A Conversation with Bill Moyers

A Conversation with Bill Moyers

– Hello, I’m Don Shelby. What you’re about
to see is one of the most exciting and humbling
assignments of my career. I was asked to
interview Bill Moyers. It’s something like playing
the piano for Mozart. Because to my mind Bill
Moyers is the greatest broadcast journalist of our age. He’s won more than
30 National Emmys, a lifetime achievement
award for the National Academy of
Television Arts and Sciences, nine George Foster
Peabody Awards, the broadcast equivalent
of the Pulitzer Prize, three George Polk Awards, and the Dupont-Columbia
Golden Baton. He’s introduced us to
some of the world’s most remarkable people in
his one-on-one interviews and shared with us
a world of ideas. And he once took us
inside his own family in a very personal way. He’s authored 12 books. I’m incompetent to properly
introduce Bill Moyers there’s simply not enough time. Before a studio audience a
man known for his modesty and his reluctance to
talk about himself, agreed to sit down with me for a conversation I
shall never forget. Ladies and gentlemen,
Mr. Bill Moyers. (upbeat music) (audience applause) – It started in Marshall, Texas but it started before
you were a journalist. Something unusual
occurred in Marshall that taught you
about this America. You were the son of one of
the poorest people in town anywhere else, in
any other time, you wouldn’t have
had much of a shot. How did it happen
that a poor boy got the shot you got? – I was the beneficiary
of Affirmative Action for poor, white southern boys. If you studied
hard, worked hard, moved around town, met
people, there were men particularly men in
the town who would say, “He’s a comer let’s help him. “He’s a poor boy
let’s help him.” So the Rodeo Club
gave me a scholarship, the City Commission
let me come in and sit-in on their meetings. I was just constantly
touched by people older than I am who
saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. So they just kept moving me from one opportunity to another. But you know in those
days the gap of income
inequality was not so great. One of my best friends
was Anne Blalock, who was the daughter of
the richest man in town. But we went to the same school, we went to the same parties, we went to the same dances. And I never felt
uncomfortable in the presence of the kids in
town whose parents were really the
more fortunate ones. And that’s changed
in this country today to a very disturbing extent. There’s very little
conversation, there’s very little intercourse, there’s very little
communication, very little participation
between the poorest people, poorest kids in our
country, in our cities, and those who are well off. But I, it never occurred to me, that I wasn’t as good as Anne, or it didn’t occur to her
that I was not her equal in our relationship,
and so that little town said to me, you
signify, you matter. It doesn’t matter
that your dad is poor. So those benefits
in this small town were available to an ambitious
young man who was white. – You are 14 years old,
you’re in Marshall, Texas, and there’s a political rally, and for the first time
in your life you see in person Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Senator of the
state of Texas. What did you think
when you first saw him? – I was bowled over
by the helicopter. (audience laughs) I was on the town square
and the helicopter landed. He traveled the state,
this is the 1948 election, which he was beaten
by 87 very contested and I have no
doubt illegal votes down in the Valley of Texas. But he was campaigning
hard in a helicopter, so who didn’t want
to see a helicopter in ’48 the first
year that helicopters were used in campaigns? So I went down to
the town square and when he got off the
helicopter took his big Stetson and tossed
it into the crowd. Now I later learned
that he did that at every stop and he had
somebody on his staff who went and got the
Stetson and returned it to the helicopter
at the next stop so he could toss it again. I mean I learned a lot about
politics in that very moment. That realization that
this was part of the game. This was just not that he had
an endless supply of Stetsons in the helicopter, but
I remember that he spoke to the crowd without
a microphone. Must have been 1,000, 2,000
people, at Courthouse Square. Big man, boisterous,
stentorian in his tall, commanding presence,
and I remember being stunned by the power
of his persona. Something you didn’t
see again, really, until the campaign of ’64 when
he was running for President for the first time
in his own right. – So you, North Texas,
University of Texas Austin, Southwest Theological Seminary, would stop in Edinburgh and
spend some time to study. Committed to
becoming a preacher, preaching in two
churches upon graduation. But in there somewhere is a
letter that you sent to LBJ suggesting that the young voice wasn’t being heard as much,
and maybe you knew something. And he was struck
by that apparently, because he called you. – I had been at North
Texas State College in upstate Texas and I would
go stop at the student union from time to time and
watch the McCarthy Hearing. Some of you don’t remember
the McCarthy Hearings but the extremist
Joseph McCarthy a Senator from Wisconsin
on anti-Communist crusade had gone beyond the limits of reasonable dialogue
and reasonable politics and the senate had
called him to question was about to censor him. And sitting in the student union watching those hearings
I became very engaged. Don’t ask me exactly why
