This interview took place on June 24, 2009, at Williams College in Williams, Massachusetts.Learn more about James MacGregor Burns
James MacGregor Burns
SCARPINO: As I said when the recorder was off, I’ll begin with the statement. My name is Philip Scarpino. Today is June 24, 2009. I’m a Professor of History and Director of Oral History for the Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence at Indiana University, and I have the privilege today to be interviewing Professor James MacGregor Burns. Professor Burns earned his doctorate in Political Science from Harvard University in 1947. He attended the London School of Economics, and he’s taught at Williams College for most of his career. He’s presently the Woodrow Wilson Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Williams College. Professor Burns is a Distinguished Scholar of American Presidents and of Leadership. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Roosevelt: The Lion and The Fox, published in 1956; and Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, published in 1970. His book, Leadership, published in 1978, is the seminal work in the field of leadership studies. I’m interviewing Professor Burns in a room at the Williams Inn on the campus of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Also in the room is Carol Madison, Director of the Tobias Center. So, Professor Burns, or Jim, I’d like to ask your permission to record this interview, to have the interview transcribed, and to deposit the recorded interview and the transcription in the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives for the use of patrons.
BURNS: Permission granted.
SCARPINO: Thank you very much. As promised, I’ll start with a simple question.
BURNS: All right.
SCARPINO: When and where were you born?
BURNS: I was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, in 1918, August 3rd, 1918.
SCARPINO: What part of the state is Melrose located in?
BURNS: That’s just outside Boston. It’s a suburb of Boston.
SCARPINO: Who were your parents?
BURNS: They were Robert A. Burns and Mildred Bunce, B-U-N-C-E, Burns. He was a Bostonian, and she was from New York.
SCARPINO: I read somewhere that you were described as the liberal son of a conservative businessman. So what did you father do for a living?
BURNS: He was in charge of sales and advertising for a major mill company in Charlestown, Mass.—The Whiting Mill Company.
SCARPINO: What impact did your dad, your father, have on your understanding of leadership?
BURNS: Not very much. For one reason, my parents were divorced when I was about ten years old and even though I saw quite a lot of my father, I lived with my mother out in the country, and my time with my father was usually going to movies and that sort of thing; and not much political talk. He was a moderate conservative so there’s no great issue.
SCARPINO: Where did you go to high school?
BURNS: Lexington, Mass.
SCARPINO: Was that a public school?
BURNS: That’s a public school. Burlington, where I was born, was such a small town; they did not have a high school. So we went over to Lexington where there was an excellent high school.
SCARPINO: Well, we have something in common. I was bussed from a small rural community to a city high school as well. You were a teenager, if I added right, during the Great Depression. What was the Depression like for your family?
BURNS: Well the Depression created a lot of havoc. First of all, my father was quite worried about his business, and I had one uncle who could not really get a good job and was sort of devastated by the Depression. We had a neighbor, who was a graduate of Harvard, who could not get a job, raised chickens; and after doing that for a year or two, one weekend closed himself up in the house with his son and sat writing his autobiography while 5,000 chickens died in the heat around him. And there are many other stories like that. So we were very conscious of the Depression.
SCARPINO: Did the experience of growing up in the Depression have any impact on your interest in presidents or your interest in leadership?
BURNS: I think so. I think that got me quite interested early on because we were so already involved with what was happening in Washington and, to some extent, Boston. I’m sure that a lot of that, some of that began at that time, yes. But it was not really until I went to college, I think, that I really became politically involved.
SCARPINO: And you went to college where?
BURNS: At Williams College.
SCARPINO: What attracted you to Williams College as a young man?
BURNS: Well, for one thing, it was about as far away as I could get from my family but still in the state. And secondly…
SCARPINO: (laughing) That’s a good answer.
BURNS: …and secondly, I was a country guy. My, Burlington, the little town I grew up in, was tiny town in those days. The nearest neighbor was a mile away. And I wanted to continue to be in a country environment so that’s what I found out here in Williamstown.
SCARPINO: Now, Williamstown must have been a pretty isolated community when you were here as an undergraduate.
SCARPINO: What did you major in here?
BURNS: Political Science.
SCARPINO: What attracted you to the study of Political Science?
BURNS: Well again, just what you indicated earlier in your question, the will to become very politicized. If it had been a few years earlier, probably back in the early Hoover administration, I probably wouldn’t have been so concerned. But when you’re at college; and when you know so many people in your family and your neighbors are having trouble; and then kids in school having a lot of financial trouble because of their parents. situation; and because, again, running into some wonderful teachers of political science and history at Williams, combination really turned me into a political person.
SCARPINO: So you would feel as though the teachers that you had here inspired you?
BURNS: Yes. Some did and some did not. But I was very lucky that this was a period when Williams had some exceptionally able teachers like Max Lerner and Frederick Schuman and others. So the teachers also had a tremendous impact on me.
SCARPINO: Were you a good student as an undergraduate?
BURNS: As? I’m sorry.
SCARPINO: As an undergraduate, were you a good student?
BURNS: Yes, I would say so. That was one thing I did. I wasn’t a brilliant student, but I was a very conscientious student and did my homework and took it very seriously and enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere at Williams.
SCARPINO: Did you think of yourself as a leader while you were here?
SCARPINO: Did you think of yourself as a leader while you were here? Did you think of yourself as a leader while you were a student at Williams College?
BURNS: I was not at the start. I went, for a year or two, I was completely involved in my studies. But then I branched out and became president of my non-fraternity club. Williams, at that time, had a very strong fraternity system, a very elitist fraternity system, and I can come back to that because there were interesting aspects of it. But I was in something called the Garfield Club, non-fraternity, open to all, and became president of that. So that was somewhat political because I had to run for office; and then I became editor of the college paper, The Williams Record, and also editor of the literary magazine called Sketch. So I think the main thing that happened to me in college was just to be completely involved in the place, completely involved in my studies and in my activities, and I think Williams had a big impact on me.
SCARPINO: How would you describe that impact, looking back on it?
BURNS: Well, first of all that I could succeed. I was, as a high school person, I was fairly timid and not with it very much. Not very popular in school. Williams simply developed me, broadened me, involved me, and since I was reasonably successful in my efforts, gave me a great deal of self-confidence.
SCARPINO: While you were an undergraduate student at Williams College, did you meet any people who had an influence on your developing ideas about leadership?
BURNS: Well, certainly these people, they did not necessarily talk in leadership terms but they brought me into work that had obvious leadership implications. I mean to work under Max Lerner meant you were involved in, not just Williams but in his activities in New York. We had another teacher, Robert Brooks, who was a labor expert. And the thing about Williams was, it was so small, you got to visit your teachers a lot, be invited by them, do things with them, take trips with them, and so on. So I think the overall impact—if I had to point out one thing that developed me as a leader in the broader sense, simply of involvement, not necessarily technical leadership questions, but simply involvement—Williams College made the difference.
SCARPINO: While you were an undergraduate student here, were there any events that took place that influenced the way you thought about politics or leadership?
BURNS: Well, that’s something I’m glad you asked because I was thinking about it, too, that I should mention that. This was 1935 to 1939, and obviously a period of a lot of activity in American politics under FDR, and a lot of activity in global politics, that you would be so familiar with, in terms of what was happening in Europe. It’s rather interesting, that span of time, because, as you would know, in 1935, relatively speaking, Europe was rather quiet. Hitler had been in power and, by the way, the whole Hitler aspect of this is something that had impact on my thoughts about good leadership and bad leadership, but we can come back to that. In any event, so you have coming in in a time of relative quiet but a lot of domestic political turbulence because, as you know, after coming into office in ’33, it was only in 1935 that FDR did his major controversial programs such as Social Security. So you could not exist at that time, even at isolated Williams College, without being constantly aware, and we would sit around and listen to FDR’s speeches at night, and we were very much involved in the re-election campaign of 1936. So all these factors, internal and external, had an impact on me.
SCARPINO: Do you think that Adolf Hitler was a leader?
BURNS: No. As I define leader, leader is the mobilization of followers and conversion of the followers into leaders who then lead the original leader. Well, he certainly mobilized the followers; but, after that, it was pretty much sheer dictatorship.
SCARPINO: During the Depression in the United States when things were so bleak, there were people like Father Coughlin, the radio priest, and Huey Long, who, Francis Townsend, who developed tremendous followings. Would you consider somebody like Huey Long or Father Coughlin to be a leader?
BURNS: Again, it would depend on the other aspect of my little definition, the extent to which once they mobilize people, they became the instrument of people and then passed on their leadership to their one time followers. Well, again, I don’t see the latter part of all that operation happening with them. They mobilized a lot of support. But for one thing, compared to the great leader who thinks in term of parties and organizations, they didn’t convert their followers into anything more than cheering supporters and probably they had—well they did have organizations but the organizations were simply part of their support, not something that they would mobilize people through in any lasting sense.
SCARPINO: When I first started to talk to you about Williams College, you mentioned that you elected not to become a part of the elitist fraternity system. Why did the fraternity system strike you as elitist and why did you avoid it?
BURNS: First of all, I was somewhat under the influence of my mother who had gone to Mount Holyoke. She pretty much knew the score about Williams and the other places. Secondly, we couldn’t afford a fraternity. She was living on $40 a week from my father and so on. But thirdly, the fraternities already had a reputation as being elitist and very exclusive. This, by the way, was an educational experience for me too in that, first of all, since I did not, could not afford a fraternity; and secondly, was enough aware of myself to know that I would not be invited to join a fraternity, I was very interested in others. experience including, of course, all the people who joined the Garfield Club. And later on, this was a very interesting test of leadership on my part when I became President of the Garfield Club because a lot of students, of course, had been turned down by the fraternities. Rushing took place the first ten days of your freshman year, if you can believe it, and there were two categories of the rejected. One was the Jewish students; they knew the score. They knew also that if they were rejected, it was nothing personal. The others were the non-Jewish students who were rejected. They didn’t have an excuse. And it was interesting to watch, you know, the Jewish students were annoyed and did not like the system, and might have wanted to join a fraternity and so on, but, again, were realistic. The non-Jewish students, you know, what was wrong with me? Didn’t I hold my cigarette right? And so forth and so on. So that was a very interesting question then of what do you do when you give the welcoming speech in the, at the banquet that we had, as the fraternities did, too. What would you do in welcoming these new people, knowing half of them were sore as hell? I’m not sure that I saw that. I think I’m going to need a glass of water at some point. So as you can see from my answers, the whole total experience here was educational to put it mildly. But I’m not sure if I wandered from your original question.
