Do we live in a time of the coarsest public discussion?
"It's hard to make that case," replied Bill Moyers.
"If you look at the earliest presidential campaigns and the words used against George Washington, or the furious anger before the Civil War, it's hard to say that our times are more contentious.
"When I was growing up in Texas in the 1950s, there was the scare over Reds, or pinkos or whatever. (The labor leader) Walter Reuther was made into such a demon that I would look under my bed to make sure the devil himself wasn't there," Moyers said.
"I don't think our public discussions have more invective than ever before, but they come from a phenomenon of wall-to-wall popular culture. Popular culture is overwhelming all our communications and the result is spectacle instead of news. The spectacle of a funeral or a trial or a family's grief — it's just wall to wall."
Moyers spoke by telephone from his New York office as he prepared to journey around the country again, landing with an evening at Seattle's Paramount Theater April 22. He said he finally retired last year, but his schedule included recent talks at California universities and an upcoming trip to Arizona. He and a few others share a world that began 35 or 40 years ago in newsrooms and broadcast booths and carry within the echo of those years the rhythms of a very different time. LBJ and Charlie DeGaulle and Khruschev; the marvel of jet travel and the coaxial cable.
Moyers told a story about sitting in a small room next to the Oval Office as President Lyndon Johnson attempted to adopt the British system of paying for public broadcasting with a fee on each television set sold. Moyers said the Arkansas Democrat, Wilbur Mills, rejected the idea and so was born the eternal shortage of money for the Public Broadcasting System.
"Johnson's ambition was to seal the New Deal, born under President Franklin D. Roosevelt," Moyers said. "Instead, the toxic cloud of Vietnam came between him and that generation. The cloud has not yet lifted."
Given the chance to be optimistic about our future, Moyers did not jump at the opportunity. "The Republicans are morally and intellectually bankrupt," he said. "We have terrible income inequity." He cited a report in the Economist magazine that America is moving to a European-style class calcification.
How about a little good news, I ask. He reminds us that a country that produced Mark Twain has now produced Jon Stewart. Moyers is the second broadcaster I have heard lately say "The Daily Show" is the best thing on television.
Twain to Will Rogers to Stewart is not a bad swing through the generations, and in reality, politics hasn't changed that much. We have moved from jokes about riverboat gamblers to jokes about casinos. Moyers is not so sanguine.
"The news business is at war with the newsrooms," he said. "The modern news business folds in a stiff breeze."
Never a folder himself, Moyers has taken his share of hits over the years. In many ways, he personifies the adulation and the rancor over public broadcasting. Like Walter Reuther, PBS has also been demonized, and so has Lyndon Johnson and even Mark Twain when his books are kept out of schools and libraries.
Not so harsh a time as some others, Moyers continued to say. But he comes from those years in the caldron of the civil strife over Vietnam — in the time of the reporter rather than the accountant.
James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times.
© 2005 Seattle Times