BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Paul Johnson, author of "A History of the American People," can you remember the first time you ever came to the United States?
MR. PAUL JOHNSON, AUTHOR, "A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE" Do I remember the first time? Yes. It must have been in 1955.
LAMB: What was your first thought about the country?
MR. JOHNSON: You know what--you know what really astonished me about America in those days was seeing ordinary working men smoke big cigars. I even saw a priest going down Fifth Avenue smoking a big cigar. And that struck me, `This is a rich country.'
LAMB: Why did you come here?
MR. JOHNSON: I came here for journalistic purposes, to learn about America. That's really how I started getting interested in American history, because we weren't taught American history at school, and we weren't taught American history in the School of Modern History at Oxford after the war. So I never learnt any American history academically. I came to it by meeting Americans, by coming to America, by learning it in a kind of grass-roots way. And then I started to read books about it.
LAMB: How many states in the United States have you been to? Do you know?
MR. JOHNSON: I should think about 35, something like that. I've been most parts of the United States.
LAMB: And how many times have you come here?
MR. JOHNSON: I would think about 50 times. That's a guess.
LAMB: And where do you live?
MR. JOHNSON: I live in London and also in Somerset in the west
MR. JOHNSON: ...from which America was originally settled, mainly west country people.
LAMB: What's the difference?
MR. JOHNSON: The difference is they're slow but sure, and they're seafaring folk with an agricultural background.
LAMB: What would have h--what would the difference have been in the United States if they'd have come from London?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think some of them did come from London, and some of the organizers were very much connected with London. And some of them came from East Anglia. I'm talking about the very early settlers. By the 1650s, they were coming from all over England and, indeed, from Scotland and Wales, too.
LAMB: When did you--you decide to write the first sentence of this book, which reads, `The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures'?
MR. JOHNSON: I originally wrote something different, and I didn't like it, and it was too long-winded, so I got back to that shorter statement of it. I wanted to say to the reader, `What you are about to read and learn about is the greatest of all human enterprises.' And that is why it is such a big, thick book.
LAMB: Ten hundred and eighty-eight--or eighty pages. But, also, it--you have--and I counted them--1,940 source notes, meaning 1,900 different occasions where you said, `This is where something came from.'
MR. JOHNSON: Yes.
LAMB: Is that a lot?
MR. JOHNSON: That is, I would say, about what you need of a book of this kind. It's not an academic book. It's not a--appealing to a small circle of scholars. It is a book for the general public. I think it is, therefore, right to give your source notes. You must give your sources, and I do them for various reasons. One, to tell people where they're from; two, to direct them to further reading, to say these are good books on the subject if you want to know more about this particular person or this particular event; and, thirdly, also, to indicate where there are books which have a different viewpoint than the one I express, because this is, in some respects, quite an opinionated book. But I do make it clear when I'm giving my opinions, and I usually in a footnote indicate a book which gives a rather different one, if people would like to look it up.
LAMB: Near the end of the book, you say, `America's leading philosopher is Thomas Sowell.' Why?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, in my opinion, he has given me more than any other American living philosopher, because he has taught me about the way the market system works and why it works, because he presents it as an information system. The freer the market system, the more completely uninhibited it is, the more information it presents and the more accurate that information is. And, therefore, the decisions you reach on the basis of that information are likely to be the right ones. And that is why a market system delivers the goods, whereas a command economy where there is no freedom of information, where the market is not giving you unrestricted access to information, and, therefore, your decisions are of low quality in consequence, that doesn't work.
Now Thomas Sowell explained this to me in his book "Knowledge & Decisions" in a way which has gone right to the heart of my thinking. And I feel very grateful to him.
LAMB: I--I've wrote down a lot of names and a lot of things that you said about the different people. I just want to start with one. `Alexander Hamilton was a genius,' you say, `the only one of the Founding Fathers fully entitled to that accolade, and he had the elusive, indefinable characteristics of genius.'
MR. JOHNSON: Well, Alexander Hamilton did something for America which, I suspect, nobody else could have done, though one should add that he had the full backing of George Washington in doing it. That is to say, he put American public finances on a sound basis, which they certainly were not until he came to the Treasury. And that was very important, because it was always on the cards that the United States of America might go the same way as the Latin American republics, into a morass of inflation, deficit financing, state bankruptcy and all the consequences which inevitably follow from those evils. America didn't do that. Throughout its history, America has had on the whole very, very sound finances. And I think that is due in the first instance to Alexander Hamilton. He made an indispensable contribution to American success and prosperity which I think none other of the Founding Fathers could have done, certainly not Jefferson.
LAMB: You say, though, he was a hater of the democracy.
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think maybe `hater' is a strong word. It--it--all that generation were very suspicious of democracy. They did not think that democracy was the right solution, because they were talking in terms of government by an enlightened elite, though possibly in the distant future, they were prepared to admit democracy. Now I think Alexander Hamilton, who did not have fundamentally an American background--he had a British empire background more--more than--than a purely American background--he did think more in terms of authority than some of the others, certainly than Thomas Jefferson. He also grasped a point which it's very difficult to make in a modern liberal society, but is very important, because as hist--as a historian, I notice how important it is.
