Bill Moyers is not just a name but a brand in the world of broadcast journalism. The former press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson - who grew up in the East Texas town of Marshall - has become a staple on PBS, where, at 77, he still hosts a show on current topics.
The recipient of more than 30 Emmy awards, Moyers is an unabashed liberal who believes that the political establishment is undoing much of the progress made in the last half of the 20th century.
He will be in Houston Thursday night as part of an ongoing lecture series sponsored by the Progressive Forum. He recently spoke with Chronicle reporter Mike Tolson.
Q: There seems to be a growing sense of urgency, a feeling that Washington quickly needs to find solutions for our national problems and stop dwelling on partisan differences. Do you see the upcoming election as pivotal in some way?
A: I do. The government is paralyzed. Our government is just not working. If the election continues the status quo, we are in trouble. Our political system has gotten us into such a mess that we can't solve our problems. This happened once before when the political system broke down and could not work to bridge differences, and the result was a disastrous civil war. The system is failing now. It isn't solving the debt problem or the foreclosure problem or anything. We have been able to use military to kill our enemies, but that's about it. This election is one more chance to make good choices. If the Republicans send people to do what they have been doing - just keep saying "no" - we will reap the harvest of history. If the Democrats continue to wring their hands and settle for photo ops and rhetoric, we will get nowhere. They (political parties) are going to be finished unless we can settle the deep and divisive issues that are taking us down. This election should be opportunity for the people to take the bridge of the ship and say to the captain, "That's an iceberg out there, turn the ship."
Q: The people behind the Occupy Wall Street protests and the tea party seem to present a similar message, even though they are quite different on a social and personal level. The tea party folks have had some political impact, while the Wall Street protesters have not yet. Do you see their movement ever gaining more traction?
A: I know a lot of tea partiers. I was out listening to them and talking to them. They had a half-truth. Why do I want to put more of my taxes into a government that was serving special interests? They understood that. The other side says we have to have a safety net. The two sides can't get together. The populist movement (of the tea party) was taken over and co-opted by corporate interests. It's hard to retain fiery indignation and independence when that happens. I don't think Occupy Wall Street will have the influence they want unless they do what the tea party did and take over the nominating process. Unless they do, they will never have the satisfaction that they want and that the civil rights movement, say, had back in the 1950s and '60s. These people are not going to have long-ranging effect unless they have a party to act on their interests. They need to become a political movement instead of a grievance committee.
Q: Like many of those on the liberal or progressive side of the spectrum, you have spoken often about the decline of the middle class and the stagnation of its income. Why do you think this is so important?
A: Since 1979, 40 percent of the increase of wealth has gone to 1 percent of the population. I don't know if the destruction of the middle class was by design, but that's been the effect of it. Our economy favors the relative few at the top, and everything else is left barely hanging on, if that. That's the story of the last 30 years. This is similar to what happened between the Civil War and 1912. The industrial revolution created incredible wealth at the top and great misery everywhere else. There was a feeling by political leaders that the wealthy deserved their riches because they are virtuous. And then the people rose up and in bloody soil planted the seeds that the 20th century used as markers to lay down a civilized society: the right of women to vote, the end of child labor, the creation of Social Security and rights for unions to organize and so on. Unless we can resurrect a vigorous fair government that works on behalf of everyday people, we are going to become a plutocracy like Mexico where wealth is concentrated at the top and everybody else is left with scraps.
Q: In spite of your grim assessment of current political and economic realities, you say that you are ever optimistic. Why?
A: I don't know how to live in this world without expecting a more confident future and doing something every morning to try to bring it about. I think that is motivating folks down on Wall Street and across the nation. These protesters have put their faith in the last seemingly credible force in the world, and that's each other.