James MacGregor Burns, 1918-2014
Pierre Tristam | July 15, 2014
James MacGregor Burns, one of America’s greatest historians and political scientists, died today at his home in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was 95. His histories of presidents–TR, FDR, JFK–and his “American Experiment” trilogy, a sweeping narrative from the nation’s founding to the age of Reagan, combined substance, style and theory as few historians writing for the general public do anymore. His studies of leadership remain central to any political science syllabus on the subject.
In the winter of 1999 I had a chance to spend a couple of days with Burns at his home. I wanted to profile him. I called him up. He agreed on the spot. I was traveling the country at the time, writing an essay on each of the states and choosing an emblematic subject for each. Burns was to be Massachusetts. The resulting profile is below.–P.T.
It’s late, James MacGregor Burns and I have been at it for about six hours, we’re both tired, but I’m not eager to end the evening. Talking with Burns has been like conversing with the American Century. It’s exhausting only in an exhilarating way, although I feel incapable of keeping up with him. At 80 and with 20 books behind him, he sounds as if he’s only getting started writing about American ideas, idealism, democracy, leadership—books that have won him immense praise from a few reviewers and prize committees and immense indifference from everyone else.
If he could play the banjo with his toes while yodeling the Declaration of Independence in three-fourths time, Burns might’ve had a crack at 15 minutes of late-night fame. As it is, he’s merely an intellectual, a historian, a political scientist, the sort of fringe curiosity that lives beyond the American attention span—in his case, on a hillside in Massachusetts’ gentle Berkshires, in an 18 th century barn where books stack the walls thicker than hay.
But night has fallen and taken with it the living room view of Mount Greylock (the highest point in the state). It’s our signal to take a break from big subjects. So we go over the many occasions that took Burns to the White House since John Kennedy’s administration, not counting tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. There was, for instance, the Ronald Reagan invite.
“He put out a luncheon in honor of FDR and he invited the FDR freaks who were around, including me,” Burns says, his self-deprecation as intact as his memory. Burns qualifies as an FDR freak for having written a biography of the president. The book won him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1971. Reagan, he continues, “seated me with Ted Kennedy, and I think the reason he was doing that was he was not going to give Ted Kennedy some pretty woman. So there were about five of us men sitting around this table. Well, I felt sorry for Ted Kennedy, who was an old friend and pal, because everybody else had some kind of woman, a wife or woman, but he didn’t.”
As White House luncheons went, the main course was irony: Here was Reagan, who devoted his two terms to dismantling FDR’s New Deal and the Great Society programs it inspired, celebrating FDR with men who have devoted their careers to an unapologetic defense of liberalism. But aside from containing Kennedy with his flirt-proof seating arrangement, Reagan also was isolating to one table the Massachusetts liberal contingent, which Burns has championed, chronicled—in biographies of John and Ted Kennedy in addition to FDR—and even joined as a Democratic Congressional candidate for a House seat in 1958.
He lost that race, thankfully for us.Although he remains active in Democratic Party politics to this day, especially in the Berkshires, he has continued to build one of the century’s broadest bodies of work on American history and government, and on the study of leadership, which he has pioneered. A textbook he co-wrote on government has been one of the biggest sellers of its kind, giving Burns the financial freedom to write more ambitious but smaller selling works over the years. “Leadership,” a huge work he finished in 1978 that remains his favorite, is a standard on management bookshelves and the reason why journalists from across the country plucked Burns’ name from their Rolodex as they trolled for viewpoints on President Clinton’s leadership crisis during Monicagate. (“It has been a miserable and sad day,” he told USA Today, “and it will be drawn in the national memory.”) It wasn’t for gossipy White House tales that I sought out Burns. I had a more personal reason. I remember cutting class often and without second thoughts in college so I could spend the stolen hours in the library reading his books, figuring I’d learn more from a single one of his chapters than any lecturer’s drones. I first read him in the mid-‘80s, about the time when I became a naturalized citizen and my curiosity with American origins went past classroom quizzes. Burns’s work had the effect of a mentor’s. He was in the middle of writing his “American Experiment” trilogy, the sweeping, multi-volume history of the nation. Reading it had the amazing effect of making me see, word for word, why I’d been grateful to become a citizen here, why democracy is not ideology or idealism but extremely hard work at every level of society, and why Americans—white males, women, blacks, Indians, yesterday’s immigrants—have so far managed to make the experiment work.