it was, as I say, I was 20 I’m 82 now that was
a long time ago. But I felt maybe I wanted to
be a political journalist. I planned to be a journalist
I was working my way through the colleges
on the publicity staff of the college
covering the sports from the college and
writing newsletters. I went to my office on
a Saturday afternoon wrote a letter to, I had
never met Senator Johnson except to see him
from the helicopter. And I wrote a letter saying, I’d like to learn about politics and you’re in a
campaign down here where you’re trying
to reach young people and I think I’ve got
something for you and you’ve got something for me. The letter got to his desk,
he always wanted to have bright, young men around him. John Connally became
Governor and many others were young men on his staff
at one time in his career. And I went to Washington
and spent the summer in fact when I got off the
trolley that brought me over to the Capitol where his
Senate Majority office was he was getting onto the trolley, and he took my hand
and said, “Come on,” he didn’t even have
a warm greeting he just took me
down a long corridor in the basement of the
Capitol opened the door and took me down to an
addressograph machine, an addressograph machine
was like a sewing machine, you would hit the
pedal and a metal plate would come through, the
stamp would come down, and print the address
on the envelope. So in-between eight
o’clock at night, and seven the next morning, I addressed by foot
275,000 envelopes. I hadn’t even unpacked
my bag and I hadn’t gone to the room where I was
staying, and that impressed him. So then he moved me
over to his own office to answer his own correspondence
and there I was at 20 totally inexperienced in this, writing his letters
to Eisenhower, writing his letters to
the Secretary of State, writing his letters to
his contributors in Texas, and we bonded. I was going back to
this small college at the end of the summer,
and Lyndon Johnson at his desk said, “You know,
I think you ought to transfer to the University of Texas.” That’s where he lived
and that’s where he had a television station and I said, “Mr. Leader I don’t
have any money, “I’m going to get married,
and I’ve got a job “in North Texas in
Denton,” he said, “I’ll give you a job–
– [Don] KTBC? – [Bill] KTBC the radio
station which somehow mysteriously was
the only station in the country that could
broadcast all three networks. (audience laughs) – I wonder how that happened. – They had a monopoly,
the favorable gods were looking down, and
I got a job with him. He had promised me
that he would pay me a hundred dollars a week
that was astonishing in ’54. It was more than my father
had ever made in his life as I said earlier
and I went down and he worked me 40 hours a week but we bought the first
mobile unit in Texas. And I used to tool
around town study, covering accidents and
murders and the State Senate the State Legislature
and that was probably the biggest crime
scene in Austin. (audience laughs) But anyway that fall I had
a deep, profound experience I still have a hard
time describing it. And I decided that politics
wasn’t, and journalism wasn’t going to satisfy my
instincts and my intuitions, or even be a healthy
place to work. So I decided to go and teach
at a religious institution, I’d get my PHD first, so I went
to the seminary four years. And I was graduating in
late December of ’59, Judith and I, my wife,
were packing our boxes to move back to Austin
where I had been accepted to do my PhD in
American Civilization and had a teaching assistantship
at Baylor University which is a Baptist
school in Waco halfway between Dallas and Austin. And the phone rang, it was
two days after Christmas, and it was Lyndon Johnson,
I hadn’t talked to him in two and a half years. He said, “Bill how
are you doing?” “I’m fine, Mr. Leader.” “What are you doing,” he said. “I’m packing to go
back to Austin.” And he said, “No, no, I’m
going to make a run for it, “I don’t think I’ll get
it but I need you back.” I hung up and I said,
“Judith pack for Washington, “not for Austin.” And we went up, on
the way she said, “What did he offer to pay you?” And I said, “I have no
idea he didn’t mention it.” (audience laughs) And so I spent that
year back in his office traveling with him, spending
every night in some hotel, around the country, seeing
all of the politicians, meeting them, watching
what happened. They were heavy
drinkers in those days, and after all day of campaigning
they’d come to the hotel and they would drink until
1:30, 2:30, 3:30 in the morning and I had to stay up
until it was over. Of course I learned
a lot, but gradually, that led me in the direction
of Washington for my career. When he didn’t get the
nomination he did get picked to be the Vice
Presidential running mate. I started to go
back to Texas then, and he said, “No stay
through the election “then you can go.” And so I did and
during the campaign I was the liaison on the
Vice President’s plane The Swoose named after
the plane he had been on in the Pacific, briefly
during World War II, and The Caroline which
was John Kennedy’s plane. And I got to know
the Irish Mafia, to be frank and others
have written this, I was the only person
on Johnson’s team who could talk Boston and
interpret Boston to Austin. (audience laughs) And I became in their
eyes somewhat valuable. So when the election
came and we won, barely, as you know,
John Kennedy came down to the LBJ ranch and
I’m sure that LBJ set him up for this, but
