Bill Moyers and Robin Lindley: Continuing the Conversation—The Renowned Journalist on His New Book, His Career, His Brushes with History, and Where We Stand Now
Bill Moyers has been my North Star,
in his eloquence, his quiet passion and courage,
and in the way he presents me and millions of others
with the ideals of our nation, from our past to our present
to our uncertain future. Always he offers
the gift of thoughtfulness and of hope.
Bill Moyers has devoted his career to educating, informing and inspiring the American public while leading a national conversation with the conviction that “the gravediggers of democracy will not have the last word.” He is perhaps best known for his years of groundbreaking journalism on television, which has earned him lifetime achievement Emmy and Peabody Awards, more than thirty individual Emmy Awards and nine Peabody Awards, and virtually every other major television journalism prize, including the Alfred I. DuPont Columbia University Gold Baton Award, and a George Polk Career Award for contributions to journalistic integrity and investigative reporting.
Mr. Moyers’s work is fueled by a deep knowledge of history, a passion for justice and public service, a profound concern for his fellow citizens, a love of language, and an appreciation of the ethical underpinnings of the issues he tackles. His deft storytelling is strengthened by his prodigious research and erudition so that he can provide the context and analysis that is sadly lacking in much of what passes for journalism now. And, as noted in one of the many accolades about his work, Mr. Moyers has dared to imagine that members of his audience are willing to think and to learn.
When the late Molly Ivins suggested that Mr. Moyers run for president in 2008, she identified some of the unique qualities that have earned him broad respect. She wrote, “He opens minds—he doesn’t scare people. He includes people in, not out. And he sees through the dark search for political advantage to the clear ground of the Founders. He listens and he respects others.”
Mr. Moyers, now 77, continues to lend his unique voice to the national conversation and, inevitably, to speak truth to power—despite his ostensible retirement. In his new book, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues (The New Press), he presents over forty engaging interviews from the 2007 to 2010 seasons of his highly-rated public affairs program. From the waning days of the George W. Bush administration through the onset of the Obama era, Mr. Moyers talked with leading activists, political thinkers, scientists, artists, writers and scholars including television satirist Jon Stewart, historian Howard Zinn, novelists Louise Erdrich and John Grisham, anthropologist and activist Jane Goodall, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, actor-author John Lithgow, economist James K. Galbraith, scientist E.O. Wilson, poets W.S. Merwin and Nikki Giovanni, and many more. The topics ranged from democracy, justice, poverty, race, war, and predatory capitalism to religion, science and creativity. The book includes new introductions that provide readers with historical context and background for each conversation.
As well as sharing history, Mr. Moyers has been a part of our national story. He was born in Oklahoma in 1934 and raised in Texas. At age 16, he worked as a cub reporter for the Marshall News Messenger. He is a graduate of the University of Texas and recipient of its Distinguished Alumnus Award. He also became an ordained a minister in 1954 and later earned a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Mr. Moyers worked as an aide to then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1960 presidential campaign. He was a founder of the Peace Corps in the Kennedy Administration, and ultimately became the deputy director. He was special assistant to President Johnson from 1963 to 1967, including two years as White House press secretary. He was instrumental in developing many of the innovative anti-poverty and civil rights measures that came out of the LBJ’s Great Society. Later, he was named “the best White House Press Secretary ever” by the American Journalism Review.
After leaving the White House, Mr. Moyers became the publisher of Newsday on Long Island, New York. He began work with the Public Broadcasting System in 1971 with the first Bill Moyers Journal series. His programs ranged far beyond the politics of the day with enlightening discussions of the arts, ethics, philosophy and spirituality. In the early 1980s, he interviewed artists, performers and leading thinkers in his innovative series Creativity, and later he produced and hosted several programs focusing on American poets. With his long-time friend, mentor, and collaborator, the historian Bernard Weisberger, he created the acclaimed series A Walk Through the Twentieth Century.
In 1986, Mr. Moyers resigned as Senior News Analyst for the CBS Evening News and Senior Correspondent for the documentary series CBS Reports to form his own independent production company, Public Affairs Television. With his wife and creative partner Judith Davidson Moyers he has produced a broad spectrum of programs, including series such as Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home; Genesis: A Living Conversation; Healing and the Mind; Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth; What Can We Do About Violence? On Our Own Times: Moyers on Death and Dying; and Faith and Reason; NOW with Bill Moyers; and Bill Moyers Journal.
Mr. Moyers’s books include works based on those documentary series as well as Listening to America, A World of Ideas I and II, The Language of Life, Fooling with Words, Moyers on America and Moyers on Democracy. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Organization of American Historians. He lives with his wife Judith in New York City.
Mr. Moyers recently agreed to an exclusive interview for the History News Network. He responded by email to a series of questions about his new book, his career, his brushes with history, his writing process, his “retirement,” and more. Mr. Moyers was candid and very timely in his responses to my questions. In several exchanges over the past two weeks here is what our interview elicited.
