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Interview with John Burns

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Burns, John J., 1921-2004 ; McKiernan, Stephen


John J. Burns (1921-2004) was the New York State Democratic Party leader during the 1960s. Burns was a two-term Binghamton mayor from 1958 to 1965, state Democratic chairman, Kennedy's campaign chairman, and appointments secretary to former governor Hugh Carey. He remained active in politics until 1993.




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McKiernan Interviews




McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: John Burns
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: William Palmer
Date of interview: 1996

(Start of Interview)

SM: My first question is, the boomer generation in the
(19)60s and early (19)70s is being attacked as one of the reasons for the breakdown of American society. Could you respond to this criticism and comment on the period and its impact on present day America?

JB: The boomer generation is being blamed?

SM: A lot of things that I hear, whether it be the Christian coalition or commentary for the Republican Party ̶ A lot of times they go back to events of the 1960s era to blame and then they start blaming the generation that grew up then

JB: Of course they [the boomers] were then in their teens or maybe 20 years old. Well, I think the (19)60s was an era when we went through very historic and difficult times. We had three assassinations, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. And I think early in the (19)60s there was great hope for our country among the young people that, you know, that generation slightly older than them [boomers]. And as a result of the assassination, I think I lost that hope. Mixed in with that was the feeling that the Vietnam War was not a war that we should be fighting and many, many people of that age group protested the war. I think the hippie movement was sort of a statement of their objections to what was happening in our country and to our country. And many of them have turned out to be conservative people. They grew out of it, in other words, I do not think they are to blame for anything that is wrong with our country. I think the problems in our country are caused by all problems that are covered here caused by economics and by social changes. Economics brings about social changes. For example, many families in the late (19)50s and early (19)60s had one parent at home with the children, young children as well as teenagers. And as time went on, to maintain, to make a living, both parents had to work. Of course a lot of women wanted to work anyway. They wanted to be more than just a housewife. So we end up with families with nobody home. And we also have growing [unintelligible] in regard to marriage. Marriage is not as permanent as it was in my generation. People get married and then they get divorced. Some people never marry, but they have children anyway. And these things have all created many problems, social problems. Also mixed within this same picture was the increase in drug use. Some of the people in that generation did a lot of drugs, particularly marijuana, and they got into stronger drugs. And if you saw pictures of the big gathering out at Woodstock, yeah. A lot of drug use going on there, a lot of smoking and all that. And a lot of experimentation with drugs that went on. I think the advent of drugs into society has taken a big toll as well. I think that many of them [boomers] toyed with it and then went off it and are now serious citizens with families and everything else. But there is some that ruin their lives.

SM: Bringing up some of these issues that divorce out in California ̶ 50 percent of people getting married get divorced. Yeah, almost 50 percent in our society are getting divorced. Certainly there was drug use during that period, but we see a tremendous rise of drugs now in our high schools and colleges. These are the sons and daughters of boomers. You have made a comment that you did not think that a lot of the problems in society today were based on the boomers. But you raised these issues.

JB: Right. I do not think they caused it, they lived through it. I do not think the boomers caused a lot of that. I mean, some of them caused drug use. Yeah. But they certainly did not cause the need for, for two parents to work. That was caused by cost of living [unintelligible], right? You may be right to a degree that they have a different attitude than their parents did, I am talking about the boomers now. About marriage, as I said, about family. And they, their generation, you know, brought about a lot of changes in the society and I think there are a lot of good people in the movement. I do not think they are trying to mess things up or anything like that. I think they are trying to live their lives. And they became more open. It was inevitable that there are a lot of people in bad marriages and it made sense that they get out of a bad marriage. While in my generation, they would stay in a bad marriage. And I am not an advocate of divorce. I am not. I can see there are times when divorce is better for everyone concerned. So now you got into, you know, the syndrome of not staying married or not even getting married. And still they have children. And the children pay the price for that.

