- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

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.’” This message is addressed more to Democrats than to Republicans.

Though the book came out just before the November 7 election, the Democrats did not follow this caution by him: “… the party must uncomplicate politics. It must say something, take a clear, fighting progressive direction, connect elections with people’s lives so that the middle class… working class and the poor vote their true self-interest.”

Yet, in the recent election, the Democrats did not offer a program. Voters told exit pollsters that concern over Iraq and what was seen as Republican congressional corruption drove their votes for Democrats.

The final chapter is devoted to the author’s prescription for increased voter participation. He proposes doing away with the Electoral College. He decries campaign concentration on “battleground” states, yet this occurs because of competition, a healthy thing. If his proposal were adopted, the citizens of large metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and a few others — would determine the outcome of presidential elections.

He proposes that a party’s candidates for the presidency, Senate and House run together as “team tickets” for simultaneous four-year terms. Coupled with this would be removal of the two-term limit on the presidency.

Finally, however, Mr. Burns disappoints the reader by lapsing into the habit of many liberals of assuming moral superiority and questioning the motives of political opponents. He writes that “by keeping faith with their values with tax cuts for the rich, cutbacks in services for the middle class and the poor, and promises to destroy programs that provide a minimum of security to the ill and the aged, Bush Republican have created a new class… of forgotten men and women. Can Democrats — keeping faith with their values — reach them?”

What values? Despite a certain wisdom that comes with age and experience, Mr. Burns, who seems to have no understanding of the interaction of tax rates and economics, cannot resist the temptation to engage in hyperbole. It mars an otherwise readable, interesting book.

Peter Hannaford is the co-author of “Remembering Reagan.”

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