Robin Lindley: You are a masterful interviewer and—unlike many journalists today—always scrupulous about providing historical context for each interview subject, as evidenced in your new book. How do you choose interview subjects and prepare for interviews?
Bill Moyers: Thanks for the compliment. Truth is, I’m okay at interviewing but better at editing. I prefer a long conversation that I then trim to essentials. It’s the closest I ever get as a journalist to craftsmanship. Remember Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth? Those six broadcasts came from 26 rambling hours of conversation during which I got lost more than once. I enjoyed the lengthy sessions with him but they would have been incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in the lingo of mythology. By leaving the excess, including much of the lingo, on the cutting room floor—well, it was a cutting room floor before digital editing came along—we got to the essence of his ideas, to the stories, and the series became one of the most popular ever on public television.
There’s a figure in every stone, if only the sculptor can pare away the excess, right? Well, there’s a shape in every conversation. You carve a little, step back and look at it, then take the scalpel and carve again until—eureka! That’s the part of my work I most enjoy. Over all these years, I’m pleased to say, not a single guest has complained about the result. Now I’m jealous of my peers who do live interviews so well. But I’m not nimble on the high wire with the clock ticking. I need to listen at length, then sit with my team and edit as faithfully as possible until we find the inner arc of the experience.
How do I choose my guests? By preparation, intuition, and convergence. I read widely—magazines of every stripe. By midnight my bedside is strewn with clippings from the stack on the floor. There are books in various stages of reading all over the place—some by my chair, some on the floor, a couple on my desk, always a paperback at the ready if there’s a traffic jam or the train is slow. I scour Web sites.
Newspapers are my daily bread. I started as a cub reporter on my local paper. The publisher paid me extra to help him prepare a widely-circulated newsletter called “News Tips”—gleanings from many sources—so it became a habit for me to read and rip. Now I read six or seven papers a day—at least two from abroad, two or three big ones here at home, as well as the weekly in the small town where we retreat on the weekends. Not every story in every paper, obviously. Every newspaper is full of surprises. The article you didn’t intend to read—right next to the one you felt you must read—turns out to be the most interesting of all, and you weren’t even looking for it.
I also watch several newscasts, mainly out of habit but also because I want to know what several million other people are watching. I listen to public radio. Especially programs like “Planet Money,” ““Radio Lab,” “On Being with Krista Tippet,” “On The Media” and some of the local interview shows on our first-rate public radio station here in New York. You can’t beat these people for story telling. Their radio does for the ear what 3-D movies do for the eye. And I tune in to a right-wing radio show occasionally. Most of them use the same talking points so you don’t have to listen long to get the conservative line of the day.
As you can tell, I’m a junkie. And I write down in my little black notebooks the name of people who strike my fancy as I read and listen. Everything goes into the mix master in my head, which keeps churning while I’m sleeping. Then one day, triggered by an incident in the news or desperation against a deadline, I get a flash of insight: Time to talk to X, Y, or Z. Maybe it’s just someone I want to meet for my own continuing education. I have my own “Ah, ha” moments in every interview when I learn some things I didn’t know. That’s always a good day.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for that description of your process. You make a point of including a wide variety of voices in your book, from political commentators to teachers and poets, all who share a willingness to speak truth to power. The book begins with a delightful interview of satirist and commentator Jon Stewart. How did you decide to talk with him?
Bill Moyers: Well, as I say in the book, Mark Twain wasn’t available. Seriously, Stewart’s in the tradition of the satirists and humorists—Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Will Rogers – who take us to the truth in or behind the news and marinate it with humor so that it goes down more easily. Jon has a way of juxtaposing events to expose the absurdity of the stuffed shirts and pooh-bahs of politics and the media. I saw him do that to John McCain in 2008 when McCain came back from using our soldiers in Iraq as a photo op. Stewart just lifted McCain on his own petard, and McCain never recovered.
Robin Lindley: Your independent voice in broadcast news is sorely missed. While the mainstream press focuses on celebrity missteps or an odd homicide case, two wars rage, the middle class shrinks, jobs disappear, poverty grows, unions are eviscerated, and the rich get richer. Do you see any improvement in news coverage since the days when the press “rolled over” for Bush and Cheney, as described a few years ago by Eric Boehlert in Lapdogs?
Bill Moyers: First, there’s never been a Golden Age of journalism. But even in the tawdriest of times some world-class journalists exalt our craft. Think of the muckrakers a century or more ago: Ray Stannard Baker, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair. Lincoln Steffens. David Graham Phillips.
There’s great journalism happening today although it’s often lost in the smog of news and information that constantly rolls over us. If everyone could read the McClatchy news service, we’d have a better-informed citizenry. When the Washington press corps as a whole was swallowing and regurgitating the propaganda of the Bush administration in preparation for attacking Iraq, reporters for Knight-Ridder—the precursor to McClatchy—kept coming up with evidence to the contrary. But because Knight-Ridder didn’t have a newspaper in Washington, the reporting didn’t resonate in the echo chamber there and the policymakers could choose to ignore it.