SM: Yeah, it is just a general question. Based on everything you have been saying here and the questions I have been asking so far, looking at 1996 we could say that the boomers ̶ which is basically sixty-five million people who were born between 1946 to 1964. That is the category that uses that. That their impact is positive or negative in America. Too early to tell?

JB: I think it is early to tell. I think that for me, they are only 22 years old now. They are just getting out of college [youngest boomers, born in 1964, were thirty-two years old at the time of this interview]. I think that I do not know how to describe it exactly. But there are a lot of social problems about gangs. We were talking about this generation. We thought we were thinking that it was middle income people. Gangs are really a problem in the blighted areas, in the slums, they are a big social problem for communities. And so to answer your question, I think it is mixed. I think that some in that generation are causing more problems than prior generations and others are responsible people. I would not blame the whole generation, everybody in that generation, for problems that come along.

SM: We talked about the death of those three men, two of them that you knew quite well ̶ John and Robert Kennedy ̶ and Martin Luther King. I was like eleven, I think, when John Kennedy was killed. And it really affected me. It really did. Actually I was fourteen, excuse me. And then Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, I was at SUNY Binghamton at the time that happened and was in a two month period of time.

JB: It was a real blow.

SM: When you read the literature on the (19)60s and early (19)70s, only 15 percent of the people were really involved in protest or activism of any kind. 85 percent went along with their normal daily activities. As the years progressed, what effects did those three deaths have on not only that 15 percent, but everyone ̶ whether it be the conscious or the subconscious? I know you were close to John and Robert Kennedy, and their deaths affected you personally. But what about the boomers of my era, like your children? What effect did these assassinations have on them as they grew older, raised families and tried to get involved in things?

JB: A lot of people lost hope for the future. It was still America, but they were worried about America being a place where leaders can be assassinated. They were worried about the fact that people that stand for something can be killed off. And then there was really no one that took their place in the eyes of that generation. They became discouraged, and I think a lot of them lost interest in voting and participating in government. While under John Kennedy, for example, he started the Peace Corps. He brought a lot of young people into government, he got people enthusiastic about the future of our country. And then when he was shot, and then followed by Bobby, it was like, people just lost hope. It took a long time to try to turn people around. It will never come around to the way it was; the enthusiasm, the thrill of being in one of those campaigns and that people still felt it is a great country and they wanted to do things to help make it better.

SM: Around the same time, trust in leadership [unintelligible].

JB: The Nixon Watergate stuff, people lost trust in their leaders and their government. The good guys were killed off and the bad guys were in charge. I think that is probably one of the reasons that some of them [boomers] really started having an attitude. They did not give a damn. They got into things they should not have.

SM: This is kind of a side note question, but if Bobby had lived, do you think he would have won it?

JB: I think he would have, yeah. I was involved in it. I was running the New York State campaign and we started when he first announced he was running against LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson] ̶ LBJ was still campaigning at that point. It was around St. Patty's Day, in March. We started polling in New York State and it was all against him within the Democratic Party. We had been polling just Democrats for the primary. But as time went on, it began changing, changing, changing. LBJ dropped out and McCarthy was in the picture. But Bobby was emerging as a victor in New York. He had won in California before he was killed. It was a similar situation there. He had the emphasis, you know, going for him. We will never know really, but I think he could have pulled it off and I think he would have won.

SM: I think one of the greatest speeches I ever heard was an impromptu one Bobby gave in Indianapolis after Martin Luther King was killed.

JB: Oh, yeah, I remember that very well.

SM: And of course you see it when you go to Washington. What really amazes me, and I have been reading a lot of history, is that the Bobby Kennedy we saw on those committees early on, in the (19)50s, is not the same Bobby Kennedy we saw in (19)68.

JB: Absolutely. He did a [unintelligible] to become much more compassionate, more liberal minded than he was in those days. And what he said in Indianapolis to a black audience which he gathered in a black neighborhood. "Sorry, my brother was killed by a white man." It was an important thing to say.

SM: He knew that it was a dangerous area. Skellington right? Yeah.