John Kennedy was leaving and he turned on the
porch of the LBJ ranch saw me leaning in the
corner, came over and said, “I hear you’re not
coming with us.” I said, “No, I’m going to
teach at a Baptist school “and I’ll get my PhD.” And he said, “Don’t you
know Harvard was founded “by a Baptist preacher?” He said, “We need you in
Washington,” so I went. And just a few
months into working in the Vice President’s
office, boring job, he was bored out of his mind,
it was a non-job at that time, and I had written
a speech for LBJ, he said, “I don’t have a
speech, I’m going to speak “at this university
give me a speech.” So I sat down on my
little portable typewriter and wrote a speech
proposing a youth corps, where did I get the idea? From Hubert Humphrey in
Minnesota he had been advocating a youth corps a peace
corps, Kennedy of course picked it up but so did we. And after the election I
realized as Kennedy announced that he was going to
start the Peace Corps, that’s what I wanted
to do so I began what became a strenuous
and almost futile effort to rest myself free of the
Vice President’s Office. And I was one of the
founding organizers of the Peace Corps, became
its first Deputy Director and I had the three
best years of my life. You know it was a new
effort to send young people who were not in military
uniform out to help shape the identity of
America in the world and to give them a
sense of the world that they would bring back. And I can’t tell you every time I come to Minnesota,
every time I go to the Hubert Humphrey Institute,
I gave the keynote speech at the Humphrey Institute
when they opened it. People come up to me,
my age and younger, and they say, “We were
in the Peace Corps, “it was a defining
moment of my life.” It was mine, I couldn’t
have been happier. And one day in
early October of ’63 I got a call from
Kenny O’Donnell who was then John Kennedy’s
most powerful assistant, “Bill we want you
to go to Austin, “the President is going
to go down there.” “We sent an Italian,
advance man from Boston, “whom I knew, Jerry Bruno,
we sent him down there, “and he just can’t, they
can’t understand each other. “Our efforts, we’ve
got to raise money. “We’ve got to speak in Houston, “and you’ve got to go down
there and hold hands.” So I did, I went down
and I was holding hands with the Governor
and the labor people, and the liberals and
the conservatives until the President
got out of town. Sitting at the Forty Acres Club at the University of
Texas having lunch with the Chairman of the
State Democratic Committee and the most promising young
member of the State Senate, Ben Barnes the maitre d’
came over to me and said, “Mr. Moyers you’ve got a
call,” so I went and took it. It was Bill Paine the
Secret Service Agent assigned to me in
Dallas and he said, “Bill, the President’s
been shot.” I immediately went back
and told my colleagues and went right out to
the airport, on the way, Ben Barnes arranged
for a little aircraft to carry me to Dallas, halfway
between Austin and Dallas, Robert Trout on CBS said,
in a haunting voice, “The President is dead.” I landed at Love Field, started
to town, to the hospital, Parkland Hospital and got
a dispatcher’s call saying, “The President, Lyndon Johnson
now, was on Air Force One at Love Field,” right
where we had landed. Went back, went up
to Air Force One, the Secret Service stopped me, he didn’t know me,
and I wrote a note– – What did it say? – It’s in the library. Mr. President, don’t
ask me why intuitively I started calling
him Mr. President. I’d always called him
Senator, or leader. Mr. President I’m here if
you need me, Bill Moyers. A few minutes later the
Secret Service agent came back and called me up the steps and there I was
on Air Force One. – [Don] What was going
through your mind? – No awesome, my God, look at this, it was very
practical, how do I help him? What’s he going to do now? ‘Cause he had never
expected to be president, wasn’t ready for it, wasn’t
really prepared for it. I was a practical guy. I mean in the campaign of ’60,
organizing the Peace Corps, those were administrative
and managerial jobs. And I had never even
been in the White House and I was standing at
the back of that plane, saying, “How can I be helpful?” And when he went back into
the bedroom of Air Force One security had closed all the
portholes, but he had opened the one in that inner
office, inner bedroom, inner sanctum and
he was looking out. Quietly, very
calmly, and I said, “Mr. President what
are you thinking?” And he said, “Are
the missiles flying?” Here we’re in the
midst of a Cold War, the Cuban Missile crisis
was not long behind us, and I realized then that
he had things on his mind he had never had
on his mind before. And I just started filling
in with the small details. Calling the Speaker of the
House, just functional things, and I was good at
that, and one reason he came to trust me was
because I had that sense of doing the details and not being
conspicuous about it. But there were no great and
noble, or fearful thoughts in mind on that
plane coming back. – Domestically, in
the White House, LBJ pledged to carry out
John F. Kennedy’s mission. And TIME Magazine
called you the young man in charge of everything. (audience laughs) But the Vietnam War
interfered, and got in the way of these great hopes and dreams. Did you resent the
war in that way, did you resent the war
as a man of the cloth? Did you resent the war
as a public policy? – In those first
two years when I was in charge of the