So, yes, the herd mentality still prevails. I read that there were eight hundred journalists in Iowa for that Republican debate the other night. They swarmed all over the Ames Straw Poll like bees on a honeycomb. And what for? A faux jousting tournament that had all the lasting effect of a single drop of rain on a sandy beach. As soon as Governor Perry leaped into the race Michelle Bachmann was a relic from the past despite having won the straw poll. By the way, people had to pay $30 to vote in the straw ballot. So much for “one person, one vote.” But quite a metaphorical statement about what it takes to be heard today. For a trivial pursuit in a process that has started almost a year earlier than necessary. Suppose if, say, at least 20 percent of those journalists had spent the weekend spreading out across the state actually reporting on all those Iowans struggling to stay afloat in hard economic times with only one hand on the life raft.
The journalist Chris Hedges is a unique force today, because of his fierce independence and candor. He’s been writing about how politics is a charade aimed at making voters think the personal narrative of the candidate is the story although it never affects the operation of the corporate state. No matter which candidate wins, the money power in Washington reigns. That nails it, don’t you think?
Robin Lindley: And the role of money in our politics has been a longtime concern of yours.
Bill Moyers: Over the past three decades our politicians and their bankrollers have written and rewritten the rules of politics and the economy in ways to benefit the people at the top at the expense of everyday people. That’s the story of our time, but the mainstream press—public broadcasting included—has paid little attention to it. To do justice to that story you would have to be more than a scribe for the official players of the ruling ideology, which holds that politics is essentially about which of the two parties wins elections.
I was once in the Washington bubble, you’ll recall, during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. For two years I was LBJ’s press secretary. When I left it took me awhile to get my footing back in journalism. I had to learn all over again that what’s important for the journalist is not how close you are to power but how close you are to reality. When I went back to reporting—covering famine in Africa and civil war in Central America and inner-city families in Newark and middle-class families downsized in Milwaukee—I encountered plenty of reality. Sad to say, official Washington remains far removed from realities on the ground where most people live out their lives.
Stop and think of how little reality we see even in our local news. It’s a travesty how local reporting is dwindling because advertising no longer supports newspapers with the means to pay to do the hard digging required for civic honesty. And of course local television news is a hall of mirrors in a freak show. So local government is at the mercy of rogues, scoundrels, and incompetents who don’t have to look over their shoulders for watchdogs on their trail.
Robin Lindley: On the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you said that good journalism is comparative, not declarative. Could you please explain this idea?
Bill Moyers: Maybe that was a tad imprecise. What I meant is that Jon Stewart, for one, doesn’t say that Senator X or Y is a hypocrite; he juxtaposes what the Senator said yesterday versus what he said a year or more ago and you see immediately that the fellow’s a dissembler. Stewart has a terrific team of researchers. They dig and dig until the contradictions become apparent. It’s how Woodward and Bernstein uncovered Nixon’s Watergate crimes, beginning with the police blotter noting an incident that ultimately led all the way to the Oval Office. They didn’t call Nixon a liar, they uncovered the facts proving he was a liar. Courageous reporters did that in Vietnam. Every time LBJ or Robert McNamara saw a light at the end of a tunnel, the Halberstams and Arnetts and Safers of the press would walk the track into the tunnel and report what they saw: an oncoming train.
One of my journalistic heroes was Martha Gellhorn, who spent half a century covering war and politics. By the end she had lost her faith that journalism could, by itself, change the world, but she had found a different sort of comfort. For journalists, she said, “Victory and defeat are both passing moments. There is no end; there are only means. Journalism is a means, and I now think that the act of keeping the record straight is valuable in itself.” Amen.
Robin Lindley: Where do you look for reliable news coverage?
Bill Moyers: Oh, all over the place. Especially in long-form reporting. Check out The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker. There’s some stunning investigative work in The New York Times. Vanity Fair can be counted on for some eye-popping reportage. I trust the contrarian evidence-driven analysis of a Paul Krugman, Gretchen Morgenson, Joe Nocera, and Lloyd Norris. They write about economics and finance and business for The New York Times and don’t bother on the contradictory quotes—“he said, she said” —of the “experts” on Wall Street or in government.
The Washington Monthly nurtures some talented young reporters. I read The Guardian on line every day, and not just because it’s been a bulldog reporting how Murdoch and his minions had corrupted the famed London police, Parliament, and the prime minister’s office during both Tory and Labour governments. If that isn’t a wake-up call about the dangers of concentrating power in media monopolies, I don’t know what is. The Guardian—one of the best newspapers in the world because it was put into a trust by the founding family that was determined to preserve its independence to act in the public interest—put everything on the line to expose the conspiracy. Just imagine the risks of taking on one of the most powerful and ruthless men in the world, a man with no ethical compass, who has poured arsenic in the drinking water all around the world and got away with it. Until now.