JB: So I think that people who got into drugs experimentally, thinking it is just a temporary thing in their lives. You know, some of them did not realize how these drugs can hook them, how they can become addicted. And so I think we had more addiction problems than we did later on. The statistics show there is less kids in high school trying drugs than there used to be. But we still have a lot of drug activity here. And a lot more arrests recently that are bigger. We had a big arrest yesterday. We had another big trial a month ago, which showed that this one drug dealer made millions of dollars right here in Binghamton and Broome County. Somebody's using the drugs. It was not just the one hundred or two hundred people they complain about who moved up from New York City. Got to be thousands of people using drugs here. And destroying lives right in the middle class, in the upper classes. They caught a guy selling drugs in front of Vestal High School not too long ago. Right in front of the school. This is really bad. Terrible. So, It is an ongoing problem for the children of the boomers and the boomers participated, many of them in the drug scene, but many of them survived and straightened out their lives pretty well.

SM: So my next question is, what can today's generation of youth learn from the boomers? What can the boomers teach today's college students? This question is based on the fact that many of today's students often look at the (19)60s and early (19)70s is a period of activism, drugs and single minded issues. So many of the same issues remain. There are new ones and the lessons of the past are either not taught in schools or never discussed between parents and today's generation. Please give your thoughts on the issues in boomer's lives and how they can have an impact on students' lives today.

JB: I think they could do a lot to help curtail drug use. They can tell their experience, they could tell them first hand and even if not themselves than somebody they knew, who had a real problem and that by flirting with drugs, they were only going to get into trouble. And I think they could do more of that and talk to their children. I know when I was the Democratic State Chairman, I was out of town a lot. And I regret it, but I was not around my kids as much as I should have been. I was around them all weekend every weekend. You know, I did not know what they were doing or where they were going. We had a big family, hard to keep track of everybody. So I think they owe it to their kids to make sure that they understand the dire consequences of drug use and not to experiment with them just for a lark. Alcohol use is also bad. It is an addictive chemical just like other drugs. They could set examples by not drinking in front of them or using pot or whatever they might like to use and train them along that way. I think the example is more effective. Sometimes parents say do not do what I do, do what I say. Parents say, do not do this and do not do that and then they do it themselves. You know, like, a kid comes home from using drugs and a drunken father balls them out. It does not really have a lot of impact, you know what I mean? But I think that they can set an example for their kids. This is one thing they can do for them that will be very useful. I know. I never drank, I did years ago before we were married. And kids now tell me that it meant a lot to them that I did not drink. Neither my wife nor I drank.

SM: You have kids that are boomers who have their own kids. They may also be getting kids ready to go to college or something down the road. What can you say about communicating and not being around your kids, but then spending quality time on weekends? What are your children teaching their kids, and what are they telling them about the experiences that they went through when they were young? What are boomers sharing with today's young people about Bobby Kennedy, Dr. King, John Kennedy, the civil rights movement, protests against Vietnam, the women's movement, the environmental movement? Do you think there is a sharing going on between boomers and their kids?

JB: I do not know. That is a good question. I think they should. They accomplished a lot. I think they are responsible for the end of the Vietnam War. And I think that work they have done on the environment has helped a lot. Legislators and chief executives do not propose or pass laws that are not popular. By demonstrating the need for environmental laws that a lot of people support, those laws came into being. I think that the women's movement is another example. One ̶ I think that they made a lot of progress. Certainly the civil rights movement has made a lot of progress. It still has a long way to go. If you go back to when I was a kid, I did not even think about it, you know? We just regarded black kids in school as somebody you would say hello to, but never see outside of school. They were never in fraternities. In those days we had fraternities in Binghamton Central High School. Some would not take Catholics, some took Catholics but would not take Jews, and there was one just for Jews. The black kids were like part of the furniture, I mean, they were not anything in the social structure of the student body. As I changed a lot now, much better. But from those days, you know, back in the (19)30s, when I was growing up, until now there has been a big change. There is still a lot of racial hatred and racial problems in society. These kids can be inspired to do something about it by the boomers. The boomers are the ones that demonstrated ̶ did you say that only like 15 percent demonstrated, I did not realize it was that low a figure. Obviously, there were some that did not agree with what the demonstrators were doing.

