BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Haynes Johnson, why did you call your new book Sleepwalking Through History?
HAYNES JOHNSON, AUTHOR, "SLEEPWALKING THROUGH HISTORY: AMERICA IN THE REAGAN YEARS": Because I thought that's what happened to us in the 1980s. The whole period we seemed to be just sort of stumbling through history, not really looking at the world around us, and it was a somnolent period. It was also a period of a great roar of success with many people who were doing well. They didn't look at other things. For the rest of the country, it seemed as if we had lost our way.
LAMB: When you think of Ronald Reagan, do you get angry?
JOHNSON: No, I don't get angry at Reagan. As a matter of fact, Reagan was elected twice overwhelmingly. The country had every reason to understand fully what Mr. Reagan represented, what he stood for. He didn't practice deceit in terms of telling the public what he wanted to do. He was going to cut the taxes, he was going to redistribute the wealth, he was going to disband government regulation, all those things and rebuild the defense establishment, and he accomplished those things. If I'm angry at anything, it's us, all of us, because there was a heavy consequence to that.
LAMB: Why did it happen?
JOHNSON: I think it happened for a lot of reasons, Brian. You know, you and I have watched Washington through all the years, and I think the country was in a mood and, in fact, a desperate need to want to celebrate a sense of success and stability. I came here in 1957 in Washington. I've watched eight presidents, and starting with John Kennedy up until Mr. Reagan came in as president, every single one was destroyed or disgraced or driven from office, so the person who spoke for you was torn apart, and you began to lose a sense of faith and hope.
We also went through the Vietnam period. We're still playing off that now. We went through Watergate. We went through a sense of America's decline internationally. And so, here came Mr. Reagan and said, "Look, it's wonderful. It's morning again. It's morning in America again. The sunrise. Don't take those gloom-and-doomers and all the rest." I think the country wanted to believe that desperately, and they suspended judgment in the hope that it would be true.
LAMB: You dedicated this book to Frederick Lewis Allen, Richard Hofstadter, Theodore H. White "who showed the way." Who are they?
JOHNSON: Well, these are all American historians and writers that I admired and have tried to sort of, in some ways, follow my own career. Frederick Lewis Allen wrote the classic book on the 1920s. He was a distinguished editor, journalist, writer of that time. Richard Hofstadter, when I was a graduate student in American history, was the brightest young historian we had.He wrote a great book called The Age of Reform in the 1950s.
Teddy White -- you remember Theodore White, was the chronicler of American life in the political sense. I admired Teddy, knew him well, and I, in some way, wanted to follow in their footsteps. I've tried to do that, to write about America as it is, to try to make sense of it to the extent you can, and to talk about what happened to us, who we are, where are we going, what are the lessons.
LAMB: The mayor of Sunnyvale, Calif. You talked to him in the early 1980s, and then you talked to him recently.
HAYNES: At the end of the decade. Right.
HAYNES: Because I tried to do in this -- and this is twin points, I went to the beginning of the decade, in my own reporting, all over the country -- in the Silicon Valley in California, in the Rust Belt of the Middle West, in the Sun Belt of the Southwest.
Then I went back to the same people at the end of the decade. What happened to them? Where were they then, where were they when they came out? Because it seemed to me in terms of real people, you would help understand how they felt about what had happened to the country. In Sunnyvale's case, Larry Stone thought that there was this sort of new golden horn, a "New Gold Age" out in California, that it was never going to end and all the problems were easy.
The decade ended with a much more disillusioning sense, not that they failed, but that the high technology, which is what the Silicon Valley was, wasn't entirely risk free, and a lot of it went offshore. We lost our markets to Japan and to Germany and other places. So, I think it told us something about what happened.
LAMB: You quoted Larry Stone. I'm not sure what the date was, but near the end of the decade. Roughly what year did you speak to him?
JOHNSON: I spoke to him in 1988 and 1980, both in presidential years and the time in the book, because at the time we're describing there, it's when America is coming to judgment on itself as its future and its president, electing Ronald Reagan and then electing George Bush coming out of it.
LAMB: The quote was, "I'm better off today than I was in 1980, but I don't feel better."
JOHNSON: Right. I thought that single quote said as much as anyone I know and captured, for me, what happened to the country. For many people, and Larry is a wonderful man, a bright, attractive guy who succeeded very well personally, made a lot of money in the '80s, but somehow a feeling that the country didn't do as well. We weren't in as secure a position. We had diminished economically. We had lost our way competitively. I think that said something.
LAMB: Do you spend a lot of time in the country?
JOHNSON: Yes, I do. I've spent most of my career, as you may remember, more out of Washington than in it. I have tried to look at attitudes of people in their homes and their offices all over the country, and I did that in this book. The places I went to in the first part, as I said, I went back to at the end. Of course, I work out of Washington, too, and I follow the scene here.
LAMB: You do spend a lot of time in Washington. I want to ask you whether you think Washington is reflective of the United States.
JOHNSON: You know, what's funny about that, we get the rap every time you leave the Beltway, the circle, this sort of alien place. It's like a moat around an evil city. That's what Reagan would say, it was sort of an evil city, the puzzle palaces on the Potomac. I understand why people feel that way, because there's a lot of power, people take themselves very self-importantly in Washington. At the same time, this is a reflection directly of the United States of America.
This building that we're doing this interview in is right across from the Capitol. If you spend any time walking the corridors of the Capitol or the office building, you will hear every accent there is, and it's genuine. The people who work for them are all from these districts. They're from all over the United States, and they are truly representative in that sense. It's different because it's a political capital. It's not like London or Paris or Rome in the sense that you have all these other things taking place. This was created as a political center only, and I think that distinguishes it. But, yes, it's a reflection on the country.
