Our Opinion: James MacGregor Burns


James MacGregor Burns was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose explorations of leadership, specifically presidential leadership, resonate today. His wide renown as an author and intellectual aside, Mr. Burns, who died Tuesday at the age of 95, was a neighbor as well, with roots deeply planted in Berkshire County and at Williams College.

Mr. Burns graduated from Williams College in 1939 and taught political science there for nearly 40 years beginning in 1947. In 1958, the lifelong Democrat ran for Congress from Western Massachusetts, and while he did not win in what was then a solid Republican district, he did become close to U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy. He wrote the first biography of JFK, the well-regarded "John Kennedy: A Political Profile" (1960), in which the author demonstrated that he was first and foremost an academic and an historian as opposed to a party loyalist. "I think you underestimate him. Can’t you see he is exceptional?" wrote first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to Mr. Burns after reading what she had perhaps hoped would be a less objective and analytical book.

A decade later, Mr. Burns’ Pulitzer Prize-winning winning "Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom" was another honest assessment of a president’s strengths and weaknesses, in this case those of Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the qualities and characteristics of a leader a recurring theme in many of his books, it is unsurprising that in 1978 he wrote a book called "Leadership" that became and remains a popular political science textbook. Only five years ago his book "Packing the Court" explored how Supreme Court justices have abandoned their roles as independent arbiters, and with no process available to dislodge them, "have often perpetuated ideologies and attitudes that are outdated or that Americans have repudiated at the ballot box." The book couldn’t be more timely.

Over the decades, Mr. Burns was a resource for The Berkshire Eagle on stories about government and politics, and he contributed several opinion pieces and many letters to the editor to the paper. His contributions were usually related to the subjects he is best known for, but they could just as easily have been about local concerns, specifically the environment, as the natural beauty of the Berkshires and its preservation were of keen interest to him. Mr. Burns’ day job, of course, was as Professor Burns, and in The New York Times, Georgia Sorenson of the University of Maryland’s James Burns Academy of Leadership recalls him declining an invitation to meet with Hillary Clinton because it would have meant canceling a meeting with a student.

Author of books that have stood and will stand the test of time, an unofficial adviser to presidents, an educator, athlete, environmentalist, dog lover and advocate of the Berkshires, James MacGregor Burns was, as his son, Williams professor and author Stewart Burns describes him, "a multitalented Renaissance man," one that the world and his small corner of it in the Berkshire hills, will miss.


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