealth is still there, above all, in the talent of our people. It’s simply come up against a system that does not work, a governmental system that does not work well, and an economic system that does not today reward talent the way I think it probably did 100 years ago.

HEFFNER: Then I’m sure you voted for Ronald Reagan, because this in a sense is what Ronald Reagan has said. He has said that deadhanded government has prevented this wonderful mass of American resources from being exploited in the way it always had been and the way it can be in the future. You seem to be sympathetic to that notion.

BURNS: I am not sympathetic to that notion; I’m sympathetic to the notion that the governmental system is our great weakness. The system; not just eh current administration, which I happen to disagree with, but the system as a whole. The thing that I’m worried about, Dick, is not that we will get a new great movement toward liberty and equality. I will flatly predict to you that it is in the genius of this nation and the way the pendulum swings in this nation that once again there will be a leader and a group of leaders in this country that will move us further toward liberty and equality. My worry is that once we install that kind of group, they’re going to find an old fashioned horse and buggy political system that is so fragmented, so demoralized, that it cannot deliver on what they are offering. They will arouse the expectations of the American people in ’84 and ’88 and then not deliver. Now, that’s where I get pessimistic. I think if we get one more administration that allows us expectations and cannot fulfill them on the liberal side as well as on the conservative, we’re going to have a people so cynical that they’re going to turn to some other kind of system that will not necessarily be a democratic system with a small leap.

HEFFNER: Prophesizing again? A man on horseback?

BURNS: Possibly.

HEFFNER: When you talk about the inadequacies of the system, do you mean our political structure or our political system, or both?

BURNS: I mean both. I mean our constitutional structure of this enormous fragmentation. You see, just take Reagan. He really solved it the first year. I wish he would solve it every year, because I would rather see Reagan have a chance to put his program through simply because in 1984 I don’t want Ronald Reagan getting up and saying, “Friends, I had a marvelous program, but the Democrats wouldn’t let me do it. The system wouldn’t let me do it. Give me another chance”. I want us to be able to say to Reagan, “You had your chance”. I want us to be able to say to the Roosevelts and the Kennedys and the Johnsons, “You had your chance”. Today we have elections that are not pinning responsibility on a party in power. We have elections that are essentially buck-passing and finger-playing. “I was great, but you wouldn’t let me do it”.

HEFFNER: But Jim, isn’t that, in a sense, what Franklin Roosevelt did? He temporized. He brought things together. There wasn’t the kind of…I remember our late friend, Richard Hofstadter, very angry with Franklin Roosevelt because I always felt that his anger with Roosevelt is that Roosevelt hadn’t gone far enough, he didn’t do the things the could have done. But Roosevelt never pretended he was going to. He didn’t nationalize the banks; he had no intention of doing so. Isn’t the genius of our political system, that fuzzing of the edges?

BURNS: Well, I think you’re remembering, Dick, as a historian yourself, the great first term of Roosevelt. I like to think – I don’t like to, I have to – think about the second term of Roosevelt, when Roosevelt was a defeated man politically, and he was defeated by the system. And that’s when he tried to reform the Supreme Court and failed. He tried to reform the Democratic Party and failed. He tried to reform the bureaucracy and failed. He tried to reform Congress and failed. If the war had not come along, Roosevelt would go down in history as a man like Wilson, who had a fine first term and then failed in his second term. And I think that’s going to come back and haunt us in the years ahead.

HEFFNER: We did a program with Jack Valenti, you and I. He’s pushing strongly for a single, six-year term fro president. Do you think that’s on of the reforms that’s necessary?

BURNS: Absolutely not. No, Dick.


BURNS: First of all, you know, Jack Valenti, and you too, and I like to be practical. And my idea is a very practical…If we should elect a real lemon to the presidency, which we can with our electoral system, and we discover that in year one, and you and I and Jack Valenti and all the rest of us had to sit around for five years with a lame duck, incompetent president; if you want to get practical, how impractical is that? But beyond that, Dick, and more important, I think it’s a denial of the democratic system. I think elections every four or five years in this country or abroad, that’s a standard. We’ve got to have ways of controlling our leaders, and the best way – and this is true of Margaret Thatcher today in England – is to have those leaders always think, “At a certain point, I’m going to have to go back before the American people and get the endorsement of a majority”. I think that’s the best way to control leaders.

HEFFNER: But this is the system that has brought us to what you seem to consider a fairly sorry pass at this moment.

BURNS: Not that system. I like presidential elections every four years. I think the presidential election system is good. What I don’t like is the political system that prevents presidents from doing their thing so that when they come up before the people they can point to somebody else as having been the source of all the trouble.

HEFFNER: Gosh, I used to joke in class about those, as you know, and you have, who pointed with pride and those who viewed with alarm depending upon whether they were ins or outs. And this is something that I think you would embrace at this moment.

BURNS: Yes. I would point with pride to our fall election system. I point with lack of pride to the political system that makes that sometimes irresponsible.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much, James MacGregor Burns, for joining me here today on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. And meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.