SM: The "hard hats" in New York.

JB: No, I mean, among the boomers themselves, those that did not see eye-to-eye with the protesters.

SM: The premise is out there, it is very easy now to bash the boomers and blame everything on them. And I am trying to find out if, you know, not based on my feelings, but on other people's feelings, if there is some validity to that charge, or if it is ridiculous. For example, people that were involved in the civil rights movement and people that were involved in the protests against the Vietnam War in the (19)60s ̶ especially in the civil rights movement ̶ are still supportive of affirmative action at universities. And they are being attacked for taking over universities. The people that are involved in these causes had a passion and that passion continues. A lot of young people today will look at boomers and say that was something from the past. But the issues are still the same. I am concerned that that is what is happening today. When I go down to the Vietnam Memorial, and I keep hearing over and over again, the charge against Bill Clinton that he protested against the Vietnam War in Russia when he was over there. And people cannot forgive him for that. So it is like, what is this? Everything seems to come back to the boomers in trouble.

JB: There were people who went to Vietnam, you know, and served over there, and were killed there; and some may still be there. Many of them have always been disappointed that they were not regarded as the heroes that the guys from World War II were. Yet they only did what they were supposed to do. They were drafted, most of them. They went where they were told to go, they did what they were supposed to do. But they were not regarded as heroes like the veterans of World War II.

SM: I can remember when I was a SUNY student, and my dad was getting gas at one of the gas stations near Broome Tech. And this guy drove up in a car that had an American flag on the side. Well, at that period of time, people that were putting a flag on the car, [were making a statement] I am a better American than you are.

JB: The right wingers.

SM: Yes. I just about flipped out, but I did not do anything. I remained calm. But I said “No.” Nowadays, it is okay. How different society is.

JB: Republicans regarded themselves as more patriotic than the Democrats. The Democrats were more associated with the hippies, the women's movement, the anti-war movement, all that. Conservative people want to stop time, to just freeze time. It does not happen, everything changes. You can never go back to the way it was.

SM: If you were to describe the youth of the (19)60s and early (19)70s, describe the qualities you most admired in them? Just a couple of things.

JB: Well, I admired many in the boomer generation for what they believe. They put aside traditions that were in their way. [garbled] I was the State Democratic Chairman when the legislature had the eighteen year old vote coming up. I worked hard, with a lot of others, to get that passed through the legislature. So we have an eighteen year old vote. We got the eighteen year old vote, but not enough of them voted.

SM: What year was that? 1968?

JB: Late (19)60s, right? Certainly ever since then, it has been that way. There are a lot of kids that turn eighteen, some are still in high school. They were just coming out, they first vote, they were just graduating that year.

SM: The young people wanted that vote. The slogan of the boomers was: "We are old enough to go to war, we should be old enough to vote." And they got the vote. I think (19)68 was the first year ̶ Humphry against Nixon. Now, not only do not they vote, but their kids do not vote.

JB: I think the kids lost hope at right around the same time. The assassinations, and then Nixon came along and had Watergate, people lost faith in government. And they still have lost faith in government. A lot of people do not trust government, even in the right wing. You got these nuts that form militias around the places. They do not trust the government. I think that is an extreme case. But there are people that do not like the government, they do not trust the government. And they do not bother voting. They do not think voting means anything. They do not think it is going to change their life, which is too bad. They think it is not going to change their life any, which is too bad. It can definitely change their life.

SM: That old slogan around the world that people have died to vote. Here they have it, and are not doing it.

JB: Look what happened in South Africa a couple of years ago. The first vote that these black people had, they stood in line seven, eight hours in the hot sun to cast their vote. And here, you do not have to do that. You do not even bother voting. It is too bad.

