James MacGregor Burns

Dead Center, Part I

VTR Date: November 4, 1999

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: “Dead Center”, Part I
VTR: 12/14/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I want to say first that above all else, my guest today and I share the greatest and most abiding affection and admiration for our late, good friend, teacher, mentor Max Lerner. That magnificent twentieth century radical turned liberal turned conservative political philosopher, through it all maintaining the most loving, devotion to scholarship and intellectual integrity and the most profound respect for the creative role of vigorous political leadership.

Historian, political scientist James MacGregor Burns is my guest today and his brilliant works on FDR and JFK like his great trilogy on what he called “The American Experiment” all mark him as our most perceptive contemporary scholar of the art and practice of democratic leadership. And today, as its founding Senior Scholar my guest serves as an intellectual guide for the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland. Now his new Scribner book, “Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation” well sums up Professor Burns profound antipathy for making centrism our political system’s guiding star. In fact, since we had long ago planned to do a program discussing the virtues of political centrism versus strong leadership and strong postures in political policy in our democracy, some time back I clipped a lead editorial from The New York Times titled “The Politics of No”. For it insists our electorate wants the centrists on both sides to get together an make government work. Which sounds like a far cry indeed from my guest’s hope that “forceful leaders at opposite ends of our political spectrum, not at its center will stand up, identify and declare themselves and then duke it out.” But, of course, I should first ask Professor Burns if this is a fair reading of his critique of what he calls the “Clinton-Gore dead center”?

BURNS: It is, it’s a great start.

HEFFNER: We really want to be … have our political leaders at one end of the spectrum or the other.

BURNS: Absolutely. Not extreme, but significantly left of center, significantly right of center.

HEFFNER: And your heroes? Have they been so?

BURNS: Well, the great Presidents, going back through that list that we all learn at school and it’s still a very good list … from Washington on through Jefferson and Lincoln, and these are the classics … Theodore Roosevelt in this century, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, LBJ … these were strong leaders.

HEFFNER: You say “strong leaders” but, I mean if you take “the lion and the fox” … FDR … these were people … FDR and John F. Kennedy, too, were people who moved around a lot inside their leadership.

BURNS: Well, they were, you know, I used the book you mentioned, “Roosevelt, The Lion and The Fox” and I believe that leaders should be lions. But they have to be foxes. The problem is that they get so involved in fox-like behavior, conciliating, mediating, compromising then they lose their stature and their incentive as lions. Roosevelt was so skillful at this, Dick, he did an awful lot of compromising and conciliating and so on. But when the chips were down, this man rose to the occasion.

HEFFNER: And you’re suggesting that perhaps our present leadership team, Clinton and Gore, they do not rise to the occasion?

BURNS: That’s right. And let me go back to the beginning with Clinton. Because he wanted to, we interviewed Bill Clinton in 1992 during the campaign and it was a wonderful experience. Incidentally, seeing him face to face. Now actually we’re in the campaign car, so it’s kind of hectic and of course, he was waving to every solitary person he saw in the sidewalk. But he, he said to begin with to me, he said, “I know your theory of transformational leadership” That’s one of the basic theories of change in the study of leadership. He said he knew that. And he wanted to be a transformational leader. He wanted to be a great president. He wanted to be ranked with those presidents I just mentioned. And my argument is that the tactics he’s been using, coming out of the Democratic Leadership Counsel, in which he had been brought up, simply failed to work out if you want to become a great leader. Great leaders do take stands; they are people of conviction and commitment and courage. And he’s been very good, Dick, in so many little things. Almost every day, or every week, he does something and I say, “Gee, that’s good”. But it’s a little thing and it drops like a pebble into the ocean.

HEFFNER: You think that’s a reflection of the times that have changed since the last great leaders in the White House.

BURNS: I think to some extent leaders make their times. Theodore Roosevelt lived in a time of no war … he would have loved a war, during his presidency … and no major economic crisis. But he was so forceful as a personality that he rose above the doldrums of the day. And became a great leader. ‘So, yes, you’re right that obviously a leader is tremendously effected by the context in which he operates. But the great leaders defy that. For example, divided power and checks and balances which have bugged every president. The great leader tries to work it, tries to get things through and then, when he has to, like Harry Truman, he takes the courageous stand.

