James MacGregor Burns: Political historian takes new direction at age 89

Historians in the News

After more than 20 books, a Pulitzer Prize and many other honors for his work on the executive and legislative branches of government, 89-year-old historian James MacGregor Burns is ready for a new subject.
"I'm working on the politics of the Supreme Court," he says, seated in a small armchair in his converted farmhouse, a sunny, cluttered, book-filled loft just down the road and up the hill from Williams College, where he studied as an undergraduate and later taught for decades.

"I felt I had treated presidents and Congresses a lot, and here was this other branch I didn't know that much about. I had a feeling it would be even more political than I expected, and it is."

He is white-haired and wide-eyed, an ever curious scholar dressed smartly in khakis and a striped shirt for this afternoon interview. Although clearly slowed by age, he remains active enough that when his car broke down in town earlier in the day, he walked back home, uphill, for more than a mile.

First published nearly 60 years ago, Burns is a longtime expert on presidential leadership and leadership in general. He has written often about the "transformational" leader, one with the vision to change the world, and the "transactional" leader, one who knows how to negotiate and compromise. His 1978 text, Leadership, is widely studied by business and political science majors, while his two-volume biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a model for books on the late president.

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