SM: This question might be repetitive, but have you changed your opinion on the youth of the (19)60s over the last twenty five years, the opinion that you had in politics, as mayor, and then today?

JB: Change my opinion of them? Well, they have grown and they have matured and they are not the same. So it is hard to say. I have read where some of the outstanding radicals of the (19)60s became, you know, sort of middle ground or conservative adults. Now, I think that has happened to a lot of them. I did not really change my mind about them. It ̶ I just watched them change.

SM: My generation, especially in the late (19)60s and early (19)70s, believed that we are the most unique generation in American history. we are going to change the world, we are going to make things better.

JB: Right.

SM: Like it has never been the Age of Aquarius. Listen to the music of that era. Anyway, so what is the lasting legacy of the boomer generation?

JB: Oh, well, I guess the lasting legacy is that they survived a tumultuous time in our history. They participated in the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the anti-war movement. Democracy still works. I guess that is about all I can think of. They still have time to go, to do more for their country before they get to the senior citizens.

SM: What role, if any, does activism in the boomer generation penetrate into the lives of their children, Generation X?

JB: You mean in terms of there being people that volunteer and do things like that?

SM: The whole activist mentality, being change agents for society.

JB: To what degree does it affect their next generation? Well, there is a drop off, but I think it does affect it. People tend to carry on the tradition of their parents many times, especially when it comes to things of importance like that; especially toward the things that are significant. My kids are all Liberal Democrats. They think it is the only logical way to be. I think I will pass that on to their kids. I think others will do the same thing as Republicans. I know there are some that drop off. I know I have seen kids who are Republicans and their fathers are Democrats, and vice versa. But they are in the minority. You would think that kids would know from day one. In my generation, I was very much aware of what Roosevelt did for our country in terms of all the New Deal legislation and New Deal reforms and the job creating things that he did. That brought me closer to the Democratic Party than just the fact that my parents were Democrats. But my children do not know, and certainly my grandchildren will not know where social security came from. They will not be that much attached to the Democratic Party as I was because of social security or unemployment insurance, and so many other things. I think there is a certain drop off of fidelity to a party as each generation comes along and is more and more independent in their thinking.

SM: That is good! I want to ask this question again because I think we may have missed it. Do you think it is possible to heal within the generation where differences in positions taken were so extreme? Is it important to try to assist in this healing process? Should we care?

JB: I think we should try to continue in the healing process. I think, as you mentioned earlier, that the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and other activities can be of help to start the healing process for Vietnam veterans. They feel better about the fact that the country regards them highly, and they were doing what they did for patriotic reasons. Other than the Vietnam Veterans, I think that there should be healing. Some of us naturally know the old saying "time heals all wounds." People that were mad at people who were against the war and people that were mad at people who supported the war have now lived and worked together for a couple of decades. I think they see that the other side is not all that bad, that they are good people. They may still disagree, but they come together, they live in a community together, and they live in our country together. I think the healing process takes place between individuals.

SM: To take off on that, when we met with Senator Muskie he said that the Civil War generation went to their graves filled with hatred for the South, or the North despite the efforts of these reunions in Gettysburg and that Reconstruction was not a good era. I personally go to the Vietnam Memorial celebrations and Veterans Day in Washington these last couple of years, and I have seen the things that they are wearing on their jackets. This is supposed to be a non-political entity. The Wall [the Vietnam War Memorial] was built to be a non-political entity in honor of those who served and died for their country. Yet you see all these political statements being worn on jackets and jerseys of Jane Fonda Bitch, and comments about Bill Clinton. They had Peter Arnett there this past year.

JB: He went behind the lines in Iraq, right?

SM: Right. I heard some Vietnam veterans saying "Why did I come to hear this guy because he wrote bad, terrible things about us?" They are against the reporters. I am wondering how much healing is really taking place. My main concern is, is the boomer generation really going to heal? Or are they going to go to their graves with bitterness?