LAMB: Do people act differently who are elected to politics here than they do back in their districts?
JOHNSON: That's an interesting question. I don't really think so despite the legend of all the corruption in Washington and the bags of cash. They work very hard in Washington. This is a driven town. People work, in fact, I think there's almost a neurosis of boasting. You work around the clock six, seven days a week, and the rest. I think politics is politics wherever you are.
The successful political leader understands his constituents, wrestles with very difficult, complicated questions, and does the best he or she can. I think that would be true whether you're in the city council or you're in the Congress of the United States. The ones that aren't successful, well, we know them. We see them on television, I write about them, you interview them, we all report on them. But I think they are a minority.
LAMB: You have two special positions where you do your work. One is on page two of the Washington Post. How often?
JOHNSON: I do a weekly column for the paper, and I do other reporting for the paper.
LAMB: And the other is often on "Washington Week in Review."
JOHNSON: Yes, the television program. I've been on for 25 years now. That's like Napoleon's sergeant, you've been around through all the wars. That's a lot of history, and I enjoy both of those.
LAMB: How do you know when all this work that you do pays off or people react? When do you get a sense that what you're doing matters?
JOHNSON: You hear from people. You hear from people in different ways. I hear from people from the television very personally. They'll write personal letters to you telling you whether they like or don't like or asking you to do certain things, and it's a direct link. You also hear from your writing very directly. Then I do books. This is my 10th book, and I spend a lot of time. Each one is a sort of different audience.
I also do a radio show out of Washington, and that's a different kind of audience entirely. You know. You do the electronic media, and I find it's fascinating because you seem to tap into different audiences. The only way you hope that you succeed is the interviewing, the work that you put in it, does it say something to someone? Does it make them think? Do they see it in a way that they say, "Gee, that's interesting?" I hope that's what you do, but you don't know. You can't measure your own work.
LAMB: Which book satisfied you the most?
JOHNSON: I think this one, Sleepwalking Through History. This sounds shameless -- I'm not trying to celebrate the book or whatever, but I think it's important for us to try to understand what happened to America in the Reagan period, where we're going from here. But the other book that I liked particularly was a long time ago on the Bay of Pigs. I spent two years of my life with all the veterans of that invasion, with the Kennedy brothers and all that period, trying to recreate a history of that time. I'm very proud of that book, even all those years later.
LAMB: At the end of the book, you have notes and sources. This sentence jumped out: "Among the sources for this book is a historical treasure in the form of extensive tape-recorded oral history interviews of the Reagan governorship years in California." How did you find them?
JOHNSON: I started more than four years ago on this book, and I was going to try to write a sociopolitical history of the '80s. A friend at Berkeley called me up and said, "You've got to come out here. We have a treasure that has barely been tapped into. The University of California system did oral history interviews of all the particulars in the Reagan governorship years." That's eight years, long before he ran for president and the rest. They interviewed Reagan himself, and all these were done and checked by the people themselves for accuracy. They were done before 1980. The last one was done in 1979. I found it fascinating that many of the people who were interviewed here all became big players in the Reagan administration.
So, I was able to go through boxes and boxes of these transcripts. I found them, Brian, eerie, because what I was reading of that period was like seeing the future. It was spelled out right before your eyes. The past is prologue in that sense. The kinds of attitudes, the values, the political methods, all of the questions about deficit spending and problems with the administration and problems with the press and the rest, all were foreshadowed in those interviews.
LAMB: Did you listen to them?
JOHNSON: No, I had the transcripts. You could listen to most of them, but I had the actual transcripts which are checked for accuracy. I found them invaluable because they weren't retroactive. There wasn't someone looking back and saying, "Well, now, I really did this." The fact is, this was all done long before they all came to Washington with Ronald Reagan.
LAMB: Who are some of the people you remember the most in that group?
JOHNSON: Edwin Meese, Michael Deaver, William French Smith, Reagan himself. I think the ones that particularly struck me most interestingly were the interviews they did with the so-called "Kitchen Cabinet" in California. These were the people, very wealthy Californians, who set out to make Ronald Reagan, first, governor of California and then president of the United States. They bankrolled his campaigns, they formed the committees for him, they helped pick the personnel, they staffed the administration in Sacramento, and then they did the same thing in Washington. I found those extremely revealing and fascinating and telling.
LAMB: Did you find stuff that no one else had found or had others written up those transcripts?
JOHNSON: I think that what is presented here is the first full account of that. It's a public treasure, it's a public archive, but it hasn't been appreciated, I don't think, yet. I think long, long after we're gone the scholars will be delving into those archives.
LAMB: If you could pick one of those that when you found it, you said, "Aha!" . . .
JOHNSON: That's interesting. I remember particularly the statement that Edwin Meese's personal assistant and secretary made, and she said, "He has the most unbelievable memory. He never forgets a thing." And second, "He will always make time out to help his friends. No matter what his agenda may be, he will open the door to take care of the needs of his friends," which I found exactly what was happening when he was attorney general and in the White House itself. It told you a lot about the problems that you were going to have later on.
LAMB: One of the other things that I found interesting was in the back, and we'll show the audience what we're talking about. There was a whole list of players of the '80s. Now, I put X's by three of them, because, and this may not be fair, they didn't seem to track with the others. One of them is Robert Bartley. Why did he make the list?
JOHNSON: I think he deserves a very important place in the history of the 1980s and beyond and earlier than that. He's the editorial editor of the Wall Street Journal. And it was the Wall Street Journal and Mr. Bartley who deserves credit, and I think also criticism if you want to look at it that way, because they pronounced and made public and promulgated the doctrine of supply side economics. It was Bartley who published the people, who led to the economic theories that Ronald Reagan adopted. They became extremely influential intellectually and also politically, and so I think that he was a very big player.
