Burns Analyzes the Modern Presidency: The Toughest Job Has Never Been Better
presidential Government by James MacGregor Burns, Houghton Mifflin Co. $595.
According to popular Washington legend, James MacGregor Burns has seldom found it necessary to visit the capital in order to write his gooks about the national government. Many historians say his history is so weak that he must be a political scientist, while the political scientists say that his political science is so weak that he must be an historian. None of Burns's many critics will be disappointed with the fodder he has provided them in his latest view from Williamstown, Presidential Government.
Taking a long, hard look at "the toughest job on earth," Burns decides that things have never been better. Since James Bryce wrote in the 1880's about "why great men are not chosen President," Burns explains, times have changed. With the possible exception of Warren G. Harding, he contends, all of the twentieth-century's Chief Executives have been great men one way or another. In the Presidency, he says, the United States has created not only the best possible institution for sustaining and improving American democracy, but also a system of "executive government" which all nations in the world can and should admire and emulate.
Burns adds a new "Hamiltonian model" to his previously well-elaborated Madisonian and Jeffersonian models for national government. He says that the Hamiltonian President--exemplified by the two Roosevelts--employs heroic-style leadership, intensely personal organization, and the expedient use of power to govern in the face of a disorganized opposition. Though he has a nasty comment or two for some of the historical bases of the Hamiltonian model, he apparently concludes that it is far superior to the limited-government, limited-President Madisonian view (William Howard Taft) or the strictly-majoritarian, party-rule Jeffersonian view (Woodrow Wilson).
The once potential dangers of a Hamiltonian President to American democracy need no longer be feared, according to Burns, because of the internal checks and balances of the executive branch's decision-making processes and "the convergence of the long ambivalent American ideology in the modern doctrines of freedom and equality." The developments of the twentieth century have made the Presidency not only an attraction for political talent, but also the magnificent defender of personal civil liberties and the only true representative of national popular opinion.
Perhaps his most constructive contribution to the study of the Presidency is Burns's explosion of the popular myth of the Lonely Man in the Big Oval Room at Three a.m. which Lyndon Johnson has worked so hard to cultivate. Even if it is true that like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Johnson has tended to play off one advisor against another to make a personal decision, the fact remains that a surfeit of advice has been on tap.
Concentration of power and virtually all significant policy-making in the Presidency would not be viewed by Burns as cause for alarm, because of the tendency of the President to surround himself with concentric rings of decision-makers who form a stable system of collective leadership. But this is not a convincing argument against fears of potential problems in the Presidency if, say, a Barry Gold-were to occupy the White House.
However, the most troubling aspect of an otherwise helpful discussion of the modern Presidency is Burns's utter contempt for the other branches of the Federal government. With his theory of four-party politics in America (developed in his earlier volume, Deadlock of Democracy), Burns seems to suggest that Congress might just as well be retired completely. The Congressional wings (as opposed to the Presidential wings) of both major parties, he says, are lodged in an antiquated institution which has merely slowed down the business of American government and threatened personal liberty.
Burns casually ignores the innovations which Congress has developed to play a constructive role in the hammering-out of the best ways to deal with national problems. He refuses to recognize Congress's role as the only part of the national government which may publicly consider all alternatives on any given issue. The reforms he suggests for Congress would have the sole effect of weakening it further; Congressional leadership should be strengthened, for example, "so that it can act more quickly and comprehensively in harmony with the President."
The Supreme Court he finds more acceptable today than previously only because it gives the President less trouble. The pressing need for a responsible opposition, he says, can be better fulfilled through a "Shadow Presidency" than through constructive oversight on the part of a national legislature.
Burns points out an interesting problem when he says that as national goals and policies become increasingly agreed upon, the President will have to search for new concerns and issues. He discusses a problem which has probably troubled many of us when he points out that "the more humdrum thse matters (of Presidential concern) become, the more the President will turn to his ceremonial and symbolic role to provide circuses to the people." What is to be questioned is Burns's means of approaching the quest for new areas of action.
Presidential Government is a strange book in that one may begin it perfectly unfrightened by the prospect of a very strong President and finish it terrified by the logical--or perhaps illogical--implications of its suggestions. The greatest consolation may be that most of Burns's recommendations have been ignored in the past and are unlikely to be followed in the future.