An Interview With James Macgregor Burns

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Yes, particularly in intellectual leadership. Leadership , my 1978 book, has led me to conclude that the great leaders of history have been intellectual leaders—though they were other things at the same time. “Intellectual leadership” sounds like a pretentious and limiting term, but I’m referring also to inventors of machines, and to entrepreneurs who are inventors of ideas. I see all kinds of ideas as the cutting edge of history.

You refer in the book to three “cadres” of leadership—a first, of national figures like the Presidents; a second, composed of influential people at the state level; and then a third. Who are the members of this “third cadre”?

They are the locally significant people, the town editor and the preacher, the interest-group activists and reformers. The perfect example would be convention delegates—and I don’t just mean political conventions. These are the ones who link up their own communities with other centers. They also connect to higher levels—they bring grass-roots ideas to people at the top of the pyramid and take new concepts back home with them. It’s hard to deal with these people in a book, because there are thousands of them. But I believe they constitute a great corps of leadership from which higher-cadre leaders come.

You intersperse your text with biographical vignettes, bits of song, little scenes. What’s behind that technique?

Well, the simple answer is that it gives variety to the text, and the vignettes help me to get at the third cadre. And I like a good story. Of course, after a while you have to do some generalizing. What I did here, and also in my two Roosevelt biographies, was to “bootleg” some generalization and some theory into each section without beating the reader over the head. That’s been my essential literary strategy.

Are you trying to write like the great nineteenth-century historians?

They were marvelous synthesizers, and we need that. On the other hand, they were very opinionated, and I’m not sure about some of the data that they used. Today’s specialist scholars really get into things; what they’re doing in voting analysis, for example, is just remarkable. The question is: Can you combine narrative that conveys to people the life and blood and guts and songs and poetry and crises of our history with the analysis and ideas that give it all meaning?

You start with an epigraph from Ecclesiastes. It’s the passage in which the speaker says that the things he has done in life are “vanity,” but he learned that “wisdom excelleth folly as far as light excelleth darkness.” Why?

The words about wisdom are the controlling metaphor. Above all, it’s our brains that we have to turn to. We do have to work within constraints established by great social, economic, and biological forces. But what we have going for us, essentially, is our capacity to think—the ability to anticipate, to plan, to define objectives, to resolve great conflicts.

You’re a political scientist and a historian-biographer. Which craft do you like to practice best?

You have to do both, but history is more fun.