LAMB: What's he like? Do you know him?
JOHNSON: He's a brilliant editor, and he believes very much what he set out to do. Stockman wrote for his pages, Jude Winniski wrote for his pages. Many . . .
LAMB: Let me stop you there, because Jude Winniski has another X by his name. Why did you pick him?
JOHNSON: For the same reason. He was the propagandist of the supply side economics who boasted that we stuffed Ronald Reagan with this theory until it was coming out his ears. That's not a direct quote, but that's what he said. He was the one that was expounding and putting together what he called even a cabal, that is, a takeover group to take over the United States government through the doctrine of supply side economics -- this wonderful theory that if you cut the taxes for the rich, the factories would hum, we'd all be better off, and there wouldn't be any deficits. I think he deserves an important part.
LAMB: Because he's been here with what I'm about to read about, I want to ask you about it. It says, "Jude Winniski operated a consulting business out of New Jersey and published an annual media guide that awarded high ratings to movement conservative journalists and low ones to liberals." Did you make the book?
JOHNSON: I haven't seen his last one. I don't know. I probably got low ones. I don't know.
LAMB: We've had him here every year to talk about his media guide.
JOHNSON: But, you see, that's why he's important. He's a marvelous propagandist. He's very effective in selling a point of view.
LAMB: Another X is by the name George Gilder.
JOHNSON: George Gilder, same way. He was the troubadour of supply side economics, the person who wrote, perhaps, most eloquently about it. He also wrote in the Wall Street Journal with Bartley. All three of those go together. They were influential in helping to expound the theory and make it seem plausible. There was a whole new wave coming out of supply side economics, which became Reaganomics, which became the yuppies if you want to put it that way, and I think they were very, very influential.
LAMB: Do you think that those three and others, if you can name others, would sit around in a room saying, "We really succeeded in the '80s, and we used all of our leverages of power, and we ought to be proud of ourselves"?
JOHNSON: You'll have to ask them how they feel about themselves. Certainly they succeeded to the extent that they actually did prevail in helping to elect Ronald Reagan, in helping persuade him to adopt their economic theories. They certainly succeeded to the extent that it was employed and adopted by the Congress of the United States. The tax cuts occurred, and it had, I think, profound effect. I also think they are historic failures because it led directly to the kinds of deficit spending that we're now paying off -- the historic tripling and more of debt that we're paying off right now. Everybody in this room, in this building and in this country and Americans unborn are going to be paying for those debts for at least 30 or 40 years to come.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
JOHNSON: I grew up in New York City. I was born in New York of Southern parents. My mother and father were Southerners who went to New York in the 1920s, and I don't usually admit this -- I was the first Northerner in the family in the whole history of the family, I think, since they came here. But I was a New Yorker born in New York and went to school in the Midwest.
LAMB: Where were they from?
JOHNSON: They were from Georgia.
LAMB: And what did they do?
JOHNSON: My father was a newspaperman. My mother was pianist. They were terrific. They're not alive now.
LAMB: Where did your father write and what was his name?
JOHNSON: His name was Malcolm Johnson. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Sun for a series of articles called "Crime on the Water front" that you may remember. The Marlon Brando movie was made on that. I was very fortunate and lucky that I later won a Pulitzer for my own reporting from the Washington Star in Selma, Ala. We were the only father and son to be fortunate in that way, so I was very lucky.
LAMB: Only father and son ever?
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
JOHNSON: I went to school at the University of Missouri, a journalism undergraduate and an American history major. Then after the Korean War, when I was three years in the service during the Korean War in the artillery as a forward observer, I then went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and got my master's in American history. That's why the people that I cited were models of mine like Frederick Lewis Allen and the rest -- the American contemporary historians.
LAMB: Do you think you'd be doing what you're doing today if your father hadn't been in this business?
JOHNSON: I don't know. I didn't consciously try to follow in his footsteps at all, in fact, and he was very good about that. He didn't want to force me to follow. His father had been a lawyer, and his mother was very unhappy with him because he didn't follow in his father's footsteps and be a lawyer. I didn't do that, but I just sort of naturally gravitated to it, I guess. I probably wouldn't have been. I mean, he was a hero of mine, my father. We were also best friends, a rather nice thing. I didn't have any sense of this rivalry father and son that I hear about. I just admired him tremendously, and so I suppose without realizing it, I probably did try to follow his career, although not the same. We're different kind of reporters.
LAMB: What impact did the experience in the Army have on you?
JOHNSON: I'm still playing off it. I'm glad I served. I think that every American should serve his country or her country. I believe in compulsory service. It's not a popular thing, and I don't mean just for the military. I think it would be a very healthy thing in our country if we had, as a price of citizenship, every American young man and woman had six or eight months to commit to a health program, a drug environment program, a cleanup program, whatever it may be, or military service, if you wish, because I think that way then you bring the country together and we all share and we learn more about our various elements of this society. I think we've become quite distant from each other in the country. So the service was important. I'm fascinated by it. I actually liked it, if that's the word. I can say that now in retrospect. It wasn't always true that I liked it, and I was very eager to get out, but I served three years.
LAMB: Where were you stationed?
JOHNSON: I was stationed in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma. I went through OCS. I was a college graduate then, but not on ROTC. I got my commission to be a forward observer just as the Korean armistice was signed, so I stayed on as an artillery instructor and taught something called leadership. I don't know why. Typical of the Army, why did I teach leadership? I was so naive at the time when I went in the service in 1952, which was not a good time. The Chinese had come in. It was heavy casualties. But I wanted to go in the infantry. I was drafted as a rifleman, and I wanted to go to OCS as a rifleman and lead troops in combat. I don't know that I want to lead troops in combat now, but I felt that way then.