HEFFNER: But you know, it seems to me, Jim, that we can’t just pass by this point that The Times makes. Now you can say they’re wrong, but I think what they say is, is very, very clear. They talk about an electorate that wants the centrists on both sides to get together and make government work. That means the moderates, the people who will come in from the Left and come in from the Right. And meet in the middle. Do you .. do you dismiss this as inaccurate, as well as inadequate?

BURNS: Well, it depends on what you mean by “want”. Centrists are not very wanting people. They’re more or less comfortable people. And they don’t want big controversy and that’s true of many Americans. So we, we have this title of the “Perils of Moderation” and I’m sure some people will say, “perils of moderation?”. Yes, we say. It’s perilous to keep in the center and not give the kind of leadership needed. But on your point about what they want. It’s a question of where you locate the majority. People who defend centrism usually talk about a big majority of Americans in the middle. Well, you can define the electorate also as a strong minority plus on the Right, the Reaganites to take the most important of them. And over on the Left and the great President, as in the case of Reagan … and we, by the way, we can come back to this, but, admire Reagan in many ways … but the great Presidents mobilize a constituency on the Left or Right and let the Centrist decide. They have a lot of power at the end, they can decide at the polls between the two sides. But you’ve got to have two sides.

HEFFNER: You mean that we cannot mobilize the center unless there are these two extremes?

BURNS: I don’t think you can mobilize the center at all. It’s very hard to get people excited about moderation, even though they kind of love it. In politics they much prefer dynamics. You mentioned Max Lerner and I was very pleased you did … you know Max Lerner, during his earlier days would also make this point very strongly, that particularly people want a choice. And this relates, Dick to another crucial thing. The decline of the vote. When there’s no choice, when it’s a centrist system, let’s say its, well, let’s say Bush, Jr. versus Gore, because Gore is a proud centrist again out of the Democratic Leadership Council. And Bush presumably will run, if he runs, as a moderate Republican. And Gore, if he runs, as a moderate Liberal, or something. Why should people go to the polls? When these two people are presenting alternatives that are just about five degrees different. No wonder the turn-out, the voting turn out, is down under fifty percent.

HEFFNER: And you think that’s the reason.

BURNS: It’s probably the reason.

HEFFNER: Or a major reason.

BURNS: It’s the major reason. There are a lot of social and economic forces, too, including the state of the nation. Yes. I think it’s the major reason.

HEFFNER: What would be the down side … now this may be an unfair question to put to you. What would be the down side that you would see … I was going to say “concede”, I don’t mean, “concede” … that you would want to set forth to this absence of centrism, to going it … going down the road that you want us to go down …or up.

BURNS: That I would like to …

HEFFNER: What’s the downside of that? As a political scientist, as a historian? What dangers might it present to us?

BURNS: Well, analytically, as you say, and getting away from my strong feelings for a moment … I would have to say that it’s better for the comfort level of a people … I mean I grant they like the idea of moderation … they want politics to be moderated … they feel very strongly about the extremists and then they tend to think sometimes that two strong candidates on Left and Right are extremists, but of course I’m not talking about extremists. So, I think it makes people feel a little better, from day to day, but I honestly … I like you to ask me unfair questions, I don’t think that’s an unfair question, I think it’s a good … a very good one, but since I see so little vitality there, so little shape, so little meaning, so little force, so little historic role, that it’s very hard for me to find much in the center.

HEFFNER: But you’re saying then to the … to the people who are watching and listening to us that if you want a comfort level that is high, forget about my rejection of centrism, embrace it yourself.

BURNS: Absolutely. That’s obviously their right to do that and, and millions will. But one other aspect of this we ought to bring in, Dick, and that is the system as a whole is grossly unrepresentative, and when you have this kind of centrism the Conservatives do much better because the centrism plays into the hands of the status quo which most Conservatives want, so you have a kind of an automatic center/right connection, and again, it seems to me to make for flabby, ineffective leadership.

HEFFNER: Now, if we’re taping this program in November, 1999, we’re almost at the Millennium, in terms of the characters who play their roles on the political scene right now, would you embrace the notion of let’s say a Pat Buchanan as a candidate versus whom? Who, who is it that you would see? I mean who are the people …

BURNS: Well, just stop with him. No, I would not. He’s an extremist.