Alexander Hamilton realized that an infant state has to be nice to the rich, because if it is nice to the rich, then the rich are nice to it. And he was prepared to reimburse in full--and this was people who held United States currency bonds; and this was grumbled at by other people in Congress and so forth--but he got the people with the money, including the people with the money power in London, which was very important, to back the infant American state. And that's one of the reasons it succeeded. And if you look around the world today, you find of the hundred new nations which have come into existence since the end of the Second World War, probably 75 percent of them have gone down the drain financially because they weren't nice to the rich. It's a horrible thing to have to say, but it is the essential wisdom of an--a young nation. And Alexander Hamilton had that wisdom.
LAMB: Religion. I re--I read this from you, "Thomas Jefferson did not believe God existed." That's a quote. The next page, though, you quote him from "The Summary View of Rights of British America," the book that he wrote, quote, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty." How could he not believe God existed and then go on to say, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty"?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, one of the things one has to learn about Thomas Jefferson i--is that there were irreconcilable contradictions in his nature and cha--and character and his approach to life. And whether he thought in terms of a guiding providence, which was not exactly God, or whether at certain times of his life he was inclined to believe in an overall force and other times he wasn't, I don't know. But one has to accept with Jefferson that there are things that don't add up together. And that's only one of the occasions on which you come across that.
LAMB: Staying with the subject of God, you quote Herndon, William Herndon, the friend of Abraham Lincoln, as saying, `Lincoln insisted no personal God existed.' And then you say, `There were agonizing efforts of Abraham Lincoln to rationalize God's purpose. Those close to him agreed he had no religious beliefs in the conventional sense.'
MR. JOHNSON: That is certainly what his wife said. She said that he never belonged to a church, and I think that is almost certainly true. The--the question of Lincoln and religion is a very big one, and I'm not sure that one can give an easy answer--straightforward answer to it. What one can say, I think, is that during the Civil War, which was agonizing to everyone, but particularly to a man like Lincoln, because he bore the ultimate responsibility for what was happening, he almost inevitably thought deeply about what mankind was doing on Earth, why these things happened, why evil existed, how it was to be combated, and how the individual spirit stood in relation to all these questions.
And I think that in itself tended to bring him closer to the idea of a deity. One does detect from his writings and from accounts of his behavior--eyewitness accounts--that he was becoming more and more accustomed to read the Bible. He read it a lot during those terrible years of the Civil War. And it may well be that by the end of the Civil War, he was a believer in God. So when he was killed, he met his maker believing in him.
LAMB: What would you--how would you define your personal politics if you lived in this country?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I am by nature a conservative with a strong radical bent. I don't know whether that makes any sense to you. My instincts tend to be conservative. I may say that as a young man, I was almost a socialist. But my instincts tend to be conservative, but I often go for radical solutions. That's one reason, for instance, why I like Margaret Thatcher so much. Sh--she was and is a friend of mine, and I used to help her when she was prime minister. Because she had the same approach. She was a conservative with radical sides to her.
LAMB: There is a review by a James Kurth in The Washington Times about your book, and he said this, `It might even be said that this book is the definitive Republican history of the American people. As such, it is welcome and valuable counterpoint to the endless stream of liberal and Democratic histories that flows out of academic history departments.'
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I--that is a point of view. All I can say in reply is that I try to give everybody a fair crack of the whip. And I always make it clear when I'm giving my opinions as opposed to stating incontrovertible facts. And it is also true to say that some of the heroes of the book are Democrats. I mean, one of them is Andrew Jackson, who effectively founded the Democratic Party. Another is Woodrow Wilson. I reckon that his prewar legislative record and record of administration in his first presidency was a triumph. And a third hero of the book, who's also a Democrat, is President Truman, whom I knew and admired and who comes into my own lifetime. And I think he was a great president.
LAMB: Why did you admire Harry Truman?
MR. JOHNSON: Because he was decisive. You know, there was an awful lot of indecision just at the end of the war when Roosevelt was really in decline and the Russians were getting away with murder all over Europe. And I can remember that as a very young man, and we were quite frightened in Britain. Fortunately, we had a very forceful foreign secretary called Ernest Bevin. And the combination of Ernest Bevin and what was actually happening in Eastern Europe persuaded President Truman that he had to act. And once he'd made up his mind, he was a very decisive man, indeed. And from that decision on his part that he had to stand up to the Soviet Union flowed all kinds of consequences, including the foundation of NATO and Marshall aid, both of which were absolutely totally important in getting Europe back on its feet.
LAMB: Where did you meet him?
MR. JOHNSON: I met him in Paris.
LAMB: Did you talk with him?
MR. JOHNSON: No. No, I wasn't grand enough in those days.
LAMB: Let me read just a--at--at random here some of the things you said about other American presidents. Jimmy Carter, `A scruffy person at the best of times.'
