No man, except the president, is an island

Harry Truman famously called the presidency “the loneliest job”.

In “Running Alone”, James MacGregor Burns explores the solitary nature of presidents in recent history, although his subject is not so much their personal alienation, but rather how they distanced themselves from their parties, the Congress, and the voters who elected them. 

Burns, a scholar of presidential leadership and Pulitzer-winning biographer, masterfully traces how every president from JFK to Bush II amassed power, both during and after their campaigns, often to the detriment of cohesive, cooperative governance.

In Burns’ analysis, John F. Kennedy’s distaste for running with the pack led him to pass over party loyalists to create his own inner circle, separating himself from the Democratic Party. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, fell victim to his intense desire for secrecy and his utter reliance on a very few key aides.

Burns also draws comparisons between Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and though much has already been made of the similarities between the two Southerners, he provides a fresh look at how each, in effect, ran against his own party. 

Underpinning this thesis is, of course, the notion that running and governing “together”—as opposed to “alone”—can be a powerful platform for change and for good. The “collective leadership and shared policymaking that promotes stability and continuity” remains elusive, though, Burns argues.

The author’s deep and sprawling understanding of presidential history is bolstered by academic prowess: the book’s 199 pages are followed by 58 pages of footnotes and citations. Still, the clear, simple prose—and the manageable length—keep the book from veering into turgid academic waters.  

Despite the painstaking historical sourcing, Burns’s most effective observations often come from personal experiences and exchanges.  His decades as a political candidate, delegate to Democratic National Conventions, and author afforded him personal interviews with presidents from Nixon to Clinton .

Although it reads as a history of the presidency, the book also can be viewed as a cautionary tale for today’s politicians, although Burns does prescribe a cure for the alienation plaguing the modern presidency.