Guest: Burns, James MacGregor
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James MacGregor Burns
Title: “The ‘Third Cadre’: A Grassroots Salvation for America?”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I’ve several times invited Pulitzer Prize winners to t his program. Distinguished persons who wrote brilliant histories and who were willing to share with me their understanding and convictions about the uses of the past. Each time, I’ve noted that in the years of my youth I was a student, then a teacher of American history. And I’ve stated my conviction that my teachers of history had made more of an impression upon my sense of what it means to be a human being than others who had not worshipped the muse Cleo. Today again my guest is a Pulitzer Prize winner, historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns. Professor Burns’ new book, The Vineyard of Liberty, the first of his trilogy on what he calls “The American Experiment”, has just been published by Alfred Knopf, as his perceptive analysis of Franklin Roosevelt, The Lion and the Fox, had just been published when I first talked with him on the air in 1956, during the second Dwight Eisenhower/Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign. The last time James MacGregor Burns and I talked about the American Experiment, this last great hope of mankind, was on a sadder occasion. In November, 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated; ABC News had sent me to Williams College to talk with Professor Burns about the fallen president, who had been his friend.
Professor Burns, thanks for joining me today once again after all these years. And, you know, I thought perhaps it would be best to start off our program by referring to the time that Barbara Tuckman was sitting where you are seated now, and I asked her about Charles Beard’s notion that all written history is an act of faith. She tended to turn away from that notion. And I wondered, if I were to ask you whether you would agree with it, subscribe to the notion, or deny it too?
BURNS: I think writing history is a very presumptuous thing to do. To try to take this incredible stream of events and make it into a book is very presumptuous. It is not so much an act of faith, I think, as an act of daring. It’s an effort to take the complexity of the past and make it meaningful to people without falsifying what happened, without making it too simple. The past is complicated, but we have to be able to sort it out.
HEFFNER: You know, when Frances Fitzgerald was here, she had just written her book on the rewriting of history. And in it she had commented negatively on the ways in which historians, at least those who write textbooks, (particularly textbooks for younger students), write and then rewrite history in terms of contemporary attitudes, contemporary values. And I wondered whether in The Vineyard of Liberty whether you’re rewriting history and becoming a revisionist yourself.
BURNS: Well, I think, first of all, the problem with those textbooks is they tend to be rather bland. They tend to take the juice out of history. They tend to make our leaders into heroes, as thought they were perfect, unblemished people. So I think students get turned off by this. I don’t think they want just a parade of wonderful people. They want to know what Jefferson was really like, and Roosevelt, and all the rest, so that I’m not terribly critical of these textbooks. I think they’re rather sophisticated and they’re quite accurate, but they lose the flavor, and they also tend sometimes to play down conflict. I think conflict is the source of great leadership. And conflict is much more fun to read about than all this consensus and bipartisanship and so on. So I think that’s the problem with these texts. And one reason I tried to do a book like this in my own presumptuous way was to try to capture the flavor of some of the lesser-known people and not just the Washingtons and the Jeffersons, but a tavern keeper who was a sort of a Tom Paine of Massachusetts, a woman named Mercy Warren who wrote plays all her life but was unable to see a produced play because in Boston under the Boston blue laws she was not allowed into a theater. And all these other people who make up the texture of our history, but are essentially forgotten.
HEFFNER: And yet you yourself have talked about the value and the necessity of focusing on leadership in our past.
BURNS: But I think leadership comes at various levels. I have a term I like to use called “the third cadre”. The third cadre is made up of a local leadership, and it’s not just appointed people. It may be a bartender. It may be just the postman, but it’s somebody who raised interesting questions, who tells local people what’s going on. The classic example of this person is the delegate, in the old days, in the good old days of the 19th century, the local party delegate to a national presidential convention or a state convention, a local person who connects the masses of people, the voters, with the leadership at the top. And I think great leadership comes out of that kind of third cadre leadership.
HEFFNER: Now, you said “the good old days” with a smile on your face.
HEFFNER: And yet, I wondered whether there’s a connection between this notion of good old days of the 19th century and the fact that two of your most outstanding books have been about Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, and the fact that there has been a great source of disillusionment with leadership in this part of the 20th century, and the fact that you’re now writing about this third cadre. Are you disillusioned with the first cadre?