SCARPINO: No, that was fine. I mean, you discovered that education is more than just sitting in a classroom which…
BURNS: Absolutely, absolutely.
BURNS: I might just add. In my case, I was lucky because the outside was integrated with the inside here.
SCARPINO: Was that the conscious effort on the part of the faculty to do that?
BURNS: I think so, yes, yeah.
SCARPINO: When you finally got your Ph.D. and were ready to start a career of your own, did you think about teaching anyplace besides Williams College?
BURNS: I was open to it but I’m not sure how open to it. I think I, fairly early on, got an invitation to teach here and probably just accepted it. It was, again, near enough Boston but not that close, and all the other country and all the rest of it.
SCARPINO: Okay, so you graduated in 1939; did you immediately go into the military?
BURNS: No, I went to Washington under a program of internships in the Federal Government, and I chose a political internship in effect—again, the same political thing that’s obviously dominating my life at this point—to be an intern in the office of a liberal congressman, and I have already told you I was going to forget names; but it’s not crucial at the moment. I worked for a congressman from Utah, whose name will come to me if it’s needed, and he was nice about just letting me loose on Capitol Hill. So I was able to go to hearings and Congress itself.
SCARPINO: That must have been a pretty heady experience for a young man.
BURNS: Yes, it was. Opened up, you know, after little Williams, opened up the whole area of, and again, because I had so much, instead of having to sit in an office like so many of the other interns because he gave me such freedom, I could just explore the whole town, as well as the government; and the climax of it was being, all of us interns were invited to the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt and things like that.
SCARPINO: So did you meet Eleanor Roosevelt?
BURNS: Yes. She was our hostess.
SCARPINO: How did she strike you?
BURNS: Very impressive and very nice, very interested in what we were doing. Had a little story I’ll tell anyway even though it’s not relevant. I lived with two other interns. Both of them were women, but I should add my mother lived with us, too.
SCARPINO: We’ve got that for the record. (laughing)
BURNS: Right. And I was to say that the night we interns were invited to the White House, I remember going outside, and we just lived around the corner, if you can believe it, from the White House in a shabby old building—it’s long since been taken down—and one of the interns, who was equally poor, hailed a cab. And I said: Arista, you, it’s just around the block. How can you possibly? She said: Never mind, Jim. All my life I’ve wanted to hail a cab and say the White House, please, and I’m going to do it.
SCARPINO: (laughing) Did you have the money to pay for the cab?
BURNS: I think we finally all divvied up. But at the White House it was good. Everybody was getting their supper and not Mrs. Roosevelt, and I got her her supper; and later, of course, boasted about having given supper to Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. Anyway, she was, as you would expect. I’m not sure there’s much substance. Very interested in what we were doing and just as impressive face-to-face as I think she was, of the three Roosevelts—and Susan Dunn and I have written about the three Roosevelts—I would give her the highest accolade.
SCARPINO: For what reasons would you give her the highest accolade?
BURNS: Well, first of all because of her total career and the fact that she really was sympathetic with people. I think FDR and TR were, too, but they had many other things to be concerned about like getting re-elected. She didn’t. But she simply had a much more attractive personality than you usually hear about, at least in dealing with young people, and had this great post-war career, as you would know so well. So the Washington experience was a very nice capstone to my college, yes.
SCARPINO: What did you, what do you think you took away from that experience about politics or leadership?
BURNS: Well working on Capitol Hill was simply a dose of realism, after a somewhat ethereal and philosophical activities here, to see these politicians face-to-face. For example, to have lunch with my congressman and a colleague of his, another congressman. We were walking back from the restaurant to the House office building and a guy leans out from the lower floor, a red-faced guy, a fellow from Missouri whose name also I will think of in a minute, saying to my congressman, Abe. Said, Hey Abe, come on, hi Abe, come on in, come on. Abe, the congressman, my congressman, turns to me and says, oh you’ve got to go in with me to this. So he takes me in, takes me into the office of the man who had leaned out the window and there was this congressman, red-faced—wish I could think of names—Missouri, half-drunk, boasting already to Abe how he had done such and such, and I picked up a little bit there and so forth. He had taken a trip and picked up somebody here and there, and obviously had stopped off for a little sexual activity and so on. All this in front of two or three women stenographers—I’d never seen this before—and finally said, after several minutes, well I’ve got to go see the doctor and see if I’ve picked up anything out of the trip. Well, that was a dose of reality. (laughing) But mainly, well, perhaps that was my introduction to transactional leadership I, as you may know, I made a big distinction between transforming leadership and transactional leadership and these were transactives. These were the people you know so well who have to go about the daily business of swapping and exchanging and dealing and wheeling and so on. So I learned a lot about that.
SCARPINO: A transactional leader is somebody who exchanges something for something else.
SCARPINO: I’m going to get you to talk about that later on; but do you consider Eleanor Roosevelt to have been a leader?
BURNS: I think she was kind of a moral leader, yes, very much so, with her international activities and so on. I wouldn’t push it too far. I mean, after all, she had no literal power, but she did have a role. You would know more about than I in the U.N. and, have I got that right, U.N., no longer the League of Nations?
BURNS: And you could estimate that but, yes, I would say she, and also the whole question of women, involvement of women in politics and so on. She, I think, even though she was the wife of a president, she did so much on her own that I think she became kind of a challenge to, and a model to, to women.
SCARPINO: While you were in Washington serving in this internship, was that the same time that A. Philip Randolph was trying to organize his, what they called the Negro March on Washington?
BURNS: Yes. But I have to say, as I remember that time, that was not something I seemed to get involved with. I have no particular knowledge of that.
SCARPINO: Okay. So you served as an intern in Washington and then you went into the service. Were you drafted?
BURNS: As I recall the sequence, I did my year in Washington; and then I came to Harvard for a year; and then I got employed by the government that did, the War Labor Board, the branch of the War Labor Board out in Colorado, where I worked for about six months. I got drafted out there in Colorado and then I went back to Harvard for a second year for my Ph.D. later when I got through the Army.
SCARPINO: So you were drafted into the Army.
SCARPINO: When you served as a combat historian, were you enlisted or an officer?
SCARPINO: Did you learn anything about leadership in the military?
BURNS: Yes I did. A lot about military leadership which, as you know, is a fascinating field. How different it is from, and also how similar it is to a lot of domestic leadership. But I learned a lot about leaders who lay out very clear, they hope, plans and also have to face the follow-up in terms of how their plans turn out. They can’t exactly leave the battlefield, and they stay there and they have to face reality. So in a very broad sense, particularly, of course, doing a lot of research and interviewing during the war and after, I think I learned quite a lot about leadership—very much leadership at the squad or platoon level, not leadership at the strategic level.
SCARPINO: So you are interviewing non-commissioned officers, lieutenants, captains, people like that?
BURNS: Yes. At great length.
SCARPINO: Did you participate in any of the combat operations in the Pacific?
BURNS: We, first of all I should do just a little more background. I was one of the first two who did this work. It was sort of an experiment when I first started. We had training back in Oahu at Schofield barracks briefly in this work, but we were sort of experimenters and—I’m getting a little bit away from your question, but I want to fill in this little gap here—and we interviewed the troops before they went into operation. Interviewed them during the operation as much as possible and then extensively interviewed then after. And, I’m sorry then your question was? I wanted to come back to that.
SCARPINO: Okay. I, well I had a couple of questions, but I was, and to ask you did you participate in any of the combat operations?
BURNS: Yes. The answer is we carried guns and were supposed to use them if necessary. I was actively involved only once because of a, on Saipan, which was my first operation where we had bottled up the Japanese in the northern part of Saipan, and one night they went in for the classic banzai, which I don’t think technically is an accurate term, but we’ll call it a banzai attack. So they simply erupted. It was a very good example, by the way, of leadership going astray because ordinarily that should have been taken care of, but, and the Japanese simply flooded through the advance units and came down to my headquarters. unit, my company. And so we all went up on line and again, you know, so much studying of combat is the study of confusion. Talk about confusion because the Japanese were in the brush ahead of us, so we were firing and, oddly enough, and this might amuse you, even while I was up there—because one thing we did because we had no protection, we had no advance—was to pull grass and so on, in front and in a Civil War book, famous book, there’s a little story about solders in this; even up there in combat, I couldn’t help remembering that in the Civil War for a book we are familiar with except, of course, I can’t remember.
SCARPINO: That’s all right.
BURNS: There was a guy, where the guy was pulling the grass in front of him and so on. Anyway, so confusion. So then suddenly, a guy runs in front of us and says, hey stop, stop, then say—I still remember this—them ain’t Japs, them’s Americans. So we stopped firing. So for awhile, we stopped firing. And then another guy comes in and says, no, no, them’s the Japs out there again. So that’s my picture of chaotic, you know, and so much of war, you know, is chaotic. But that’s a whole other story.
SCARPINO: Do you feel like you made a contribution as a combat historian?
BURNS: As a historian?
BURNS: I certainly didn’t make much of a contribution as a soldier but…
SCARPINO: Anybody who stands there with a gun is making a contribution. (laughing)
BURNS: I like to think we all, we kind of pioneered; and then just, if you want to just finish up on the war time, more people came out, real genuine historians. After all, I was not a real genuine historian and on Okinawa we were well manned. We had four or five people with, so quite a few divisions. And I’ll just say one thing about Okinawa at the moment and that is it was interesting because, I don’t need to tell you, the hostility between Marines and Army is more acute than the hostility between Japanese and Americans; and a lot of friction, of course, between them. Of course the Marines were fantastic in terms of being able to land and much better than the Army was, but in the end, on Okinawa, there were three Mardales [spelling cannot be confirmed], as they called them, and three Army divisions in line; and there was no great difference at that point between the two, but this is just a parochial memory of having been criticized by the Marines that we were slow and too concerned about combat deaths and so on.
SCARPINO: I’ve heard that. How would you compare military leadership with civilian leadership in terms of the qualities that are necessary to be effective?
BURNS: Well, the clarity of military leadership, their whole doctrine is that you plan something, you lay it out article by article, and everybody is supposed to be informed about this. On the other hand, no real followership—they talk about our loyal troops and all that, and catering to them and so on—but essentially the troops are not followers; they’re what, manipulated automatons or something. Whereas, the political leader, as we know, constantly has to be worried about followership and followership again being converted, followership being loyal. Well, one thing the military leaders knew was that their troops would be loyal unless they got to extreme situations. So you have these absolutely loyal followers who would do anything. They’ll go to their death if you order them to. So getting back to your basic question about leadership, I’m not sure that one would call that leadership. It probably deserves a special name. But the whole followership thing is simply not involved there.