Where else do I go for news? A lot of independent reporters, for sure. There’s Jeremy Scahill’s indefatigable reporting in The Nation. Josh Marshall and his team at Talking Points Memo are invaluable. The Washington bureau of Mother Jones—actually, MOJO leads the pack in investigative journalism right now. I find outstanding reporting on the blog of The Washington Monthly and Tom Engelhardt’s TomDispatch. There’s where you find the true picture of our wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. It’s breathtaking how little the mainstream press is paying attention to what the Obama administration is doing, especially in Pakistan, where there’s a slow boil rising about American policies. This, in a country bigger than Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There’s serious blowback coming from there and our government doesn’t want to talk about it publicly.
Robin Lindley: In his interview in your new book, Iraq war opponent Prof. Andrew Bacevich somewhat ironically said that the war could be our “salvation.” Is that happening now with opposition in both political parties to the war in Afghanistan and the Libyan incursion?
Bill Moyers: If only! I suppose Bacevich meant that redemption begins with learning from our mistakes: saving ourselves from repeating ourselves. But here’s the conundrum: Public opinion “gets it” about both Afghanistan and Libya; the majority of people learned from Bush’s invasion of Iraq about the folly of spending lives and treasure trying to remake complex cultures in far-away places when we can’t even put our own house in order. And why Libya and not Syria? Or Bahrain, where the autocrats of Saudi Arabia cracked down on the Arab Spring because it threatened their royal mafia? One journalist who continues to pay attention to the back-story in Libya, by the way, is the muckraker Russ Baker on his site Who, What, Why. I read him daily.
Again, there’s just such a huge disconnect between Washington and reality. You have to wonder how long our leaders and policymakers can delude themselves into thinking we can have both democracy and empire.
And the human cost: my wife Judith and I were watching the newscast of the latest casualties in Afghanistan the week the Chinook went down. We had to surf the whole spectrum to find anyone trying to explain, “What did they die for?” Official voices could only respond to that question with platitudes, because they don’t any longer know. It’s what happened in Vietnam: We have to send more soldiers to protect the soldiers we have already sent. As the casualties mount no one can remember why we were there in the first place. Or why the soldiers continue to die.
Look, I feel strongly about this because I grew up a Southerner and I served in the Johnson White House during the early stages of the Vietnam escalation. The truth about slavery was driven from the pulpits, newsrooms, and classrooms of the antebellum South; it took a bloody civil war to bring the truth home. Then the truth of the malignant segregation under Jim Crow was censored, and it took another hundred years for the freed slaves to gain full citizenship. In the Johnson White House we circled the wagons against news that didn’t conform to our predictions or expectations, with results that were tragic for America and Vietnam. Denial is a terrible thing in a family and in a country.
Robin Lindley: As described in your book by author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and creator of The Wire David Simon, the gap between rich and poor in our country is ever widening in a class conflict initiated by the rich. What can average Americans do to make a difference and reverse this trend in what James K. Galbraith calls a predator society?
Bill Moyers: You can only counter organized money with organized people: that’s a truism, but truisms are true and clichés mean what they say. And it’s a phenomenon I’ve reported on often over the years. There’s no place I’d rather my producers be than out with our cameras among people trying to hold powerful officials accountable. We did that consistently on the last three years of the Journal, and it’s what a lot of people keep telling me they miss today.
I wish there were a simpler answer, because organizing is s-o-o-o hard. And you have to stay at it, day in and day out. Look at those people in Wisconsin who took on the money and power of the right wing to stand up for public services and public workers. They’ve been at it for months now, which is hard on anyone who has a job to do, bills to pay, children to raise, and sore feet to nurse. The other side—buttressed by the bottomless wealth of the Koch brothers and other billionaires—aims to outlast and wear them down. Those people who are hanging in there are obviously infected with the spirit of the great progressive senator from Wisconsin, Robert LaFollette—a Republican, by the way—who said that democracy is “a life of daily struggle.” They’re living it.
But when representative government has been bought and paid for by the predator class, there’s no easy way to get it back. The conservatives have been brilliant at this. They took over the Republican Party, remade it in their image, and employ it as their Trojan horse for the protection of the rich: GOP—Guardians of Privilege.
As for Democrats: their everyday working people—as well as their practicing progressives and liberals—only have a party when the lobbyists aren’t using it. The Washington Post ran a story just the other day on the rivers of money from K Street lobbyists now pouring into the coffers of Democratic incumbents preparing for the 20l2 elections. And there was a story—so revealing of how Washington works today—of a top assistant to the liberal Barney Frank, who helped his boss draft the Dodd-Frank legislation ostensibly intended to rein in the most reckless behavior of Wall Street, who is now leaving Capitol Hill to become a top lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, which is doing everything it can to undermine Dodd-Frank. What chance does the public have when the laws are made one day by people who are hired for exorbitant fees the next day to undermine them?
It’s an unbelievable state of affairs we’ve reached. Garden-variety folks—the John Q. and Jane Q. Americans—can no longer count on either of our parties to champion their interests.
