We Deserve Better

Book cover
Running Aloneby James MacGregor Burns

Basic Books. 272p $26


In Running Alone, the distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McGregor Burns tracks almost a half-century of what he considers critically flawed American presidential leadership. His starting point is John F. Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election, in which he ran his campaign with his own organization rather than leading a Democratic Party effort and in the process engineered a new route to the presidency. The presidential candidates who followed this running alone strategy found, as did Kennedy, that governing alone without committed party support usually meant governing unsuccessfully. These failures in presidential leadership have been further compounded, Burns argues, by attempts to solve 20th/21st-century problems with an 18th-century constitutional system of checks and balances that stymies action. He offers a solution, calling for a new and compelling leadership for both systemic change for voter mobilizationa leadership rivaling the constitutional and party transformation fashioned by the Framers two centuries ago. It is a tall order.

Beginning with Congress on Trial (1949), detailing legislative frustrations, through his work on Leadership (1978) calling for transformational national leadership, and his 1992 work, The Democrats Must Lead, (with political studies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy in between) Burns has addressed, with his customary style and clarity, the themes he brings together in Running Alone. He contends that from 1932, it was the era not only of great Democratic presidents but of brilliant collective leadership, generations of committed, creative reformers that reached from the West Wing of the White House through the departments and agencies down to the grass roots, to the well of that great leadership, to the tens of millions of citizens who put them into office and kept them there.

Fully a third of this book focuses on John F. Kennedy. Believing that his proposals on education and health would win support because they met national needs, Kennedy thought that the public would have to be stirred by a crisis to gain their backing. Without a major crisis, Burns asserts, Kennedy became the servant rather than the master of events. In 1963 he was beginning, with his speech on civil rights, to put together a collective leadership to meet a critical domestic challenge; yet he also reverted in planning a re-election strategy to focus on his own success rather than the party’s. Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, before the party fragmentation over Vietnam, demonstrated how a president and his party, empowered by values and by the hopes and demands of people in need, could govern together to accomplish enduring change.

The post-1968 years, Burns argues, favored opportunists like Richard M. Nixon, the master opportunist, who stoked social and cultural polarization to make Republican inroads in the South. While Ronald Reagan communicated a vision, his success was essentially grounded in the political transformation of the South. To Burns, Reagan was only a would-be transforming leader. Committed to strengthening the Republican party, he did not seek government action but inaction. Still, Burns approvingly notes how he unified the right, promoting ideological and political conflict, and clearly drew the lines between us and them.

Jimmy Carter, aided by the Nixon scandals and his Georgia base, held enough of the South to win the presidency, but his strategy of running as an outsider combined with a House of Representatives that was increasingly undisciplined, an oil crisis and the Iranian hostage situation doomed his re-election efforts. Twelve years later, Bill Clinton, a crusading centrist, pressed for health legislation and traditional social justice issues, while seeking a Third Way. Burns is sharply critical of Clinton as a compromiser, concluding that his was a soulless exercise in opportunism worthy of Richard Nixon tailored to reach targeted groups, assembling superficial, transient coalitions rather than a lasting followership mobilized by a coherent meaningful set of principles.

His chapter on the Bushes, Standing Together Alone, explores the emergence of the Republican Party as a disciplined national organization. Burns sees Bush senior as an outsider, running alone, seeking the center, but essentially finding nothing to stand for beyond his ambition. On the other hand, the George W. Bush-Karl Rove strategy has built an organization fueled by a flexible blend of Christian-tinted conservative doctrine with thick draughts of what reporters called slaughter house politics.’ Bush and his advisors have forged a right-wing party that resembles a parliamentary system (with Cheney as deputy prime minister), more than the American system of checks and balances. Yet Burns asserts that Bush is not a transformative leader, since he eschews accountability, the keystone of true collective leadership in a democracy. By concentrating on the hard right, Bush also remains disconnected from the broad mass of Americans.

Burns ends as he beganwith a call for transformative leadership. The Democrats must forge a strong party identity, staking out issues that divide us and them. In 1944, Roosevelt did this when he issued his second bill of rights insisting that every American had a right to a job, education, home and health. In 2006 persistent economic and social inequality and a widening income gap divide Americans, but they are not yet polarized politically. They need Roose-veltian leadership and a Democratic team that offers clear choices. While Burns sets out constitutional changes that would promote the actions he considers vitallike the popular election of presidents and four-year terms of office running concurrently for president, senators and representativeshe does not believe they will be enacted anytime soon. In the near term, he asserts that party can be the integrative factor in achieving a national progressive agenda.

Again, it is a tall order. With widespread disenchantment with the party discipline recently practiced by the Republicans in Congress, party may not appeal as the instrument of deliverance. Yet a lifetime of scholarship has made Burns a true believer. In Running Alone, he argues with conviction that transformative leadership, in which leaders and compelling policies empower followers and followers empower the leader, is not only possible but a national imperative.

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