MR. JOHNSON: Well, Jimmy Carter did one great thing, and I--I think one has to take off one's hat to him. He did the Camp David talks which brought about peace between Israel and Egypt. I believe that was the most important single steppingstone towards a--a--a final peace in the Middle East. And I think Jimmy Carter must be given credit for it. He worked very, very hard for it, indeed, so there was one really good thing which distinguished his presidency.
LAMB: Bill Clinton, `A lackluster Democratic candidate, he was in trouble both for past misdemeanors as governor of Arkansas and for present malfeasance and abuse of power as chief magistrate.'
MR. JOHNSON: Well, this, we are now right in the middle of current affairs. And I may say on this point, some people criticize me for bringing the book right up to date. And, of course, there's a great risk in that. Sir Walter Raleigh, when he was writing his history of the world when he was in the Tower of London as a prisoner of James I, he wrote in that book--he said, `It is dangerous to follow too closely in the footsteps of present time, lest he kick you in the teeth.' I--I have taken that risk, and I have written right up to 1997. That's where the book, more or less, ends, and so it is a contemporary book. And that means making judgments and giving verdicts on present incumbents. So I--that is what I've done.
LAMB: And you believe that he has--has committed malfeasance and abuse of power?
MR. JOHNSON: That's what it looks like on the evidence.
LAMB: `Gerald Ford had to take over in the debris of a media putsch which had reversed the Democratic verdict of a Nixon landslide.'
MR. JOHNSON: Gerry Ford was and is a very nice man who was placed almost in an impossible position at a time when a strong president had been overthrown, in effect, and forced into resignation. And Congress was in danger of a sliding, undermining of the Constitution by usurping executive authority. And it was very difficult for Gerald Ford to resist that process because he hadn't actually been elected. But he did his best. His best was not, in my opinion, good enough. But he did his best and he was a very decent man, which I think helped to restabilize the American system, which was running out of control at that time. I spent--I was often in Washington at that time, and it was a rather frightening time.
Gerry Ford, incidentally, has one extraordinary gift which I've never come across elsewhere to the same degree. He never forgot a name or a face. And that applied to unimportant people as well as important people. And that, of course, is why he got so high in the system.
LAMB: What did you think of John F. Kennedy?
MR. JOHNSON: John F. Kennedy was the tragic flawed hero who was discovered to have feet of clay. It's a very sad story, that, because in England at the time, as, of course, here, some of us, to some extent, at any rate, believed in Camelot and the myths. And we particularly liked his handling of the Cuban missile crisis. I was then, as it happened, in temporary occupation of an editorial seat. I was in charge of the New Statesman, because the editor was away. And I insisted, against the advice of all my staff, in backing President Kennedy over that--over his handling of the crisis. And we were one of only two papers that did so in Britain. And I'm always proud of having done that in backing him. But, as I explain in the book and as I've shown in earlier books of mine, looking back on it, the handling of the missile crisis was not right, and he allowed--he allowed Castro to get away with too much.
LAMB: You say that his father Joe was a crook.
MR. JOHNSON: I'm sorry?
LAMB: You say that his father Joe was a crook.
MR. JOHNSON: I think there's not much doubt about that.
MR. JOHNSON: Not much doubt.
LAMB: ...how do you back that up?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I give the sources for that, I think, and I f--I don't think there's very much argument about that. I mean, no doubt, you get it from the Kennedy family, but I think most observers and most historians of the period would not challenge that verdict.
LAMB: On Page 846 you say, `The growth of the TV personality meant that many of those who appeared in front of the cameras, though originally of little account in the official hierarchy of the state, became famous to millions, valuable commodities, and soon earned more than their superiors up the hierarchy and eventually, in some cases, as much as station owners.' What was your point? You're talking about the '60s and how things changed.
MR. JOHNSON: Well, the point I'm making there is the gradual rise of the power of the media and, against that background, the erosion of the authority of the United States government in consequence.
LAMB: What's the impact, do you think, today, right now?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think it has, to some extent, been restored. I think the nadir was reached in the '70s in consequence of the Watergate affair and the usurpation of executive power by Congress. And that continued under President Carter. And then we got President Reagan. I think President Reagan is going to go down in history as one of the most important presidents of the 20th century and one of the most successful, because what he did was to restore the power and the authority and the dignity of the presidency. And in doing so, almost in consequence, he restored the American people's faith in themselves. He had a huge psychological impact on the self-confidence of America.
LAMB: Lyndon Johnson.
