James MacGregor Burns

Dead Center, Part II

VTR Date: November 4, 1999

Guest: Burns, James MacGregor


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with historian political scientist James MacGregor Burns that derive from his intriguing Scribner volume titled Dead Center: Clinton Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation.

Let’s pick up now where we left off last time and Professor Burns I think that maybe it would be best for me to read, and get you to comment on this notion of yours, page 329, of this new book that “the clinching argument for centrism is simple: it works. While the ideologues are out there speechifying and pontificating new Democrats are out there getting things done. Not as fast as the old Liberals would like, perhaps, but centrists get there step by step”. And you then go on to say, “They have a point”.

But I gather from our first program together that what follows is more important to you. “But the problem as always is not simply what the centrists have done, it is what they have done in comparison with the enormity of the problem and with the changes, some of them regressive, that others are fashioning”.

Is that the summary, the sum total of your argument against the moderation of the Clinton Gore administrations?

BURNS: Yes, and I’m glad you mention it because I … we do have in this book the case for centrism. And we perhaps yield more to centrism than, than our discussion has indicated. And I think even since writing this we have become even more unenamored of centrism. But centrism works. What does that mean? It means that dealing with everyday problems centrism does come up with small remedies … school uniforms, let’s say or doing something about deadbeat dad. I mean these are important issues. But it doesn’t add up … again taking my field of education and every President has promised to be an education President, particularly Clinton. These little centrist reforms simply don’t fundamentally change and improve our educational system. And while they’re doing these little things, other forces in American life are doing big things. Particularly against education as an effective aspect of American life.

HEFFNER: Okay, I, I understand what you’re saying about that and I do want to go on in this second program with your comments about the changes that have taken place in this country since, since we first met in 1956. But in the process I have to ask you whether you have seen, as a historian or in your life observing contemporary politics, you have seen as, as determined a set of opponents as this administration has faced over almost eight years now.

BURNS: Yes, I have seen this in the past. When I think back to the Southern Democratic opposition to President Roosevelt. It was fierce. The Southern and other opposition to the efforts that Jack Kennedy made … John Kennedy made in the field of civil rights. And the forces that came to the fore in 1994 with the victory of the Congressman there that put into the House some of the most reactionary people I’ve ever seen in the American Congress as a group.

HEFFNER: But these are the people Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been facing.

BURNS: That’s true. So the question is … what do you do about it? Do you conciliate, compromise, yield to them and bargain and barter and so on. Which is what they mainly have done and I grant most politicians do. Or at some point do you take a very strong stand? Now, on this score, Clinton is quite effective. He’s quite effective in protecting what he has. I’m always impressed with his use of the veto power. When it comes to their attacking what things he does do, even if they’re not big things, he stands very firm. But when it comes to making some kind of breakthrough, he doesn’t. Now, there’s a long term aspect of this, Dick, that’s important and that is … you’re quite right, I think in implying that if he took a very forceful stand with the present Congress and the present political system, which we’ve talked about in the past, there’s not much he can do. But what’s so important in the history of this country is the way great leaders frustrated and so on, defeated, as in the cast of Woodrow Wilson … they have so raised the banner, the banner of progress as they see it. That for generations that people are still talking about them. The way, for example, we still talk about Wilson. Wilson was badly defeated … Woodrow Wilson by the checks and balances, by a very conservative Congress … Henry Cabot Lodge and all that … but he fought for it. He campaigned for it across the country and he died for it. And you will recall that during the 1930’s and ‘40’s, particularly as the war came, people went back to the warning that Wilson had given about another world war in twenty years. So our argument is that along with the conciliating, Presidents should raise that banner so high that it has impact on the next generation. And let me just say, on the Conservative side, the Republicans still talk about Reagan. Why? Because he raised that banner, and of course, it’s nice for them that he won.

HEFFNER: But let me ask you this question. You raised the question of Woodrow Wilson and our memory. Our sacred memory of Woodrow Wilson. Had Wilson been willing to compromise, had Wilson been willing to make concessions … don’t you think the League of Nations, the Treaty of Versailles would have been accepted by the Senate of the United States.

BURNS: Yes, if it has been so compromised that Henry Cabot Lodge, my fellow Massachusetts reactionary had his way. Wilson did make compromises, that’s often not noted. He would not so compromise the League that if it were passed it would be absolutely ineffective. He did the right thing. He insisted on a relatively strong League. He fought for it. He was defeated, but he won the victory for decades after.

HEFFNER: Well, you and I disagree on the … historical basis of that, but I bow to you on that. But I want to ask you another question. Again, 1956 … you and I meet for the first time … you become a political candidate two years later, so you’ve been in the “mix”, you’ve really been in it. You’ve talked often about … commented on … as asides … about the checks and balances of our system. Jim having lived through so much of this, and having studied all of it. What would you change? Not in terms of the persons, of the quality of leadership that you look for. But structurally what would you change?

