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Burns turns to Supreme politics

The acclaimed scholar of presidents and Congress finds a new interest: the high court.

December 27, 2007|Hillel Italie | Associated Press

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

"I'm working on the politics of the Supreme Court," he says, seated in a small armchair in his converted farmhouse, a sunny, cluttered, book-filled loft just down the road and up the hill from Williams College, where he studied as an undergraduate and later taught for decades.

"I felt I had treated presidents and Congresses a lot, and here was this other branch I didn't know that much about. I had a feeling it would be even more political than I expected, and it is."

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

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

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

"He's an important scholar and also extremely accessible," says Geoffrey C. Ward, whose books include the acclaimed FDR biography, "A First-Class Temperament," and the companion texts to Ken Burns' documentaries on jazz, baseball, the Civil War and World War II.

"He knows how to tell a story and put you in a scene and make you want to know what happens next. In addition to being a political scientist, he's a wonderful storyteller, and that's quite unusual."

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

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

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

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

But he also knew much about life beyond the campus. He was an Army combat historian during World War II, recording the memories of soldiers just off the battlefield in Okinawa and elsewhere in the Pacific, and earning four combat medals and the Bronze Star. Later, he worked on a task force headed by Herbert Hoover and served as a congressional aide in Washington, where private scandals surprised him (he recalls hearing one drunken legislator brag about his womanizing) and the public record intrigued him: How does government work? What is the relationship between presidents and Congress, and presidents and their political parties?

Burns' first book, "Congress on Trial," came out in 1949 and was praised by the New York Times for its "timely" assessment of how federal legislators were deadlocked by local concerns. He then began a text on political leadership, with Franklin Roosevelt as an example, only to find FDR so fascinating that he ended up writing a biography. "Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox" was published in 1956, at a time when little serious scholarship existed on the late president, who died in 1945.

"I was very interested in how Machiavellian he was," says Burns, whose second volume on Roosevelt, "Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom," was published in 1970 and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

"He was a manipulator, and at the same time he had to be a lion. To what extent did he use the tactics of a fox in order to advance the wishes of a lion? To what extent did he have to be a transactional leader to be able to become a transforming leader?"

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