BURNS: I’m not so much disillusioned by it as realizing more than ever how dependent the top leaders are on second-cadre and third-cadre levels. I would call you, by the way, second cadre. That is, you’re more than a local leader. You’re a kind of a national leader, in a sense. The president and famous senators might be the top cadre. I think both those cadres depend on this third cadre. They are the people who are connecting them with the grass roots, with the voters. And I think that’s what I’ve come to realize and why in this book I try to do some justice to these sorts of less-known people.
HEFFNER: You say you’ve come to realize that. And I would ask you again – and I don’t mean to push where I shouldn’t push – Do you think there is a connection between this involvement on your part with the third cadre and a disillusionment with the first?
BURNS: I suppose yes, I am. You’re right. I am disillusioned in this day and age with the kind of top leadership, with the first-cadre leadership. I think the second and third-cadre leadership was great. The first-cadre leadership is not great. When I think back to what I like to call the “sunburst of leadership” at the beginning of our national life, and think of the quality of those leaders…And you know, Dick, as you’re a historian too, to go back – you know the old saying that nobody is a hero to his darling – but you can go back to these people and study them close up, and they look just as good close up as they look in the history books. And there is a sad contrast between the kind of leadership that we’ve produced out of four million people back in the 70s and 80s, and the kind of leadership we have in a nation of 220 million today.
HEFFNER: How do you explain that?
BURNS: Two things. First of all, they were taught to be leaders. They were brought up in a leadership world. They were well educated by tutors. They were well-read. They were intellectual leaders, taught to be intellectual leaders. But more important, they grew up in an age of conflict. These were men who profoundly believed in what they were doing. They profoundly disagreed with the other side. Jefferson and Hamilton, for example. And I have a feeling, I have a theory that only the committed leaders are the ones who will achieve greatness in history, because we have to connect leaders with something. We have to say to ourselves, a Jefferson stood for something, an FDR stood for something. And if a man is simply successful, a kind of a broker politician, and gets to be president even, but is not connected with great ideas, great commitments, then I think he loses his chance to be a great leader in history.
HEFFNER: Certainly thought the challenges before us are as great now, perhaps greater than in the “sunburst” that you referred to. Why do we not produce those men today? Has it been the impact of democratic theory or the fact of democratic life?
BURNS: I think it’s more the other side of the coin. It is the absence of real conflict today. We think we have real conflict today because we’re always arguing about the budget and about El Salvador and so on. We have no idea today what real political conflict is like. I’m not talking about blood in the streets; I’m not for that kind of conflict. I mean when men passionately believe in what they’re doing and passionately disagree with the other side. Today there’s a lot of talk about bipartisanship. Have you ever noticed that when somebody really wants to put some program through, he’ll say, “Let’s have a bipartisan program”, whether it’s education or foreign policy? They want to move it from robust, two-party politics into a bland consensus. Get everybody around the table and we’ll agree on things. Well, you and I have lived through enough of American history to know that when both parties get around the table and everybody gets agreeing about things, that’s the time you sort of say you better check you wallet, find out where the nation is headed. We had a great consensus over Vietnam for a while. And we’ve had other consensuses in the past, and they’ve been sometimes very damaging. I believe we should fight and oppose and battle it out in the presidential election.
HEFFNER: Well, I gather you feel that way too, in terms of not a particular issue, but in terms of what you call values. Last December, in the interview you did with Bernard Weisberger in American Heritage, you said that your new book is “About values, about the confusion of values. Above all, it’s a book about leadership”. Looking back at that question of values, are you saying that there is not that robust exchange between men and women who believe in differing value systems?
BURNS: Absolutely. There is not a principled combat. There is not a conflict over enduring values. Let me give you an example: federalism. Today you can hardly pick up the paper without seeing the debate about federalism. Sop you think, “Gee, well, this will be like the founding fathers. Will there be a lofty debate as to how should we divide power between the nation and the states?” And that’s a very important question. What are they actually arguing about when the governors fight with Reagan, it is not really over the issue of federalism. It is, “Don’t you foist your program on me! I’m not going to take over this program that’s going to cost my state a lot of money, and the federal government, of course, is trying to accept for…” You get a kind of a big wheeling and dealing as to what specific monies would e swapped. Well, that’s not how the framers discussed this issue. To them it was a profound question of local control versus national control. To what extent will democracy exist at the grass roots compared to whether democracy can exist on a national basis? In other words they related it to principle and not simply shifting money around.