JB: I think some individuals are going to go to their graves with bitterness, but I think overall there will be more healing than not. I do not know if you know Tim Grippen, he is our county executive. He had part of his face blown away in Vietnam. It took a long time for plastic surgeons and others to repair his face. His face is, you can tell what happened. He has been very active with the Vietnam Veterans. Here is a guy that came back and went to graduate school at Syracuse University studying public administration. Now he is the county executive, and he has no bad feelings; and there a lot of them. He is in touch with all the Vietnam veterans in Broome County. He is a role model for them. There are people out there like that, that do not say Jane Fonda Bitch. He is a Democrat and a supporter of Bill Clinton. It might be a good idea if you could talk to him some time.

SM: What is his name?

JB: Tim Grippen-- G R I P P E N. He is the County Executive of Broome County. [garbled] I think that some diehards will never change. But there are those who, as time goes on, they will see someone that they like who sees things differently. They will soften up a bit.

SM: I want to say that, for example, during my many trips to the Wall, I attended several ceremonies with veterans in the audience. They hate Bill Clinton, they hate Jane Fonda, and they hate those who protested the war and never gave veterans the royal welcome on their return to the mainland. The Wall has helped [garbled], but the hate remains for those on the other side. [garbled]

JB: In fact, there is a replica of that Wall they bring around to different communities. It is smaller in size. They had one here for a week. All kinds of people went down and saw it. And I felt that there was a feeling like there is a lot of people like me who were against the war, but who still feel that those guys did a job for us and they were doing it for their country. We cannot blame them for something that they had nothing to do with. They are not responsible for it, and I think they should be honored. There are a lot of people that feel that way. I do not think that there is going to be any healing. I think among some people, that is true, but I do not think it is a majority.

SM: That is right. Do you think we will ever have trust for elected leaders again after the debacle of Vietnam and Watergate?

JB: Well, I do not know. I think that is one of the big problems Bill Clinton is having right now. Whitewater and all the related investigations are going on about his character and his wife's character. Even if he wins the election, which I think he will, People may not regard him as they would George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Although in his day, Lincoln was not as popular as he is now; he had a lot of detractors. Now we look at him like a saint. I am a follower of Abraham Lincoln [garbled] but there were people then that did not think he was a saint. Thomas Jefferson had a lot of people that hated his guts. I do not know about Washington. He was a war hero, so maybe he enjoyed a better reputation with the public of his day. You know, when Harry Truman left office, he was quite unpopular. He had fired MacArthur who was a big war hero. [garbled] Over a period of time, while he was still living, but as former president, he gained back his popularity by far. He was very popular towards the end of his time. So, you never know about that.

SM: How did the youth of the (19)60s and early (19)70s change your life and attitudes toward that and future generations?

JB: I think protesters against the war helped those of us who were Democratic officials come around to seeing their point of view. We started out like, he is the elected president and he wants us in there and we are going to support our president. Finally, after seeing how sincere and how widespread their [the protesters] feelings were, we could understand their point of view. I supported it.

SM: What did you think at the time when that was happening?

JB: In my position as Democratic State Chairman, we had people for the war and people against the war. Mccarthyites were against it early on, even before Bobby Kennedy came out against it. I was trying to hold the party together. I did not take a position on it because I thought that it was a unique situation, position, to be in. But I did after Bobby Kennedy came on and then I got to know Al Lowenstein, leader of the group, and others. I did come out against the war. We had to elect Kennedy President and I was the one that was like the mediator between warring sides and all that sort of thing within the party. Yeah.

SM: At that time when you saw some of the politicians changing the lives of young people. And then you eventually came on that side yourself. Had this ever happened before in American history that a generation of youth had this kind of impact?

JB: I think there have been protests before, but not all young people. Young people really brought this about.

SM: When the best history books are written about the growing up years of the boomers, say twenty-five from now, what will be the overall evaluation of boomers? They are just reaching fifty now. When their history books are written, and the best history books are written fifty years after an event ̶ when the best history books on the growing up years for the boomers, say twenty-five to fifty years from now, what will be the overall evaluation of boomers, then?