Robin Lindley: Do you sense any shift in the political winds? It seems the Republican Party is tilting further rightward while President Obama is criticized for failing challenge them and speak out strongly on behalf of working Americans. Many of his 2008 supporters are very disappointed.
Bill Moyers: Watching that Republican debate in Iowa the other night was unnerving. Everyone on the stage was exhibiting the closed mentality of religious fundamentalism: their fanatical convictions are more important to them than the full credit and faith of the United States government. Yet the White House seems more obsessed with accommodating or appeasing them than with the despair of working men and women. They’ve drawn the president into the argument on their terms. Otherwise John Boehner wouldn’t have been crowing that he got 98 percent of what we wanted in the deficit debacle.
(Sigh) My heart sank when I heard Obama’s response to Governor (Rick) Perry’s accusation that Ben Bernanke is “almost treasonous” as head of the Federal Reserve and would be treated “ugly” if he visited Texas. What did Obama say? “I’ll cut him [Perry] some slack” because he’s new to presidential politics. But Perry has been in politics as long as Obama. That was no unintentional remark on his part. I’m old enough, mind you, to remember the posters in Texas labeling John F. Kennedy a “traitor.” All Obama had to say was, “Let’s not call other Americans traitors because we don’t agree with their policies. I hope Governor Perry will help us keep this campaign on the high ground of what’s best for America in these tough times.” Instead he cuts him slack.
Obama! When he does something like that—and he does it too often, unfortunately—I’m reminded of how one historian described Stephen Douglas, another Illinois politician, as a man “who refused on principle to stand on principle.”
Obama seems obsessed with wanting to lead the country in what he sees as a post-partisan era while his opponents are so partisan they have only one goal in mind—to destroy him even if they have to burn down the house to do it. Well, you may want with all your heart to save your marriage but if your philandering, uncaring, unredeemable, and narcissistic partner is determined at all costs to break up the marriage, the sooner you decide not to play the fool, the better.
But there’s something else at work here. Obama’s base keeps criticizing him because he’s not liberal or progressive enough. But back in 2008 I told the young African Americans on my staff that he was going to break their hearts. They didn’t believe me and wanted to know why. Because he wants the conservatives to like him too much, I said, and I gave them some articles about how Obama, when he was editor of The Harvard Law Review, was more intent on appealing to his conservative counterparts than on making his own arguments. Do you know that several of those young people have come back to me in the last year to say I was right—he has broken their hearts. Remember, after the election in 2008, when Obama went to Washington before the inauguration, at his own initiative he went to dinner with a collection of conservative pundits. Not one of them supports him today, but he seems still to want to “save the marriage.”
I’ll tell you, I think he is quite comfortable leading the Republican wing of the Democratic Party. A Dwight Eisenhower, hovering above the fray, not a Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy or Johnson plunging zestfully into it. At best he’s a Democrat in the mold of Grover Cleveland. A good and honest man who deplored and opposed corruption in government, but was more comfortable leading the pro-business Bourbon Democrats than fighting for everyday people. Richard Hofstadter described Cleveland as “the ideal bourgeois statesman for his time: out of heartfelt conviction he gave to the interests what many a lesser politician would have sold for a price.”
Obama’s impotence is scary. In a stormy sea you want a sure hand on the helm. We don’t have one and we’re entering the roughest waters in decades. You don’t need me to tell you how prospects for working people and the middle class have darkened. There’s no one up there fighting for Americans whose wages are stagnating if they are even lucky enough to have a job, or for the middle class that’s being squeezed from all sides. The writer William Broyles [former editor of Newsweek] recently wrote that “A despair grips America, a cold fear that our best days are behind us, that we are adrift and powerless. Yes, the Republicans are to blame. But so is a president who treats core American values as bargaining chips, who won’t fight for anything, who refuses to lead.”
Robin Lindley: And President Obama is sure to be nominated by the Democratic Party to serve another term.
Bill Moyers: And likely win if the Republicans choose a carnival barker. You have to wonder how a modern-day Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy might shake things up. Both had challenged a sitting president of their own party over Vietnam, the defining issue of their time. Maybe that’s the kind of cuffing Obama needs to snap him out of it. But just the other day—the very day the president’s wealthy friends paid $35,000 a pop to have dinner with him here in New York—an acquaintance of mine received a solicitation by mail from the Obama campaign team asking for support on grounds that the president is not an extremist. I ask you: Where are we when one party is in the grip of a medieval mindset and the other touts its leader simply because he’s not foaming at the mouth?
Look, this is serious. America is practically self-destructing. First George W. Bush wrecks the economy and the government. Then Obama fumbles trying to put both of them back together. And suddenly we’re back in the mindset of the l850s, when politics couldn’t solve any of the great issues dividing the country, above all slavery. Like the radical Right today, there are large numbers of people who wanted nothing to do with the federal government and wanted the federal government to do nothing, and there were large numbers of people who wanted the federal government to carry out policies in the interest of all citizens. It took a bloody civil war to settle what politics couldn’t.