BURNS: He’s way too … I don’t know quite where he is, he’s a neo-populist, he’s not a strong, may I say, Liberal or Progressive political leader.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you cannot … you’re not going to have two Liberal, strong Progressive leaders on both sides of this political equation.

BURNS: Well, are you thinking that he might get the Republican nomination …


BURNS: Now he’s running as … so I think it’s awfully important here to talk about people like Roosevelt, the others I mentioned because they were vigorously Left and in the case of Reagan, to the Right of center. They were not extremists. Of course, the Republicans called FDR an extremist, but I’m talking about, if you had a little diagram here, like this … a little gauge, and here are the pointers going up to the center … that’s the center … down here, I can’t quite stretch it that far, but way down here, these are the extremists … right in there … a real choice, not a great, big choice between Fascism and Communism type choice, but a meaningful choice at the polls such as we’ve had in the great elections of the past. That’s what I’m talking about.

HEFFNER: You mean Barry Goldwater?


HEFFNER: Choice?

BURNS: Yes. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: But Barry Goldwater, I’ll bet … now you can tell me I lose my bet …

BURNS: {Laughter}

HEFFNER: I’ll bet if we turn the hands of the clock back, you saw him as an extremist.

BURNS: Well, that is true of Goldwater because he slipped too far over to his Right. But let me pick up on that in terms of Ronald Reagan. Because some of my fellow Liberals will be a bit upset by this book because we honor Reagan because he was such a strong leader on the Right. And the reason I mean him now is that when Reagan planned to run, as a Conservative, the Republican leadership went to him and said, “you can’t run as a real Conservative, do you want to be another Barry Goldwater and bring our great Republican Party down to another downfall?” And Reagan in effect said, “I’m going to run as what I am. As a Conservative. And if I lose I’m going to try again.” And the thing that so impressive about him … just in terms of his leadership, not his point of view, which I don’t share, is that he got defeated unlike many American politicians who then draw back, you know, “gee, there must be something wrong with me if I got defeated”. He stuck to his convictions, he said he could win, that he would not be another Barry Goldwater and you know the rest of that history.

HEFFNER: Well, who, who in the parties today, or who in the political spectrum today do you think of as strong leaders, but not extremists. People who will perform, who would perform in office, as you would have them perform?

BURNS: Well, in office today I think Gephardt is an example in the House. But it’s not easy to find these people. The big question is about Bradley. My theory about Bill Bradley is that he may have come out of a kind of a centrist background, but that partly because he’s running again Gore, he is going to have to turn to the more Liberal element because Gore already has the centrist support. And in the process of doing that Bradley will be increasingly drawn in to the old Liberal forces, progressive forces in this country. So I would say that Bradley is potentially that kind of leader.

HEFFNER: And on the other side of the political spectrum?

BURNS: Well …

HEFFNER: Now that may be an unfair question.

BURNS: {Laughter] McCain … now … I’d say McCain. I think McCain, if he became President would be a strong President and doing things that I don’t like, but that’s beside the point. So I would … I give you back McCain.

HEFFNER: It’s funny, Jim, you say “doing things I wouldn’t like”, but that sort of goes with the territory you’re saying, the territory is so important to you, the strength of leadership is so important that you’re willing to accept leadership in a direction that you don’t approve of.

BURNS: Absolutely. If I take this position for a Liberal candidates … that they should be significantly to the Left on the spectra … that’s a good word …I’ve got to take it on the Conservative side.

HEFFNER: Now, in your book … in Dead Center and The Perils of Moderation, Clinton Gore Leadership and The Perils of Moderation certainly one character stands out because you’re really talking about a troika here, you’re talking about three people. On the cover of the book there are two, and in your title, there are two, but you’re adding in your book a third person, namely Hillary Clinton …


HEFFNER: Where does she fit in this …

BURNS: Well, first on the troika … one interesting thing about the Presidency never emerged in my view, was that there are two people high in the President’s councils who cannot be fired. The Vice President and the First Lady. I can imagine since everything happens these days that someday a President might divorce his wife during his Presidency. But those are two people … I don’t think we realize when there is an effective First Lady, I don’t think we realize the extent to which, and if there’s a strong Vice President, as I think Gore has been, that this is a kind of a little center in the government. Getting back to the role of Hillary … we talked with her at some length, I had never met her before, and I have to say that it was the most impressive performance I have seen of anyone, and in fact, in sort of rivals what Bill Clinton did back in 1992, during the campaign, in terms of knowledge of the issues, directness, charm … I have to say, close up, she was really a very gorgeous woman. And I think the story of Hillary is that in every new role she’s taken in life she has had fumbles and bumbles and so on, and then she has steadied herself and settled into the role. And I think this is happening in New York State where she obviously has had some difficulties, but I think her great capacity is to deal with those difficulties, overcome them and go on and be very effective.