BURNS: Structurally I would change one thing in the election system and that is, I would have four year terms for Representatives, U.S. Representatives; four year terms for U.S. Senators, co-terminus with the four year term of a President. So every four years the President, all the Senators and the Congressmen would come up for election. And that is to try to bring about more coherence and partnership in the government. It’s also to do away with this awful two year term and that is something I was facing back when I ran in ‘58. I would have two years. Today it’s much worse. I mean I had some trouble raising money, but my campaign only cost about $60,000. And I put on a year long campaign. You smile. That’s right. Bargain cheap stuff. But I put myself in the place today of a young woman who wants to run for Congress. And the first thing she’s told is that she’s got to raise at least a million dollars to have a chance. What does a young woman do? Out in the country somewhere. And I want to just bring and speak to you women the point I would like to have made earlier, and that is the persistence aspect of leadership. Persistence. You just keep at it. And the women gave this magnificent demonstration of it in the nineteenth century trying to get the right to vote. And as you know, they were defeated, they were frustrated, they were scorned and derided, they simply kept on. And it took a long time because again the system is … ah, so much against … the Constitutional system is so hard to reform. But they finally made a breakthrough. Now I do not believe in a Parliamentary form of government, though I must say I can’t think of a better example of what you and I have been talking about in terms of vigorous leadership and real competition and real alternatives than Parliaments, you know, the Prime Ministers question hour in Parliament. Which gives you a wonderful demonstration of two parties, again that are significantly separate on spectrum, but certainly not extremists.

HEFFNER: But you know you say you do not believe in Parliamentary government. That was the very question I was going to ask you because it sounded to me in talking about two year … four year terms for both the House and the Senate and the President, too, ending at the same time, that you really were talking about Parliamentary government.

BURNS: It would be closer to it. But the genius of the British system, Dick, is the party system, the two strong party systems that lie behind those people you see in the House of Commons. And I don’t need to remind you how much the party system has declined in this country. But I don’t really propose a Parliamentary system, it sounds very un-American. It would be hard enough, probably impossible, I’m afraid, to put through even the four year term idea that I suggested. We’re just not good at making changes. And the interesting thing is all the tremendous social and economic changes that have taken place in our country since we started and the government, the structure of the government remains exactly the same, except, there’s one thing that’s worse. And that, of course, is campaign finance.

HEFFNER: Campaign finance. What’s your fix? What would you do?

BURNS: Well, I would … I would have limited spending, I would have government subsidy of campaigns and I’d be very hard on this unlimited power to raise money as in the case of Bush and to spend it as in the case of Forbes.

HEFFNER: What do you think’s going to happen along those lines given … presumably the Supreme Court’s continuing notion that limitation of contribution somehow or other does violence to the First Amendment. That dollars are speech.

BURNS: I don’t expect much to happen. That’s a good example, even the Supreme Court can’t seem to separate free speech from commercial advantage. So I after many years of proposing this, along with others … there are some rather influential people who believe also in some kind of fundamental structure reform to get back to your question … I’m very pessimistic about it.


BURNS: I think …

HEFFNER: Is this why you need more and more to focus on leadership?

BURNS: Yes. That’s right. That’s a very good point, because if you don’t have a very good working system then it’s all the more necessary to have a leader powerful enough to try to transcend it, if not overcome it. And again, the great Presidents somehow facing, too, the checks and balances, were able somehow to surmount it.

HEFFNER: Jim, let me ask you to … nothing could be more appropriate as we march into the twenty-first century … take out the crystal ball … look at it from the perspective of the historian and what do you see? You don’t have to be an optimist, you don’t have to be a pessimist.

BURNS: {Laughter] I see in the economic world increasing consolidation … powerful consolidations among the rich. I see in the world of the poor continued poverty and impotence and a system that does not give them very much power. I see increasing power of the media, like yourself … for good or for ill, even more than we have now. I see continued failure to attack fundamentally the problems we have discussed of health and education and the environment and the rest. So I expect that if there is not an economic collapse, and I don’t have that kind of prophetic ability, but if things continue like this, at some point, and I say this to my students, in your lives, gentlemen and ladies in my class, not in mine, but in your lives, there will be a huge social and economic crisis that will also be a Constitutional crisis in this country. We … to sum it up, Dick, we have a horse and buggy government in a age of incredible change.

HEFFNER: Now, in the past … if we would turn the hands of the clock back a mere three decades or four decades your concerns would be very much the same. Your concerns about our governmental structure, about the voicelessness of the underclass … “how come,” as my grandchildren would say … how come we have tolerated this situation thus far? Is it really not as bad as we describe, or is it within the framework of what mortals will accept and embrace as we go along?

BURNS: I think first of all a lot of luck. Nations can be lucky just the way an individual can be lucky. And we’ve been lucky that without much help from government we do have this current prosperity, and that also lulls people into, into passivity. I think the most powerful force operating through this period, and I’m not a Marxist, but I would have to say that it is the economic force. But this is … I suggested … and we all know is leading to these endless mergers. In the social world I think America will continue to be polyglot and I think that’s wonderful. Whether we really can bring these people in by the millions and help them achieve their opportunity I think is a big question. And again, going back to the media, I think we’re just going to be increasingly influenced by the media in many ways, whether it’s books or particularly, of course, the electronic media.