Burns not only made me understand the experiment but he made me want to celebrate it, get engaged in it the way he’d always been engaged, dismissing the separation of theory and action.
We all have our pilgrimages, our required Meccas. Mine was Williamstown, the last, tiniest town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, where Burns has spent most of his adult life, teaching at Williams College and writing in his barn. Convincing him to let me see him for a day or two was as easy as calling (his home number is listed) and asking. His generosity and lack of presumption surprises me still. When I arrived at his home at noon on a bright day in March, he came out to meet me and warn me about the steep, icy slopes by the side of the house. He seemed, in a mauve turtleneck and dark corduroys, a little older than the dust-jacket photographs I’d been familiar with in the 1980s, but only because his 175-pound, 6-foot frame seemed maybe a little slighter, his white Einstein hair a little sparser.
We immediately sat down to lunch—quiche, which his housekeeper had prepared—and to the many questions he had for me; it’s a Burns ritual with visitors who, in addition to The New York Times he devours every day, bring him news of the world (he doesn’t watch television). There was no ice to break, and it was only much later that I began to detect word that all is not well with the Burns optimism that had framed my American coming of age.
We spoke around the issue for a while, then I asked him how he might rate the American experiment today.
“Floundering,” he said without hesitation. “Yeah, we haven’t really created equality of opportunity in this country. We have this enormous income gap. We still don’t have a good educational system. Haven’t worked out a health program. Tremendous commercialization. Very dubious media. You know, all the standard list.”“Floundering is a very strong word,” I say.
But he had chosen it, as he does all his words, carefully. “We just have mediocre leadership in almost every area, at least in politics, and it shows.”
Burns sounded almost depressed at the thought.
James MacGregor Burns was born Aug. 3, 1918, a few months before the end of World War I, in Melrose, a Boston suburb, the second of four children (he had two brothers and a sister), and the only one to grow up on the liberal, pro-FDR side of the dinner table. But the family wasn’t without progressive ancestry, having been strongly pro-emancipation a century earlier. “Frederick Douglass, for example, stopped off at my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s house and stayed the night and, according to the family, he lent him three dollars to get on with his trip in the morning.”
Burns turned down Princeton University to attend Williams because of his attraction to the country, joined the Army as a combat historian in the Pacific during World War II (he fought at Guam, Saipan and Okinawa, receiving four battle stars and a Bronze star along the way), then completed his master’s and doctorate at Harvard. He was doing post-doctorate work at the London School of Economics in 1949 when a colleague called him to announce that his first book (“Congress on Trial,” an early study of congressional gridlock) had won praise on the cover of The New York Times Book Review (“Then I had two or three more. They treated me very kindly in those days.”). He had by then taken up a professorship in political science at Williams College, which he would hold until his retirement in the mid-‘90s.A typical example of his willingness to merge theory and practice only if it was ethically doable is his decision to run for a House seat in 1958, then to turn down John Kennedy’s offer to join his staff, which was looking at a presidential run. “I felt that, despite my affection and admiration for him,” Burns wrote in his preface to “John Kennedy: a Political Profile” (1960), “I did not know enough about his presidential qualifications to make the complete commitment that such a job requires.” Two years later, however, he felt ready to campaign for Kennedy and did, in the Northeast and the Midwest.
He can be modest to a fault: He never speaks of the praise he receives or of his awards. I found out about his wartime medals in a biographical article about him published in 1962. He tried hard to convince the University of Maryland not to name its Leadership Academy after him, but then Bill Bradley, the former senator and the academy’s chairman, wanted the name, so it stuck. Still, when Burns mentions the academy, he never adds his name. “I would never dream of it.” Copies of his own books are stashed in an upstairs corner shelf, far from any visitor’s eyes, as if Burns is reluctant to boast of his own considerable oeuvre.Married and divorced twice (he has four children), he speaks fondly of his ex-wives, both of whom live in Williamstown and one of whom is his neighbor. They share custody of an old golden retriever, Jefferson (yes, named after Thomas), who spends daylight hours at the old barn before Burns ritualistically sings him a song, opens the glass door to the back yard and watches Jefferson stroll downhill to Joan’s place.