SCARPINO: When you went to earn your Ph.D. at Harvard, and you said you put in a year and then went in the service and came back, why did you pick Harvard?
BURNS: Well, it was probably partly the Boston influence. It was probably financial—the fact that I could live with my mother and I was married in the second time we were there. Although actually, I had to say, somehow, I don’t recall how we did it, we rented a house only a half a mile from the university. But, to get back to your question, Harvard simply had that reputation. Harvard would accept me. Harvard was near home. I think it was as simple as that.
SCARPINO: What, how did that experience of studying at a place like Harvard shape the way you thought about politics and leadership?
BURNS: I don’t think that had nearly as much influence as Williams itself. First of all, it was not a great place. It was fine. It was all you know about Harvard, but the teachers were distant compared to here. One or two of them were querulous and demanding. I think, to me Harvard was simply a place to get my Ph.D. And I liked some of them and the Harvard atmosphere. Friends were fun and so on, but Harvard, for me, was not a major learning experience.
SCARPINO: What did you write your dissertation about?
BURNS: This is where I’m going to run into trouble.
SCARPINO: Did you pick a political subject?
BURNS: Yeah, and, I’ll think of it. It’s just like, the same problem I have with names.
SCARPINO: That’s all right. You, at one point, were part of a taskforce headed by Herbert Hoover?
SCARPINO: In Washington, and this was after you earned the Ph.D.?
BURNS: This would be—I think I went to Harvard, I went to Washington shortly after Harvard. So I think it was just after Harvard.
SCARPINO: Well, what I wanted to ask you is what did that taskforce do or what were your responsibilities on that taskforce?
BURNS: Well, it was simply a taskforce to look at the efficiency of the national government; and my, the agency that I was assigned to study and evaluate was the National Maritime Office there under the Commerce Department. So I simply went over there and interviewed them, and that was quite enlightening, too, simply in terms of a chaotic organization; which was first of all headed by a six-, five- or six-member board, which is not, I think, a good idea to begin with but still, and finding it ridden with factionalism and jealousy within the organization and the like. So I think it was quite a lesson in administration or the problems of administration.
SCARPINO: Did you meet Herbert Hoover personally?
SCARPINO: No? Okay.
BURNS: I think I, gosh, I don’t know. If so it was not a memorable meeting.
BURNS: I might have just seen him.
SCARPINO: We’ll cross off the questions about Herbert Hoover then. And then you spent some time as a congressional aide, is that right? Or was that the internship that you already told me about?
BURNS: That was the internship.
SCARPINO: All right. You published your first book, if I did my homework correctly, called Congress on Trial?
SCARPINO: Came out in 1949?
SCARPINO: Did you draw on your own experiences in Washington in writing that book?
SCARPINO: How did your experiences in Washington influence?
BURNS: Well, it made me very critical of Congress. That’s why I called it Congress on Trial, and that’s a long story in itself, but I think I probably, it’s a long time since I’ve looked at that book, but it was basically a critical book on Congress.
SCARPINO: How was that received?
BURNS: Well, not very well by members of Congress till you simply saw it, but I’m not sure that it had much of a reception to begin with although one thing happened with it. What was it? Well, maybe it will come back to me. I know there was one, well, never mind. See, this is where I begin to get foggy on memory.
SCARPINO: That’s okay. Do you think it’s possible for an institution like Congress to exercise leadership?
BURNS: Not really. It depends a lot on the party organization. If it’s a strong party organization, like today to some extent. I think Congress can take leadership but not typically, no.
SCARPINO: You knew, I’m going to just make a few statements here for the record. You know John Kennedy personally, right?
SCARPINO: And you were involved in Democratic politics in Massachusetts. According to the information I found, you were a delegate to the Democratic conventions in 1952 and 1958. In 1958, John Kennedy ran successfully for the Senate, and you ran unsuccessfully for the House.
BURNS: Yes. Let’s get those dates—1958, he was running for his second term and, of course, I was running for my first term. Yes, would you like me, and I worked with him in that election.
SCARPINO: Yeah, I was going to get the name of your opponent in the record here. I hope I pronounce it right—Silvio Conte?
BURNS: Yes, C-O-N-T-E.
SCARPINO: Yeah, Republican.
BURNS: Republican, who turned out to be a very good congressman.
SCARPINO: The first thing I want to ask you is why did you decide to run for Congress?
BURNS: I think it was over, what’s the word when you’re too proud, too ambitious?
SCARPINO: I don’t know if I can win that one. Any word I supply isn’t going to sound very good. (laughing) Overconfident maybe?
BURNS: Well, I knew from the start it would be difficult because it was a district that had not gone Democratic, essentially since the Civil War, and so much about it; but I’m trying to think of what might be most useful. First of all in terms of, in these other situations, I was in structured situations whether Harvard or Williams or Congress or whatnot. Now, I was in a completely unstructured, unpredictable situation and, getting back to your question, I thought, I wasn’t sure that I would win but, if I did win, to be the first Democratic Congressman from this district would be special. I did not. I thought so ill of Congress and the world of the Congressmen that all I wanted to do was to win one term. People said to me, oh, no, Jim. Once you get in there you’ll want to stay, but I was quite certain that I would not want to run again. Then I, speaking of being out on the world and not in structured situations, first of all, I had a terrific guy to run my campaign who, at the last minute, dropped out. Secondly, the congressman who was in power—who was not very popular, and I was sure I could defeat and quite sure I would have defeated—he dropped out; and in came Silvio Conte from Pittsfield. A very able, young Italian guy, very likable guy and so on. So suddenly, I find myself running against practically a neighbor; and so I think one thing that I was struck by was the role of chance. Most of the other worlds I was in, you planned things and things worked out. Suddenly, everything was up to chance; like losing your campaign manager and all that, guys dropping out, Conte coming in. So I think I learned a lot. I campaigned very thoroughly for a whole year, quietly, and then I think I learned a lot about just plain day-to-day talking to people and their problems, and response and lack of response, and money problems. So it was a tremendous experience—just an educational experience for me.
SCARPINO: Now, 1958 was during the Cold War.
SCARPINO: Did you get tangled up in those issues?
BURNS: Well, very much so. This became the, I had a primary fight with a guy from Holyoke. Holyoke is a very Catholic city, conservative Catholic city, in western Mass., and I had many friends there, particularly in the Labor Movement and in the Church for that matter. But the guy, this again is the chance aspect; the chance that I had, this opponent made such a difference because, on the one hand, he was—well, I defeated him; and when he realized that I was ahead, probably simply because I had campaigned so much longer than he had, suddenly I was no longer the Democratic candidate, the Democratic contender, but I was a Communist and, even worse, I was an atheistic Communist. You’d be interested because of your own religion, what it was like to run into, and this was back in the 1950s—and I want to come back, by the way, to JFK—to suddenly discover that in Holy Name, not in church ever, but in Holy Name Society meetings and so on, I was simply being denounced as a, I was an atheist. Actually, I was a Congregationalist; but never mind, and how to deal with that and the problems, again, of the unstructured world of politics. Do you get up and say I am not a Communist, you know, or do you ignore it or do you do five other things?
SCARPINO: What did you do?
BURNS: I decided I would try to reach the monsignors themselves—not the bishop, but the monsignors, nor was it the priests—the monsignors in North Adams and Adams and Pittsfield, so on. So I, one day, went over and visited a monsignor. I think I arranged ahead of time with friends—because I had many Catholic friends supporting me—to ask if I could see the monsignor. This is my vivid memory of going to North Adams, which is next door, and ringing at the, what would a, he lived in, the Catholic priest would live in?
BURNS: Yes, that’s, rectory exactly. And he came to the door, was very polite, took me down to his study, we sat down, and did not talk politics. I thought all I would do is to indicate I was sort of a human being and so on. And we got so chummy, you couldn’t have believed it. He was talking to me about his problems. He had a brother who had gotten into trouble, and so on; and then at the end, he took me back to the stoop in front, and he stood there with me outdoors for several minutes. That’s all I needed to know that within a few hours, all the politicals of North Adams would say, well, the monsignor was out, he was standing and chatting with Professor Burns and so on. I don’t think I had too many illusions because at least I had studied Conviction; and a few days later at the Holy Name Society, I was again that Communist from Williamstown.
SCARPINO: Why do you think you lost the election?
SCARPINO: Why do you think you lost the election?
BURNS: Number one, the district itself, a rural district, with the history that it had. Number two, I think I was a good candidate, but not brilliant. It’s very hard in a congressional race in the room to command audiences. You’re constantly searching for people’s support. Third, I did not have a terribly good manager; and fourth, I had this, I was in an ideological struggle and I don’t know how to handle an ideological struggle. This was very much across the whole district, Holyoke and so on, and Holyoke, the same kind of reaction although I did carry Holyoke. But there are a lot of good reasons to have lost, including the fact that I was not the best candidate in the world.
SCARPINO: What did you learn about leadership from your unsuccessful run for Congress?
BURNS: I don’t think I learned very much. It was so special, so individual. I probably learned that I could have been, that leadership calls for a lot of tactical and manipulative things, as well as great oratory and moral leadership, and I probably learned that you have to do that, you know, FDR—The Lion and The Fox. I was the lion to a great extent and not a fox, and I think you have to be both. So I think that was one great lesson.
SCARPINO: Now, you worked with John Kennedy during that campaign.
BURNS: Yes, and that was very interesting, too, from my standpoint. I had gotten to know him and I had been very impressed by him from the very start, even though we came from different ends of the state—and he was, and he was a fox, as well as a lion. That’s why he became president. He was being very careful about whom he supported and who supported him in Massachusetts. On the one hand, he wanted to win over Protestants. I hate to put it in these religious terms, but that’s what it amounted to. And on the other hand, he had his Catholic following. Although I’m putting it in very narrow terms, because I thought very well of Kennedy, and I can give you another example later of how he handled something, but he, we made kind of a deal. He couldn’t exactly endorse me but what he arranged to do was to endorse a book of mine. I mean, technically it was an endorsement of a book which, obviously though, was Kennedy endorsing me—saying something good about me in the press. I campaigned with him, but he essentially would be on his own, and I just saw him in action. I liked him personally. I thought he was doing as much for me as he humanly could and that was about it.
SCARPINO: Did he strike you—as a candidate—did he strike you as an effective leader?
SCARPINO: What stood out about his leadership?
BURNS: Well, it was simply that he was able to speak—though talking about transforming leadership—he would talk in terms of transforming leader. Now, he wouldn’t call it that, but he was talking about the big picture, and he was very good at that.
