Williams College is celebrating the life and legacy of one its most distinguished faculty members. In part one of a two-part series, the school Tuesday night hosted a panel discussion in honor of the late historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns.
“I think that if Jim was here he would say, ‘If you are looking for political leadership in American history, the first place to look is the late 18th century and the last place to look is the late 20th and early 21st century,’” Ellis said. “It was the best and it’s now the worst.”
Joseph Ellis is a visiting professor of leadership studies at Williams College. He was joined by Sidney Milkis and Bruce Miroff, both political science professors, for a discussion on American politics in honor of James MacGregor Burns. A 1939 Williams graduate, Burns would teach at his alma mater and write more than 20 books on politics, history and leadership. He is best known for his 1971 national Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of FDR, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. Miroff visited Burns two weeks before his death July 15 at the age of 95.
“We talked briefly about the frustrations of President Obama,” Miroff recalled. “Jim was very sympathetic toward Obama’s problems. Especially because he saw them as stemming not primarily from any flaws of Obama, but fundamentally from the constitutional Madisonian system, which he saw over his long career as a system intentionally designed to hobble and frustrate political leadership.”
The three scholars talked about Burns’ idea of “transformational leadership,” a term he coined, and the barriers that stand in a president’s way of attaining it. The barricades discussed included checks and balances, staggered elections — which recently have swung power between the major parties every two years — and money’s influence in the political process. Here’s Milkis.
“During the past half century and culminating with the Obama presidency we have seen a transformation of partisanship from the decentralized patronage-based parties that dominated American politics for the first 150 years of our history that was anchored in the Congress to a nationalized executive-centered partisanship that relies on presidential candidates and presidents to do a whole bunch of stuff,” Milkis said. “To pronounce party doctrine, to raise campaign funds and to campaign on behalf of their party.”
Ellis says if Burns was part of the talk, he would call for a second Constitutional Convention to generate serious, radical conversation about changes to an outdated system that was developed and worked in the 18th century, but no longer does.
“If you’re really a leader, you don’t want to be president of the United States,” Ellis said. “You want to be the head of a movement. You want to be Martin Luther King [Jr.]. You don’t want to be Lyndon Johnson.
“You want to be Frederick Douglass, not Abraham Lincoln?” Milkis chimed in.
“Yeah, you don’t want to be Lincoln,” Ellis continued. “It’s almost now at the point where anybody with real leadership ability, who in his right mind wants to be president of the United States? You’ve got to be nuts.”
Miroff echoed Burns’ argument that progressive leaders do not go at change alone.
“It is in the bond and sometimes the tension between individual leadership and collective action that lay Jim’s hope for progressive politics in America,” Miroff said. “It is hard to improve upon Jim’s formula. It’s hard to imagine progressive leadership succeeding in the future in any other way.”
In the audience was Susan Dunn, the partner of the late Burns. A former Williams professor herself, she and Burns wrote two books together.
“I think he would have been absolutely delighted,” Dunn said. “The points that were made by all three of the participants were absolutely brilliant. About collective leadership, social movement, the presidency, the gridlock caused by checks and balances, Jim’s preference for a parliamentary system and how destructive midterm elections are because they tend to sabotage whoever is in the White House.”
Burns earned a Bronze Star as an Army combat historian in World War II’s Pacific Theater. Part two of the series will focus on Vladimir Putin and modern political leadership. It’s set for January 22.