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Profile in independence

Historian writes about power and leads by example

After writing books about leaders from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, James MacGregor Burns has turned his attention to the Supreme Court. After writing books about leaders from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, James MacGregor Burns has turned his attention to the Supreme Court. (Nathaniel Brooks/AP)
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Associated Press / December 26, 2007

WILLIAMSTOWN - After more than 20 books, a Pulitzer Prize, and many other honors for his work on the executive and legislative branches of government, 89-year-old historian James MacGregor Burns is ready for a new subject.

"I'm working on the politics of the Supreme Court," he says, seated in an armchair in his converted farmhouse just down the road and up the hill from Williams College, where he studied as an undergraduate and later taught for decades. "I felt I had treated presidents and Congresses a lot, and here was this other branch I didn't know that much about. I had a feeling it would be even more political than I expected, and it is."

He is white-haired and wide-eyed, an ever-curious scholar dressed in khakis and a striped shirt. Although slowed by age, he remains active enough that when his car broke down in town earlier in the day, he walked back home, uphill, for more than a mile.

First published nearly 60 years ago, Burns is a longtime expert on presidential leadership and leadership in general. He has written often about the "transformational" leader, one with the vision to change the world, and the "transactional" leader, one who knows how to negotiate and compromise. His 1978 text, "Leadership," is widely studied by business and political science majors, while his two-volume biography of Franklin Roosevelt is a model for books on the late president.

"Anybody who's going to write about leadership and presidential authority would want to consult his books," says Robert Dallek, author of "Nixon and Kissinger" and biographies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

"He's an important scholar and also extremely accessible," says Geoffrey C. Ward, whose books include the acclaimed FDR biography "A First-Class Temperament." "He knows how to tell a story and put you in a scene and make you want to know what happens next. In addition to being a political scientist, he's a wonderful storyteller, and that's quite unusual."

Burns's books also include a three-volume set on American history, "The American Experiment"; a critique of the Clinton administration, "Dead Center"; a biography of George Washington written with his companion and fellow historian, Susan Dunn; and a survey of presidents over the past four decades, "Running Alone."

Digging into the Supreme Court's history, he responds with the enthusiasm of a graduate student. He is fascinated by Franklin Roosevelt's doomed effort in the 1930s to "pack" the court with liberal judges, and looks forward to learning more about such justices as Louis Brandeis, Harlan Fiske Stone, and William Howard Taft.

"In fact, you shouldn't get me started, because I'm having so much fun getting into the lives of these people and then writing," he says. "Biography is so much more fun to write than political science and history."

From war to campaigns

Burns was born in Melrose, the liberal son of a conservative businessman. History was an early passion, if only because Burns went to high school in Lexington, where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. He majored in political science at Williams and earned a PhD in government from Harvard University in 1947, the same year he began teaching at Williams.

But he also knew much about life beyond the campus. He was an Army combat historian during World War II, recording the memories of soldiers just off the battlefields of the Pacific, and earning four combat medals and the Bronze Star. Later, he worked on a task force headed by Herbert Hoover and served as a congressional aide in Washington.

Burns's first book, "Congress on Trial," came out in 1949. He then began a text on political leadership, with Franklin Roosevelt as an example, only to find FDR so fascinating that he ended up writing a biography. "Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox" was published in 1956, at a time when little serious scholarship existed on the late president.

"I was very interested in how Machiavellian he was," says Burns, whose second volume on Roosevelt, "Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom," won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. "He was a manipulator, and at the same time he had to be a lion. To what extent did he use the tactics of a fox in order to advance the wishes of a lion? To what extent did he have to be a transactional leader to be able to become a transforming leader?"

Burns had a more personal, and complicated, experience as the biographer of a living politician, fellow Massachusetts Democrat John F. Kennedy. Burns had been involved in Democratic politics, serving as a delegate to the 1952 and 1956 presidential conventions, and he and Kennedy had gotten to know each other in 1958, when Kennedy was (successfully) seeking reelection to the Senate, and Burns (unsuccessfully) seeking election to the House.

Kennedy and Burns soon discovered the tie that binds politicians; they were useful to each other. Kennedy worked to boost Catholic support for Burns, while Burns was happy to help Kennedy among Protestants. They got on so well that when Burns decided to write a biography of Kennedy, he was granted full access to papers and family members.

"I write for a living, so if something comes along that's interesting, that's what I do," Burns explains. "I found him [Kennedy] a fascinating figure, complicated . . . I thought he would become president. The expectation was that it would practically be a campaign tract, which was never my intention, obviously. And when the book came out, they were exceedingly disappointed."

'Absolute standards'

Published in 1960, "John Kennedy: A Political Profile" presented the young, handsome candidate as intelligent, moderate, and organized - to a fault, as "casual as a cash register." Burns noted liberal concerns that Kennedy held no deep beliefs and imagined that the White House under Kennedy would be "quiet, taut, efficient - sometimes, perhaps, even dull."

His conclusion especially bothered the family: "Kennedy could bring bravery and wisdom; whether he would bring passion and power would depend on his making a commitment not only of mind, but of heart, that until now he has never been required to make."

After that, Burns says with a laugh, "things kind of broke off" with the Kennedys, although he remained on friendly terms with President Kennedy. Fellow historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, married to former JFK aide Richard Goodwin, praises Burns's independence.

"Even though he was close to power, he was also a little bit removed; he had absolute standards," Goodwin says. "Arthur Schlesinger was deep inside the Kennedy administration and was writing from that profound knowledge, which also gave him a certain closeness. James was removed from that, and had his own ideas about leadership."

From Kennedy on, Burns has been tough on modern presidents. He believes Kennedy started a self-defeating trend, running not only "against Washington" but against your own party. Other presidents, from Nixon to Carter to Clinton, would have similar problems.

"I think it's an even more difficult situation today with our government because the system has become increasingly divided and fragmented and problems have become more complex," Burns says.

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