LAMB: You came out and went where?
JOHNSON: I went directly to the University of Wisconsin to get my master's in American history, because I knew I wanted to write about America, our times, both in journalism and I also wanted to do books. I wanted to try to see if I could combine what I do as a newspaper person as well as step back a little bit and write about American life, and I was lucky enough to be able to do that.
LAMB: Then what?
JOHNSON: Well, then, I worked. My first job was in Wilmington, Del. I worked there on the Wilmington News-Journal. I was only there 10 or 11 months. I didn't feel I could work in New York, because too many people -- in this I was a shadow of my father. I just felt it was too difficult. I wanted to start out on my own and establish myself. I was offered a job on the Washington Star, if you remember then was the big paper in Washington, and came here in 1957, loved the Star, stayed there until 1969, and Ben Bradley hired me away to go on the Post, where I've been ever since.
LAMB: When are you the happiest in your work?
JOHNSON: Gosh, that's hard to say. I think I enjoy doing television. This is fun. I mean, this is really fun. I like the writing for the newspaper. But I think the happiest I am is if you feel you've done something good in a book, and you can look at it -- and I don't like what I write as a rule -- but every now and then, you feel you did something good and you can take pride in it and you hope that it has a certain lasting quality. If it does, then you feel satisfied. That's when I feel good. I feel good about the Bay of Pigs book, for instance, and I really kind of feel good about this one, too.
LAMB: All right. There's a picture in here I want to ask you about.
LAMB: What is this doing in your book?
JOHNSON: Ah! The televangelist, very important. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and over here you see Jimmy Swaggart crying. That was very much a part of the 1980s -- the electronic culture, the appeals through television for money. It was also greed. It was the exemplification of greed. Yes, and there's Jessica Hahn and sort of fallen angels and temples turned to dross and all those things. I think that was a very important part of the '80s -- the cashing in and making it and doing it in moral terms but really for yourself. That was a lot about what happened to us in the '80s.
LAMB: If Jim Bakker gets out of prison, and he eventually will, I guess...
JOHNSON: Yes, well, it looks like he will, now.
LAMB: What will happen? Will he be able to go back on television in this country?
JOHNSON: You know, it's marvelous, isn't it? It looks as though he may. I mean, there's no limit to the possibilities. It's a free country. He has a right. People have a right to be fools, too, if you want to be fooled by these people. A lot of people were misled by him and by the televangelists through these appeals to God and country and money. Give me money and I'll save your soul. It's an old story, but it took on new dimensions through the television, the electronic pulpit. Very important.
LAMB: Why do people follow televangelists?
JOHNSON: Oh, I guess, Brian, it's pretty simple. They want to believe. They want to believe that there is something beyond them that can redeem them, can save them, can help them, can ease their pain and their complicated lives and so forth, and I understand that perfectly. The tragedy is when they're let down or misled by the people who promise so much. If you talk about anger or whatever, that's a reason for anger, because that's a great betrayal -- to play with people's faith for your own greed and then to betray them.
There was a story of Jim Baker, for instance, after one of his electronic pulpit occasions. He went back after it was over and he put his feet up on the table and he had his acolytes, as they were, rub his feet, give him a foot rubdown. When I heard that, I was furious, because Jesus was just the opposite. Jesus knelt and washed the feet of his followers. And here this person wanted -- I mean, it told me something, I thought.
LAMB: The book is called Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years. Our guest is Haynes Johnson, and this book is published by Norton. When you go around the country to promote this book, what do people want to talk to you about the most?
JOHNSON: They want to know about where we're going. How did it happen that we got in so much trouble through our debts and the economy, and where are we going to go? What's our future going to be like? Because it's no longer as rosy, as glowing as it seemed in the '80s. All of a sudden that morning again in America doesn't look so clear. We're in a recession, we have heavy debts, the banks are in trouble, the savings and loans. They want to know how did it happen, and most important, where are we going?
LAMB: Do they still like Ronald Reagan?
JOHNSON: Yes, I think there's an affection for Mr. Reagan. There's also a strong degree of disillusionment taking hold, I would say. It's too early to sort all this out obviously, because it's still just happening. But I think there's a recognition that we paid a very heavy price. But Reagan filled something -- yes, that picture of Reagan. That's the final salute. This is a wonderful story about the Reagan years. That is as he got on the helicopter after George Bush's inaugural to take his last fly-over of the capital. There he is saluting, and it looks so wonderfully, "Reaganesque,". Now, they scripted that in advance. All the cameras were there. It was the last act, and it was part of the stage. The salute was arranged, the cameras were told in advance that the two presidents would salute each other, the incoming, outgoing, and it would be the final photo opportunity. And it worked. Reagan was very elegant in his own way, a man of what the French call panache, very great gallantry.
LAMB: Did you talk to him about this whole era for this book?
JOHNSON: No, I didn't talk to Reagan. I covered Reagan since he was the governor of California. I traveled his campaign, I wrote about him. This is not a biography of Ronald Reagan. I relied on the record of the times, on the documents of the times, my own reporting of the times, and tried to understand Reagan in terms of where he fits in the American scheme, why it was that he was so powerful and he had such a hold.
Oh, yes, you're showing a picture there. That's an interesting question. That's the assassination moment when the bullet struck him and almost killed him, and then you see below the picture of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in the hospital. I believe one of the reasons Reagan was so successful and had such a strong hold on the country, Brian, was because he survived that assassin's bullet. The sense of failure of American presidents, the sense of hurt, of loss when they were driven from office or killed or disgraced and all that, was broken. When Reagan was shot, he survived. I think that really elevated him instantly in a kind of a place that he didn't have before in people's affections, and it made him almost a mythic figure. Because if you believe in the president's survival, then the country's going to survive. It seemed to break the stream of bad luck.