SCARPINO: You mentioned that you thought well of him, and you said that you had another example that you could pass along.
BURNS: Yes, well, so he won and I lost in ’58; and then in 1960, he was running for President, and he was vacating his Senate seat, of course, to run for President. Well, there’s nothing more valuable in American politics than a free Senate seat that you don’t have to campaign for. So naturally, everybody was anxious to get the seat that he was giving up and everybody knew he would decide. The governor technically would, but he would tell the governor what to do. So I thought, well, the worst thing is in politics—and this is the lesson I teach when we talk politics to my class—if you want something ask for it. Don’t get in a situation where later on you say, oh, gee, I should have asked for that. Why didn’t I ask for it. Ask for it. So I follow that. So I phoned him one day and said I’d like to come down and talk with him; and he was very nice. He was in the middle of his own campaign. But he was very friendly, and we had ended up in the campaign. I think he felt sorry for me. So I still remember going to his little house in Washington and knocking on the door and who should come to the door—imagine in that day—Kennedy himself. In fact, imagine flying down and going out to his house area, and there are 40 or 50 reporters standing back from the house, threading my way through them because I had an appointment, going to the house, ringing the doorbell, and Kennedy comes to the door.
BURNS: Can you imagine this happening today? So he shows me in, very cordial, takes me upstairs because there’s a meeting going on in his living room, and we chat a little bit; and then I realize he’s always in a hurry. So I said to him—and I, at this point was not calling him Jack any longer—I said, you know, I know everybody’s interested in the seat. I was trying to be modest. I said, and I realize I’m probably about 95 or 96 out of a list. And he cut me off in a nanosecond, and he said, Jim, you’re not 99, you’re two or three on the list. I was so elevated or honored to be so elevated that it wasn’t until we chatted further and took me down, shook hands, and ushered me out that I thought wait a minute. There’s only one.
SCARPINO: That’s right.
BURNS: There’s only one. But the thing is how nicely he handled that because he knew I knew the situation. We both knew the situation. He had a guy locally and so forth. I had no particular claim on him. But he had handled it so well that he had given me consideration, could not have been nicer about it, knew I knew I was being considered, blah, blah; and I say this because so many people criticize him for being cold or mean. I just want to say this is one example where I found a guy that, even though he couldn’t give me the Senate job, I thought was pretty impressive.
SCARPINO: But he did talk to you in person.
SCARPINO: In 1960, you published a book, John Kennedy: A Political Profile in which you were relatively critical of John Kennedy.
BURNS: Yeah, that was a sad aspect, too. There again it comes to the problem of being a scholar and responsible scholar. So I wrote this book which generally, if you ever looked at it, was very positive. As I’ve said, I thought very highly of John.
SCARPINO: It wasn’t PT-109 though.
BURNS: Yes, exactly. But I had a fateful last sentence that I still vaguely remember; that to the Office of President he would bring skill and one or two other good things, but whether he could bring the sort of—I don’t know if I used the term—well, commanding leadership that the country needed remained to be seen. They went—now he was in New York—they went bonkers. Had a call from Sorensen and so on. I remember he had been very helpful to me. He had made it possible for me to talk to his father; back when I was doing the book, he could not have been more helpful in getting, letting me see people like his father and mother and so on, and so he had really gone out of his way, and Sorensen too, and gave me access to all his records. Very good about that. Let me come into his office building at night and look at stuff. So they naturally felt they had been extremely helpful. They naturally thought that I was completely a Kennedy guy. So I write this sort of open academic sentence and it was very sad because they, I think, overreacted, but I can understand how they felt. So I went down. I did keep talking with them. I went down and talked to Sorensen and it’s so funny again. We talked in the hotel that they all stayed at, in the lobby, and Sorensen kept saying, why don’t you tell Jack that? He’s upstairs. I kept, saying no, no, let’s just you and me talk. I didn’t want to face this guy at this point. So it’s all pretty messy. I mean you know it’s trying to be both a scholar and a participant. You’re going to have to run into conflicts between the two.
SCARPINO: So after that experience, did you decide to be a scholar and avoid being a participant?
BURNS: I never was interested in running again. I thought I had taken my crack both years. I was very happy being a scholar. Of course I could be very active politically and just from day-to-day up here.
SCARPINO: Did you maintain a relationship with Kennedy?
BURNS: Yes. Yes, he was very nice. I went to see him. He had let me come in and talk with him. So, yeah.
SCARPINO: What did you learn from him while he was President?
BURNS: Well, of course I knew all the debates about people attacking him and so on. I guess it’s back to the lion and the fox—that you have to combine these qualities. It’s hard being a lion. It’s hard being a fox. And it’s very hard to be both. Roosevelt did it, but I think Kennedy, not so successful; but after all, he didn’t have the time.
SCARPINO: Do you remember where you were when he was assassinated?
BURNS: Yes, very much so. I was in a class here. A kid came into the door. I was like, because you, the classes are never interrupted here for any reason except maybe the death of your wife or something, and I went to the door; and he said that Kennedy had been shot, but he didn’t know. So oddly enough maybe, I just went on teaching, and I kind of wonder about that some days. But then half an hour later, a kid came in and said he’d been killed. Then I did adjourn the class. By the time I got to my home, which is about a quarter of a mile from where I was teaching—in fact, oddly enough, I was teaching in the basement of the Congregational Church here because the college was short on classes. I don’t know if that meant anything. And by the time I got to my house, all the reporters and the television people and so on, were there but what could one say?
SCARPINO: Do you think that his, the way people regard him is as much influenced by the fact that he was assassinated as his own political record?
BURNS: I think the assassination certainly boosted him too, yeah. But because it solves the unanswerable question how he would have made out in the next year or two. And just to jump ahead a bit, I think LBJ, whom so many people criticized, and it was not—whom I knew quite well, too, actually—strangely enough, got to know him quite well, perhaps even better than John Kennedy. What was I going to say? LBJ and however boorish he was and he really was boorish, old Texan type. I think he was a great President. Now, whether Kennedy, if Kennedy had won a second term, which I think he probably would have, would he have been able to do what Johnson did? But my test of leadership, getting back to some of your basic questions, is results. I mean, I keep talking about mobilizing followerships and so on, which it is. But does that combination of leadership/followership produce change that everybody talks about? LBJ did.
SCARPINO: What do you think is his legacy in terms of leadership-related changes?
BURNS: With Kennedy?
SCARPINO: No, LBJ.
BURNS: I think he was one of the greatest presidents.
SCARPINO: Why do you think he was one of the greatest?
BURNS: Well, because I happen to like so much the programs that he put through. I would hate him if it were, if I were a conservative. But if you actually—I’m sure you have—look at the list of things this guy accomplished, and he wasn’t particularly interested in some of them. But he did them. Not just the usual stuff, but in cultural things and so on.
SCARPINO: What do you think about his involvement in Vietnam?
BURNS: Well, of course, I, having been there myself briefly, which doesn’t mean much, but seeing—well, I’ll just mention that and not to cover it in, that is because I, then we can come back to Johnson, but my Vietnam experience was sort of comical in a way. I was invited, at some point right at the middle of all this, to go and give lectures in Vietnam on obviously the American side. I was halfway across the Pacific when I got a message on the plane that my lectureship had been abandoned, but I was welcome to go anyway. So I went anyway. And one little revealing thing because I talked to the people in charge—not the commanders—but people. Like going back to World War II and interviewing, and they sent me out to a post about ten miles—active American military post. Everything seemed great. You know, they were doing their thing out there. Then I had to go, and the guy said to me, well, we’ll be coming shortly with you because they abandoned the post overnight. And despite all the optimism, I ran into at the headquarters in the main city…
BURNS: Yeah. I got the point right there. If within ten miles of that city they couldn’t even man a post overnight, that told me all I needed to know.
BURNS: Anyway, that gets away from your question.
SCARPINO: How did you meet Lyndon Johnson?
BURNS: I don’t know quite how. I was quite active in Texas. I used to go out to Texas a lot, for a reason I can’t remember except I had good friends there, and he, I think he wanted to win over some of these, quote, intellectuals who were so critical of him; and so I would see him a fair amount in Texas on this or that and then in Washington again. So I’ve never quite understood myself why he had; but I’ll just tell you, the final dénouement of that which was, and I can’t remember really when I saw him in the White House. I didn’t see him that much but, you know, I would occasionally visit. But I could even date this. Even early in, let’s see, dates. The year he, see he ran in ’64, ’68. January ’68 he, or the Mrs., invited me to dinner. Maybe I had asked to see him. I probably had asked to see him. So he invited me to dinner there and it’s a vivid memory. I was staying at the Hay Adams house, and I remember walking across the Lafayette Park; and usually, when you look at the White House, it’s a gleaming thing and this was a dark night. It was dark, and I was so struck by that. So I go in and take the elevator up to the family floor, and it’s just a dinner for me and a couple of his friends and the others are there. He isn’t there yet, and he comes in and he hardly greets his friends. He takes me and says hello, shakes hands, and then he sort of, being Johnson, takes me by the lapel or something over to a sofa and sits down. I’ve never been told about the, you know, this was just a social invitation that he did to friends, even minor friends, and so he starts in telling me his life story. And he starts really with his life story, and about his family, and about his father being very disappointed in him. He was very gloomy and the whole thing was very somber I should say—not gloomy, somber. And he begins to, goes on and on about his youth and then he tells me more, and I’m sitting there and you might think as a presidential historian—quotes, rest of it, I think, oh, what a great moment this is, the man is telling me. I was completely mortified. I had no idea what he wanted. I had no, I couldn’t take notes. Although he talked so fast I couldn’t have taken them anyway. I think, after awhile, think of the people in Washington who would like ten minutes with this guy, and here I’m sitting with him. He’s not learning anything, he’s just telling a story. I’m not learning anything. I can’t take notes. I have nothing even to take notes with. I didn’t want to interrupt him. He was so intense, you know, and so on, and this goes on for about an hour. Meanwhile, Lady Bird is trying to entertain the others and finally she calls him over. Then the one nice thing of the evening was that before we went to the supper table, we were sitting in a couple of sofas, he was sitting in the sofa, and in comes in one of his daughters. Lady Bird, I think, sits on his lap. Then he, at his feet, and she suddenly, he’s not saying much, and she suddenly says, you know, most of my friends are military, but I know a lot of people and I know how they feel about the war, and she goes in for about two or three minutes giving their feelings about the war while he was sitting there kind of looking at her fondly and paternally. Then, Lady Bird has us go over to the supper table. She sits me on his left. I think, at last, we can have a general conversation. No, he picks up exactly where he left off from the earlier talk. Talks all the way through supper. Does not eat, as I recall. Then supper ends, and I think, well, at last, no, back to that sofa. He goes on for another two hours.