He writes in long-hand on yellow legal pads two to three hours a day, six days a week, reads as much and feels “aimless and ill at sorts” only when he’s not writing. Reviewers always have admired Burns’ compelling and literary style, his cinematic ability to turn swaths of history or analysis into seamless sketches of a grand narrative, in the tradition of great 19th century historians, yet he has trouble writing at times, and plowing his garden doesn’t always shake his paralysis. “But that’s where the discipline comes in,” he says. “And if I’m having trouble and trying to put it off, I lecture myself. I say, ‘James, you’re so damn lucky to be able to do this. To have a contract for a book. Other people go through horrible, boring jobs. Almost all jobs have low points. This is your low point.’”
Willingly isolated, even disconnected from the world, Burns in his Massachusetts idyll seems as serene as his surroundings, and at one with them. He takes his walks in a large empty field near the house, which he tends, wielding axe to unruly tree limbs when necessary. It also is where he prays. And when the weather has been good to the slopes around the hills, he takes a break around two o’clock, as he did the day I visited him, and drives off to put in an hour’s worth of downhill skiing.
When Burns returns, he seems a little tired but insists on continuing. It is then that the old liberal in him revives and wonders why even that word—liberal—has been demonized. “They have made liberal, this unpretentious word, into something evil,” he says, mentioning conservatives and “the business-controlled media that never did like liberalism and its reformism” as the culprits. He is dispirited about his own field, the social sciences, which academia has so specialized that the disciplines are in atrophy, especially compared to the advances in the empirical sciences.
He even asks: “Do we need to know history? I suppose one could argue for spending much more time trying to analyze the existing society or study in courses to do more with housing, poverty, health and all that and forget history. It’s very hard for me, if I were asked, to give the defense of history. I think I’d probably make the usual bland statements that you have to learn from the mistakes of the past and the successes from the past, but history never really repeats itself, so you always present yourself with different, unique situations.”It was as good a time as any to ask about his latest book, to be published this fall, called “Dead Center,” an attack on Clinton-Gore centrism and a defense of partisanship.
“I believe in conflict, not shooting down conflict, but vigorous ideological battle,” he says. His voice isn’t rising, but he’s clearly getting more adamant. “Again, it’s why I liked Reagan and Thatcher. They posed the great questions. The response was not all that impressive, but still, there was a response. We’re always trying to work for consensus, compromise, transactions, settlements. Usually, it’s done by wealthy, white men, old men, around a table somewhere. If there’s one thing that I think will result, it’s in an intellectually flabby America, in all these ways that we’re speaking about, history, learning, and the like. It is this prideful pragmatism, it’s the immediately practical thing to do, no matter what the long-term consequences are. Someone takes a strong stand. ‘Oh, that’s just partisanship,’ or, ‘That’s just political.’ Well, what else in a democracy do you want something to be?”
“Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” he seemed to be saying, like Cicero 2000 years before (or Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention in 1964). Clinton hasn’t been the answer. “Dead Center” started in 1991 as a study of Clinton’s leadership strategy as it would unfold in the White House. Burns had thought very highly of Clinton then. But it became clear, with Clinton’s defeat over health care, that his leadership was flimsy. “Clinton just not only dropped that but he didn’t do anything daring again as far as I can see, domestically, at least. I think our basic conclusion is, it was a great electoral strategy, this centrism. It’s not a very good governing strategy. You cannot lead strongly from the center.”
But that’s where America is at the moment, along with every presidential hopeful on the horizon, past Mount Greylock (New Hampshire is 35 miles away as the crow flies). Imagination’s fire is eluding politics, and “Dead Center” can be read as Burns’s warm-up eulogy for the American experiment.This is not the Age of Burns. Liberalism is at a flicker. His three-volume history of the nation is out of print. Big Ideas are out. Specialization and incrementalism are in. But try as he may, Burns is an optimist in spite of the implicitly pessimistic conclusions of his own works. His liberalism—“the supreme form of generosity,” in Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s words—demands it, even if it is in retreat. Setbacks are inherent to all experiments, and Burns has never believed in American exceptionalism. He just trusts the impulse behind the last two centuries. “Americans really do have a continuing belief in these great, perfect ideas like liberty,” he says. “They really believe it. It comes out all the time, in every way, right through 200 years of history.”
When I asked him for a tour of his house, the place I most wanted to see was the study from where he had written the majority of his books, and the view from the windows that he had described at the end of the “American Experiment” trilogy.
“My hills, like the stars, endure,” he had written in a personal conclusion to a history that has been as exuberant as it has been turbulent. And there the hills were, enduring along with Burns’s own hills of books and notes, the creative clutter of his next book or two—or three—to hear him speak of his many plans. Not quite the sign of capitulation.