Today it’s the staggering inequality between top and bottom that threatens the fabric of our country. One of the greatest of our justices, the late Louis Brandeis, warned that “You can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or democracy, but you cannot have both.” Now the Supreme Court has opened the floodgates for millionaires and billionaires and giant corporations to pour unlimited amounts of cash into our elections, consolidating their hold on the political process and the corporate state.
We’ve already seen the political power exerted by a handful of financial predators who managed both to avoid the penalties that the so-called “free market” would have exacted on them for their role in helping to wreck the economy, and then to emerge, with taxpayer bailouts, to reap huge profits while 25 million or more people struggle to find decent work. One of the grand thefts of all time. Morally wrong and socially destructive. They bought our political system right out from under us. And the economy they created no longer serves ordinary men and women and their families. We’ve reached the point where the great American experiment in creating a shared future together has come down to the worship of individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power, with both major parties cravenly subservient to Big Money. Surely this accounts for the profound sense of betrayal in the country. And for the pessimism about the future. The predator class has thrust the dagger of money right into the heart of democracy.
I’m more grateful than ever for my journalistic independence, because I cannot bring myself to vote for any candidate who refuses to take on the interlocking system of politics and finance that enables the privileged and the powerful to extract trillions of dollars of America’s wealth while the vast majority of people struggle just to hang on. I don’t believe anyone who buys into this system can lead us out of the crisis.
So let me put it this way: My grandfather was a drunk. He died when I was five years old. The only image of him that I carry in my head is of the corpse laid out on the dining room table. My grandmother had married him when she was fifteen. Now she was widowed, destitute and hardened. She vowed never again to marry a man who wouldn’t swear off the stuff. So she died still a widow almost fifty years later. She had braved wolves, outlaws, sullen Indians, wild weather, and predatory bankers who took the farm, but she couldn’t compete with the booze. You and I can’t, either.
Money is the liquor of politics. Our politicians are drunk from it. Without the shock of an intervention, you can’t expect them to recover. What form that intervention takes, I can’t predict. Look at what Israel’s middle-class is doing as we speak—taking to the streets, day after day, peacefully, to protest how the politicians have allowed, even colluded with, a handful of financiers who took over the economy until Israel now has one of the greatest gaps between the top and bottom in the industrialized world. It’s hard to imagine that kind of sustained resistance happening in a country that spans the continent with a capital far removed from most of its citizens. Maybe we’ll find out. Meanwhile, don’t give your heart to any candidate who won’t swear off the booze.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those powerful comments. You notably present the voices of those who vividly describe, among other things, the human cost of war (Maxine Hong Kingston, Prof. Bacevich, Howard Zinn), of racism (Rev. Jeremiah Wright, James Cone, Douglas Blackmon, Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson), and of poverty (Ehrenreich, Simon and Holly Sklar). Aren’t these stories critical to share so the public understands the consequences of public policy and cultural attitudes?
Bill Moyers: I confess to a selfish reason for wanting to put them on in the first place. My spirit would shrivel up and blow away in the first breeze if I stuck only to politics and economics. I have to listen to poets, writers, and artists to stay in touch with something deep inside me. But there’s another reason. We can fight back against the wrongs in our society by talking about them with each other, understanding them better, organizing and spreading the word—that’s what those people in Wisconsin have been doing. But we can also fight back by celebrating what’s good about our lives, whether it’s the populist enthusiasm and good humor of a Jim Hightower or the creativity of Louise Erdrich or Barry Lopez. Just to read or listen to Nikki Giovanni talking about love and how to write a love poem can make you feel better about yourself, your country, and the world.
Robin Lindley: You grew up in a segregated town in East Texas in what must have been a very conservative environment. Did you dream of being a minister or a reporter when you were a little boy? Were you a contrarian?
Bill Moyers: A contrarian? Alas, no. I accepted the norms of the conservative white culture and church in which I was raised—a town that was 50 percent white and 50 percent black. It still haunts me that you can grow up well-loved, well-churched, and well-taught and still be unaware of half the people who live within walking distance. My awakening came later, and far too slowly.
No, I didn’t have dreams as a kid to be anything in particular. As I said, I went to work on our local newspaper and got the journalism itch. At eighteen I joined the ROTC and briefly imagined being in the Air Force. At twenty I committed myself to some form of religious vocation—perhaps a minister, perhaps a professor at a religious university—and spent four years at seminary working for a master of divinity. Then chance intervened and I wound up in politics and government for seven years before finally returning to journalism. I have never looked back.
Robin Lindley: You are a stellar writer and storyteller and ardent lover of words and poetry as evinced by your series The Language of Life. As you asked poet Nikki Giovanni, where did you get your love of words?
Bill Moyers: Thank you again for the compliment. Hmmmm. Well, it helped to be exposed to a succession of eloquent and learned divines—preachers—who knew the King James Bible by heart. But the greatest influence, I think, came from four consecutive teachers of English—from my final two years in high school through the first two years in college—who believed in reading aloud to their students. Either widows or spinsters, they were married to the English language. Selma Brotze loved Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Inez Hughes read Blake as if he had written his lines for her voice and heart:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours….”