SCARPINO: Telling you his life story.
BURNS: His life story.
SCARPINO: Why do you think he did that?
BURNS: He might have been misinformed and thought that I was writing, that I was writing, but then he would have know that I would have had stuff with me, a recording thing for one thing. God, I wish I had. I don’t know. I still to this day do not know.
SCARPINO: How did you feel when he decided not to run?
BURNS: Oh, I thought that was very appropriate. Yeah. In fact, I felt maybe he was, this was part of his swan song. Maybe this was a swan song. Why to me, I don’t know.
SCARPINO: That’s what I was wondering. Do you think he was getting himself ready to make that decision?
SCARPINO: I want to go back to Kennedy for a minute, and I’m going to offer a couple of lines into the record here for the benefit of people who might use this later on. You, in your book, John Kennedy: A Political Profile, said that Kennedy began a self-defeating trend running not only against Washington, but also against his own party; and that you pointed out that Kennedy relied on his own people to get elected; and once he was President, he had a hard time building support in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Then you go on to say at some other point that some other presidents from Nixon to Carter to Clinton had similar problems. Why do you think it was that Kennedy began this self-defeating trend of running against Washington and running against his own party? I mean, why did he, he felt the need to do that?
BURNS: Well, he was sort of an independent cuss to begin with, you remember, from the very first in Congress, he was not following any party line. He came from a tricky state in a way. Those days Massachusetts could be very Republican. And he was, I could tell early on he was very contemptuous of people. When we talked about people, he would be critical of them. He just felt he was smarter than other people.
SCARPINO: Do you think he was smarter than others?
BURNS: Yes, he was smart. He was very smart. You know, and he was educated. He had been at Harvard. He had been abroad. He’d been in the war. He had been in London. His father had been ambassador. He had a lot of self-confidence.
SCARPINO: Do you think self-confidence is an important quality for a leader?
SCARPINO: Can you push it too far?
BURNS: Absolutely, yeah.
SCARPINO: Did Kennedy push it too far?
BURNS: I don’t think so generally. I think with people like me that he knew wouldn’t talk, he would, no, I think he did not push it too far, no.
SCARPINO: But you indicated in several things that I read that you wrote or people wrote about you that Kennedy began this trend of running against Washington. What impact do you think, long term, that’s had on presidential leadership?
BURNS: Well, because when we talking against Washington, this was mainly when he was senator. He had such a short time in the White House, it’s very hard to evaluate his presidency in general and in particular on the question you are raising. I think one of his problems was that he was not enough of a party man. The Democratic Party in Massachusetts had never been all that great, and he was not—and he hated ordinary party politics. In fact, the way he would talk about the guys in Boston who were just, you know, low, uninteresting people; he had managed to evade them. So I feel now that given his inability or lack of interest in strengthening the Democratic Party as a Party, combined with his very independent feeling of mind, you know, his, again, his skepticism about other people. He was very critical of people. I think he lacked something that Johnson had and that is an ability to see himself as a Party leader. Never mind if these are just partisan hacks. Still, they’re Democrats, you know, and you mobilize the Democrats. So in short, I don’t think, I’ll put it this one, two terms, in two words. I don’t think he was a Party leader, and I think you’ve got to be a Party leader. I think, by the way, this is very interesting in relation to our President today. But he was not a Party leader. I think he would have been reelected out of his personality and would have had a very unsuccessful second term, as compared to the man who took that term—LBJ.
SCARPINO: Uh huh. Was LBJ an effective Party leader?
BURNS: I guess he was. It was never too easy because he too was not too—he was somewhat contemptuous, but I think he was an adequate Party leader. I think what he was good at, first of all, he mobilized all the feeling about the loss of Kennedy and the loss of Kennedy’s legislation or potential legislation. So he had that going for him. But also, to some extent getting back to our earlier discussion, you’ve got to be, as a leader you’ve got to be something of a manipulator, and he was just a damn good manipulator.
SCARPINO: Johnson was?
SCARPINO: Yeah. In 1963, you published, I think this must have been your third book, The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America, and just for the sake of somebody who’s going to listen to this recording in the future or read the transcript, can you briefly say what the deadlock of democracy was in 1963?
BURNS: Yes. In summary, it was a study of the factionalism within the parties exacerbated by the factionalism in Congress, exacerbated by the federalism of the American political system. So it was a study of how, instead of having two strong alternative Parties; let’s say like in prison, we have in effect, with the divisions in the two existing Parties, between essentially the congressional wing and the presidential wing, you’ve got four Parties. Hence, governing means you don’t just mobilize your own Party, you have to mobilize one or two or three Parties.
SCARPINO: Why do you think that the Democrats and Republicans have held together as political parties for so long? I mean, are they doing something right or have they just gotten lucky?
BURNS: That’s an interesting question.
SCARPINO: I mean the Democrats go back to the time of Andrew Jackson and the Republicans to the mid-1850s. Very few third-party challenges.
BURNS: Yeah. I don’t know. I have sometimes pondered that, and I haven’t gotten very far. Considering the volatility in this country generally, all the crises, why some third party hasn’t come along and taken over. I guess one can say the two old Parties, partly tradition, historical standing, partly because maybe they’ve been somewhat effective in their own way, has been adequate for them to live. But that’s not much of an endorsement.
SCARPINO: Did you know Dwight Eisenhower personally?
BURNS: No. I don’t think I even ever saw him.
SCARPINO: He obviously is somebody who made a transition from military leadership to civilian leadership.
BURNS: Very impressive.
SCARPINO: Do you have an opinion on how success or unsuccessful he was in doing that?
BURNS: I thought he was quite successful. I thought he, in doing exactly what you talk about, never mind how successful was he as President, I mean, I thought he was reasonably successful as President. But just in making that transition, I think he was quite remarkable.
SCARPINO: What do you think was remarkable about him or about him making that transition? Is there something you could put your finger on to?
BURNS: Well, you know, at one point he’s giving out orders—it’s Eisenhower still?
BURNS: Yeah. The next minute he’s dealing with every recalcitrant Congress and keeping his temper. Evidently doing some fairly good negotiating, having evidently fairly good people working for him, having a certain breadth of mind obviously in international affairs, being a moderate Republican, which, I think at that point, was generally successful. So I think he was just amazing. You’ve got to give credit to somebody—maybe FDR or maybe George Marshall or someone. But this guy, and then he wins. Not easy to win the presidency or to keep it. But I have to say, I’ve not studied him so I don’t really know.
SCARPINO: Before I leave that time period and ask you a somewhat different question, Joseph McCarthy.
BURNS: Pardon me?
SCARPINO: Joseph McCarthy, was he a leader?
BURNS: Joe McCarthy?
BURNS: No. I think, again, you get in the kind of demagogue who arouses support, does not convert that support into any kind of institutional organization and has his place in history but would never have become the kind of leader that say, LBJ was.
SCARPINO: I read somewhere that you once described leadership, and I’m going to quote you here, you said that “Leadership was one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” I’m wondering why it is you think that leadership is among the least understood phenomena on earth.
BURNS: Well, that’s what led me actually to, what I think particularly interests this group, my work on leadership. But to answer your specific question, I think leadership is so often seen as simply oratory, you know, mobilizing support, personal, getting personal support as against institutional support. So that, to put it very briefly, people do not see leadership as followership. They do not
see the followership essence to leadership even though they might talk about mobilizing voters, they don’t see the longer run implication. What do the voters do, how will they fear the led, etc., etc.
SCARPINO: Do you think that your observation on leadership as being one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth, that that applies generally to human societies or more specifically to representative governments like ours?
BURNS: I don’t know the answer to that question because I don’t know enough about other societies.
SCARPINO: Okay. Do you think leaders are born or made?
SCARPINO: How does one make a leader?
BURNS: Well, first of all, it doesn’t hurt to have a good education. But then it just becomes a question of the interrelationships of a leader with countless other people; and at this point, perhaps I should bring in this because this was the most important…
SCARPINO: You’re holding the book Leadership in your hands, yes.
BURNS: Yeah. In fact, I brought it with me because, among other things, it has the dates of my—I don’t know quite how you want to approach the book itself or, leadership in general doesn’t have to be about the book. But this was a very crucial development in my own life. This book is the most important book I ever wrote, and I recently, because of this meeting, had a review of this book to see what I had said.
SCARPINO: Well, I was going to ask you to distinguish between transactional and transformational leadership for the benefit of people who are going to listen to this, but I also don’t want to cut you off if you’ve got something that you want to say.
BURNS: Well, let’s do, that, the difference between transactional and transformational really comes down from Machiavelli, whom I used in my title of my book, The Lion and The Fox, and that is the—and again, I refer to what I was talking about Congress—the difference between the transformational leader, who essentially brings about lasting change because he has mobilized, or she, mobilized followers and have organized them either by creating a party or by using the party into an abundance of future leaders—essentially leaders who create leaders to summarize that, as against a transactional leader, who’s simply concerned about transactions, about getting a job done, getting a bill through Congress and maybe winning an election, who does not have basic long run goals, is very much occupied simply with his own standing and so on. That would be my distinction.
SCARPINO: Do you think that transactional leadership and transformational leadership, are they compatible? Would you expect to find that combined in the same leader?
BURNS: You can do both and that’s what I think Roosevelt did. Did you want to?
SCARPINO: Oh, yes. Okay. We’ll come back in a minute. But you mentioned our current President Obama a few minutes ago. How would you rate him in terms of his relationship to his party and his ability to lead his party?
BURNS: Well, I think it’s too early to tell in terms of governing, obviously, but what I think he was so effective in was not only winning the Democratic nomination but, as we all hear, maybe it’s exaggerated, his mobilizing so many people who have not been active before. And, but again, the test of transforming leaders, speaking of him, is not whether you can mobilize new people, young people and so on, as he did so well but can you convert them into continuing followership that becomes leadership. And what I’m watching now is followers who, to some degree, many of whom are very happy with him, as I am, but some of whom are disappointed in him and mainly though is he—and I go through all this because it’s such a good test of transforming leadership—is he able, or people working with him, able to mobilize these people. Not just to elect him, you see, and not just for that person, but to take part in the mid-term election, which has so often been crucial for presidential leadership or failure of leadership. Can he mobilize them in 2010, which means an enormous effort. You don’t just do it by lifting a finger. You have to get your party, your followers, your personal organization, to somehow keep in touch with these people to organize them, mobilize them, inform them, enthuse them, and so on, so that not only does he not lose his congressional majority in 2010, but also brings in or keeps in or actually adds to supporters in Congress, who, if the health bill has not been put through by next year, will be put through in his second part of his term just the way FDR put through his major legislation. Not in ’33 but ’35. And this was a perfect example of what I mean by transforming leadership because not only do you mobilize people and keep them mobilized, but you organize them into follow up and indeed leave to posterity—something LBJ, for example, did not do in my view—a mobilized liberal Democratic Party. So I can’t tell at this point how effective he’ll be. Just leave it there because I really can’t tell at this point.
