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Seeking a transformational leader

What draws people to the polls is what draws them to a good boxing match _ a good fight. This year's match isn't shaping up to be one. George W. Bush, a bit right of center, and Al Gore, a mite left of center, are taking such moderate positions that there's little difference between the two. There's no real choice and, therefore, no real reason to choose.

Historically, passions ran so deep that political combatants sometimes fought with swords or even pistols; until more recently, they clashed with fiery oratory. Who could forget Franklin D. Roosevelt's words to clamorous Democrats at a 1936 campaign rally in Madison Square Garden? Never before, he charged, had the "forces of selfishness and lust for power" been so united against one candidate:

"They are unanimous in their hate for me _ and I welcome their hatred!"

Neither Bush nor Gore sees the presidency as a source of inspiring vision, producing bold, transformational change. Rather, they see the office as a seat of pragmatism, dealing with problems as they arise.

Admittedly, most American politicians are transactional leaders _ negotiators, brokers, compromisers. It's one way they make the political system work, with all its checks and balances and veto traps. But the truly great presidents have been transformational leaders, from George Washington to FDR, whom we remember in part for the enemies they made.

Backed up by action, honest presidential anger can be a positive force. In 1962, John F. Kennedy gained widespread industry and labor backing to hold down prices. Without warning, Big Steel defied him. In cold outrage, JFK denounced the "tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceed their sense of public responsibility." He then marshaled every executive power in his arsenal to force the steelmakers to back down. It's hard to imagine either Bush or Gore taking such a stance today.

Is transformational leadership possible without a great crisis? Certainly historic emergencies such as secession in 1861 and the Great Depression of the early 1930s propelled Lincoln and FDR into positions in which they could bring about titanic change.

But Theodore Roosevelt achieved lasting reforms when the country faced neither depression nor war, and Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan are remembered by their partisans as strong, ideological leaders.

Indeed, an art of great leadership is the capacity to convert latent crises into visible and dramatic ones. This was Theodore Roosevelt's central achievement. FDR concentrated not only on the Depression but the forces behind the economic crisis. Woodrow Wilson dramatized the need for international collaboration so eloquently that, even though his League of Nations was destroyed in the Senate, the memory helped produce support for the United Nations a quarter-century later.

In this year's campaign, the problems in education call out for bold solutions. But the candidates don't. Like so many other candidates in the past 30 years, Bush and Gore aspire to be the "education president." None has succeeded before, and these two won't either. Their incremental approach defeats them before they begin.

What we need is action on a transformational scale. The solution must involve not only the obvious needs _ smaller classes, better school buildings, higher teacher salaries _ but also the hungry, ill-housed, badly parented, and sometimes physically and psychologically ailing students. It involves social conditions that we tend to view as separate from education.

Only a transformational president with the necessary transactional skills could bring about the huge number of reforms required. But centrism not only fails to produce such presidents; it fails to equip the winning candidate with the momentum and the mandate necessary to pull off such transformational leadership.

At least, centrists say, a cautious, incrementalist president will always be a safe leader. He may not be bold, but he'll make no major mistakes. I disagree.

While the incrementalist tries to carry out his small, step-by-step changes, forces outside government will continue to move with remarkable speed and force. Science, technology, communications, finance, transportation, agriculture, entertainment _ all are undergoing relentless change. Leaders in those areas are providing their own transformations, but they aren't responsible to voters. And their changes may not be benign.

These powerful forces will put enormous pressures on the presidency, but incremental change will be pitifully inadequate. And any crises in the private sector will be dumped into the lap of a president who cannot deal with the underlying structural and long-term problems that such crises create.

An even greater danger looms in the one area where even an incremental president is strong, perhaps too strong: foreign affairs. Here, when the United States is confronted by a perceived crisis, a frightened people often demand action _ and a weak president in domestic affairs often sees his chance for greatness.

And here, almost all institutional limitations on the presidency collapse. There have always been constraints on presidential adventurism in foreign affairs _ from the party leadership, the cabinet, even the vice president. But these days, the national party leadership has become simply another presidential agency, the Cabinet no longer functions as a policymaking or controlling institution, and the vice president has been demoted to top staff assistant.

Fanaticism and turbulence worldwide could overwhelm the presidency with crisis after crisis. The president will be under pressure to respond to the new Kuwaits and Kosovos and East Timors that cry for help.

So what can be done about a dangerously weak domestic presidency that is, at the same time, a dangerously overburdened war-making and crisis-coping one?

It's certain that we have the intellectual resources to reason out ways of improving the selection and performance of the American president. To that end, I'd like to see a national commission _ composed of presidential scholars, political and social scientists, journalists and ex-presidents _ to deal with the toughest questions.

We still have time to think our way out of possible disasters. Incrementalists need not apply.

James MacGregor Burns is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a senior scholar at the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland. He is the co-author, with Georgia J. Sorenson, of Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation (Scribner), published last year.

Special to The Washington Post