Mary Tom Osborne preferred Thackeray, Tennyson, and Shakespeare. Eva Joy McGuffin plumbed Chaucer, Milton, and the Brownings, especially the Brownings. I can still hear her voice in my head, reading—reciting, actually; she knew them by heart—the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Those were the days.
Robin Lindley: You are an ordained minister with a master’s degree in divinity. How has this background influenced your work as a journalist?
Bill Moyers: I majored in seminary in social ethics under a gentle and wise scholar named T. B. Maston, who began to open my eyes about race and justice. For awhile after I unexpectedly landed in Washington I thought I had spent those years on the wrong pursuit and would have been better prepared by going to law school. Then I realized that almost everything I was dealing with first in government and then in journalism had deep ethical connections, as Dr. Maston had insisted all along. I also knew that whether one is a believer or not, religion is a powerful force in most people’s lives and as a journalist I couldn’t ignore how it shaped personal and political behavior if I wanted to understand the world I was covering.
Robin Lindley: I read that you were in Dallas on November 22, 1963 as an advance man for President Kennedy. What do you recall about that day? Were you in the president’s motorcade? Were you with President Johnson when he was sworn in?
Bill Moyers: I wasn’t in the motorcade in Dallas. I was in Austin, celebrating the president’s successful trip as the forerunner of his campaign for re-election. When I heard the news I raced to the airport, took a state plane to Love Field in Dallas, landed next to Air Force One, sent a note up the ramp (by a Secret Service agent) informing LBJ, “I’m here if you need me.” He summoned me in time for the swearing in and I flew back to Washington aboard the plane with him, Mrs. Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, and the body of her husband.
What do I recall? Swiftly-flowing events so incessant I have always had a hard time sorting them out. Enormous sorrow all around. Shock in the faces of everyone on that plane. But it was quiet and calm. How Lyndon Johnson took on the burdens of office under such duress and remained so sensitive of Mrs. Kennedy all the while, is still beyond me. How the Kennedy team on board struggled with such incomprehensible loss—they sat around JFK’s coffin all the way back—is one of the poignant stories of American history. Later I heard tales of hard feelings and the like, but I tell you honestly: All I saw that day was poise, pain, and grace.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate you sharing your recollection of that painful time. What was your role in the Kennedy administration? Did you get to know President Kennedy? How do you assess his brief term now?
Bill Moyers: During the campaign of l960 I was an airborne liaison between the Kennedy (for President) and Johnson (for Vice President) planes. I kept in regular contact with the “Irish Mafia” around Kennedy—that end of the Boston-Austin axis—but didn’t see much of JFK up close—just at rallies and a few confabs. I got to watch him closely, of course, but I wasn’t close to him personally. After the election I finagled my way from the office of the new vice president to become an organizer and associate director of the Peace Corps, then its deputy director under Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s talented and charismatic brother-in-law who became one of my best friends and mentors.
Kennedy’s term was, as you indicate, so brief it’s hard to assess its long-term significance. Of course his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world stood on the abyss of nuclear war, proved to be skillful and successful; he resisted the arguments of some aides to use overwhelming force which we now know would have been met by overwhelming force from Soviet warheads in Cuba. He sent Congress some far-reaching legislation that was languishing at the time of his assassination and that LBJ fulfilled with flair.
I think JFK’s singular contribution was psychological. He changed some of the metaphors in our heads about the world around us. The Peace Corps, I believe, remains his most enduring legacy, because it offered young people a moral alternative to war. It gave us a new way of being on the planet, of carrying two passports: one stamped as a citizen of the United States and the second as a citizen of the world.
And of course his rhetoric could be very moving. I stood in the freezing cold at his inaugural in January l96l as he spoke those bracing words: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” and knew right then and there that I wanted to be part of the Peace Corps. He had a way of enabling you to see your life—especially if you were young—in larger terms than you might otherwise have believed possible; at least he made me think I could do more than I had imagined before.
Robin Lindley: You were very close to President Johnson and instrumental in advancing his domestic policies such as the war on poverty and civil rights legislation. What was your role in the Johnson administration? Why did you leave before the end of his term?
Bill Moyers: I was at his side for a little over three years: first as a facilitator, carrying out his instructions and making things happen that he wanted to happen, even when I didn’t understand them. Then I worked on his domestic policy. By the way, one of our proudest achievements was the enactment of Medicare. But we far underestimated the costs and counted too much on future Congresses to correct our mistakes. Democrats today are missing a great opportunity by failing to take the lead in repairing Medicare so that it conforms to the reality of need. Democrats created it, they should fix it. But making hard choices is not what distinguishes politics today.
Anyway, the year Medicare was passed (l965) LBJ insisted that I become his press secretary. I told my wife that evening, “This is the beginning of the end.” “Why?” she asked. “Because no man can serve two masters.” In this case, the press and the president. By early l967 I had proven it. I was exhausted and no longer inspired, and I had practically abandoned my wife and three little children. It was time to go.
