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Powell's Q&A

Thom Hartmann

Editor's note:
Soon after Thom Hartmann wrote What Would Jefferson Do?, he took some time out of his busy schedule, as a writer and radio personality on Air America, to answer a few of our questions.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
The Founders of this nation. We bought an 1850-built house in Montpelier, Vermont, about five years ago, and in the attic found boxes of old books, most hopelessly disintegrating, from the turn of the last century. Among them was a complete twenty-volume set of the collected writings of Thomas Jefferson, published in 1908 — the one and only time his entire works have been in print. I started reading them, became entranced, and surfaced for air four years later having written the book What Would Jefferson Do?.

Along the way, I read extensively the writings, biographies, and what I could find of autobiographies of Paine, Franklin, Adams, and Madison (who's a distant relative). These men — and the women in their lives — were transformed by the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment, and determined to bring them into governance. They discovered that the American Indians had been living out the world Rousseau and Locke only supposed was possible, and borrowed heavily from the Iroquois Confederacy for the US Constitution. They had an expansive view of the mystical, to the point that Jefferson insisted on putting "Nature's God" into the Declaration of Independence instead of the "Christian God" advocated by Adams.

We have slipped so far from their vision and ideals — which are not even particularly well taught in our schools anymore — that I've jumped feet-first back into the radio industry, in which I started in 1968, doing a three-hour local morning show on KPOJ in Portland, and a three-hour nationally syndicated radio show immediately thereafter.

My book Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights started out as the Jefferson book, but took a turn when I read an 1886 US Supreme Court ruling (Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad) that had been horribly twisted and misinterpreted by six generations of corporate lawyers. My book We the People: A Call to Take Back America came out of the insights I've gained both from reading the Founders and interacting with people all across the country during the three years I've been doing my national talk show.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
For me, absolute happiness comes in connecting as closely as I can with the Source of All. I find it walking in the woods, sleeping in the sun, watching the river flow by, seeing the presence of life in the eyes of others, in meditation. I've touched it in relations with others, in work, and in prayer.

It's so easy to get lost in the work we're doing, and, even more seductive, to get lost in the goals of the work. As often as possible I pull myself back to the present and re-anchor to this moment, now, and re-connect to all life. That's when I feel the most complete.

The state I've touched a few times in my life, and which I feel the best when I sense I'm close to, is one of unity. Merging into the All-One. (I write about this at some length in my books The Prophet's Way and The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.)

Why do you write?
It's a way of communicating with others, and the process of writing is something I enjoy. There's something very satisfying about sharing an idea with (hopefully) some elegance and clarity, and knowing that somebody else may "get" that idea and it will be meaningful to them.

Which is probably where my other reasons for writing are grounded. Many of the most powerful influences in my life have been other writers — my life has been changed, several times and in important ways, by books I've read. And since I have the ability to write, I feel I have an obligation to do so, and to do so as well as I can.

Some suggest that writers are trying to achieve immortality by proxy, or some other such grand and egoistic notion. I imagine there's an element of that in every writer, just as there is in every parent (I'm one of them, too, with three adult children), but when I think of my writing I think more of today's readers than future generations.

There's also something incredibly unique about writing. Because we can't read minds, there's really no way other than through reading to get inside somebody else's head; to feel what it feels like to live in their skin, walk around in their clothes, their world; to see life through their eyes and hear the world through their ears. You can't even do it with a movie — that's just observing others, the same way we do in real life. It's only in fiction — and, occasionally, non-fiction — that we can get any sense at all about what it must be like to be somebody else. And that fascinates me, as well. It's why I love reading just as much as I love writing.

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
"Ahhhhhh, finally! Home again!!"

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
My favorite contemporary fiction authors are James Lee Burke and Jack Vance. I still love to re-read old Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, although he's no longer with us, and Rex Stout, ditto. A few other brilliant nonfiction books are Original Wisdom by Robert Wolff, and Markings, the spiritual diary of Dag Hammarskjöld. spacer

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