SCARPINO: I mean, sometimes when I think about John Kennedy, and I will have to confess that I was in high school when he was president, but I think about all the people I know who were motivated to get involved in public service because of what they believe he represented, even if he really didn’t. Is that transformational, if you persuade people to get involved over the long haul?
BURNS: Yes, definitely.
SCARPINO: Do you think Obama has that potential to do that?
BURNS: I think so.
SCARPINO: Influence high school kids to become active citizens and that sort of thing?
BURNS: It all depends on, there’s got to be an organization. There’s got to be an effort, and I don’t know how much attention he’s paying at this point to keeping in touch, you know, doing all the things that need to be done. So I can’t judge Obama yet.
SCARPINO: Are you getting too warm in here?
BURNS: I think I’ll take my jacket off. But I like to just keep going.
SCARPINO: Let me hit pause here. Here we go. We should be good. All right, this one’s back on. I’ll say for the record, that you’re holding your book on leadership that I think came out in 1978. You indicated that you’d gone back and done some thinking about that prior to this interview. Do you have anything that you want to say before I start asking you more questions? I mean any reflection on the long-term impact of that book or your?
BURNS: Yes, I’ll just say that to my surprise, because it’s a long and heavy book, that it’s the most lasting book I’ve done. It’s a book I now take the greatest satisfaction from, and I think I really immodestly feel that this was a contribution to leadership as I happen to define it. So I’ll just leave it there.
SCARPINO: How did you find yourself at the point where you said, the next thing I want to do is to write a book about leadership as opposed to a leader?
BURNS: It was because I had done these partial things. I had been looking at individual persons like Kennedy. I’d been looking at Parties. I’d been looking at military leadership and so on, and looked, do I say, at Congress, and I just felt that the study of leadership had become so fragmented that it was important to try to pull altogether what we had and, of course, I could use countless terrific people—take Machiavelli as an example—and many others; that the material was there, the experience was there, the history was there, but it was all, in itself, fragmented. So what I would try to do was to pull this together and to talk about more fundamental things like one you’ve already indicated—transactional versus transforming leadership.
SCARPINO: When you wrote that book, was there an existing field of leadership studies?
BURNS: I don’t think so really as such, a field of leadership studies. It would be interesting to check college catalogs. But I don’t know of any, maybe you do, of any program in leadership as such. Now there might have been programs and things that we today call leadership that they called something else like innovation or mastery or whatever. But that, again, is part of the story that there was all this marvelous materials on aspects of leadership that had not been pulled together into any kind of an overall theory.
SCARPINO: But now, of course there is the study of leadership. I mean you are, I think, the Distinguished Leadership Scholar at the Academy of Leadership, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, and that’s just one of many places. I mean do you ever…
BURNS: I don’t want to, there were a lot of people, I think there were people, you know, probably you discovered in your own work, that what are they called concurrence where ideas are not just, like in history, generally going back to earlier times of ideas—take the Enlightenment, which I’m now writing about by the way—what do they call it, the simultaneity, if that’s the word, of, so I think this was happening at the grassroots as it were, scholastically. So there was a great flood and then you begin to get into differences for example—I’ll come back to your basic point—but just to give an example of how this begins to fragmentize to some extent. For example, Barbara Kellerman, whom I know well and greatly admire at Harvard, has done a book called Bad Leadership, and we have an argument, a friendly argument, that I’m saying leadership is a positive thing. Of course, there is bad leadership but that’s what we should call bad leadership. You don’t need to call good leadership but leadership. Anyway, that’s all I’ll say on that. But to get back to your basic question, I think times were ready for this kind of study. We had also had some further great leaders by that time, particularly in the nineteen, early mid-twentieth century—Churchill and Roosevelt and Stalin and many others, military leaders and so on. So we had much further evidence to go on. Then we have, of course, the great revolutionary leaders—Lenin and others and Mao. So in a way I think history had poised the situation where a book like this was appropriate and needed.
SCARPINO: Does Mao Tse-tung meet your definition of a leader?
BURNS: Well, first of all, I’d have to know more about him than I do know. I did study him for this work, and I list him, I think, among the leaders here because I’m not sure his followers behaved the way he would have liked, and I think that’s one definition of leader. But he was so effective in organizing followers and in a structure, namely Communist structure, that made them into an effective revolutionary force. So I think my answer is yes, he was a leader in that sense. Whether he was a good leader or not, again, you could ask the question was FDR a good leader? So that’s one of these big questions. But yes, a leader in terms of bequeathing followers who became leaders, yes.
SCARPINO: So you think that when you analyze what it means to be an effective leader that there are qualities that cut across culture and cut across time?
SCARPINO: As I did background reading for this interview, I noticed that when you talked about transformational leadership you ascribe certain characteristics to that. And what I wanted to do is to go through some of those characteristics and get you to comment a little bit and if this isn’t where you think we should go, because you wrote the book on the subject, I’m easily deferred. But one of the elements of transformational leadership that you talk about is inspirational motivation and, just for the sake of people who might listen to this recording later or read the transcript, you talked about inspirational motivation as the ability to create and commemorate a vision that will engage followers in a meaningful way, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about what accounts for success and failure in communicating a vision.
BURNS: Well I think the vision, instead of, first of all being oratorical and moving and eloquent and all that, it has, obviously, to strike into something very deep in the motivations of the would-be followers. I’m just saying the obvious perhaps, but an awful lot of great leaders arouse people, but they do it only momentarily because they’re a new figure; and they speak well, but they’re not reaching into the hearts and souls of the followers who then, we hope, become leaders. I think that’s why FDR was a great leader, that he was able to do that. So it’s obviously the nature of the vision to begin with but that’s only the beginning.
SCARPINO: So would I be correct in concluding that you’re saying that the ability to communicate a vision as a leader is part rational and part emotional?
SCARPINO: But you have to hit your followers on both levels for this to work.
BURNS: I think I might say part objective and part subjective.
SCARPINO: Could you give some examples of leaders who you think have done a good job of communicating a vision and engaging followers?
BURNS: Yes. Well, again FDR would be my main example. There were some British leaders that I don’t really know enough about to make a point about. I think in American history, Jefferson would be an example. Even though he was not a great orator, he reached into the non-Federalist elements of the day to the famous common man and articulated a new vision which became the vision of the Republican Party of the day. And I could mention others. I’m not sure how useful. I think Lincoln, who did not, who at first seemed to be a great transactional leader, simply what he had to do to get the Republican nomination and then to win the election is transformed because he’s now, of course, mobilized followers, including hundreds of thousands of soldiers, becomes a kind of almost a new person. A real, a leader, in terms of how he is transforming leaders, is transforming people into leaders in his party and outside, and then becomes transformed himself. And maybe I should stop there for a moment and say that one thing perhaps I haven’t emphasized enough is even though I talk about the original leader mobilizing people creating future leaders, I should say something about the impact back on the leader who does the mobilizing. As he or she mobilizes people, they are changing the leader. And that, by the way, is so true of FDR, where at the start he’s really trying to just deal with that emergency and not mobilizing people particularly, but as time goes on and particularly in his mid-term election of 1934, he has mobilized people, but they’re also having a counter effect on him. It doesn’t change my overall definition of transforming leadership, because I still would emphasize the role of those he’s mobilized and how they produce future leaders. I may have wandered a bit from your question.
SCARPINO: No. I’m wondering and just trying to understand what it means to be an effective leader and just sticking with this business of communicating a vision for a minute. Some of the people whose names have come up like Thomas Jefferson or somebody who didn’t—James Madison who was a funny little man—or Abraham Lincoln, would last about 30 seconds on television. So do you think that part of the success of a leader is related to their ability to function within the communication context of their own time?
BURNS: Definitely, yes. Absolutely. I can’t imagine anyone being an effective leader who could not communicate. Stalin, I guess…
SCARPINO: What have we lost then by putting people on television? Because Lincoln isn’t coming back. Or what have we gained?
BURNS: I’m not a television enthusiast. I don’t have a television. I’d like to think more about that. It’s a very good question. I think let me ask you to work on that.
SCARPINO: (laughter) Yes sir.
BURNS: And you too.
Madison: I don’t watch television.
SCARPINO: I don’t watch much television either, but I do…
Madison: I don’t watch television.
SCARPINO: Okay. Again as you consider that point of the transformational leader being somebody who can communicate a vision and engage meaningfully with followers, can you think of any examples of leaders who fell short in that area?
BURNS: Who potentially were great leaders, just didn’t quite make it?
SCARPINO: Just couldn’t do it.
BURNS: Well I think Theodore Roosevelt was potentially, in terms of actually having an impact, but that was curious because he could have run again, as you know, and decided, and did not. It would have been interesting to see what a second term would have been for him. Huey Long, whom you mentioned, I could imagine if things had gone worse in this country, his becoming a leader. But again, he got shot. I can’t think of any.
SCARPINO: Just curious. You mentioned again in talking about the communicating a vision, you said “…that will engage followers in a meaningful pursuit.” How do you decide what a meaningful pursuit is?
BURNS: In terms of results, in terms of legislation passed or wars won or other practical things like that, actual change. It’s interesting to me, by the way, that change has become, it’s an obvious word, but it’s become a big symbol today. So it’s like a real change, not talk change or rhetorical change, but real change in people’s lives. Getting back to FDR, with all the admiration I had for him, still one-third of the nation, that he talked about still, was one-third and, by the way, still today one-third of the nation, what did he say, ill-housed, ill-fed…
BURNS: That’s it.
SCARPINO: A second element that you described to transformational leadership is what you called individualized consideration. And again, for the benefit of somebody who’s going to listen to this recording, you talked about paying attention to the capabilities, personalities, and needs of each follower. The leader acts as a coach or a mentor. The leader develops followers to full potential. How does a leader, like a president or a governor, lead using individualized consideration? How do they do that?