Domestic Program I didn’t think about the war. As we look back and as
documents are revealed it turns out that many
decisions were made in ’64 and early ’65 by the
President, McNamara and Bundy. And as the war began to
escalate it was very troubling. I wish that I had
been a moral prophet, and had said, “This is
gonna end in disaster.” It was tragic, it was one of
those tragedies of history which Lyndon Johnson
is responsible for that changed the
course of our society. Frustrated the Great
Society programs, snuffed them out in the cradle. I mean every constituency
that we had practically for the Great Society
program for remaking the institutions of
America, schools, roads and all of that was a
victim of the Vietnam War. Many times I left
in January of ’67 because I felt what I
cared about was no longer being nurtured, no
longer being funded, and there was no longer a
priority of Lyndon Johnson. He had to be, when
you’re in a war, you have to fight
it, and so I left. My influence was
limited then, humbled, because the President,
I was an advocate of stopping the
bombing of the North. And I used to go to
meetings in the Cabinet Room and I’d come in and
the President said, “Here comes Ban the Bomb Bill.” And they began to
see me that way and therefore believed
that I was skewed. – No less light than
Doris Kearns Goodwin said that, “Moyers should write the book,
because all of those blanks even in Caro’s work can be
filled in by Bill Moyers.” And when I read why you
won’t write a book about LBJ I was touched professionally
and personally for why you said
you won’t do it. Would you tell
people why you won’t? – There were so many
reasons I can’t be sure I’m remembering the one
that you are referring to. There were many
reasons, many reasons. First of all, I
didn’t want to be the thief of his confidence. I spent hours, hours
with the man alone, on the campaign trail,
in those first 12 months of our time in the White
House, and he never believed that anything he said to me, whether he was drunk or
sober would become public. And secondly I
lived the experience but I don’t remember
it that well. Because there were so
many things coming at me. I was telling my really good
friends here this morning that when I left the White
House I put all my files in 100 boxes we moved them to the Brookings Institute
and then on up to New York when I was publisher
of the newspaper. I never opened
them after 25 years took them to our new
home in New Jersey put ’em in the attic,
never opened them. I hadn’t opened
them for 50 years, so last year when we
decided to sell our house, I had to get all
of those boxes out including the carcasses
of mice and the shells of creatures of all
kind and I opened them. And the first box I opened was the first three weeks
in the White House, and all we could do, I didn’t even have an
assistant that I had known that’s how we were thrust
into the hurricane. Five of us, six of
us, the President, Mrs. Johnson, Jack
Valenti, me, Horace Busby and a couple of others. And there were all
the Kennedy people but they were so grief
stricken and so shattered that we felt as if we
were alone on the island, and the island was in the
midst of this great tsunami. And so I just put my files
and all my correspondence, cables and all
that in the files, here I was 29 years old and
there were cables coming in from the uprising in Nigeria, and the Civil War in Cypress, and the turmoil of
the British Government which was in trouble, and the information about the
movement of Chinese troops towards the border of Korea,
and right on down the line there was one issue
after another. And what did we know about them? What did I know about them? I had been at the Peace Corps. Even Lyndon Johnson who had
been in many of those meetings with President Kennedy,
what did he know about them? And suddenly decisions
were being made about issues for which
there was very little time to collect the evidence. You know Lyndon Johnson
kept saying to me, in all those years,
“A man is no better, a man’s judgement is no
better than his information.” And I really believed that,
and that has guided me in my journalism career
the last 44 years. My opinion isn’t
worth a pig’s ass if you don’t mind my saying so, unless I can back
it up with evidence. – You said in a
couple of places, in some of the books
that you have written more than a dozen books. And the thousands of hours of
television that you produced. I found three references
to the word atonement. Where you talked about a
personal need to atone. When you said to
William Sloane Coffin in one of the very
last conversations you had with Reverend Coffin. You were saying you were glad
that you had grown old enough to begin to account for in
essence the sins of the past. And he said to you, “Bill
we have a lot to atone for.” Has your journalism career,
and I will make it easier for you if you want
to answer it this way, because it has with
me, been an atonement in a sense a redemption? – I don’t look at it that
way, and I never have. But let me say in
the crucible of power you make a lot of mistakes. Some of them come
from character, some of them come from a
paucity of information, and some of them
come from haste, but you make a lot of mistakes. You don’t see there
are consequences until you are out of the
battle, till the war is over. And you can read what
the other side said the other troops on the
other side of the trenches or the files in North
Vietnamese records or in the Kremlin Library
you don’t really know that you misjudged