HEFFNER: Well, years ago it was Hyakowa, before he went to the Senate and lived for those couple of years, when he was still, I guess, at San Francisco State College, at the American Semantic Society meeting, it was back … I think … in 1963 … the summer of ‘63 … and I’d talked about television and the impact of it upon our unwillingness or willingness to rebel against “the system”, if we belonged to the deprived groups. And he thought that the entrance that entertainment television has provided us into the lives of the rich, of the well-placed would so stimulate rebellion on the part of the dispossessed, that it would lead to the overturn of the current system. Seemingly we have lived surrogate lives …

BURNS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … through the media and seemingly the disaffection that we found years and years ago in the Detroit riots, in the New York riots, etc. seemed to have been … the teeth seemed to have been pulled from that. Now, is this a surrogate experience … are we living through our entertainments and satisfied enough with that?

BURNS: Well, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I talk about the role of the media today. It does …

HEFFNER: Why does it continue to do that?

BURNS: Why …

HEFFNER: Why won’t the media continue to provide us a substitute … an adequate substitute for the non-participation of the lower classes in our prosperity?

BURNS: That’s exactly what I worry about. And that gives the poor some little vicarious satisfaction that doesn’t do anything to improve their lives. Now that’s a perfect example of how the media are not helping us to confront the real problems of the country.

HEFFNER: But the real problems seem to be handled in this pseudo manner. Unless there is a cataclysm, as you suggest, there may well be.
BURNS: Yeah. Well, I don’t think “pseudo” handling of problems is going to really deal with the problems.

HEFFNER: So you really see an extreme … you see a dichotomization taking place further and further unless leadership brings about a situation in which we modify that …

BURNS: That’s right.

HEFFNER: There’s going to be an explosion.

BURNS: Yes. But it has to be done, it can only be done, not by leaders of the center … it has to be done … it can only be done by leaders on the Left or Right who present the people with real alternatives, with a possibility that at some point a re-invigorated Democratic party perhaps, or maybe some new party that will take its place, will rise out of the deprivation and the poverty and the desperation of people and take action and force the two parties … force the two parties to deal with the situation. You may remember historically Roosevelt, the great Roosevelt was kind of fumbling himself during his first two years of the New Deal. People often forget this. And there arose in this country people with the names of Huey Long, Father Coughlin and Dr. Townsend, also a lot of farm laborites, Socialists, Communists, Progressives. They created such a ferment that Roosevelt was sort of pushed into what we call the second New Deal. This was the great year of 1935 … Social Security, the Wagner Act, the big WPA. All sorts of other programs. And that could be repeated in the future some day. Some day, or someone might come in as centrist … let’s say just in the Democratic Party and begin to arouse people. That’s the thing that Clinton does not do. He does not arouse the great potential electorate by appealing to the values of equality of opportunity and the rest. But I think some day a leader will do that.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, one could contradict you and say, “he doesn’t because he knows it’s not there”, that the potential for response to that kind of, what you would consider transformational leadership …

BURNS: That would be a self-defeating attitude because who knows what’s there, we don’t really know what these people are like until someone has really appealed to them.

HEFFNER: Okay. Jim, we have three minutes left. I’m not going to let you get away from this table without my asking you a very different kind of question. In the years since you wrote The Lion and The Fox and in the years now that you are working on the Roosevelts again, how does FDR stack up to you now?

BURNS: Well, not that … much better than when I wrote about him.

HEFFNER: Really?

BURNS: I wrote a rather critical book for a Liberal Democrat. I suppose, Dick, in all honesty, I was being the patronizing critic, too, because I thought he was often too fox-like and he made some real errors. I think the Japanese concentration camps in our own country is such a terrible thing to have happened, and he didn’t stop that. But I would raise him higher in my pantheon of leaders, as I look back now.


BURNS: Because he did just what I’m talking about … he was able to be the fox, but he was able to rise above that to be the lion and he made the work of the fox serve the purposes of the lion.

HEFFNER: Do you think others will agree with you, as you write now a different kind of book about FDR.

BURNS: I hope they won’t because controversy is the soul of scholarship and may I say it’s the soul of the relationship you and I have had over the years, and for me one of the best things about this program is that you don’t agree with me often, Dick, and I like that.

HEFFNER: Well, I couldn’t help but think, Jim, if you’ll like that, but I wonder if that softening of your attitude toward FDR won’t find a parallel in the future in a softening of the attitude toward Bill Clinton.

BURNS: I think that’s a very good point and that that’s very possible.

HEFFNER: On your part?

BURNS: On my part because the future Presidents may not be even as good as Clinton, so I am prepared to accept that point.

HEFFNER: James MacGreogor Burns I am always so pleased to have you here and I think, though I take issue with some of the points you make that Dead Center: Clinton Gore Leadership and The Perils of Moderation is a book that simply must be read and that you and Georgia Sorenson should be complimented on what you’ve done. Even though I think your evaluation lacks a little. Thank you so much for joining me again 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.