BURNS: I think they just do it. I think even in FDR’s case, where he was not always doing that with the people around him; you know, I think maybe Obama today; I think Lincoln, simply energize and activate and present such an example. But it’s a very important point because, although we don’t know as much about it as we should, because we don’t really know as much as we should about the day-to-day contacts. Who is teaching whom? Who is learning from whom? Some people if you ask them about leaders will say, oh, he wasn’t much, but he had the great people around him. I don’t think we know enough about that process. From day-to-day who is educating whom? Who is inspiring whom? I think all we know is that no leader can do it alone and so much depends not only mobilizing parties, it’s mobilizing immediate followers; and this is where you get into biography, which often can’t handle this because how much do we know about that day-to-day, off the record exchanges between people. But it’s important even if we don’t know about it.
SCARPINO: Do you think that leaders should be mentors?
BURNS: Should be?
SCARPINO: Mentors? That leaders should be mentoring others?
BURNS: Yes, but I think that’s a rather restricted term for leaders. They should be mentors and much else. I mean, they should be teachers and many of them were. I mean, Lincoln obviously taught people around him but it’s not enough in itself.
SCARPINO: The third element of transformational leadership that you mentioned was intellectual stimulation and again, for the benefit of somebody who listens to this recording later, you talked about “…a willingness to challenge old ways and stretch followers. thinking and imagination. By reframing situations the leader can invoke a climate of innovation and creativity.” How do effective leaders engage followers with innovation and creativity? What works?
BURNS: I think this is where you get into psychology and often it’s rather mysterious. And I don’t think I’ve seen enough of it personally to know much about it.
SCARPINO: Do you think that in the, I mean you have already said that you don’t have a television, but most people do, and do you think that in the world that we live in where not only are things almost instantly on television, but they’re almost instantly on the Internet and on Twitter and Facebook and all these things, do you think that aids or retards the ability of a leader to engage in intellectual stimulation?
BURNS: Did you say age?
SCARPINO: To engage in.
BURNS: To engage. I’m sorry would you repeat?
SCARPINO: Do you think that all that media makes it harder or easier for a leader to stretch the follower’s thinking and imagination?
BURNS: Well it’s interesting to answer that in terms of comparing Lincoln say to Roosevelt, where Lincoln does not have what you’re talking about and yet is personally able to engage a rather fragmented Cabinet and people with diverse attitudes as against Roosevelt. I don’t, I think one thing we’re lacking in, certainly I think I’m intellectually lacking in, is to know enough about the psychology of close-in leadership, just what it is that instead of simply getting up and giving a great speech and mobilizing followers out there, a leader is able to engage people right around him. Now, it’s somewhat easier for a president who has the status. He is the president and that gives him a certain, obviously, great status in many ways. But we all know about following out—people who fall out from close in, people who get repudiated or they repudiate the leader, and I guess it’s some kind of psychological quality of motivating people, having been motivated himself or herself, to motivate other people and get them to do things that otherwise they may not be able to do. But I don’t think I know enough about, literally, that motivating process to know anything further because so often it can turn around on the original leader because the leader has been flattering and involving and inspiring a follower, an aide, and then something happens because some other aide comes into the picture and the first aide feels left out and the other aide, whatever, and so on. So you get into incredibly complicated situations. But again, part of the test of a leader is, for example—again I hate to use FDR so much but he is so appropriate, we know so much about him—that he was able to keep most people around him in the office motivated, even though some of them began to differ with him and so on. So all I can say is that there is psychological qualities there that I am not able to analyze as much as I would like.
SCARPINO: Do you think that that’s an area for further study?
SCARPINO: The final quality that you attribute to transformational leadership you called idealized influence and, again, you said, “…that’s how a leader builds trust and respect by acting with total integrity and appealing to followers on an emotional level. By setting the highest ethical standards the leader just demonstrates a willingness to serve.” What role do you think that trust and respect play in leadership?
BURNS: Oh, I think a lot. But, I think as you read that to me, I would not today put as much emphasis on high-minded ethical. As I’ve watched these leaders operate in so many different ways, it’s much more the kind of thing we were just talking about, the magnetic, psychological aspect of this that seems to be crucial and again the ethical—Roosevelt for example, again after Roosevelt—did unethical things and, yet, he had to keep the support around him and the people, too. Even though he was manipulative, I guess he had to show, and he did show, that even though he was doing these manipulative things, like hiring people and all the things like that, that it was to serve a greater cause. So I think so much of the answer to your question lies into what extent can ethical, day-to-day transforming questions be transformed by a great leader into something much bigger than just the relationship with some guy or person. So that’s kind of not well said, but I think it’s, I guess, perhaps, what I’m saying is that despite all the work that’s been done on leadership, followership, relationships, we still don’t have all the answers to that.
SCARPINO: Do you think in the years since you wrote that book that ethical considerations have become more or less important in defining the success of a leader and start, say, in the United States?
BURNS: Well, first of all, I distinguish between ethical and moral. Ethical being modesty and that sort of thing, fairness. Moral being the big issues of what a nation does. I think the ethical thing just goes on and on since it is so built into human relationships, whether it’s marital relationships or political relationships, business relationships. I think those are simply the eternal aspects of those relationships, human relationships, that do not change very much over the centuries. What does change is the extent to which the ethical questions either help leaders develop moral positions, or at least do not interfere because again, using FDR or to some extent Lincoln and some of the others, ethically they did things that were not right. They fibbed and so forth and so on. So I guess it comes back to to what extent does the ethical, as we define it, as I define it, serve the moral and in the case of FDR, I forgive him lots of his fibs and all the rest because they did finally serve great moral ends. That’s about all I can say.
SCARPINO: How would you assess Richard Nixon as a leader?
BURNS: Well, I guess it relates very much to what we’re talking about. It’s a good question. He, I think, we’re tending to see, to give him more respect, as years go on, about some of his overall, I won’t call them moral, but you might say his general objectives, which means his values. For example, going to, where did he go? He went to?
BURNS: China, and took rather good positions by our standards, and I think by many Republican standards. But sometimes, the ethical can be so unethical as simply to bollix up. So the poor man, who really deserves probably more respect from historians for what he did, it’s so completely perverted and distorted or limited by his ethical behavior that, I guess, it reminds us that even though I, for example, put moral standards above ethical, I shouldn’t put it too much above there because the two really have to go together.
SCARPINO: That’s right. So far as we know he was never unfaithful to his wife but he certainly had some issues.
BURNS: That’s right.
SCARPINO: What role do you think that Watergate has played in the relationship between followers and leaders in the United States?
BURNS: I couldn’t really say more about that than perhaps what’s implied in the previous comment. I haven’t learned enough about the literal impact of Watergate to answer that.
SCARPINO: Did you know Richard Nixon personally?
BURNS: No, I never.
SCARPINO: Never met him? How about Jimmy Carter? Did you ever meet Jimmy Carter?
BURNS: Yes, I did.
SCARPINO: How did you meet him?
BURNS: Well, I asked to see him and, glad you asked. Got one of my stories. But, I liked him, and I was so impressed that a southern Democrat could be, in my view, so good. He may not have been the greatest president, and I think he was better than most people say. So I just admired a man who, again, ethically, as far as I know, was great and also had some very good standard, liberal democratic aspirations. So he was good both ethically and morally from my standpoint. And I think here we come back to the skill factor that something just did not work out for him. Maybe it was just history with too many of its restraints. But he, of course did not get re-elected. Now that’s always a great test. Maybe it was because he was not tough enough as to be a ethical leader and not broadminded enough to be a great moral leader. But I haven’t really studied the Carter life enough.
SCARPINO: Do you think that there’s, that any president could have overcome the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion?
BURNS: Yes, well there’s a good point.
SCARPINO: And in 1973, Arab oil embargo and, I mean, do you think anybody could have lived through that so to speak?
BURNS: I think you’re right. He hasn’t had, you know, let’s add the luck aspect to some of these things. Just plain bad luck. The guy, well I don’t need to go into it. You know it better than I, but we can’t define all the presidential, we can’t make leadership a luck thing. I mean, we know luck is involved but it can’t, and luck is so fortuitous. We can’t generalize about it. Some people get lucky, others don’t for no particular reason. It’s just there. I can’t do much more with it than that. But I do want, before we get, I’ll tell my little Carter story that will just amuse you. So I go in to see him. He’s very nice to give me the time, and we have a nice chat, and I brought a book with me. It might have been FDR, I forget what, to give him. So I pull, after our 20-minute or so conversation, I pull the book out and said, I’d like to, he said, oh, well, I’d like to give you a book, too. So he looks around the desk, and he can’t find his book. He said, oh, it’s outside. So instead of calling for an aide to bring him the book, he pops out of the office and goes into a side door and disappears. I’m sitting there.
SCARPINO: He leaves you alone.
BURNS: Thinking, I’ll pick up that phone and I’ll declare a war on something (laughter) or a peace or something. That was so funny. But he came back and, but he was such a nice guy. You know, even Kennedy, I liked him. He was, he not a very nice guy. I mean you, like FDR, in many ways was not a nice guy, but I just accept that as a fact of life, a fact of leadership.
SCARPINO: But you think that Carter was a nice guy so to speak.
SCARPINO: How would you rate him as a leader during his presidency?
BURNS: Straight B. Just, again, for reasons you’ve implied. Had a tough situation. Also, though, institutionally it was even tougher because, as far as I recall, he was not a natural leader of the Democratic Party, and I don’t think he had much of a national Party sense. In other words, he did not understand that the followers had to be mobilized and institutionalized and voting and so on. So from what I know, and I’m not an expert certainly on Carter, he did not do certain things that he might have done politically in a party way. You know, he came out of the south—the best book on that is V. O. Key’s work on the south. You know, that’s a whole different political system. It’s not a party system, it’s a factional situation. So his, it’s an interesting question, his past, I think, really hurt him on that score.
SCARPINO: How do you think he’s done in the years since?
BURNS: Oh, I just think he’s been a great senior statesman and very available. I think he’s great.
SCARPINO: How about Ronald Reagan, did you know him?
BURNS: No. But I think very well. I’m one of the admirers of Reagan. I think he, it’s a long story, but, and since I’m not an authority on him I won’t say much, but I felt that he lifted the Republican Party. Either he was just a nice guy or he seemed to be a nice guy day-to-day, and as compared to Nixon, if you look at the Nixon/Reagan contrast in terms just in personality, he was sort of a happy guy. And I think I met him once in a group but, it’s funny, this memory is terrible, although you’ve helped me a lot today by these questions to remember things. So I’m an admirer of Reagan without being at all an expert on the Reagan Presidency.
SCARPINO: But you think, generally speaking, he was effective as a leader?