it or made a mistake, presidents or staff
assistants to the president you make a lot of mistakes. And if you let the
mistakes eat away at you they will destroy you. But you learn certain things, that is you’re happier if you
are trying to report the truth than if you are
trying to conceal it. You have more fun, you
feel better at night. If you’re trying
to find the truth instead of trying
to cover it up. When I became press secretary
against my will by the way, the President went through two
or three press secretaries. He said, “I want you
to be press secretary,” I said, “Mr. President
I don’t want to do it, “thank you anyway.” The second time didn’t do it. The third time I said, “Yes,” because I’d still have my
shoulder out of joint here. And that afternoon I
flew home to see my wife who was in Dallas
visiting her parents. And as we went to
bed that evening, she had on her red and
white silk pajamas. I said, “You know this is
the beginning of the end.” And she said, “Why?” And I said, “Because no
man can serve two masters.” You’re trying to help the
President get his ideas across, you’re serving his
interests rightly. But if you’re trying to
help the press understand why he’s making those
decisions, or what they mean, you’re trying to help the press. And there were moments that
grew in intensity and paranoia, in which he thought I
was serving the press more than I was serving him. – But at some point you came
to the conclusion standing at the lectern in the
White House that you wanted to be on that side. – Yes I remember it clearly. It was in the Briefing Room, my office was the Briefing Room. By the way there were only
about 40 or 50 accredited reporters in the
White House then. There are now 1,100, so
I had a small office, and we’d brief the
press there (laughs). I knew we had carefully arranged
for the President to go to Bethesda Hospital and have a
surgery, gallbladder surgery. But I couldn’t let that out
until after three o’clock. Because the first line
that would have gone out from the press corps they
would have rushed out and said, “Johnson
to go for surgery.” And we agreed we called the Fed, we called the Secretary
of the Treasury, “Oh no it could
bring the market down “if you do it before
three o’clock. “It could bring a
government down.” And Johnson said, “It could
bring my government down.” So we calculated a carefully,
thought out strategy, and I would not answer
a questions that
subject until 3:01. Well Merriman Smith who was the Dean of the White
House correspondents his wife had a
really close friend who was a nurse at
Bethesda Hospital. And Merriman came in and said, “Bill I know the President’s
going to Bethesda “but I have to
have it confirmed.” In those days Pierre Salinger who had been Kennedy’s
press secretary, had urged me to learn to
smoke cigars, I never smoked. He said because you’re going
to be asked very tough questions and you’re going to need 30
seconds to think of the answer. And if you’re smoking a
cigar you can light it up and you’ve got 30 seconds
to compose your answer. (audience laughs) So I was hooked I smoked a cigar on my son’s front porch this
afternoon, I got used to them. And anyway, so I ease
up lighting my cigar and he said, “Let me light it.” He smoke cigarettes,
so I walked around him and locked my door
from the inside, took the key and
put it in my pocket. From my office to the lobby
where the press phones were and he said, “Damnit I know it “I’m gonna go out and write it.” So he opened the door,
he couldn’t get it open. We were seven minutes till
three and he couldn’t, and he started chasing
me around the room. No, I’m serious,
behind the desk. He started coming at me, “You son of a bitch,” he
said, “I know you got, “just nod, just
confirm it some way. “Otherwise I’m
going to take your “no answer as a confirmation.” So finally he calmed down a
little bit and at three o’clock I pushed the button
to the outside the press came back in and
I made the announcement. Then they started asking
all these questions and then and there
I said to myself, as I lighted a cigar, again, “I want to be on their
side asking the questions, “than on my side
not answering them.” – Let’s leave the
White House and LBJ and now you’re a journalist. 1970 you go to Channel 13 WNET, and begin doing a weekly show and get television
in your blood, but when you decided
to have a conversation with Joseph Campbell
can you imagine what it would have been like to walk into some
place like CBS and say, “I got an idea two guys
sitting down facing “each other talking for a series “of six long shows
about mythology.” They would have told
you, you were crazy. – They would have called
Bellevue Hospital. (audience laughs) I wish I could claim
exclusive rights to the idea, but I had
colleagues who talked about Joseph Campbell
and I had read The Hero with a Thousand Faces when I was at the
University of Texas and didn’t understand it, but I had read it
and remembered it. And then I read that he had been advising George Lucas
on the Star Wars film. So I called him up and he said, “Of course I’d love to
sit and talk with you.” CBS wouldn’t consider
it, my friends at PBS, they saw the value
of it and they put up a good bit of the money that
I had to raise to do it. And we did 20 some-odd
hours over two summers ’85 and ’86 at George
Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. – So myths are
stories of the search by men and women
through the ages for meaning, for significance,
to make life signify, to touch the eternal, to
