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It Paid for This Texan to Stick to His Guns

May 18, 1997|JOSH GETLIN

Just as Ronnie Dugger taught others, he himself was taught. And perhaps his greatest teacher was Lyndon B. Johnson.

For years, the powerful Democrat had tried to stamp out renegade Texas progressives, with little success. One day, LBJ invited Dugger out to his ranch. As Johnson swam in his pool, the young editor sat respectfully in a chaise lounge.

"Boy, what's the circulation of your magazine?" Johnson asked.

"I'd say it's about 6,000, sir," Dugger answered.

"Well, you stick with me, and we'll get it up to 60,000."

There ensued a classic debate: Johnson argued that a talented young writer like Dugger should hitch himself to a rising politico and share in the glory. The editor answered that his role was to be totally independent of politicians and to seek the truth wherever it led.

Months later, when Dugger approached Johnson at a convention, the politician brusquely changed course, telling a friend: "I don't talk to that boy. He prints lies about me."

Dugger stuck to his guns and it paid off. Johnson eventually gave him a series of exclusive interviews when he made it to the White House, and they formed the basis for "The Politician" (Norton, 1982), Dugger's respected political biography of Johnson. But the odd relationship soured in 1967.

"One night the president turned to me and said: 'I want a friendly book, Ronnie.' I made it clear I couldn't promise anything like that. And so Lyndon never talked to me again."

The lesson, however, was clear: If you talk to power without fear, the sky won't fall.

In later years, Dugger would apply that credo to a biography of Ronald Reagan, a flood of columns in the Observer, as well as book projects on genocide and computer fraud in elections. Now remarried and no longer publisher of the Observer, he still keeps an eye on Texas politics.

"I'm busier than I've ever been, and my best work is ahead of me," he says, brushing a thinning shock of hair out of his eyes. "I'm so damn busy, I'm too tired to sleep."

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