LAMB: I'm not sure I ought to ask this, because we've talked a lot about it over the past 10 years. You write something about, for instance, before the Iran-Contra announcement, the president had a Cabinet meeting, and you mentioned that he walked into the room, characteristically not saying anything to anybody, going to the head of the table and taking out his cards and reading them and then turning the meeting over to somebody else. Explain that dynamic, and also talk about the difference between President Reagan and, say, President Bush in that regard.
JOHNSON: Oh, those are wonderful questions, because I think they're very important to what we're seeing now. Ronald Reagan was an inattentive president. There's no question about this. I'm not being polemic here -- the testimony of all of his aides, his Cabinet officers. There were people in his Cabinet that never had a single serious meeting with him -- not one -- alone. He would come into the White House or these briefings and he would have 3-by-5 cards and they would be all carefully written out what he was going to say. He would then read the cards and he'd leave and the meetings would transpire.
Lee Hamilton, the congressman from Indiana whom you know and you've had on this program many times, told me a story that in one briefing they were discussing some missile system, very important development and all that, and he was there as one of the leaders of Congress. The president came in, read from a 3-by-5 card. He sat back, he stayed through the entire meeting, and he only asked one question. He interrupted it to say he had watched the movie War Games the night before and he told an anecdote about it and that was it.
Now, the portrait that comes over of Mr. Reagan in that sense is sort of what Clark Clifford said: "He was an amiable dunce." I happen to think he was much more than that. I think that in the things that he cared about, he was fully involved, he knew what he was doing, and he was a strong, bold, even risk-taking president, like Iran-Contra.
I have no question in my mind at all from the basis of my own interviews with virtually everyone on that committee a year after and the investigator, that he was fully knowledgeable of what was happening and fully knew, too, that he might be impeached, and he was willing to take that great risk, because he believed. He was a strong president in that sense.
On the other questions, he just didn't pay attention. If he didn't care about it, he was inattentive. So, I think there was a mixed portrait there. He cared about a few things, cutting taxes, deregulation, we pay a price on the savings and loan for that, and the tax cuts with the deficits rising, defense spending, and sort of getting rid of government, he didn't really work on that one too much, and fighting communism. That was it. The rest of it somebody else could handle it.
George Bush is very different. You asked about Bush. Bush is an involved president, totally immersed in the grist of the governmental job. He's a Washington insider, not an outsider like Mr. Reagan. He is very, very good at briefing. He understands the intricacies of issues. He is someone who appreciates the role of government and a very different way of operating.
But Reagan had something on television. You showed that picture of him saluting. Reagan filled that camera. He was like a canvas himself. I mean, when you could see the flag waving in the background, almost he was old Uncle Sam. He was jaunty and he had that wonderful engaging smile and people responded. Even if you didn't like Ronald Reagan or didn't think he was very smart or thought he did a lot of damage, you still sort of had to admire the way in which he handled himself. Bush doesn't have that ability to make you feel him. There are times you feel awkward when he speaks. I don't mean this too caustically or critically. He even makes jokes himself about it. I think there's a very difficult problem.
Bush is excellent at briefing the press, for instance. He doesn't have 3-by-5 cards. He knows what he's talking about, he stands up, he responds, he's informed. He can't fill that lens the way Mr. Reagan could. And so, it's a difference.
LAMB: You know, we spend a lot of time talking about it, you write about it. You've got these two presidents and their personal habits are greatly contrasting. Then President Bush comes along and his popularity, if you look at the polls, is higher than Ronald Reagan's was. Now, what part of that personal thing matters, really matters?
JOHNSON: I wish we would disband all polls. I hate the polls. We rely on them, I use them, I've cited them, and I've even gone out, God help me, and done polling myself and knocked on doors and so forth, but I think we make too much of polls. Polls don't really tell you. All they ask is a yes or no. They give you a little fragmentary snapshot of a moment in time. I think it doesn't tell you the larger, complicated questions. People aren't yes and no. They're more complicated. I think that what they saw in Ronald Reagan was an overwhelming hunger for someone that was strong, that you could believe in, that you hope that that last act was going to be successful and powerful.
With Mr. Bush, I think it's too early to tell. The war will affect his popularity, but he also goes up and down. Don't forget that when he put the troops in last November, doubled the troops, he was sinking faster than any president in the modern history of polling. He was going off the charts. You talked about it. You interviewed people about the decline of George Bush, why the Republican right wing was falling apart. He was a wimp, he was not a successful president. Then the war begins and he goes up. So, I think these cycles are not really what's important.
What's important is how do people feel about their country, their children, their future? How do they feel about the larger sense of a president? Is he taking us in some place that we know and really understand? Is he dealing with the kinds of questions that we think are important to be addressed? I think that's the long term. That's where history writes books, and the page is always very different from the way it was at the time.
LAMB: I don't want to leave this just for a second more. It's Professor Haynes Johnson for a moment. Now, you've got a seminar going here. Somebody says, "Let's build a model of how a president should act and what really works." For a moment, you're not on the press side. You're on the other side saying, "You know, this business of the regal presidency and reading from 3-by-5 cards." You remember the speaker of the House would come out and say, "He sits in there and reads off these cards."
JOHNSON: I know. Everybody did.
LAMB: You'd write it up in the press, and the public would say, "We don't care." So, what really matters?