JB: Well, I think their generation, as we mentioned a little while ago, was the main force behind getting the war stopped. They were the main force of getting Lyndon Johnson to drop out of the race for re-election. There was turmoil going on in the country, much of it caused by that generation. I was the chairman of the New York State delegation at the Democratic Convention (1968), which then was the largest delegation in the country. Then we were larger than California. That was a tumultuous time in Chicago. Outside there were all sorts of demonstrations going on. At one point half my delegation was in jail. We had a candlelight parade that was not supposed to go over a line the police drew, they went over the line, and they all got thrown in jail. Yeah, (19)68. All sorts of things happened that really reflected what was going on in the country, much more than the Republican Convention, which was just an orchestrated political rally. But my point is that the boomer generation was responsible for that. If they had not had the guts to do it, it would not have been done. I do not think any political leader could have been comfortable out there without their support as a political leader on their side ̶ and maybe not gotten any votes without their support.

SM: (19)68, right? Last question here. Youth believed they could have impact on society and government policy in the (19)60s and (19)70s ̶ Vietnam, draft, civil rights legislation, nonviolent protests, multiple movements ̶̶ in other words, a sense of empowerment. Why is society resisting this today? And why, in your own words, do the sons and daughters of boomers feel less confident about their ability to have an impact on society, in some respects, less desire and seeing less opportunity? Am I wrong in assuming this in this question?

JB: No, no, I think you are right. It is hard to say why they feel that way, talking about the X generation, right? I do not know, they do not seem to relate, that is why I think the boomer generation has to tell them what happened and make it more personal to them. There are a couple of movies they can see, like "Born on the Fourth of July," an Oliver Stone movie and things like that were really very powerful and would be real good for the next generation to see. But I do not know why, as I say, there is a fall off of enthusiasm with each generation for a given cause. They have done that, they have fallen off. Maybe they need a new cause? Maybe they need something to happen to bring them all together to fight for a cause? Because the fight itself is exciting, the fight itself gives them a lot of spirit and a lot of dedication.

SM: That is what so many young people tell me, that there is no cause.

JB: So writing this book, when do you finish with your interviews?

SM: Actually it is going to probably be about eighteen months of interviews, because I work full time and I have not been able to take time off from work and we take a lot of trips to Washington.

JB: And you will have to analyze all the interviews.

SM: Yeah, what I am going to do is ̶

JB: And computerize some of it? Transcribe them and a secretary I am going to hire to type the things. Basically going to mostly be verbatim from the interviews so that I am not being judgmental. I want the people who read them to make their decisions. Yeah.

SM: My goal was to interview three hundred people. That is a lot.

JB: That is a lot, yeah ̶

SM: And by three hundred people, it could be two hundred interviews. I can have ten Vietnam veterans in a room. But in the end, I hope that I can do something to add to the discussion because I am real concerned. I have been in universities now for seventeen years and I am trying to analyze what the boomers have done, and what their influence has been myself. And I want to find out more.

JB: Oh, I get you.

SM: I do want to, just on these names that got cut out here, I did write some notes. Just read and respond on a couple of these names if you can. Jane Fonda.

JB: She has a lot of courage and integrity. She knew she would be very unpopular for what she did. But I think she, I think her meaning was to help her country and not the opposite as some people claim. She wanted to help her country by getting it out of the war.

SM: And then Tom Hayden.

JB: Tom Hayden? I think he looks good. He has been elected many times out of the California legislature, so he has a constituency. He was a rabble rouser in the minds of some people. As you mentioned he has come to Chicago, this time as a delegate instead of a protester. I think a lot of people that protested the war, who were regarded at that time as troublemakers are now regarded as the guys who were on the right side ̶ including the President [Bill Clinton].

SM: Lyndon Johnson.

JB: Lyndon Johnson, I said, except for the war. I mean, his effect on .generation was the war, the main thing was the war. And they scorned him for it. But except for the war, If you could set that aside, he had a marvelous record of social legislation.