Robin Lindley: It’s hard to imagine a more challenging position in government in the turbulence of the 1960s. President Johnson seems to have been a very complex and unpredictable person. What is your assessment of him now?
Bill Moyers: Nothing that I haven’t thought before. There’s really no last judgment on a president, only a series of interim reports. Historians have the penultimate word, not even the last one. Revisions keep coming. Remember, Lyndon Johnson worked in Washington for thirty-one years; I worked for him fewer than four of those years.
The Johnson I saw was thirteen of the most interesting and difficult men I ever met—at times proud, sensitive, impulsive, flamboyant, sentimental, bold, magnanimous, and graceful (the best dancer in the White House since George Washington); at times temperamental, paranoid, ill of spirit, strangely and darkly uneasy with himself. He owned and operated a ferocious ego, and had an animal sense of weakness in other men.
I came to love him as the recruit loves the shrewd, tough, and vulgar commanding officer who swaggers and profanes too much in order to hide his own fears. He suffered violent dissent in the ranks of his own personality, and there were times when I wished myself back on that paper in Texas. But he had powerful populist instincts—the result of his origins in the impoverished Hill Country of Texas—and I learned so much from him about how politics is about the most basic human needs for work, security, dignity, and happiness.
He handed me one responsibility after another despite my young age, and I had great affection for him and still do, although I know him to have been deeply flawed.
I think a great deal about how we got it so wrong—so tragically wrong—about Vietnam. And I think a lot about how every progressive era—Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, Kennedy and Johnson—has been ultimately trumped by war.
Robin Lindley: After your work in the White House, it seems you could have had your pick of jobs in government or the private sector. How did you choose a career in journalism?
Bill Moyers: I just went back to what I had wanted to do as a teenager: journalism. This time I started at the top—publisher of Newsday, the large newspaper on Long Island, whose owner I didn’t know and who, weirdly, hired me having watched me at press conferences on television. But three years later, when he sold the paper, I started all over, traveling the country over thousands of miles to write my first book, Listening to America. It became a bestseller and led to my being asked to host a new little broadcast for public broadcasting called This Week. My first season was awful; I wore horn-rimmed glasses, dark suits, was too stiff, took myself too seriously. Then I started going out into the field, reporting, talking to Americans at all levels of life, piecing together their stories. I never looked back. I’ve been very, very lucky. As the Great Bard wrote: “Merit doth much, but fortune more.”
Robin Lindley: I think it must have had a lot to do with merit and talent in your case. Now, many observers are pessimistic about the future of America, and Chris Hedges and several of your progressive interviewees believe that we have already lost democracy to a corporate state. As you asked poet W.S. Merwin, how do you see light in the darkness?
Bill Moyers: It’s hard. Civilization is only a thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart, and can never be taken for granted. I just saw for a second time the Ivory and Merchant film The White Goddess. It’s about Shanghai in the mid-l930s, as the Japanese invasion swept everything away. Think the Weimar Republic. Paris and Berlin in the 1930s. Cambodia. Vietnam.
Sometimes I sense what seems to be the shifting of some tectonic plate beneath our own feet and a slight shiver runs down my back that I have to willfully shake off. When I am in the slough of despondency I try to remember the hard times my parents faced—my father was knocked down and almost out by the Great Depression; he left school in the fourth grade, my mother in the eighth, to work in the fields, picking cotton. They never recovered financially. But the life force has a tenacious hold on us, doesn’t it?
We persevere despite ourselves. This could change. There’s no assurance we’re the best the universe can produce, or even the most important. We may not be nature’s last word. So I practice what the political scientist Gramsci called “The pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will.” I see things as they are—without rose-colored glasses—but I simply don’t know how to be in the world without expecting a more confidant future and getting out of bed every morning to do whatever I can that day to bring it about.
Robin Lindley: Any plans for another Journal?
Bill Moyers: When I retired the series early last year I told my audience: “While I don’t consider myself old, there are some things left to do that the deadlines and demands of a weekly broadcast don’t permit.”
Since then Judith and I have done many of those things. We took our older grandchildren abroad. We encouraged our younger grandchildren to come and go frequently and spontaneously (they’re arriving any minute now for another sleep-over.) We enjoyed leisurely reunions with old friends. We made some public appearances (including a joint commencement speech at Whittier College), sat for long stretches of time watching the hawks circle above our trees, attended to some deferred business, and, thanks to Netflix, caught up on a lot of movies and television we had missed while meeting those deadlines. I’ve spent considerable time working with philanthropic colleagues on some public issues. Oh, yes, we also published our book: Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.
But every now and then those lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” tiptoe into my head:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life.
So I’ve been weighing what comes next. And by the time you publish this interview, I will have informed public television stations across the country that I am returning in January with another weekly series. The arm’s not quite what it used to be, but I surely have one more season in me. As the man says, let the conversation continue.
© 2011 History News Network