understand the mysterious, to find out who we are. – People say that
what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what
we’re really seeking. I think what we’re
seeking is an experience of being alive so that
the life experiences that we have on the
purely physical plane will have residences
within that are those of our own inner-most
being and reality. And so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally
about, and that’s what these clues help us to find
within ourselves. – The reaction initially
from the station was, “What?” Two guys sitting there, two
white guys, sitting there talking about mythology? And we had no promotion
and it went out and within the next seven
days after it first aired, after the first episode aired, stations were getting calls
from people, what is this? Put it back on, and
they began to run it and it grew and it
grew, it’s the most, it’s what I will
be remembered for introducing this great
teacher to a mass audience. Because it was repeated
over and again it became for years the best fundraiser
for Public Broadcasting. I believe there’s no
better production value than the power of
the human face. When you let people
look at your face, and your emotions,
and your eyes, and the intensity in
your participation
in this conversation there’s no way I could
create that with technology. When you tell
somebody, “I love you,” if you’re fortunate
you tell them when you’re this close to them. If you ask them to marry you, you’re looking right
into their eyes. There is no power greater
than the human face for the purpose of television, and television makes
us intimate strangers. And so being able to
sit like this and talk is probably the most
personal experience we have outside of sex. And since that’s
limited for many people, conversation is absolutely the
way we entertain ourselves. (audience laughs) Let me tell you a story. A year after that series aired, I was walking out
of a restaurant, La
Caravelle restaurant, on 8th Avenue,
between 55th and 56th. I was walking down the
street and a young, African American woman
was coming this way. And as you know, television
makes us intimate strangers and you think you know
everybody you see on television. And I think some intuitive
reason that I know the people who are watching,
I’ve never lost that sense of the people on the
other side of the camera. So our eyes connected and
we walked on, strangers. But I turned and she turned
and she said, “Mr. Moyers?” and I said, “Yes,” she said, “Do you have a minute?” I said, “Sure,” she
said, “I came to New York “to be an actress and I’ve
had a really difficult time. “I had some good auditions “but none of them
were satisfactory. “My boyfriend and I
living together for a year “he just suddenly left
I haven’t seen him. “I mean life just sort
of come to an end for me. “So one night I came home,
and I went to my apartment,” she pointed right
across the street to a small apartment
building and she said, “I went up and I
turned on the burner, “I pulled down the window,
I went over and poured “a big glass of bourbon,”
and I know you like bourbon. And she said, “I laid
down on the couch “and I was really
ready to go,” she said, “When I had left that morning, “I had left my
television set on, “and I heard these
two guys talking about “myths, and the meaning of life, “and all of this and I
heard one of them say, ‘Do you think people are looking
for the meaning of life?’ “And the other one
said, ‘No, no, no, ‘I think they’re looking ‘for the experience
of being alive,'” and she said, “You know
something snapped in me, “and then I heard a voice
of the announcer say, ‘come back next week, (audience laughs) ‘for the second edition of ‘Bill Moyers and Joseph
Campbell on the Power of Myth.'” – And that postponed
her suicide. – She got up and said, “I
poured the bourbon out, “I turned the burner
off, I opened the window, “and I watched every
one of those episodes. “And what I decided,”
standing on the street, “What I decided is I don’t
need to be an actress, “but I need to experience
the possibility “of life every day.” Now those stories
are common for people who watched that series,
and I can’t explain it adequately, even today, but
this medium has the power to touch, and move,
inform, and connect people, and that’s what I
discovered in doing it, and why I’ve done
it for 44 years. And why I’ve done a thousand
or more hours of television because public affairs is
more than the news of the day, it’s the truth of poetry,
which is a greater truth that you can get
from any politician. William Carlos Williams
said, “People are dying “for a lack of the news they
don’t get on the evening news.” It can take people far
away, it can connect people who don’t know each
other, intimate strangers. I mean the marriage of
the image and the word the most powerful
combination of truth telling and experience sharing
we’ve ever had. It’s not the cuneiform tablet, it’s not the printed
word which is wonderful, but it’s a marriage of the two and from that coupling
comes something creative. And when it’s done this way,
it is the most important and valuable contribution to
our understanding each other that man has ever invented. – I want to read you a
quote which you know, and many people in our
audience will probably know the first half, this is a
quote from Thomas Jefferson. “Whenever the people
are well informed “they can be trusted
with their government.” Now that’s what
is usually quoted. But actually that
quotation goes on, and Jefferson continues, “That whenever things