MR. JOHNSON: Lyndon Johnson was a very powerful and somewhat frightening man. If you sat opposite him in his little office off the Oval Office in the White House, he tended--just as we are sitting together now--he tended to move his chair closer to you. And he had a huge face with enormous ears which almost sort of flapped gently in the wind. And it was like being approached by a rather frightening African elephant--this huge figure moving towards you. And I think he did it deliberately. I think that's what he used to do to recalcitrant congressmen or senators that he had in his little den. He was a big, big man. I think of the--two of the most interesting presidents of the 20th century were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
They were both great men with huge flaws. And both of the them in the end were rather badly treated by th--the media and possibly by the public and by historians. But both of them were great in the sense that they really believed in America, and they really wanted to serve America to the best of their very considerable ability. They differed in the sense that I--I think Lyndon Johnson was more concerned for the poor. He came from a poorish background. And as a school teacher, he'd taught very poor children, and this remained with him throughout his life. So he did think in terms of the poor all the time. And Nixon tended to think more in terms of what he would call ordinary Americans, of all classes in all parts of the nation. But both of them believed in America, and they believed in the American people. And they made mistakes, but those mistakes must be seen in the context of their great fundamental patriotism.
LAMB: In--in the section where you talk about Lyndon Johnson, I want to read this, because it was the footnote that I went to, and I wanted you to tell us more, if you could. You say, `LBJ, the large, unrestrained, earthy animal, had a voracious sexual appetite, no more discriminating than Kennedy's, but less interesting. He had a 21-year affair, '48 to '69, with a Dallas woman called Madeline Brown which produced a son, Stephen, and countless more transitory encounters, including, so he boasted, intercourse with a secretary at his desk in the Oval Office. He was an inveterate bottom pincher, especially in the swimming pool.' Now I don't know what part of this you got from this source, but I turned back to the back, and it was--it said the following as the source: `A society woman who had been thus handled told the author, quote, "A nip from LBJ was very painful."' You got this directly from a society woman?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes.
LAMB: The whole story?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. No, no, that story of the nip.
LAMB: And was it here in America? Somebody here?
MR. JOHNSON: No, no. No. And I never betray my sources...
LAMB: What about the st...
MR. JOHNSON: ...if they're journalistic sources, that is, as opposed to academic historical sources.
LAMB: What about the story about the--the son and the--and the affair? Where does that come from?
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, I think that's all documented. I'm surprised I don't actually--I probably do at some stage in one of those notes there.
LAMB: Well, before it is a Joe Califono quote, but it doesn't--that's the paragraph before it.
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah, I--it is documented, all right. There's no--no doubt about that. I don't think there's any argument about it.
LAMB: What about the sexual appetites of American presidents? How much of that did you find? And how much what we're hearing today is any different that what you heard before?
MR. JOHNSON: I don't think it is very different, really. And I don't approve, myself, going too much into the private lives of public persons. I think there is--we get a lot of this in England, and I'm sorry that it's spreading to the United States. I think it's all right, you know, for a work of history to describe this, when the people are dead and their relatives are dead and so forth, but, you know, there's a limit to what a public person can take in having his or her private life delved into by voracious media. If we want to get decent men and women from all quarters of society serving the public, running for public office, I think we have to have an unspoken bargain with them that, unless their private life is directly related their public policies, they ought to be allowed a certain amount of privacy. I don't think people can lead balanced lives if every moment of their day is being watched.
One note is that ornithologists tell me that if ordinary songbirds are watched all the time, they die. They literally die. A certain amount of privacy is important to animals, and I think it's important to human beings.
LAMB: When did you write the first word for this book?
MR. JOHNSON: It must have been about three years ago. What I do when I'm writing a book, th--the really lengthy part of the book is collecting material. That can take years and years, and I first began to collect material for this book in 1980 when I was here in Washington. That is what takes the--the really enormous amount of time. Then comes the core business of doing the book, which is indexing your notes, arranging your material and, above all, creating the plan of the work.
And I plan that in a way which I learnt from the days when I was making television documentaries. In those days, I'd get each sequence or part of each sequence, and I'd write it on a card. And then I'd spread all these cards across the floor until I had arranged them in the final sequence I wanted. And I adapted this technique for writing books, particularly very big historical works. I would have every subject on a card, probably needing about 300 words to cover that subject--an average of 300 words. And I would then have hundreds of these cards and spread them out all over the floor of a big room, and perhaps spend a fortnight getting them in the perfect order and divided into chapters. And each of those cards were cross-indexed to my--related to my index so I'd know exactly where to look for in the notes to deal with the subject on that card.
And once I had these cards in order, and--and--and you've got to get it absolutely right. If you don't do your homework properly at the planning stage, then things go wrong later. Once I got them in exactly the right order, then I could proceed with the actual writing at quite a fast pace.
LAMB: Where do you write?
MR. JOHNSON: I write mainly in my study in London in Bayswater, which overlooks my garden. It's quite a small room. And I have a desk with two electronic typewriters at it in an L-shaped formation and with a swing chair. Now on the first of those, on the left, I write the main text of the book. On the second, I write the source notes, so that I can do them at the same time, just by swinging the chair. Now that saves an enormous amount of time. If you write your text and you then come back to it and start doing the source notes, it's a nightmare, and a lot of writers do that, I'm afraid. It's--it's a very serious error, and that's what leads to a lot of mistakes. But if you do them my way, at the same time--and incidentally, you can do this on a ward--word processor, too, obviously--that is the way I do it. And I also--my study is sufficiently small so that all my, say, 300 or 400 principal works of reference--dictionaries and so forth and dictionaries of dates--they are all within an arm's reach. That's the way I write books.
