Obituary: James MacGregor Burns / Scholar of presidents, leadership

Aug. 3, 1918 - July 15, 2014

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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


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