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Functionaries Transact, Leaders Transform : THE CROSSWINDS OF FREEDOM The American Experiment, Volume III by James MacGregor Burns (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 864 pp.)

April 16, 1989|Larry Ceplair | Ceplair teaches history at Santa Monica College; his "The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimke" is forthcoming from Columbia University Press

James MacGregor Burns, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government, Williams College, has been analyzing the U.S. political system in historical perspective for 40 years. This volume completes his effort to clothe fully his themes. As were the other two books in this series, "The Vineyard of Liberty" and "The Workshop of Democracy," this one is well written and attentive to economic, social and cultural developments. Burns writes clearly and provides a logical structure, effectively bridging the various elements of his tale. He has also provided copious notes to guide the interested reader to the more specialized works on which he has drawn.

Although he tells his story well, Burns is not content with simple narrative. Periodically, he offers thoughtful commentary, posing key historical questions and reviewing the plausible answers of other historians. He does not, however, provide new answers or insights. And leadership, his leitmotif, though giving him broad scope to do what he does best--analyze the vagaries of political figures--constantly begs several questions.

In these volumes, Burns repeats the themes of the other books he has written. In "The Deadlock of Democracy" (1963), he argued that the United States was saddled with a devitalized and delaying set of political institutions. "Leadership" (1978) was an attempt to give substance to that concept as a means of guiding people away from their acceptance of mediocre and irresponsible leaders. These arguments merged in "The Power to Lead" (1984), in which Burns argues that leadership failure is rooted in two institutional problems--the Constitution's separation of powers system and the political party system.

As a result, U.S. political culture produces "transactional" rather than "transformational" leaders. The former operate on a task-to-task, deal-making agenda; the latter proceed from a base of moral principles. The transformational leaders that Burns identifies are notable for their limitations. For example, he deeply admires Eleanor Roosevelt, who, but for being a woman, could have been the one 20th-Century Democrat to bridge the various divides in the party and offer it the quality of moral leadership that Burns believes has been absent.

The civil rights activists of the '60s also earn his approbation: They took "moral and political leadership of the nation," and for "a few brief shining years . . . spurred the conscience of their fellow Americans."

Finally, Burns appreciates the moral leadership exhibited by the Catholic bishops in two Pastoral Letters. The 1983 letter, "The Challenge of Peace," elevated "the moral tone and urgency of the nuclear issue." Their 1984 letter, on the economy, "magnificently filled the gap between high moral principle and explicit economic policy." (As of this writing, it might be noted, the bishops, as a body, have been silent on the Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence on Salman Rushdie.)

These exemplars, however, are isolated blooms on a generally arid political and intellectual plain. Burns does not single out any villains. His negative commentary tends to focus on generic villainous types, for example, those who have allowed the doctrine of individualism, "one to shrivel into hardly more than a slogan for naked class interest and selfish privatization."

In effect, these books contain the account of a people's descent from the Mount Sinai of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the desert wandering of current "intellectual disarray." The Founding Fathers, highly praised for their enlightened effort to create a set of governing institutions that would not threaten their concepts of liberty and equality, ended up dividing governing authority so effectively, Burns claims, that nothing has emerged to bridge the gaps between the various branches and levels of government or between constitutional values and business corporations. As a result, he says, leaders and citizens of the United States have lacked the wherewithal to give substance to the ideas of liberty and equality. They have not, that is, learned how to make a representative republic responsive to the "transcending needs and aspirations of the people."

According to Burns, the problem and the solution are one and the same: leadership. But we do not learn from Burns exactly why leaders fail or where better, more ideal ones will come from. They cannot, he concludes, emerge without the propulsive force of committed followers. But, he continues, "such leadership, such followership, can be founded only on intellectual and moral commitment to values and principles, to ideology in the true sense of the word." However, his 1,800 pages have fairly swept the ground clean of promising foundations for enduring intellectual and moral commitments.

Finally, there is a crippling contradiction in his historical approach. The heretofore unmatched genius of the Founding Fathers produced a political system that began to unravel during Washington's first term. A better system, based on Jefferson's "majority rule and responsible parties," also did not last long. What, then, can we expect of modern man, bereft of the idealistic and intellectual qualities of the Founders, bereft also of their unique laboratory for experimenting?

In fact, one puts down this last volume convinced that Burns, consciously or not, harbors a belief that there is an original sin at the heart of the republican state-building process that dooms it to failure in terms of fulfilling its spoken ideals.

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