Remaking government hard for presidents to do

March 22, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

James MacGregor Burns was not deeply impressed by Vice President Al Gore's plan to "reinvent government," which Mr. Gore insists will make the federal machine efficient and save billions of dollars.

"I'm all for this," said Professor Burns, "but I don't see it [the Gore plan] making the government able to plan better, or operate quickly to head off problems."

He has been observing the vice president's efforts from his College Park office at the University of Maryland's Center for Political Leadership for some time now, and his hopes were never high.

He has watched every president over the past 55 years try to improve the way the government functions -- and fail.

They failed, he said in a recent speech, "because their very efforts are narrowed and enfeebled by the overall power system, the political and constitutional structure. That system created two centuries ago by men who did not want governmental efficiency and effectiveness, did not want a government that might efficiently threaten our liberties."

Thinking about government -- how to make it work better -- is what Professor Burns does as scholar in residence at Maryland's Leadership Center. It's what he's been doing most of his life. It has made him famous.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his biography of FDR, ("Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom"), and has collected many other awards, including the National Book Award, for his books on presidential politics in America.

He is an academic star. He appears on Larry King Live. He has been an adviser to three Presidents.

New England born (Melrose, Mass., Aug. 3, 1918), he is the American mandarin, affable, open, with the avuncular look of the perfect mentor for every ambitious graduate student. His fleecy white hair flies up from his head, as Einstein's did.

Most of his academic career in political science took place at Williams College, where he still enjoys emeritus status. "But now I'm concentrating on Maryland," he said. He is also writing a book on three Roosevelts -- Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor -- and their intertwined lives.

He is the divorced father of four grown children, two of whom are historians themselves. One works on the Martin Luther King papers; the other has written a book on the Shakers. "They are all writers, enjoying the miserable life of writers," he said.

Though he has worked out of rural Williamstown, Mass., for much of his life, he was never an ivory tower academic. He was a combat historian during World War II, saw action in the Pacific and for that took home a Bronze Star.

He also has been active in Democratic Party politics since 1936, and an adviser to Presidents Carter, Kennedy and Johnson. Mostly, he recalled, they were seeking advice about gridlock in government.

So Professor Burns hasn't been invited inside the Clinton White House, but he said he has been contacted by people within the administration who have read his books.

In 1958 he ran for Congress in a district in Western Massachusetts that hasn't sent a Democrat to Washington since 1896. He lost but says he gained experience useful for a historian on how a campaign is run.

Asked why he never ran again over the past 30 years, he said: "I like to think I'm still resting up."

'A scaremonger'

Despite the humor, he is a man burdened by a point of view of withering pessimism. He describes himself as "a scaremonger."

The world, he believes, will sooner rather than later degenerate into "constant, unremitting conflict." It will be stimulated by population pressures, intolerable poverty, xenophobic nationalisms, religious fanaticism and other malign developments.

The American government is not prepared to cope with such an avalanche of misfortune, he believes. It doesn't work well enough; it wasn't designed to.

LTC Nor does he think it will be made ready any time soon. The people with the competence, compassion ("a flabby word," he admits, "but basic to the need"), and commitment to do it just aren't around.

The founders, he said in a speech Jan. 20 at the National Press Club, "wanted a government in which the leadership would be divided, in which leaders would curb and veto one another. That system still stands. And we have no way to outwit the framers."

Professor Burns is not saying the Constitution is invulnerable to modernization, only highly resistant. He has his own proposals on how to do it. One would be to strengthen the House of Representatives by giving congressmen four-year terms that run concurrently with the President's. The aim would be to free them from the need to start thinking about re-election as soon as they get in.

He would also abolish presidential primaries. These he regards as "media driven, money dominated, viciously competitive, mindless intellectually."

He would take measures to revive political parties. Party politics are the life blood of democracy, he believes, and as the parties have declined in influence and cohesion, democracy in America has grown anemic. So, too, have its paid practitioners.

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