The Passage of Power is your fourth book so far on President Lyndon B. Johnson, to whom you have devoted more than 3,000 pages and 35 years of your life. Why Johnson?
Because my books are really about political power in America in the 20th century, and no one understood it better than Johnson. We're taught in high school and college in textbooks that in a democracy, power comes from the ballot box. It's the forces that create power that are not evident at the ballot box that's what I'm trying to explain in my books.
Power corrupts, but you say power also reveals. What do you mean?
When he was in college, Johnson took a year off to earn money teaching Mexican kids. In Congress he voted against civil rights legislation many times. But when he became President, he told an aide, "I'll tell you a secret. I swore to myself that if I ever had the power to help these kids, I would do it. Now I have the power, and I intend to use it."
Johnson had a terrible time as Vice President. What advice would you give to Mitt Romney in looking for a running mate?
I'm not gonna give advice to Romney. But a presidential candidate has a great responsibility to America to pick someone who is well fitted to the role. I think John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin is the single most irresponsible act of government I can remember.
What advice do you think Johnson would give President Obama?
I think anybody who's interested in political power will look at what Johnson did after Kennedy's assassination. This is the ultimate use of political power: in a time of great crisis, use the great crisis to launch a program that has a transformative effect on the country.
In studying political power, have you figured out why Presidents get so little done?
Part of it is the inherent resistance to transformative change embodied in Congress. In the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s, it was the Southern Democrats who controlled Congress and stood in the way of social-welfare legislation. Today it's the Republican Party.
Are American voters shooting themselves in the foot with their current "throw the bums out" attitude toward elections? How important is experience?
One of the reasons Johnson was so amazingly effective as President right at the beginning was that he knew the rules of Congress. He knew the people in Congress. He had been working with them for 30 years, and he knew the buttons to push with each one.
Do you remember where you were the day Johnson became President?
I was one of the last people in the U.S. to learn about it. I was in the middle of the Mojave Desert showing Senate investigators fraudulent real estate developments I'd written about. You couldn't get radio reception. That evening, driving back toward Las Vegas, we turned onto a main highway and a truck driver waved us over. That was approximately six hours after it happened.
You write long and slow. What do you think of the speed and brevity of the information age?
To me, time equals truth. There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is. It's very important to have enough time to ask all your questions.
How does it feel to have one person occupy your mind for so long? Is it like being in love?
Sometimes you feel, I know what he's going to do next. And he does it, and then you feel you know him.
Don't you have a kind of power?
The power of history is in the end the greatest power.
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