The Legacy of James MacGregor Burns
Edited by George R. Goethals and Douglas Bradburn
Chapter 7: James MacGregor Burns and the American Presidency
James MacGregor Burns (1918–2014) relished political debate. He was a lifelong critic of complacency, pragmatism and those who argued that the United States has no clear national purpose. Liberty, equality, fraternity and social justice, he contended, were our founding and revolutionary-era ideals. Yes, self-interest was the dominant motivator for most people, most of the time. Yet Burns regularly looked for ways and means that would encourage Americans to transcend short-term self-interests and embrace higher moral values. Burns criticized the Madisonian and weak-party systems in the United States for the timid, centrist politics they produced. He faulted presidents—including Kennedy, Clinton and—Obama for giving in to this system rather than transcending it. The Madisonian system, with its excessive fragmentation of power, Burns believed, frustrated the strategic exercise of power, efficiency, accountability and responsibility. He advocated party reforms, constitutional change, a strengthened American presidency and a redefined and more moral understanding of political leadership all as partial means toward a revitalized commitment to achieving America’s mission. He also championed Hamiltonian and Rooseveltian energy and forcefulness in the presidency in order to make the many splintered Madisonian system of checks and balances serve principled and purposeful Jeffersonian ends such as liberty and equality. He enjoyed being a provocateur even as conservatives and mainstream social scientists mostly opposed his proposals. He set high and sometimes paradoxical standards for what he called transformational leadership.
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