WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. 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 a small armchair in his converted farmhouse, a sunny, cluttered, book-filled loft 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 smartly in khakis and a striped shirt for this afternoon interview. Although clearly 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," and the companion texts to Ken Burns' documentaries on jazz, baseball, the Civil War and World War II.
"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' 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, Burns 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."
Burns was born in Melrose, Mass., the liberal son of a conservative businessman. History was an early passion, if only because Burns went to high school in Lexington, Mass., where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. He majored in political science at Williams and received a Ph.D. 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 battlefield in Okinawa and elsewhere in 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, where private scandals surprised him (he recalls hearing one drunken legislator brag about his womanizing), and the public record intrigued him: How does government work? What is the relationship between presidents and Congress, and presidents and their political parties?
Burns' first book, "Congress on Trial," came out in 1949 and was praised by The New York Times for its "timely" assessment of how federal legislators were deadlocked by local concerns. 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, who died in 1945.
"I was very interested in how Machiavellian he was," says Burns, whose second volume on Roosevelt, "Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom," was published in 1970 and 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?"
The book is dated in some ways, Burns dismissed rumors, since confirmed, that FDR had an affair with his wife's secretary, Lucy Mercer but "The Lion and the Fox" is still regarded as a landmark. Burns was the first major biographer to present the president as neither hero nor demon, but as both idealist and dealmaker a gifted, crafty, sometimes inscrutable politician who often kept even his allies guessing what he would do.<
"I think the reason he is such an important FDR biographer is that he went at him with fewer illusions than anybody before him had," Ward says.
"'The Lion and the Fox' was such an important book. It pointed the way to the notion that Roosevelt was a very complicated guy, a master tactician. He was not the saintly figure that some of his admirers had thought and not the villain his enemies thought he was, but an extraordinary political realist. Burns gave people permission to look at Roosevelt as a whole person."
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 re-election 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."
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 now 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' 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 tempting, but self-defeating trend, running not only "against Washington" but against your own party. Kennedy relied on his own people more than Democratic officials to get elected and, once in office, had a difficult time building support in the Democratic-controlled Congress. 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," he says.
"To put it simply: The constitutional checks and balances that we read about every day were deliberately established to prevent tyrannical government. ... But if you need a strong government to meet the needs of the people, this becomes quite a danger. The government cannot act in the face of major challenges."