HEFFNER: But the initial vocabulary, certainly, that the president used, was couched in those terms; wasn’t it? And I mean the recent…
BURNS: Well, not to my satisfaction. I perhaps missed something. But to my mind, the whole thing from the start, including the speech, was, “We will take over certain state programs, and the states will take over certain federal programs. We’ll have a big swap”. The principle on which the swap is based has so far eluded me. Maybe it hasn’t you.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, I was thinking back to the time we first met in that second Eisenhower/Stevenson campaign. And I was thinking that after the Second World War, it was a matter of two governors, namely Earl Warren in California and Adlai Stevenson in Illinois, who did see the question of a new federalism in philosophical terms. And those ideas went down the drain; they disappeared. Is that our fault? We were teaching the students, who then forgot about them, ignored them.
BURNS: I’m interested, Dick, that you’ve got to go back to 1956 for your particular heroes. Although I have a feeling you’re still waiting for those final election returns to come in from ’56.
BURNS: I think that, again, you’re simply pointing to a time when there was something of a great debate. The wonderful thing about Stevenson, whether one voted for him in the end or not, was he posed the great issues brilliantly. And I think Eisenhower, to a degree, we perhaps have forgotten also debated on that score. But that’s a far cry from the typical presidential campaign today, it seems to me.
HEFFNER: What’s happened to a society, our society, that leads you to feel – well, not quite so filiopietistic; you’re not the kind of person who would simply look back and worship Washington and Jefferson and the others – but you, talking about yearning, you look back in this first volume of the American Experiment, The Vineyard of Liberty, you do find in these early years something you obviously don’t find today. And I keep wondering, “Now, what’s Burns going to do when he gets to the present in his trilogy?” What are you going to do?
BURNS: Well, if the trilogy ends in the late 1980s, maybe it’ll be a happy ending. But I’ll have to say to you, Dick, that it’s a wonderful story, the history of this country, but it’s also a tragic story. This first book ends with the tragedy of the Civil War. Six hundred thousand men died in the Civil War because our constitutional system could not deal with the problem of slavery. Granted, that was as tough a problem as a nation can face. That was a great failure. The second book is going to end in the Depression. As you know, a depression that simply ravaged this country, not just physically, but psychologically and emotionally. Will the third volume end, what, in a nuclear holocaust where nobody will be alive to read or write books? I don’t know. I think we have the capacity in this country to pose again the great issues. And to my mind, the great issues are still the same as back in the 1780s: liberty and equality. If we really mean equality, for example, we cannot be content with the society that we have today. I’m waiting for a leader to arise – maybe we don’t even know his or her name at the moment – who is going to go to the American people on the great principle of equality or perhaps equal liberty, and point out that this is still a heavily inegalitarian society. Not only will do that but will take on the establishment in both parties. We have an establishment in both parties today that hardly disagree on any crucial issues. Someone, I think, is going to arise in this country to challenge that establishment, and then to carry that into the political arena. And we may get again the kinds of great presidential campaigns we had under Roosevelt and later, where this sort of person will be appealing to and mobilizing tens of millions of Americans who have been turned off by our system. There is no worse indictment of our system than the fact that after one or two years of intensive campaigning (which you’re very close to in your own field), where, you know, it just, it saturates the papers and television and so on, that the end of that process, as you know, about half the potential electorate doesn’t play the game; they’re not there at the polling booth. It’s the man or woman who captures that alienated set of 30 or 40 million Americans who in my view will bring this country back to its basic ideas of liberty and equality and may write a rather happy ending to the third volume.
HEFFNER: You know that I want to agree with you. You know that I want the wish to be father to the prediction. But I have to ask also – and not just to needle you; you know that –
BURNS: I like to be needled, and you’re good at it and it’s fine.
HEFFNER: Oh, I’m never a needler. But seriously, to ask you whether this absence of leadership isn’t a reflection of a desire not to be bothered, not to be roused, not to be led on the part of a people far different in their psychology from the people you write about in The Vineyard of Liberty?
BURNS: At the moment, yes.
HEFFNER: What could change it? A man on horseback?
BURNS: Adversity will change it. That’s what’s always happened in the past. It was the fact that the issue of slavery no longer could be ignored by the 1850s; we had to face that issue. It was a fact that after several years of depression, that had to be faced. It’s adversity; it’s not people preaching and sermonizing. It’s millions of people in their daily lives knowing that things are going badly, whether it’s a Vietnam or a Watergate or a Depression or the hard times that we may be facing now. It’s that sort of thing that produces action. But it’s not enough. It calls for two other things. It calls for the top national leader (the kind of person I’ve been talking about), and it calls for the local leaders, the third-cadre people who start saying when the post man comes to the door or the clerk in the store, “You know, we can’t go on. We must do something about this”, and serve as the vital connection between the top leadership and the mass electorate.
