James MacGregor Burns, historian - The Buffalo News

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James MacGregor Burns, historian

Aug. 3, 1918 – July 15, 2014

BOSTON (AP) – James MacGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and political scientist who analyzed the nature of presidential leadership and wrote candid biographies of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, died Tuesday. He was 95.

Mr. Burns died at his home in Williamstown, Mass., his companion and fellow historian Susan Dunn said.

The longtime Williams College professor helped coin two adjectives now common in politics: “transformational” leaders, or those with a vision to change the world, and “transactional” leaders, those with the cunning to get things done.

The words were used constantly during the 2008 presidential race, with the “transactional” Hillary Rodham Clinton battling the “transformational” Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Burns was a liberal Democrat who both wrote about and participated in the political process. He was a convention delegate, congressional aide and congressional candidate who in the late 1950s became friendly enough with Sen. John F. Kennedy to be granted access for a 1960 biography that angered the family by portraying him as a man of excessive calculation and questionable heart.

His two-volume biography of FDR was praised by historians as a model of accessible, objective scholarship. The second volume, “Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom,” was published in 1970 and won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

Mr. Burns’ other books included “Leadership,” a 1978 release that outlined his theories of “transformational” and “transactional” and became standard reading among students of business and politics; a biography of George Washington written with Dunn; and a trilogy on American history, “The American Experiment.”

In his late 80s, he wrote a well-reviewed history of the Supreme Court, “Packing the Court,” and at age 95 he completed a book on the Enlightenment, “Fire and Light.”

Mr. Burns was born in 1918 in Melrose, Mass., the son of a conservative businessman. He majored in political science at Williams and received a Ph.D. in government from Harvard in 1947, the same year he began teaching at Williams.

He was an Army combat historian during World War II, recording the memories of soldiers just off the battlefield in Okinawa and elsewhere in the Pacific. He earned combat medals including a Bronze Star.

“Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox” was published in 1956, at a time when little serious work existed on FDR, who died in 1945.

The book has dated in some ways – Mr. Burns dismissed rumors, since confirmed, that FDR had an affair with his wife’s secretary, Lucy Mercer – but “The Lion and the Fox” is still regarded as a landmark.

Mr. Burns was the first major biographer to present the president without bias, as an idealist and deal-maker – a gifted, crafty, sometimes inscrutable politician who often kept even his allies guessing what he would do. Roosevelt was also the rare political leader that Mr. Burns credited with being both transformational and transactional.

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