James MacGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and political scientist who wrote voluminously about the nature of leadership in general and the presidency in particular, died on Tuesday at his home in Williamstown, Mass. He was 95.
The historian Michael Beschloss, a friend and former student, confirmed the death.
Mr. Burns, who taught at Williams College for most of the last half of the 20th century, was the author of more than 20 books, most notably “Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom” (1970), a major study of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stewardship of the country through World War II. It was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
An informal adviser to presidents, Mr. Burns was a liberal Democrat who once ran for Congress from the westernmost district of Massachusetts. Though he sometimes wrote prescriptively from — or for — the left, over all he managed the neat trick of neither hiding his political viewpoint in his work nor funneling his work through it.
His work was often critical of American government and its system of checks and balances, which in his view had become an obstacle to visionary progress, particularly when used by a divided or oppositional Congress as a rein on the presidency. In works like “The Deadlock of Democracy” (1963) and “Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court” (2009), he argued for systemic changes, calling for a population-based Senate, term limits for Supreme Court justices and an end to midterm elections.
The nature of leadership was his fundamental theme throughout his career. In his biographies of Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, among others, and in his works of political theory — including “Leadership,” a seminal 1978 work melding historical analysis and contemporary observation that became a foundation text for an academic discipline — Mr. Burns focused on parsing the relationship between the personalities of the powerful and the historical events they helped engender.
His award-winning Roosevelt biography, for example, was frank in its admiration of its subject. But the book nonetheless distilled, with equal frankness, Roosevelt’s failings and character flaws; it faulted him for not seizing the moment and cementing the good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union when war had made them allies. This lack of foresight, Mr. Burns argued, was a primary cause of the two nations’ drift into the Cold War.
Roosevelt “was a deeply divided man,” he wrote, “divided between the man of principle, of ideals, of faith, crusading for a distant vision, on the one hand; and, on the other, the man of Realpolitik, of prudence, of narrow, manageable, short-run goals, intent always on protecting his power and authority in a world of shifting moods and capricious fortune.”
This was typical of Mr. Burns, who wrote audaciously, for a historian, with an almost therapistlike interpretation of the historical characters under his scrutiny and saw conflict but no contradiction in the conflicting and sometimes contradictory impulses of great men. He could admire a president for his politics and his leadership skills, yet report on his inherent shortcomings, as he did with Roosevelt; or spot a lack of political courage that undermined a promising presidency, as he did with President Bill Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, in “Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation,” written with Georgia Jones Sorenson. In the book, he chastised both men for yielding their liberal instincts too easily.
In “The Power to Lead: The Crisis of the American Presidency,” his 1984 book about the dearth of transforming leaders, as opposed to transactional ones, in contemporary America, Mr. Burns was able to denounce the outlook of a staunch conservative like President Ronald Reagan but admire him for his instinctive leadership — his understanding of not just how to maneuver the levers of power but also how to muster party unity and effect an attitudinal shift in society.
This distinction between transforming and transactional leadership was central to Mr. Burns’s political theorizing. As he explained it in “Leadership,” the transactional leader is the more conventional politician, a horse trader with his followers, offering jobs for votes, say, or support of important legislation in exchange for campaign contributions.
The transforming leader, on the other hand, “looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower,” Mr. Burns wrote.
“The result of transforming leadership,” he went on, “is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.”
If there was any way in which Mr. Burns’s personal views pierced his objectivity as a writer and researcher, it was in his understanding of the human elements of leadership. He had faith in the potential for human greatness, and though he often scolded presidents, congressmen and party officials for failing to strive for progress, one could discern in his writing a pleading for great men and women to lead with greatness.
“That people can be lifted into their better selves,” he wrote at the end of “Leadership,” “is the secret of transforming leadership and the moral and practical theme of this work.”
Mr. Burns was born on Aug. 3, 1918, in Melrose, Mass., outside Boston. His father, Robert, a businessman, and his mother, the former Mildred Bunce, came from Republican families, though Mr. Burns described her as holding feminist principles. She largely raised him, in Burlington, Mass., after his parents’ divorce, and it was she, he said, who instilled in him the independence of mind to oppose the political views prevalent in his father’s family.
“I rebelled early,” Mr. Burns told the television interviewer Brian Lamb in 1989. “I got a lot of attention simply because I sat at the dinner table making these outrageous statements that they never heard anybody make face to face.” He added, “There was a lot of very strenuous and sometimes angry debate within the household.”
After graduating from Williams, Mr. Burns went to Washington and worked as a congressional aide. He served as an Army combat historian in the Pacific during World War II, receiving a Bronze Star, and afterward earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. He did postdoctoral work at the London School of Economics. His first book, “Congress on Trial: The Legislative Process and the Administrative State,” a critical appraisal of American lawmaking, was published in 1949.
After his second book, “Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox” (1956), a study of the president’s early years, Mr. Burns ran for Congress in 1958 from a western Massachusetts district that had not elected a Democrat since 1896 — and it did not again.
During the campaign he became acquainted with John F. Kennedy, then running for his second term as senator from Massachusetts. After the election, with unrestricted access to Kennedy, his staff and his records, he wrote “John Kennedy: A Political Profile,” an assessment of him as a potential president. Though the book was largely favorable, it was not the hagiography the Kennedy family and presidential campaign had anticipated. (“I think you underestimate him,” Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to him after she read it, adding: “Can’t you see he is exceptional?”)
After Kennedy’s assassination, Mr. Burns said frequently that Kennedy had been a great leader and would have been even greater had he lived. But in his book he called Kennedy “a rationalist and an intellectual” and questioned whether he had the character strength to exert what he called “moral leadership.”
“What great idea does Kennedy personify?” he wrote. “In what way is he a leader of thought? How could he supply moral leadership at a time when new paths before the nation need discovering?”
In 1978, after a half-dozen more books, including the second Roosevelt volume and separate studies of the presidency and of state and local governments, Mr. Burns wrote “Leadership,” an amalgamation of a lifetime of thinking about the qualities shared and exemplified by world leaders throughout history. It became a standard academic text in the emerging discipline known as leadership studies, and Mr. Burns’s concept of transforming leadership itself became the subject of hundreds of doctoral theses.
“It inspires our work,” Georgia Sorenson, who founded the Center for Political Leadership and Participation at the University of Maryland, said of “Leadership.” She persuaded Mr. Burns, who was on her dissertation committee, to teach there in 1993, and four years later the university renamed the center in his honor; it is now an independent nonprofit organization, the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership.
Mr. Burns’s two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by three children and his companion, Susan Dunn, with whom he collaborated on “The Three Roosevelts” and a biography of George Washington, two of the half-dozen or so books Mr. Burns wrote or co-wrote after the age of 80. His last book, “Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World,” was published in 2013.
Asked to describe Mr. Burns’s passions away from his writing, Ms. Sorenson named skiing; his two golden retrievers, Jefferson and Roosevelt; the blueberry patch in his yard; and his students.
“He would never bump a student appointment to meet with someone more important,” Ms. Sorenson said. “I remember Hillary Clinton once inviting him to tea, and he wouldn’t go because he had to meet with a student. And he would never leave his place in Williamstown during blueberry season.”