BURNS: Yes, and I think he really pulled the Republican Party out of its doldrums, the post-Nixon doldrums. And, you know, he did something so important in all these estimates of presidents. He went a second term. Carter did not, for example. The first Bush did not and makes it just a huge difference. But there again, why did they get a second term? Maybe they’re just great. But also, maybe that they’re doing with the followers, they’re mobilizing those followers who will be behind them, stick with them, and give them a second term.
SCARPINO: You had some favorable things to say about Ronald Reagan as a leader, about what he did for the Republicans in the post-Nixon era. How would you assess the present condition of the Republican Party? I mean they seem to have dropped the Reagan mantle or left it on the side of the road or something.
BURNS: Yes. Well, it’s just a classic fight between, that goes on in any big party, between moderates, and I won’t call them extremists, but whatever the right term is—hard core people. Lincoln faced that too and Carter did. You’re trying to lead a huge party of millions of people and there’s usually a left/right aspect to that. Reagan managed to be a conservative who mobilized the moderates in the party. Was nice enough a guy or just did enough from day-to-day to keep the support of moderate leaders in the Republican Party, and himself was not really an extremist when you got down to actual policy. Today, the Republicans have the traditional cleavage that’s much sharper than usual. Obviously the Democrats, look at the moderate Democrats that we’re hearing about today, particularly in relation to the health bill. So there’s always that classic—you’ve got a great big spectrum, and you’ve got two parties and each one has to cover a huge spectrum—you’re going to have this division. Why the Republicans are so lost in it, is what is implied to me by your question. Why are some of them sticking to stuff that goes back 50 or 60 years? Of course a lot of them are from the south. Let’s not forget that. They have southern constituencies. Complete transformation there which is a whole
other story and some are compelled by South Carolinians or Georgians or Louisianans to be conservative. So it’s understandable, and they should be conservative. Question is how conservative. But I would make a major point of what I just said that the Republican Party very happily inherited the south but it inherited all the problems of the south at the same time including millions and millions of utter reactionaries, who deserve their representation too, and I don’t know how the Republicans will overcome that. Depends somewhat, of course, on our side, the Democratic side. Fascinating question. V. O. Key, again I, I don’t know if V. O. Key is still alive?
SCARPINO: I don’t know either. I shouldn’t admit this. I read it in graduate school, but that was awhile ago. All right, this is a question I’m dying to ask you. Is Sarah Palin a leader?
BURNS: I think she is. I think she’s a grassroots leader, and I’ll make a prediction and that is that come 2012 she will start a grassroots presidential nomination effort. She will hit every tiny, you know, year after year. I don’t know quite when her governorship ends but I guess by then it could end, she will be right down there, and she’ll be formidable. I don’t know what that Republican Convention will look like because there will be a lot of opposition to her, not only the usual male opposition to women, but opposition to someone who’s so unorthodox. But I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Palin, and she’s fascinating, just herself, the way she does things, the way she speaks. I think she’s got quite a career ahead of her.
SCARPINO: I read an interview that you did with the Boston Globe. I’m sure you’ve done a lot of interviews, but I like this one—October 15, 2000. And you said in that interview, you said, “Conflict is the key to great leadership. Both Teddy Roosevelt and FDR were able to make the enemy into such demons that they created a conflict situation that they exploited.” Why do you think that conflict is an important part of leadership?
BURNS: Because conflict mobilizes followers. They’re mobilized because they feel strongly. The leader emphasizes the conflict. FDR says, I, what was his quote? I forgot. “They hate me, and I welcome their hatred.” You can’t get more down to earth on conflict than that. He was glorying in the conflict, and I think, by the way, this may be a problem with Obama. I don’t think he, you know, he’s such a nice guy it seems and accommodating and trying to bring everybody together and working with the Republicans and so on. I don’t think he realizes that the one way you mobilize people is simply on the basis of conflict. So I think conflict is absolutely at the heart of democratic politics, a small d, and in a way, we don’t have enough of it, probably not too much.
SCARPINO: So you think maybe that the recent trend in the last 20 years or so to run toward the center is not effective leadership?
BURNS: That’s right. And I think it goes back to the Carter question that came up and you asked, that he was operating on the moderate side of the Democratic Party, whereas he should have been on the militant side of the Democratic Party. And again, getting back to Obama, that he’s, that in trying to keep this ungainly bunch of people together, he is trying so much to keep them that he will lose some of the dynamism that conflict involves, and he’s going to have tough opposition when he runs again. And I think at that point it will be interesting to see whether he can reach down and mobilize the people the way FDR did in ’36.
SCARPINO: I’m going to read one more line out of that interview. I like that interview.
SCARPINO: You said in that same interview, you said, “Fights are the inevitable result of conviction which, along with values, defines political leadership.” So what role do you think that conviction plays…
SCARPINO: …in leadership?
BURNS: Absolutely central to it. That you, great leaders are people of conviction and commitment. I think this may get back a little bit to the Carter question we talked about—the non-re-election. Even with Reagan, who seemed like a nice guy, you had a sense that he really believed in what he was talking about, although I’m not sure history will prove that. But again, getting back to the great leaders, that the leaders we esteem historically, from Hamilton, Adams—not Washington, he was everybody’s hero—and on through Jackson and Lincoln, Teddy, to some extent Wilson and FDR, they simply had that commitment, and people knew it, and I don’t see any way to mobilize people. You can’t just do it by loving. You know, oh, I love my opponent. So you’ve got to, there is that, maybe it’s a sporting aspect of America. You know, we love sports, we love fights, we love contests, we love commitment, we love victories and defeats, and I think that’s good politics too.
SCARPINO: So you think running for the middle is sort of…
SCARPINO: You think running toward the middle sort of eviscerates all of that.
BURNS: It dulls it. It’s too transactional, and I guess that gets back to my little double thing there that transactional must serve the transformer—transformational and, in the end, between the two tugs of transactional and transforming, ultimately the transactional must give way to the transforming.
SCARPINO: I’ve got two or three more questions I’m going to ask you and then we’ll wrap it up so we don’t take advantage of your generosity.
BURNS: It’s up to you. I’ll go on as long as you like.
SCARPINO: I know, but if it looks to me like you’re getting tired, I’m going to feel bad. But there’s a different side of leadership that we’ve sort of talked a little bit about, but we haven’t really gotten to the heart of, and that’s the relationship between leadership and failure, and I went back and I just looked up a few things. We talked about Jimmy Carter and his issues with the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Arab Oil Embargo and, of course, he lost to Reagan; and then Reagan, who many people, including yourself, ran as an effective leader, sent Marines into Lebanon. He had to deal with Iran-Contra. I mean, he had his own set of problems, but he had Oliver North. Clinton had all kinds of problems, I mean, in addition to his own personal issues, he had the health care crisis and Don’t Ask, Don’t tell. Franklin Roosevelt, of course, had failures. What role do you think that failure plays ultimately in effective leadership?
BURNS: Well, I think they have a major role to the extent that one learns from failures and again, using FDR, if only because I feel I know more about him than any other president, that despite the seeming success of the 1933 emergency acts, they were not doing what had to be done, and he had the ability to see that there was some failure here. NRA was not really working very well and so on. So it is a capacity to understand failure. That’s very had to do because you’ve got people around you saying, oh, no, you’re doing great and, no, that was not a mistake, and so on. So I think also overcoming failure, being defeated in earlier elections and having to scrutinize why you failed and the like. So I think some of the great politicians—I can’t enumerate them now—but they’ve often had failed elections or failures of all sorts. I think they’ve learned, I think we could put it this way, that you probably learn more from your failures than you do from your successes.
SCARPINO: Did Bill Clinton learn from his failures?
BURNS: I don’t think so, no.
SCARPINO: Did you know him? Do you know him?
BURNS: I met him, but I didn’t really know him, no. I knew her better.
SCARPINO: Do you think Hilary Clinton is a leader in your definition of the term?
BURNS: Yes, I think she is. I think, I was a Hilary person until he got the nomination. The instant he won, it took me a nanosecond to move from her to him. He was the nominee. That was enough for me and so on. But I think it’s kind of sad in her case because I think, I think the one thing—I’m not sure how good a campaigner she was—I think she probably would have been a very effective president. On the other hand, I should ask people like you—would a woman president be able to mobilize the kind of support that would be needed?
SCARPINO: I’m going to wrap this up, but do you consider yourself to be a leader?
SCARPINO: Do you think of yourself as a leader?
BURNS: No. No, I don’t really. First of all, my one effort showed I was not a leader, at least in terms of winning an office. I never have any exaggerating feelings of having influenced people through my books. I would like though to, come to think of it, because this to me was the most important thing, and I really, perhaps we should end on this because I want to emphasize this more and it relates very much to…
SCARPINO: And you got the book Leadership in your hands.
BURNS: I’ve got it in hand, yeah. Because I went back to this, and I would say if I ever showed leadership qualities intellectually that seemed to have an effect, it was this book. This is a long, turgid book. I looked at it just again in preparation for this meeting, as I say, and I hate to say this about myself, but I have to say, because I cannot do it anymore, too, I’m amazed at this book. (laughing) Don’t tell anybody I said this, even though it’s recorded. I am amazed by this book.
SCARPINO: (laughter) It’s between you and me and all the people that are going to listen to this, but…
BURNS: Right. Partly because it is so different from what I can do today, and I think, anyway, I think I did help establish leadership as, help establish leadership as a major area with impacts, of course along with others. For example, Williams now has a leadership program, my own. Susan Dunn is part of the leadership. It’s not a department, it’s sort of a program here, and there’s several others that teach leadership. So that’s true. It’s amazing of course how much leadership is taught now and written about. God, the literature on leadership is just enormous. I don’t need to tell you. But on your question, I would say that here was a case, compared to the other books that have been describing people and talking about problems and talking about four parties and so forth, that this was the book where I did take intellectual leadership and it showed because of all the books I’ve written this is the one that still—no book of mine has been a great bestseller—this is the book that still I get royalties from in its paper edition. So with that very pompous statement, I’ll say that it is possible to lead intellectually, and I think in this particular area, I did, and then many others have come along of course, too, to do better than I’ve done.
SCARPINO: Well, thank you. Before I hit the off buttons on this, I would like to thank you on behalf of myself and Carol and everybody that’s involved with the Tobias Center for being generous enough to sit with me for almost two and a half hours this afternoon. Thank you very much.
BURNS: Well, thank you for wonderful questions and fun to talk with you.
SCARPINO: Oh, well, it was my pleasure.
BURNS: I could go on for another two and a half hours.