JOHNSON: You know what I think is interesting about it? I've thought a lot about this. I did a book on the Carter presidency and the absence of power some years ago. This may seem very strange to people, but the ideal model of a president in my mind would be someone like Jimmy Carter who understood technical issues, was very good, a hard worker, selfless, patriotic, noble even, modest and all that. And, yet, Carter as a president was engrossed with detail. He got bogged down. And if you had the other side, a president like Ronald Reagan who could make the country feel, who could really articulate a point of view that you understood.
If you could match those two, the public leader and the private worker, you'd have an ideal president, but life isn't ideal. George Bush is interesting in this regard. I think Bush has an idea, it's not true he has no vision. He has a sense of where the country's going to go internationally, where he'd like it to go in the world, this new world order. Whether he can make it clear, though, in the way Reagan could articulate something, remains to be seen.
LAMB: How would you treat the press? Which is the better way to do it, Ronald Reagan or George Bush?
JOHNSON: Well, it's funny about the press. We always take hits and shots, and we should, because we're a big beast, the press, and we never satisfy anybody and we fight among ourselves and that's as it should be. The relationship between the press and Reagan was very complicated, because Reagan was the first real president to use television as an instrument of power.
I don't mean naively he was the first only ever to try to do it, John Kennedy did it and all presidents since. But he was a master at it, and everything that he did in his White House was staged for the cameras, all the photo opportunities. But the truth is, he was inaccessible. Nobody saw him. He would do these set things and he'd be marvelous, then he'd disappear. Bush is involved. Bush has briefings. Bush talks to people. He's accessible. I think I prefer the Bush model, frankly.
LAMB: Is it the wiser model? Again, you're Professor Johnson now.
JOHNSON: I know. You're asking me about what works as a political leadership model. Yes, I think it is the wiser model in this sense, Brian, and I don't want to be too judgmental here, but I think it is wiser in a sense that you prepare the country for what it is you're thinking about. You help people understand how your own mind really is working, and, therefore, you can respond to questions, if they're good questions and they're serious questions, about where are you taking us, what do you think? Instead of this sort of all the set stage. The stage becomes barren after a while, and sometimes the act doesn't work. Then you feel like you've been tricked or betrayed or cheated. I think that's the danger of being the actor only.
LAMB: You've got another picture here I want to show the audience that's rather familiar. How's this man going to do in history?
JOHNSON: Are you talking of Oliver North?
JOHNSON: Oliver North. Again, a real character of the '80s -- a complicated character. I was fascinated in the portrait of North as told to me by the people on the committees who were investigating him, the private North vs. the public North. The private North was not soulful-looking, remorseful. He was wisecracking, he was one of the boys and all that. I don't think history is going to judge him very well, would be my sense of it, because I think that he will have been seen to have been too hungry for himself. I think that this idea of lying when he said, "There are lies and there are lives," and so forth. I don't think his record is going to go down very well as the patriot of the time.
It's interesting how I remember standing watching him during the hearings over here, and he went out one day and the committee rooms were filling with flowers -- so many flowers they had to take them away, from all the constituencies. His lawyer very carefully established, you remember, all the telegrams of support. He walked out to a balcony in a break in the hearings, and there was a crowd outside shouting, "Ollie, Ollie, Ollie!" And he waved to them like some emperor. It was a little bit frightening to tell you the truth, because you had the sense that there was a man on the horse coming down the road. I really felt that way, and I'm not being too pejorative on that. But I think the bloom is much off Mr. North now.
LAMB: You wrote in your book, though, that some of the concerns of the members is that they would look back at breaks and find him out there with staff members and policemen getting their picture taken.
JOHNSON: Yes, that's right. Arthur Liman, who was the chief counsel, walked back into a closed hearing room just before he was to finish his interrogation of Mr. North, and he saw before him in this locked room the Capitol police staff and functionaries all lined up to pose with North, to shake their hands, like a president. He looked at that scene and he felt sunk. He couldn't take it anymore. He went off and he sat with his hands because he realized he'd even lost the internal underpinnings of their own staff. They were swept up in this emotional fervor of the time.
LAMB: You write a lot about that, and I'd like to ask you to talk some more about that. Arthur Liman, how did he get selected? And, by the way, was it a good choice?
JOHNSON: It was a brilliant choice, but it wasn't a good choice for television. That's the interesting thing. Arthur Liman was selected because he is one of the nation's great criminal lawyers. He didn't have Washington experience as such. He wasn't versed in the politics of the city, but he was recommended as being a gifted, strong, effective lawyer, marvelous at doing investigations. He also knew a great deal about crimes and misdemeanors and how money flows in the world, and he was a great expert on that sort of thing. He was interviewed down here. He came to Washington in a bipartisan way and selected, and he did a brilliant job. But nobody thought, how's he going to look on television in this television electronic age? It's an interesting question.
LAMB: Why did he get picked in the first place?
JOHNSON: He got picked because he was good, because he was, in fact, a tremendous investigator with a great record. You remember one of the problems was trying to find the flow of money in all these secret bank accounts. Well, he had great experience in Wall Street fraud cases. He understood those cases. He understood about Swiss bank accounts. His own work had taken him into the subterranean fields of secret accounts and how to find that out. He also was a tremendous cross- examiner, and he could put together staffs of investigators very well. So, I think that was a good solution. His name came up and he was recommended to Sen. George Mitchell and others by panels of judges and so forth, and his name was on that list as one of America's great lawyers.
LAMB: Because you write about them, I'll just name them and let you talk about them. George Mitchell.
JOHNSON: George Mitchell is this quiet, sort of solid, I think, very effective senator. Now, he's the majority leader of the Senate, interesting figure in that, and I think we'll hear a lot from Mr. Mitchell in the future. I think he played an important role in that investigation. He was one who believed that they should never have let Mr. North, for instance, have immunity. He was sure that North would have been forced to testify, and there wouldn't have been the problems that later ensued. I think Mitchell's an interesting man, strong figure.
