Burns was biographer of presidents and scholar of leadership

By Bruce Weber / New York Times News Service

Published Jul 16, 2014 at 12:01AM

James MacGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and a political scientist who wrote voluminously about the nature of leadership in general and the presidency in particular, died Tuesday at his home in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

He was 95.

The historian Michael Beschloss, a friend and former student, confirmed the death.

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 the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

An informal adviser to presidents, 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 such as “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 Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Edward 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 — Burns focused on parsing the relationship between the personalities of the powerful and the historical events they helped engender.

His award-winning Roosevelt biography, for example, was frank in its admiration of its subject. But the book nonetheless distilled, with equal frankness, Roosevelt’s failings and character flaws; it faulted him for not seizing the moment and cementing the good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union when war had made them allies. This lack of foresight, Burns argued, was a primary cause of the two nations’ drift into the Cold War.

Roosevelt “was a deeply divided man,” he wrote, “divided between the man of principle, of ideals, of faith, crusading for a distant vision, on the one hand; and, on the other, the man of Realpolitik, of prudence, of narrow, manageable, short-run goals, intent always on protecting his power and authority in a world of shifting moods and capricious fortune.”

This was typical of Burns, who wrote audaciously, with an almost therapistlike interpretation of the historical characters under his scrutiny. He could admire a president for his politics and his leadership skills, yet report on his inherent shortcomings, as he did with Roosevelt; or to spot a lack of political courage that undermined a promising presidency, as he did with President Bill Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, in “Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation,” written with Georgia Jones Sorenson. In the book, he chastised both men for yielding their liberal instincts too easily.

In “The Crisis of the Presidency,” his 1984 book about the dearth of transforming leaders, as opposed to transactional ones, in contemporary America, Burns was able to decry the outlook of a staunch conservative like President Ronald Reagan but admire him for his instinctive leadership — his understanding of not just how to maneuver the levers of power but also how to muster party unity and effect an attitudinal shift in society.

This distinction between transforming and transactional leadership was central to Burns’ political theorizing. As he explained it in “Leadership,” the transactional leader is the more conventional politician, a horse trader with his followers, offering jobs for votes, say, or support of important legislation in exchange for campaign contributions.

The transforming leader, on the other hand, “looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower,” Burns wrote.

“The result of transforming leadership,” he went on, “is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.”

If there was any way in which Burns’ personal views pierced his objectivity as a writer and researcher, it was in his understanding of the human elements of leadership. He had great faith in the potential for human greatness, and though he often scolded presidents, congressmen and party officials for failing to strive for progress and high ends, one could discern in his writing a pleading for great men and women to lead with greatness.

“That people can be lifted into their better selves,” he wrote at the end of “Leadership,” “is the secret of transforming leadership and the moral and practical theme of this work.”

Burns’ two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by four children and his companion, Susan Dunn, with whom he collaborated on “The Three Roosevelts” and a biography of George Washington, two of the half-dozen books Burns wrote or co-wrote after the age of 80. His last book, “Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed the World,” was published in 2013.