May 3, 2000
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS, Co-Author, "Dead Center:" Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: In this book, you are critical of President Clinton and other former presidents for practicing centrism, moderation, deal-making, qualities that conventional political wisdom often applauds. What's wrong with those qualities in a president?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Because they gave us weak government, and they do not solve basic problems. And one example is education. Almost every president for the last 30 years has said he would be the education president or something like that. Not one of them has been the education president. The educational problem continues while presidents deal only with symptoms, not with fundamental problems.
MARGARET WARNER: And what do you think is behind this?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Well, first of all, it's the political system, our constitutional system. It does make it very hard for presidents to live up to their promises. But beyond that, it's what you said earlier, it's that people sort of like agreement, consensus, watering policies down, taking the middle road, being good to each side, you know, all those things that sound so good when politicians say them. The trouble is, to make change, you have to take a very strong line. And the thing that we're particularly concerned about is that, while government is moving step by step in a very incremental way, things around the president, life is moving with relentless speed: Finance, science, technology, the media, education itself and so on, higher education are moving with great speed. So that government constantly lags and simply does not get the problem solved.
MARGARET WARNER: At one point you used the term, "visionary versus broker," to describe... it's almost as if a president falls in one or the other category. Do you think all great presidents, in your view, have they been on the visionary side?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Yes, all great presidents have been visionary. And we use a little term, "transformational," because it's more precise. They've been transforming leaders. These other leaders have been sometimes good leaders but not making the basic changes that usually they have promised the voters.
MARGARET WARNER: So who would you put in this great-presidents, transforming-leaders category?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Well, my favorite, because it's the 20th century, is FDR. But another Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, was an amazingly transformational leader. And we give a lot of credit to Ronald Reagan, not necessarily that we agree with him, but because he was a man who said that he could, in effect, return the Republican Party to true conservatism. And a lot of people said, "Ronnie, you're just going to... You're going to do what Barry Goldwater did to the Republican Party, drag it down to another defeat." And Reagan said, "no," that he believed in good old American conservatism and he was going to win on the basis of conservatism, and he did.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, where does the American voter fit into this -- because the evidence, at least recent, recent evidence, seems to suggest they're a little distrustful of bold presidential leadership or sweeping change, unless we're in a time of national crisis.
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Well, I think you're right about in a time of national crisis. I think typically in our history, people have wanted strong leaders, they've wanted strong candidates, they've wanted a real choice between candidates. We're living in prosperous times, and people are somewhat less concerned. But I think people are aware of these basic educational, environmental and other problems, the usual list that we're all aware of. And the reason we're all aware of it is that the list continues for decade after decade. So that I think a bold leader today would attract a lot of attention, the way McCain did. And I think one thing lacking in this current campaign is that we have two what I would call incremental candidates who are not showing much willingness to carve out a strong position on either the left or the right.
MARGARET WARNER: But you mentioned John McCain. I mean what does it tell you that the voters, on the Republican side, they had a choice between McCain and George W. Bush, and on the Democratic side, they had a choice between a more visionary, big-thinker, Bill Bradley, and yet they chose Al Gore.
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: That's a presidential primary. We can talk a lot about the problems of presidential primaries. But in presidential campaigns, historically, the bolder candidate has won, whether we go back to Roosevelt's time, Harry Truman running against Dewey, other candidates I could mention, Reagan himself. The bolder candidates, I would argue, have won the elections.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's look at the President Clinton example, which you use heavily in this book. The Clinton folks would say that when he tried bold, liberal leadership in the first two years, whether it was fighting for, you know, gays in the military or his health care plan, that he got rebuffed not only by the Congress but by the voters and that he's been much more successful since he moved to the center and began sort of tacking back and forth.
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Well, Margaret, I think he's been successful on lots of little things, little things that did not make the kind of difference that, as I suggest, we need to make, given the speed of change outside government. But the best example of course is the health effort. And what bothers us about that is he was defeated, and of course the health plan was not well developed. It had its problems. But the history of reform in this country is that you're almost always defeated the first time or the second time or maybe the third time. The best example of this is women trying to get the right to vote, one of the most profound reforms we've had in our history. They worked for 100 years to get that right. They were derided, laughed at, and they kept up their effort. What we feel was sad about this was Clinton's willingness to accept defeat, almost in a shame-faced way, as though, "gee, I shouldn't have done that." On the contrary, the health problem continues. And we think that the great reformers, if they really believe in it-- that's the test-- they come back to the battle.
MARGARET WARNER: So you said that you see the two major party candidates now, Bush and Gore, in this centrist mold. And you just think that's not sufficient to the challenges ahead?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: I think there are two problems: One is it's boring. Are you bored by this election a little bit, Margaret?
MARGARET WARNER: No comment.
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: All right. Well, I am. And I would like to see the candidates staking out positions that give us a real choice next fall, instead of a choice between someone who is a little tiny bit left of center and someone who's a little tiny bit right of center. And again, I think that the one who takes the bolder position is going to win.
MARGARET WARNER: And what about for governing, though? I mean if you were to give a prescription to whomever wins, what would you have them to be bold about and be willing to follow through on?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Well, again, I go back to education. That's one thing I know a bit about because that's what I've been all my life is in education. I would like to see them stake out much stronger positions on education. And if they do, the beauty of it is, is that the one who wins, if he's staked out a stronger position, he has a mandate. He can go to the people and say, "I won on this basis, and this is what the people want, and I'm going to do it." But this very rarely happens.
MARGARET WARNER: As some would argue Ronald Reagan did do on his tax plan, for instance?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Yes, exactly.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you see political leaders out there that you think are potentially transformational, as you describe them?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Well, I would have to say that I don't see many transformational leaders around because many of them feel just the way you described the public was feeling, that they should be centrists and they should be incrementalists, as we call them. Or another word we use-- a little more jargon here-- transactional leaders, as against transformational leaders.
MARGARET WARNER: By transaction, you mean deal-making, brokering?
JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS: Yes, exactly, brokers and negotiators and so on. So I think that, if they campaigned effectively, they could then govern effectively.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Professor Burns, thank you very much.