HEFFNER: How important is it in preparing for a day when the third cadre and the second cadre may contribute more? How important is it to know what has happened in the past? – which is obviously a come-on question – but as a one-time follower of the muse, it does seem to me that we know so little about our past, we know so little about these great values, these great themes, this great leadership that you’ve talked about…
BURNS: Well, I think it’s very important to k now about the past. Not total comprehension; none of us has that. But for one thing, the fact that in a democracy something can be done. There were a lot of people before the Civil War who said nothing could be done. Slavery would exist in the South forever. It was absolutely entrenched in the South; nothing could be done about it. It took some second and third-cadre people to, while the top leadership was being inert and passive and cautious (they did not want to deal with this terribly tough issue), it took abolitionists and their followers to make this the crucial question. That broke the system open. It helped produce the Republican Party, an anti-slavery party, and it helped produce secession and the tragedy that followed. And there again, in the Depression, you know, for a long time people were inert. I think there is a feeling, particularly on the part of students today, that when the Depression came there was a great militant movement of the jobless to turn away from Hooverism to Roosevelt. People weren’t like that. They hunkered down in their homes. They were psychologically broken. They were not militant; they were fearful. And it took a number of militant people in the second and third cadres to break through that in the Depression and help produce the New Deal. I think the same thing will happen again. While the national leadership is timid and talking about everybody getting together around the table and sort of agreeing, there will be a bunch of people who are – as happened in Vietnam when there was a national consensus – it was broken by people saying, “Something must be done”. Younger people who were willing to face the issue. And I think that’s what’s going to happen the next time.
HEFFNER: There were those who are in the leadership of what we call the moral majority today who say that they and their followers are providing just exactly the basis for the kind of movement that you’re talking about, those who are going to hunker down and embrace older values and who wish to wipe away a large part of this century.
BURNS: I make a big distinction between what is called the moral majority and what I like to call the moralistic majority. It goes back to something you raised earlier about principles. I don’t think a majority will ever be formed around some of these moralistic questions. Not that they’re unimportant, but they’re not essentially political questions in my view. I think a real moral majority will form around great principles of, as I say, liberty, equality, justice. Now, they may take a conservative position. For example, I think Reagan should be given credit for taking a principled position. Whether or not I agree with it, he takes a position. I think he is going to have a certain position in the nation’s list of great leaders, because we know here he stands. There’s no question about where he stands. I think people honor that even though they may feel his leadership is taking us into very difficult times. I would draw a distinction – and it’s very interesting to watch this in Washington – between Reagan’s conservatism and the false conservatism of the moralistic majority. There’s a big gap between their pieties, their effort to inflict their personal moralities – their personal moralities – on us. Whereas I think what the great debate should be about is the public moralities of conservatism versus liberalism or conservatism versus radicalism.
HEFFNER: Is there any sign that you see that in the next presidential campaign we will have that great debate?
BURNS: I think the answer depends on whether somebody in the Democratic Party – because now the Republican Party is the principled conservative party of this country, and it has a right to be – the Republican Party has made up its mind. The question is whether the Democratic Party will make up its mind to be the liberal, labor, left party, to be an honestly liberal, labor, left party. Not an extreme party, but a party that picks up the New Deal heritage and the new freedom heritage, etcetera, and finds a candidate who can move the party to the principled left. And, as I say, mobilize the tens of millions of people who I think are waiting for that kind of leadership.
HEFFNER: I knew you had made that point in that very interesting op-ed piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, but it did seem to me as I read it that everything in the Democratic Party is moving in the other direction, or everybody or almost everyone.
BURNS: I think that’s right; and I think it’s a tragedy.
HEFFNER: What would change it? Again, that disaster, catastrophe, bad times?
BURNS: That, combined with a candidate who in the presidential primaries of 1984 is able to mobilize that missing constituency, to bring them into the presidential primaries, and then, equally important, build a movement, which I hope would be the Democratic Party, that will continue to fight for these principles. It’s not just one presidential victory or one year. It’s not just a hundred days anymore. It’s, I think what we need is a ten or 20-year effort toward equality and liberty and particularly toward – and this is another very crucial issue that should be mentioned – toward detent and peace. I don’t think we’re going to win those victories very quickly. I think it’s going to take ten or 20 years, a long twilight struggle.
HEFFNER: Spoken very well by a historian. James MacGregor Burns, thanks very, very much for joining me again here on THE OPEN MIND.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too, will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.