HEFFNER: You know, Jim, you’re the one who said, “Like Bill Clinton in 1992″ and your last words about obstacles, misfortunes, fumbles and overcoming them certainly is the picture we’ve always had of Bill Clinton.
BURNS: Well, he’s overcome … just talking about his personal life …

HEFFNER: His political life as well.

BURNS: His political life … yeah … he’s overcome obstacles by endless conciliation and compromise … the fox role. And it’s come to be most of his presidency. And Hillary who … everybody there is going to have to be a politician. You recall maybe I ran for Congress once … and I certainly was a politician…

HEFFNER: I certainly do remember.

BURNS: … running in Western Massachusetts. So I am well aware of all of this. You have to get elected, or at least some day get elected. You have to make some compromises. The great question is the balance between statesmanship and compromise. Courage and compromise.

HEFFNER: You know, I, I … I guess in reading Dead Center and in knowing you as long as I have and you and I have talked at this or other television tables since 1956 and that’s a long time ago …

BURNS: That’s right.

HEFFNER: By anyone’s calculation. I find it difficult to understand your almost total … no, not almost … you total indictment of Bill Clinton as a person who has not lead.

BURNS: I think that’s a rather wrong statement of, of … approach. But let me take that as, as essentially our approach. I think, Dick, to raise this to a broader level, it’s a question of how do you make change in this country … progress … we’ve talked about that in the past, too. You know a country where the governmental system makes change so difficult. It’s a question of your theory of change. Some people are incrementalists. And this is a respectable theory. Their theory is you don’t get very far by making big, sweeping changes that are dramatic and so on. You make you changes a little push here, a push there, pull back here, push ahead here, and the like. And that’s what I think Clinton is very good at. It’s unusual for a man to study the Presidency as much as he did, to study leadership before he even came into the Presidency. He had the strategy and it was the strategy that I just mentioned. Others feel that that may bring us some nice little things, as Clinton has over and over again. I read the paper, and I think “oh, that’s a good” and then I think, “ah, but it’s not going to do much. It’s going to be like a pebble in the ocean”. While he’s doing that, outside government change is taking place with titanic force. Educators, businessmen, scientists, technologists, artists, they’re all changing fast in this world. And my question is whether leaders can lead, too, and if you’re an incrementalist, where the other people are really bringing about their own kind of transformational change, you’re not going to get very far with dealing with the fundamental questions, and I want to come back to this particularly. As an educator, let me just take education, and I know this is kind of a familiar subject. But it’s really in a deplorable condition. We know the statistics, but I just had recently a little experience with a young woman who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, very idealistic, decided she wanted to teach in New York City. And she got a job in Harlem and she came into a class of 40, hubbub, very little direction from anyone there for her. A decrepit building, teachers and other classes shouting at their students, teaching by shouting them down, and at the end of the first week, and she’s strong young woman, she was in tears, just tears all … every night and the weekend. And at the end of the second week she quit. In New York, this is not some Siberian town, New York City. And you, better than I, could multiply that many times. So my basic point is we need fundamental changes in these fields of education, environment, health and the like.

HEFFNER: And you’re saying that transformation that is so needed cannot be accomplished even by a person who wants to be a transformational president, Bill Clinton, unless he takes strong, strong stands …

BURNS: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I don’t know why our backgrounds are not similar, but we’ve agreed upon so many things over the years, I find it much more difficult not to think of his approach as, not transformational perhaps, but leadership … but look, let’s go on with this … we’re going to come to the end of this program right now. Stay where you will, if you will and we’ll talk more about this question. Meanwhile, James MacGregor Burns, thank you so much for Dead Center. And thank you for being with me today on The Open Mind. 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 an 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.