LAMB: Sen. Inouye.
JOHNSON: Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was almost too good to be true. He was so concerned about the impact on the country by investigating the president's administration in the last year, unless they found absolute conclusive evidence of impeachable offenses, then we should stop the investigation very quickly. I think he is a great patriot. He is someone who understood the pain of war. He was wounded, as you know, almost lost an arm in World War II, distinguished combat service. Deep patriot, cared greatly about the process and the system and fairness to a point where he was almost saintly in that sense. I think, however, the criticism is that he may not have been tough enough in the process.
LAMB: Warren Rudman.
JOHNSON: I came to be a great admirer of Warren Rudman, a Republican from New Hampshire, a former prosecutor. And you know later he played a great role as the sponsor and the mentor for David Souter. Rudman, when he was attorney general of New Hampshire, Souter was his clerk, his aide, and his assistant. Rudman's feisty, tough, fellow Korean War veteran, decorated in infantry. I think unimpeachable, strong. I admired him tremendously.
LAMB: You say, though, that when Sen. Dole called him and offered him this position on the committee, he called him back a couple of hours later and said, "You're going to be the co-chairman." Then you say something that was interesting, that he had sleepless nights. Why?
JOHNSON: Yes. People don't understand, appreciate fully, I don't think, outside of Washington. This sounds like an insider, terrible inside Washington, but there's a terrible dilemma that people are placed in. Warren Rudman is a loyal Republican. He supported Ronald Reagan very strongly. He was, going to be put in the position of sitting in judgment on his own party's actions, his own president and someone that he admired and the rest, and his own constituency. So, there's that. There's also the lawyer, the prosecutor. So, you're in a very difficult position. It's not an easy one. I really think genuinely he felt that way.
LAMB: In retrospect, was the whole series of hearings a success?
JOHNSON: No, it was not a success. It was not a success because of the way they were staged, number one. It seemed like a lion fight. It was like the Roman Coliseum where one little lonely witness was pitted against all this vast array of intimidating, powerful congressmen and senators. There were too many, it was too bulky, it didn't work.
The positive side was they amassed incredible amounts of documented evidence about, really, crimes that had been committed, and the more serious crimes that we still don't know about were left untapped. They uncovered what I think the country should have understood, that there was a secret operation being funded here that was not accountable to anybody, a secret army, a secret navy, secret bank accounts doing missions all over the world, beyond the accountability of anybody. That's a very dangerous precedent for the democratic system, and I mean democratic small "d."
LAMB: Did television hurt?
JOHNSON: Television made a hero of Oliver North. Those soulful eyes, that wonderful way in which he could, he was star casting in that sense. I don't that television itself hurt. The way, however, the committee itself staged itself, allowed itself to be seen, created an imbalance in the part of people's minds. I think to that extent it hurt, but you can't blame the camera as such. The failure, if there was a failure, lay within the process, the system, the, "unwieldiness," the too fast a deadline. They set a deadline to get it over quickly, and this was not something that really could have been gotten over very quickly. Many questions remain to this day. I think there'll be things we'll never know about that happened.
LAMB: You say you started this book four years ago. This is a very general question, but how much work did you do on this book?
JOHNSON: I haven't had a vacation in four years. I spent every spare moment of my life, every Saturday, every Sunday, every morning, every night, on this book. That sounds like I'm a workaholic, but that's the only way to do it. You have to work as intensively as you can to go through the process. I don't mean I'm writing every day, but the gathering of material. I had two researchers in the process. But you did interviews, you had tape recordings, you had those transcribed, you sort through material, you go back to interview people again, you try to follow, you have your files and you set it up. Then the actual writing process itself is a different process.
LAMB: Where do you do it?
JOHNSON: I do it at home. I sit on Cathedral Avenue. I have a computer there and I look out over trees and I get up and I turn on my little machine and I write on that screen. It's amazing about that. I'm an old newspaper man. Until the last book, which was a novel about Washington that I did with Howard Simons The Landing, that was five years ago, I had never used a computer to write a book. Now, I can't use a type-writer. It's inconceivable to me how you could write a book without the computer. You can store material, you can call it up so quickly, you can do your editing and all the rest. It's amazing! I got so, now, I ask other writers, "Do you use a computer?" If they say, no, they're afraid of it, I say, "Look, if I can do it, you can do it."
LAMB: What did you leave out that you wanted to get in? And by the way, what controls, I don't know how many pages. Let's see, it's something like 524 pages.
JOHNSON: Yes, that's very interesting. This is kind of shocking, but the final manuscript, not the final one that's printed here, was about two-thirds longer. It was about a 1,500-page manuscript, and I cut and cut and cut and cut and cut and cut until it got down to where it is today, 520 pages or something like that. What did I leave out? Lots of things. Do I regret it? No. I probably could cut more. Someone once said: "The art is not what you put in but what you leave out and does it make a telling point."
LAMB: But if you were to go back and find one little chapter that you'd have, what would it be?
JOHNSON: Gee, I don't know. I hadn't thought about that. I guess I have tried to avoid that thought in my mind, because it was such a difficult process, the cutting of it. I think I would like to have done more on the country than I did. This is a book in which I extensively try to do snapshots of America at the beginning of the decade and the end in all over the place -- Wall Street, the Silicon Valley, we talked about the Sun Belt, the Rust Belt. I think I would have even added more to that portrait.
LAMB: There's one photograph in here. I remember when I saw it the first time, it really struck me, and you've put it in your book. It just says a lot.
JOHNSON: The Boesky picture?
