Parsing Presidents; Styles of Leadership, Kennedy to Bush

Article excerpt


Author of 19 books, emeritus professor of government, student and teacher of the United States presidency, James MacGregor Burns writes with the clarity and unadorned English of a mature man. Three quarters of this, his latest book, is devoted to a summarized history of and reflection on the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and his seven successors.

The author is a lifelong, active Democrat. He ran for Congress in the 1950s and has four times been a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. To his credit, his historical summary is free of partisan tendentiousness. His analysis of the successes and failures of each president is evenhanded.

He devotes much of the book to his thesis that from Kennedy onward, all but Ronald Reagan either ran apart from their party and/or governed with input from only a small circle of advisors. Kennedy, for example, built a tightly integrated personal army of supporters beginning with his congressional campaigns, simply expanding it in running for president. The party was treated as an irrelevant appendage.

Lyndon Johnson achieved his big legislative victories after a landslide election win and with the force of his personality. Mr. Carter, the ultimate "outsider," disdained Congress (controlled by the Democrats) and the party, ending his term as a failure. Mr. Clinton moved away from his party's base to the center then zigged and zagged. Bush I was a "process" man, losing his party's conservative base when he abandoned his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. Bush II mistrusts all but a small circle of like-minded advisors.

Of all the modern presidents, Mr. Burns says, only Ronald Reagan worked assiduously to build and expand an ideologically-driven movement and party. He peeled away many Democrats whose values most matched what he was talking about. He solidified his base.

The author contends that a successful presidency requires a team effort. The team must be built around a shared ideology a set of values. He writes, "I believe that Americans have an ordered array of potent values stemming originally and directly from the Western Enlightenment."

That describes the unifying principle behind the Republican Party's successes in recent times.

Mr. Burns contends that the persistently low percentages of people voting is caused by "the absence of strong party identity, of clear-cut conflict 'us' versus 'them. …