get so far wrong “as to attract their notice,
they may be relied upon “to see them to rights.” Is America well informed? And can Americans be relied upon to set the wrongs to right? – At times, at times, generalizations are
generally wrong, and I would not say
the American people are not informed, many are not, they don’t want to be informed. So they move through
life with a limited supply of what it takes
to think critically, but many others are,
it’s like journalism. I don’t speak of
the media anymore because O’Reilly’s in the media and Bill Moyers is in the media and we are different
journalists. But no, I think today,
with the complexity of the issues,
although in those days they were complex issues
of forming a government and there was no
rapid communication. I don’t think people
are as informed as we need for
democracy to function for government to
be held accountable for huge economic
institutions to be checked with balance. The whole secret of
democracy is not that people are virtuous or not, it’s that
some are virtuous sometimes and they’re not
virtuous other times, and some are not virtuous
and then they are. What we need is
checks and balances it’s the balance of
power, when both parties are trying to do
the right thing, or one’s trying to
do the wrong thing and the other’s
holding it account. So I don’t think the
American people are as a whole, are as informed
as we need for democracy to work and it’s
very difficult today given most people spend
all day making a living, holding two jobs,
raising a family, trying to help in their church,
trying to work as volunteers at the Public Television
station they’re busy. That’s why the
accountability of politicians is so important because
they’re a professional people designed to solve the
problems but democracy should be able to
solve the problems it creates for itself and
we’re not doing that right now. You’re house is on fire, Don, our home here on
Earth is on fire. Our economy is not performing
for millions of Americans our highway system
is coming apart. We should be able to
solve those problems, by depending upon the
politicians and bureaucrats who we elect are employed
to take those problems that none of us alone
can solve and we’re not, this country is
unraveling despite what you see on the
news and what you hear from the candidates
and we need not only more information we need more
time to be active citizens. Change does come but
it never comes swiftly, and it usually comes
from the bottom up. And there are people out
there on the front line trying to fight climate change, trying to take on
the climate deniers, trying to solve the problems
of our inner cities, thank God for them all of that. But they’re up against
almost insurmountable odds and if we had a truly
independent, non-partisan, truth telling media we’d
be in a lot better shape. You know there’s a
great line in the play Night and Day by Tom Stoppard, where the photographer
in that play says, “People do terrible
things to each other, “but it’s worse when
they do it in the dark.” And we’re settling into a
dark period in American life, during which everybody’s happy because we’re amusing
ourselves to death. We watch how many hours,
I go on the subway in New York City and every
week they put new posters up there are new cable
television shows, and new plays on
Broadway and all of that. And there’s so much
to do and the web is constantly consuming
obsessively consuming people. There’s so much to entertain
us that as my friend the late Neil Postman
who taught communications at New York University
said in his famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, we will probably die laughing because of the little we know. – It comes down to this
issue it seems to me, Bill, that it’s the difference
between providing people what they need to know versus
what they want to know. And the invention of, the survey, where we have asked the public what would you like
to see on the news? As opposed to, damnit, this
is what you’re getting. Because this is what
you need to know in order to be a
citizen and cast a reasonable informed
opinion vote. We don’t, or they,
don’t do it anymore. Because ratings, circulation,
are more important. – There’s a prophet in
treating viewers as consumers instead of citizens
in the great gift of Public Television
and Public Radio is that we still
somehow with the help of people like this
it’s been able to hold to the idea of the
American people as a community of
citizens, not consumers. (audience applause) Years ago, Don, I met
a professor of English a great cultural critic at
Yale, a man named
Cleanth Brooks. And he talked about
the bastard muses and there were
three bastard muses. Propaganda, which pleads for
a particular point of view sometimes unscrupulously at
the expense of the total truth. Sentimentality, which works to
create an emotional response in excess of and
unwarranted by the occasion. And pornography, which
focuses on one powerful drive at the expense of the
whole personality. In that little interview
I did with Cleanth Brooks, I don’t know a long time ago, comes to my mind
almost every time I try to watch the news
on corporate news, because it is
propaganda, largely, sentimentality, largely,
and pornography, in the terms of its twisted
view of the human being and they have also
twisted the heart out of what it means
to be a citizen. And journalism is a
fallen profession, almost like the first
profession it is said, but it is still our only
hope when both parties when I was in politics