LAMB: At what time of day do you write?
MR. JOHNSON: I can start as early as 4:00 in the morning in the summer, when it's nice and light by then, and you can work undisturbed for hours. The telephone doesn't ring and people don't interrupt you. Also, I'm a morning man. My brain seems to work better in the morning. It doesn't apply to all writers. Some writers--my friend Tom Stoppard, for instance, writes his plays often very late at night. And I ring him at--at lunchtime in the morning, he's not yet up because he's been working throughout the night, 'cause his brain works best in the evening. But mine works best in the morning, and that's when I get the bulk of my work done, between--any time between sort of 4:00 or 6:00 and, say, 2:00. And I have some lunch and I go on writing until I'm tired.
LAMB: Are you a fast writer?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes.
LAMB: How many words a day?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, if, as I say, all my notes are in order and the planning is working and so on, I can do 3,000 words a day, day after day after day. And sometimes, on a really good day, I can notch it up to 4,000 or even 5,000. Two thousand is a bad day.
LAMB: Do you do it seven days a week?
MR. JOHNSON: Sometimes. I--I don't absolutely put myself in a str--straitjacket. I do have targets and deadlines that I set for myself, but if I'm tired, I stop. And you can always tell that, or at least I can because I have to think for words more than usual. And if I'm tired on any particular day, I stop. And if I wake up in the morning and something tells me not to write that day but to take a day off, I do so.
LAMB: As you can see, this is a rather thick book, 1,080 pages, including the source notes, and it's called "A History of the American People." Did you know from the beginning you were gonna have a book this large?
MR. JOHNSON: I reckoned it would be about that. I--I wanted to keep it under 1,000 pages.
LAMB: What book is this for you, what number?
MR. JOHNSON: I think it's number 36, but it may be 35. I've written a lot of books, and some of them are collections of essays and already published stuff, and some of them are more art books than textbooks. But that is the eighth really big book I've written.
LAMB: And it's a HarperCollins book, a company owned by Rupert Murdoch. Does that have anything to do--your conservatism and why they bought the book?
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, no, absolutely not. I mean, HarperCollins--I joined when it was Harper and Row before it was amalgamated with Collins, and it is still basically Harper and Row. It's a very distinguished American publishing firm and I'm very pleased with them. They've done extremely well with all my books and they're very nice people to work with. Not that I have anything against Rupert Murdoch. He's a friend of mine, you know, and I've--he sometimes asks my advice and I sometimes volunteer it to him unasked.
LAMB: Do you know how many books they printed for the first run on this?
MR. JOHNSON: No, I never inquire about things like that.
LAMB: Why not?
MR. JOHNSON: I never ask for sales figures and I never read reviews. Those are two of my principles.
MR. JOHNSON: Because I think writers who worry about sales tend to allow materialistic and commercial considerations to enter into their thinking about the books they're writing. And I don't read reviews because they--good, bad or indifferent, they tend to irritate me. So 25 years ago, I stopped reading reviews.
LAMB: Don't mean to irritate you, but I've got a couple reviews because...
MR. JOHNSON: Sure. Go ahead.
LAMB: ...if--if you don't know this...
MR. JOHNSON: I--I may say that although I take this vow not to read reviews, if you get a spectacularly bad and hurtful review, you may be perfectly sure that your kind friends will draw it to your attention, if necessary by force.
LAMB: Well, the reason why I wanna read this review is because, frankly, you even address the--the biggest complaint that people have in your introduction, which I'll get to in just a second, if I can find it here. Firstly, I'll read you a review from the Cleveland Plain Dealer by a man named Allan Peskin. And let me see where--he's a professor--teaches history at Cleveland State, is the author of a biography of President Garfield.
He says, `This book is so littered with factual errors, misstatements and outright blunders that merely to list them would consume an entire review.' And then he goes on to say things like this: `For the Cleveland area alone'--he's writing from Cleveland--`Johnson begins by misspelling Moses Cleaveland's name, then incorrectly places William Henry Harrison's headquarters here,' meaning Cleveland, `and his--William McKinley assassinated in Cleveland rather than in Buffalo. William Henry Harrison was from Cincinnati. Zachary Taylor was not a Democrat, as Johnson asserts, but a Whig. And the Anti-Mason Party nominated William Hirt'--I'm sorry--`Wirt for president in 19--in 1832, not Thurlow Weed.'
He goes on to say, `Johnson confuses Confederate generals Albert Sidney Johnston and Joseph Johnston, and he demotes Francis Pickens from governor of Cali--Sou--South Carolina during the Ft. Sumter crisis to P.G.T. Beauregard's role as general,' and he goes on to mention some other things. Have you heard these criticisms?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, you will always get criticisms from academics. They like to niggle about these things. And if you get a book of that size, which has a very, very high factual content, there are bound to be these errors. And most of the b--I mean, for instance, you know, I've written histories of Christianity, history of the Jews, history of the 20th century and so forth, and mistakes do occur because nobody is infallible. But gradually, from edition to edition, they are corrected, if the mistakes are genuine ones. The one about the two generals is quite true. I've--I've had letters of that from readers.