JOHNSON: Yes, Ivan Boesky. Again, you asked about the televangelists earlier and you asked about Oliver North, and here this picture of Ivan Boesky. He looks like Rip Van Winkle with this long beard. Here's a man coming out a jail and returning to his home. Ivan Boesky is one of those figures that is absolutely made for the times. He is a perfect creature of the '80s because he was the person who talked about "greed is good," if you remember. "It's okay to be greedy," but he also said, "Do it in an honorable, decent way." Well, it turned out that all of the things he was doing were not so decent and honorable.
In fact, he was committed to prison for the acts that he committed in the financial system. I think he played a very important role in the mergers, the takeovers, the acquisitions. He and Michael Milken sort of created this whole thing. We're paying for it. We're going to be paying for it for a long time to come in weakened companies, the leveraged buyouts, the junk bonds. There's Michael Milken right there. Junk bonds, it's a wonderful name, and already it's got an aroma about it. But people went on a frenzy of speculation. It was much like the 1920s, and we paid a terrible price for it.
LAMB: Could government have stopped an Ivan Boesky from happening?
JOHNSON: Yes. Government cannot cleanse human beings' souls and they can't stop crimes and they can't stop misdemeanors or all the rest, but they can operate in a much more aggressive way to make sure that things are fair. The argument about regulation vs. Deregulation, it isn't a case of either/or. You need both. What we had in the '80s was a deliberate attempt, successfully, to almost get rid of regulation, not look at the watchmen who are doing these things. I think that's the problem. Government has a role to make sure the system operates as well as it can. There's Donald Trump. There's another figure of the times, the big deal, greed, self-aggrandizement, puffing up yourself.
LAMB: What do you think of him?
JOHNSON: I'm not an admirer of Mr. Trump at all.
LAMB: Why do you think he is so popular for the covers of People magazine and "Current Affair" television show?
JOHNSON: He exemplified, I think, sort of a selfishness. He appealed to selfishness. He made it almost into a virtue, the deal.
LAMB: Why does his book sell so well? The first one at least.
JOHNSON: Well, yes, the first one. The second one didn't, you see. That's the point. The first one sold extremely well because people like to cash in, too. We all vicariously would like to believe we can make it, too. Each of us I suspect, Brian, don't you think, has a little good and bad? We're all complicated inside, and we're not saints and we're not sinners. We're a little bit of both, I guess. Trump appealed to that greed in us. We want more, we want to make it, we want to cash in. He made it seem as if it would be easy just to go for it. You could have all these wonderful trappings. I think it's a failure of values, too.
LAMB: What's going to be the aftermath of the Gulf activities?
JOHNSON: A long time to come. We're going to be playing off the war in the Persian Gulf and its consequences for, I think, years to come. The obvious implications, first, are to home. What's the final cost of the war in economic cost? We have a very serious recession. We need things here at home in America, our infrastructure, our bridges, our roads are crumbling, our public buildings, our prisons and so forth. We need more money for education, to help the environment to make it a better place in which to live. That means that the cost of the war, taking away from the ability to deal at home, is going to be very important.
Even more important is what it leaves the Middle East like. Is there a wave of anti-Americanism that rises up out of this? Have we made ourselves into the new enemies? Do we get bogged down as being the world's policeman? What are the precedents? If George Bush is correct, and I hope he is, that there's a new world order, I don't like that term by the way; Hitler used it and Stalin used it and so forth, but a new world, a better world, and he means it in that sense in which you have international cooperation, then I think that would be very positive, extremely positive. So, whichever way it comes out, it is going to affect our future profoundly for years to come.
LAMB: Next book?
JOHNSON: I don't know. I haven't thought about it yet, this Gulf war, exactly what we're talking about now. I shouldn't let myself think this way, because when you finish one, you can't begin to let yourself think, "My gosh, I'm ready to start another one," but I think maybe I am. I think the consequences of where we're going next is a logical one, although I have an idea of going back to fiction. The Landing that I did, the book on World War II in Washington, was fun to do. It was a different shift of pace, and I enjoyed that very much, so I don't know what I'll do.
LAMB: Most exciting politician, looking ahead.
JOHNSON: I don't know. I feel the way I suspect most people do, that I don't see any strong figures that stir one at the moment, and I mean that. I'm not trying to duck your question. From the Democratic side, I'm interested in Mario Cuomo, I'm interested in Senator Kerrey of Nebraska, I'm interested in Sam Nunn of Georgia, very different figures. I don't want to just cover the ballpark here. Among Republicans, George Bush is clearly in the '92 sense depending on the public views the aftermath of the war. Is it a strong position? Or if the economy doesn't turn well, he's by no means home free. I'm interested in a young Cabinet officer of his, Lamar Alexander, who came in as the education secretary or who will be the new one.
There are a lot of good people in this country. What I hope is that they will be, now I'm trying to talk as a professor. I'm not a professor, I'm a journalist, but you put that hat on me before. What I really hope is that people will feel coming back from the legacy of greed and selfishness of the '80s a recognition that we need to do more for the country in the '90s together. That means participating in public service, that means committing yourself to something larger than yourself. I don't mean to be a preacher here, but I think it's in our own self-interest to do so.
The world's changing dramatically around us. Look at Eastern Europe. Look at the Soviet Union. We have regional conflicts all over the place. The Gulf crisis is by no means the last one of those kinds. So, I think we're going to need the best kinds of people to help us, both in public life and in private life. That's what I hope comes out of this book as a matter of fact, a sense that, look, we went through a very bad period. We have only ourselves to blame for the excesses of the 1980s. Now we're in a very different period, and it's in our own interests to mobilize the best that's in this country.
LAMB: Haynes Johnson, Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years for $24.95 in your bookstores. Thank you for joining us.
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