James MacGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and political scientist who wrote voluminously about the nature of leadership in general and the presidency in particular, died Tuesday at his home in Williamstown, Mass. He was 95.
The historian Michael Beschloss, a friend and former student, confirmed the death.
Mr. Burns, who taught at Williams College for most of the last half of the 20th century, was the author of more than 20 books, most notably “Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom” (1970), a major study of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stewardship of the country through World War II. It was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
An informal adviser to presidents, Mr. Burns was a liberal Democrat who once ran for Congress in Massachusetts. Although he sometimes wrote prescriptively from — or for — the left, overall he managed the neat trick of neither hiding his political viewpoint in his work nor funneling his work through it.
His work was often critical of U.S. government and its system of checks and balances, which in his view had become an obstacle to visionary progress, particularly when used by a divided or oppositional Congress as a rein on the presidency. In works like “The Deadlock of Democracy” (1963) and “Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court” (2009), he argued for systemic changes, calling for a population-based Senate, term limits for Supreme Court justices and an end to midterm elections.
The nature of leadership was his fundamental theme. In his biographies of Mr. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, among others, and in his works of political theory — including “Leadership,” a seminal 1978 work melding historical analysis and contemporary observation that became a foundation text for an academic discipline — Mr. Burns focused on parsing the relationship between the personalities of the powerful and the historical events they helped engender.
Mr. Burns was born on Aug. 3, 1918, in Melrose, Mass., outside Boston. His father, Robert, a businessman, and his mother, the former Mildred Bunce, came from Republican families, although Mr. Burns described her as holding feminist principles. She largely raised him, in Burlington, Mass., after his parents’ divorce, and it was she, he said, who instilled in him the independence of mind to oppose the political views prevalent in his father’s family.
After graduating from Williams, Mr. Burns went to Washington and worked as a congressional aide. He served as an Army combat historian in the Pacific during World War II, receiving a Bronze Star, and afterward earned a doctorate from Harvard. He did postdoctoral work at the London School of Economics. His first book, “Congress on Trial: The Legislative Process and the Administrative State,” a critical appraisal of U.S. lawmaking, was published in 1949.
After his second book, “Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox” (1956), a study of the president’s early years, Mr. Burns ran for Congress in 1958 from a western Massachusetts district that had not elected a Democrat since 1896 — and it did not again. During the campaign he became acquainted with John Kennedy, then running for his second term as senator from Massachusetts.United States - North America - United States government - Bill Clinton - United States Congress - Hillary Clinton - United States Senate - Edward Kennedy - Massachusetts - Ronald Reagan - Al Gore - Michael Beschloss - James MacGregor Burns - Brian Lamb