Anyway, I say in the introduction to my book, `This is a book which is bound--something of this size--to contain errors. And it's also--probably contains statements which some readers will find outrageous.' And in both cases, I invite the readers to write to me and I give my private home address in London, and I've already begun to receive letters, I'm glad to say, from readers.
LAMB: By the way, some other reviewer--and I don't remember who did this--said that you called former governor of California Pete Brown and I noticed in my book it's Pat Brown.
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, that's been corrected.
LAMB: So would they--been corrected already?
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, yes. Yes.
LAMB: But I did wanna ask you this, what you said about Governor Brown, who turned out to be--and this is a quote--"one of the worst governors in California's history." What do you base that statement on?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think a lot of people would agree with that. I base it on his record.
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
MR. JOHNSON: No.
LAMB: And I should tell you this, that today, as we're recording this, Steve Forbes, the former presidential candidate, Forbes magazine, wrote a review of your book which was very favorable in The Wall Street Journal. And he says this: `Mr. Johnson's opus is a breathtaking attempt to tell our 400-year story in one volume. While critics will carp about minor errors and omissions, the book is a magnificent achievement.' Do you find that people carp when they disagree with you?
MR. JOHNSON: I find that if someone is a left-wing liberal who doesn't like America--and that includes a lot of Americans, I'm sorry to say--he will approach this book, which is a book based on a love of America, with the desire to find factual errors in it. And, of course, he will go through it and use the index and so on. He won't actually read the book. That kind of reviewer never actually reads the book, so he misses the whole point of it, but he will find errors. But those errors can be corrected.
LAMB: Do you have any sense of how many people will finish a 1,080-page book?
MR. JOHNSON: I don't know, but I do try and write books so that they can be read like a novel, so that they can be as entertaining reading as a novel. And there's no reason why they shouldn't be because life is more interesting than fiction, and history is about life. And there's no reason why the history of a great country like the United States, which is full of very interesting people, shouldn't be highly readable. So that's what I've tried to do.
LAMB: Let me go back to some quotes about presidents. This is just a short one and this was one that I wrote down early: "U.S. Grant, a political and administrative booby." What does that mean?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think Grant was a great general--a great general in a way that Lee wasn't. But as an administrator, as president of the country, he was sometimes guilty of foolish lack of action.
LAMB: "Benjamin Harrison, harmless and probably honest."
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, I think that's true. What more do you wish me to add?
LAMB: "Grover Cleveland, best president between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, a man of character and conviction and probity."
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, I think that is a fair judgment.
MR. JOHNSON: Not everyone would agree with that. Well, I think he stuck--at a time when any leading Democrat would've been under terrific pressure to abandon sound finance, he stuck to it, and that was something which I always admire.
LAMB: "Chester A. Arthur was a thoroughly disreputable character."
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, but he was actually better as a president than he had been before. That often happens, of course.
LAMB: "William Howard Taft, extraordinary choice for Theodore Roosevelt, proof of the contention that great men should not be allowed to pick their successors. He was, by nature, sedentary and judicial."
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. And, of course, the person who was most disappointed in him was Theodore Roosevelt himself. And I say people shouldn't be allowed to pick their successors from bitter experience, because when I ceased to be editor of the New Statesman, I picked my successor, thinking he'd be marvelous, and he turned out to be a dud.
LAMB: Have you told him that to his face?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes.
LAMB: How long ago did you do that?
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, this was 30 years ago, back in the Middle Ages.
LAMB: You changed from being a socialist to a conservative on what day?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, it wasn't on a day. It took place over years, really. Until--walking--I was walking in my garden. I then had a country house in Buckinghamshire, beautiful 18th century house, and I was walking in my garden--it must've been 1974 or '75--with a fellow historian, Hugh Thomas, who was an old friend of mine and who had not long before left the Labor Party and joined the conservatives. And he said to me, `Paul, you're going to have to face the fact sooner or later you are no longer Labor, you are a conservative. Why not do it now?' And I thought about it overnight and I thought, `He's right,' so I did.
LAMB: What year?
MR. JOHNSON: This was 1975.
LAMB: James Polk--do you remember when he was president?
MR. JOHNSON: No, tell me.
LAMB: I don't--I haven't got the dates here either.
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah.
LAMB: I mean, how do you deal with all the dates and all the exact...
MR. JOHNSON: Well, it is very difficult. And all these--I mean, people who accuse you of inaccuracy have to recognize the fact that often the standard reference books disagree, and you find that they disagree particularly on figures and dates. I'm not talking about dates of the year, on the whole, I'm talking about dates of the month or dates of the week and so forth, but also figures, you know, results of presidential elections. You find two apparently highly respectable works of reference disagree on many, many minor points. It is a bit unnerving.