SM: And Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy.

JB: Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy were the most inspirational leaders we have ever had in my lifetime. They brought hope to young people and stood for the good things in government. They tried to get young people involved in the government and bring them into working in the government and doing good things for their country. And they brought the tragic, patriotic feelings to people.

SM: And Richard Nixon and Timothy Leary.

JB: Well, Richard Nixon was a pitiful case. He was a brilliant man in some respects. He was very paranoid, and I think he was a mean spirited guy in many, many ways. In some ways he did some good things as president, but overshadowed by Watergate, by his lying to the public. Timothy Leary I think was a nut case and a very bad influence. As a Harvard professor, that brings some prestige to just that title. He did have an effect on a lot of young people. He got a lot of young people into the habit of drug selling and that the use of drugs is good for them and the wonderful experience, they should do it. I do not know how many lives he ruined, but he must have ruined some. It was very bad for our country.

SM: And then the last three names ̶ Dr. King, George McGovern, and Daniel Ellsberg.

JB: Martin Luther King was an inspirational leader for all people of all colors, because he did some very difficult, almost impossible things. And he brought about these things in a nonviolent way. He preached nonviolence just like Mahatma Gandhi in India, like Jesus Christ did. I mean, he saw what was wrong, he wanted to right it, but he wanted to right it without any physical harm to anybody. And I think that made him a great, great American. Who is the next one named? George McGovern, a very decent man, was a good leader, was with a great senator. He was very concerned about hunger and work done on hunger within America for many years in the Senate. I think he got a bum rap when he ran for president. He was running against Nixon, I think. He was perceived by the public as sort of like involved with the hippies and the left wing and that he was not a solid guy. He was a very solid guy. Daniel Ellsberg was a man of principle and n he did what he thought was right.

SM: Senator (Eugene) McCarthy?

JB: Senator McCarthy was a man of principle. I think he had some guts to do what he did. I do not think it was a personable guy, but that is just a personal thing.

SM: Any final thoughts you want to say at all?

JB: I have said enough I think. It was an interesting era to play some role, a lot of history there, you know. We had some high spots and low spots. The lowest of course for me was when Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

SM: Is Allard Lowenstein buried in an unmarked grave between Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy at Arlington. I heard that he was.,

JB: I never knew that. I do not know where he is buried.

SM: I was in California when he was shot by one of his friends.

JB: There was a guy with all sorts of energy, I will tell you. I worked for him to win for Congress. He ran in Brooklyn against an old guy named John Rooney who was part of the Democratic establishment in Brooklyn. He had been in Congress for years, the chairman of some important committee. Anyway, I worked for Al, much to the disdain of Lee Esposito, who was the Brooklyn leader at the time and lost that election. He did go to Congress, I think from another district out in Long Island for one term. He [Esposito] came back to Brooklyn, got beat out there the second time. I knew his wife, I knew him. A very interesting guy.

SM: [garbled]

JB: Al Lowenstein had a way of organizing students better than anyone I ever heard of. He was a hero on the campuses. He knew how to get things done.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


John J. Burns, 1921-2004

Biographical Text

John J. Burns (1921-2004) was the New York State Democratic Party leader during the 1960s. Burns was a two-term Binghamton mayor from 1958 to 1965, state Democratic chairman, Kennedy's campaign chairman, and appointments secretary to former governor Hugh Carey. He remained active in politics until 1993.





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Binghamton University Libraries

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1 Microcassette

Interview Format


Subject LCSH

Politicians--United States--New York; Democratic Party (N.Y.); Burns, John J., 1921-2004--Interviews

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War protests; Nineteen sixties; Early nineteen seventies; Traditional American household; Drugs; Marriage failures; Baby boom generation; Woodstock; Hippies; Loss of hope & trust; Democratic party; Assassination of John F. Kennedy; Vietnam veterans; Vietnam memorial; Broome County


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About this Collection

Collection Description

Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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“Interview with John Burns,” Digital Collections, accessed July 25, 2024,