LAMB: James Polk was s--1795 to 1849 and was president for--you know, he'd only lived to be 53...
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: ...from Tennessee. But I wanna quote what you said: "It is curious that he was despised in his lifetime and underrated by historians. Within his self--within his self-set limits, he is acclaimed to be considered one of the most successful presidents."
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think it is probably true that if you were asked to mention a president who is likely to rise in the public estimation over the next 100 years, he would be a leading candidate for that.
LAMB: And you say that he was sour, stiff, elderly-looking man with a sad, unsmiling face who did nothing but work.
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, that's true. A lot of people would say he worked himself to death.
LAMB: Franklin Pierce. Nathaniel Horthorne--Hawthorne, the writer, who was a friend of his, had to conceal two things about Franklin Pierce, you say: Pierce's drinking--it was said he drank more than Daniel Webster and he was certainly often drunk. Do you trust all this when you hear that?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, I think so. I think so.
LAMB: At--at what point, though, do you tr--do that? I mean, as you're reading through it--because as I--I went through, back to your sources, it--it--for instance, on Warren Harding, you trusted Robert Farrell's new book to say that Warren Harding had not had a lot of those affairs and--and was a...
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, 'cause I think--I think that's true. And it's only in recent years that all Harding's papers have become available. And the more the authentic primary sources are scrutinized, the better Harding emerges. Harding is a sad and tragic figure, really. It's almost--it's rather moving to read about him because, in a sense, he was an ordinary American man writ large. He--his whole background was that of the ordinary American. And he wanted to serve America. He was the last president that I know of who actually answered the door of the White House himself, and he'd usher in a caller sometimes without an appointment. And the caller would be allowed to talk to the president of the United States like that and spend half an hour with him and then go away happy.
Now that was the kind of man that Warren Harding was. And it's very unfortunate that people exploited his geniality and generosity and, I suppose, naivety and that one--and some of the men 'round him turned out to be crooks or, at any rate, people who did dishonest things. And he was stained with their crimes.
LAMB: You, by the way, say that the central paradox of the 1920s--probably the most enjoyable decade in American history. Why do you say that?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, it's the decade I enjoy most reading about and seeing the old sort of movies and listening to the Smithsonian produce these wonderful long-playing records of musicals from the '20s. I've got a collection of those. And I like to listen to the accents and the kind joie de vive which comes out of the music of those days. And it was before the terrible business of the Wall Street crash and the recession, the Depression, the Great Depression, which I think had an ineffaceable effect upon the American consciousness. Before that, there was still an element of the Garden of Eden about America, that--a future unlimited. After that, it's never been quite the same. I mean, at the moment, everyone in America is enjoying one of the greatest booms in its history, and I think it could be argued that never has America been so prosperous before. But there is not the same feeling as there was in the '20s because people don't quite trust the future anymore in the way they did then.
LAMB: Cotton, you say, played a major role in where we are today. How?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, cotton was the great engine behind the Industrial Revolution. In Britain, we were the manufacturers. We led the way in the Industrial Revolution. And Lancashire, which is where I come from, where I was born, was the cotton manufacturing center of the world, the first really big industrialized area, and it was producing cottons for the entire world. Until then, cotton had been an--a very expensive form of wearing apparel. It then became the cheapest in the world. It was the cheapest partly because of Manchester and Lancashire manufacturing capacity but also because of the capacity of the American South to produce the cotton raw material cheaply.
LAMB: But cotton and the Civil War.
MR. JOHNSON: Well, cotton was the great disappointment to the South in the Civil War. They thought cotton was king, and it turned out to be a usurper and it let them down. They thought cotton would win the war, but it lost them the war.
MR. JOHNSON: Well, it lost them the war in the sense that they never got their finances properly worked out in advance. They knew they were going--or some of them knew they were going to secede. And they should've realized--if they'd studied history they would've realized--that in several--wars are nearly always won by the side that gets its finances right. That was true, for instance, of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and it was certainly true of the American Civil War. They relied on cotton to get their finances right and, of course, it let them down.
LAMB: You write a lot about slavery all through the book, and what impact has slavery had on this country?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, some people would say that slavery is the great organic sin of the American people, although, God help them, most of them didn't commit it because they didn't own slaves. But a lot of them did and a lot of other ones tolerated it. And the tragic thing is that America didn't need to have slavery. Slaves were brought to America first by the Dutch and Dutch entrepreneurs who had blacks for sale and they brought them here. America didn't need that. It was an easy way out, so it--that easy way out was pursued. And as a result, slavery crept into the interstices of the nation, crept into its bones as it were, and becrame--became a great curse.
And those who owned slaves, like Jefferson, often recognized that--recognized it was a curse, recognized it was a great evil. As J--as Jefferson said, `And God is not mocked forever.' And this was a great evil. But they--he didn't know how to get rid of slavery from his own life. And the South, as a whole, did not know how it could continue without slavery. So eventually, slavery--the issue had to be met. I say in my book that the American people are great problem creators. They're also great problem solvers. Slavery was a problem they created for themselves, but they then solved it with this tragic Civil War.
LAMB: Y--you write that it was widely believe that Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe was responsible for Lincoln's election and for the chain of events which led to the bombardment of Ft. Sumter. I ask you about that book she wrote, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and what the impact of the book has been on this country?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, when she finally got to the White House, Lincoln said to her, `So you are the little woman who caused this great war.' He said that in half-jocular fashion. She left some references to her evening at the White House. Unfortunately, she had gave a blow-by-blow account of it in a letter which has disappeared, so we don't know exactly what happened. But she said it was all tremendous fun and that they had a lot of laughter. So presumably, Lincoln's remark was half in jest and half in earnest because he didn't know exactly what the total impact of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had been. But it was obviously enormous. Whether the war would've happened then without it, one can't--I mean, that's just guesswork. But certainly, it was one--it was probably, of all the books published in the 19th century, the one that had the biggest actual impact on politics.
LAMB: What about other books?
MR. JOHNSON: Other books?
LAMB: Yeah. Well, in your experience, what America--what any books in the history of this country have played the biggest role? Like, you mentioned Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" a lot.
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" was very, very important. But, of course, the book which mattered more than any other in American history was the Bible. You could say that America is, to some extent, a product of the Bible because that was the book that the original settlers carried with them. They read it conscientiously. They went on reading it. Their children and grandchildren read it. They--often, in families, it was the custom to go all the way through the Old Testament and the New Testament once a year. And it was--the King James Bible, as we call it, was something that was written into their title deeds and very much into the language. And it's--it's often surprising how frequently you come across congressional orators and presidential orators which carry echoes of--of--of the Bible.
LAMB: Almost everything written about you refers to the fact that you are a Roman Catholic. Is that right?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, sir.
LAMB: Do you practice?
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, yes, sir.
LAMB: Does that impact the way you write about this? 'Cause there's a lot of religion in this book.
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think I can justify that on the evidence. It's very interesting, in a way, that the first attempt to found a colony at Roanoke by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century failed, whereas the next two attempts, both in Virginia and in Massachusetts, in New England, succeeded. And I think one of the reasons for that--there was other reasons, too, but one of the reasons for that was that there was no religious element in the Raleigh occupation, in the Raleigh settlement, because Raleigh was out for quick profits and gold, whereas the religious people who came along in the 17th century, early 17th century--they were prepared to farm and support themselves. They were not there for commercial or monetary reasons. They were there for the sake of religious freedom. And so they were going to settle there and they were going to bring their farming implements with them and they were going to bring with them tradesmen, carpenters, blacksmiths, all those people that they needed to set up a proper colony. They were not there trying really to make money. They--well, they were quite keen on making money, too, but that's not the main reason they were there. They were there for religious reasons, and that's why those colonies succeeded.
LAMB: You're on the editorial board of The American Spectator. What role do you play?
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, that's a very minor role, indeed. I take a fatherly interest in it and I'm very glad to say that they are giving me lunch on--this week, a couple of days on. And I'm very interested in the way that paper has put itself on the map in recent years.
LAMB: But you mentioned earlier you didn't like the fact that we go so much into personal lives here and that publication had a significant role in this whole personal story about President Clinton. Does that bother you?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, as I understand it, The American Spectator was not concerned so much with the personal life but with the ethical life, and that's not quite the same thing at all. However, I never exercise any editorial influence on the paper and I don't interfere at all.
MR. JOHNSON: I'm connected with lots of papers, I may say, that I don't always agree with.
LAMB: What else are you connected with?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I write for The London Spectator. I write a weekly column there. They never interfere with my column, so I never interfere with them. And equally, with The Daily Mail in London, I write many articles for them, feature articles. They never interfere with my articles. They don't change a word. And I never int--I don't ring up their editor and say, `Hey, what are you doing today? I don't agree with it.'
LAMB: Are you married?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, I'm married. I've got four children and six grandchildren.
LAMB: How old are the kids?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, my children are now in their 30s and the grandchildren go from nought, or several weeks, up to 10.
LAMB: Any of your children write for a living?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. My eldest son is a senior editor on The London Times. My third son, who's a businessman, big businessman, has written, published several books. And my daughter, my youngest child, is in television, although she's on the drama side.
LAMB: What are your sons' names? Are they Johnson?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes.
LAMB: What's--what's their first names?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. They're called Daniel, Cosmo, Luke and Sophie.
LAMB: Do you have another book that you're writing now?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. Some years ago I wrote a book called "Intellectuals." I'm now going to follow that up by a similar book of essays about famous people called "Creators." This is going to be about creative people.
LAMB: When is that coming out?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, all being well, I'll finish it some time early next year and it'll be out in the autumn.
LAMB: This is the book. It's called "A History of the American People," and our guest has been Paul Johnson. And we thank you.
MR. JOHNSON: Thank you, sir.
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