I believe it was the responsibility of one
party to tell the truth about the other party,
neither party does that today. – I would call Joseph Heller
a curmudgeon I suppose and in your interview
with him he says these sort of frightening
things, here’s what he said in the interview with you, “Democracy we celebrate
is full of illusions “such as participatory
democracy,” he called voting, “a ritual and a delusion
that comforts us, “indispensable to
our contentment but “absolutely useless
in application.” Do you agree? – Not with you absolutely,
but I do believe that voting is easy
and democracy’s hard. Democracy, so it happens,
between elections in our local communities
in our state house and elsewhere and it
requires participation people who go to
school board meetings, and struggle, and argue
for what they want. So I don’t agree
wholly with him. I don’t believe
in pure democracy, I don’t believe you can
put an issue out there and enough people will be
able to be well informed and act on it you have
to read the sentiment of the public and this is
the terrible consequence of too much money in politics. Representative
government is a flawed but necessary form of democracy. We send our representatives
to the state house here or to Washington to make
the best informed judgments they can for their constituents. They’re never going to
satisfy all the constituents but maybe sometimes
they don’t even satisfy most of the constituents
but we hire them to make good judgments. Today most politicians, there
are exceptions fortunately, but most politicians
are more responsive to the donors than
they are to the voters. So that a representative
democracy is skewed, corrupted, by the fact that
money is the determinant of the outcomes of politics. There’s this amazing
study two years ago, 2014, by two of our noted
political scientists one at Princeton one at
Northwestern in Chicago, who studied about 1,900
acts of congress, bills and legislative results
over many years, and they concluded that we
are no longer a democracy we’re very close to
being a oligarchy in which a relative handful
of very wealthy people control power which they use to further privilege
their wealth. And they’ve got it, that
these are not radicals, these are really good
political scientists and I believe that, I
believe we’re that close to the finality of a
plutocracy in which a very few number of
people make our decisions and many times and
mostly make the decisions to perpetuate their wealth. And that’s why what’s happened
to representative government we need a democracy
in which people feel a sense as with
Public Television that they’re well
considered in the programs we’ve put on and the
policies we adopt in politics and we don’t have that
at the moment, rarely. I mean we have a
dysfunctional government in Washington today. By the way, I do have a
reverence for the Constitution because they attempted
to try to create a government of, by,
and for the people, even though they discovered
that was a very difficult thing. But they had this
built-in conflict, that I didn’t realize
when I was growing up, I mean the man who wrote, “All men are created equal,”
with his hand on that pen that was the same
hand that caressed the breasts and thighs of
his slave, Sally Hemings. Different time, different
morality, but how could he reconcile writing
these noble words, “All men are created
equal,” when he bedded a young woman over whom
he had total domination and she had to do what
he wanted her to do? They had these children
together, how do you reconcile those opposites in your mind? I don’t know but
it is that conflict in the intelligence and
decision making of the people in power that we have
to constantly question. And so I have a different
view of the Constitution I mean I didn’t even know
when I was growing up that it protected slavery,
and that many of the founders were slave owners. Slavery is woven
like a dark thread through our history and our
founding fathers were culpable. And the point of it is that change has to come from people like us who don’t take for granted or
take with finality what those in power
tell us and who fight for the justice and the
liberty and the equality that is mentioned
in the Declaration. To me the Declaration is the
much greater, more powerful, of the instruments
of our government. So when you keep revising,
the older you get, you keep revising what you know. That’s why living to an
old age if you’re lucky to have your health is
a wonderful, internal, and perpetual university. – Final question, to you
Mr. Moyers and that is would you repeat for them a
story that Joseph Campbell said to you at the conclusion
of all of the interviews when it was finally done. When he asked
whether you intended to stay in this line of work? – Yeah we had been
together those two summers and I was leaving to come back, it wasn’t the last
time I saw him because when I got
back to New York and started editing I
remembered I had looked at all the footage and I
hadn’t asked him about God. So I called him at his
home in Hawaii and I said, “Joe I didn’t ask you about God. “Would you come to New York
let’s do one more show?” So he did, but
when I was leaving, when I was leaving Skywalker
Ranch for the last time he walked with me
out to our car. And he said, “Are you
going to stay in this?” I had not been certain
about journalism not been fixed in my trajectory. “Are you going to
stay in this work?” And I said, “Yes, I think so,”
and he said, “Well, good.” He said, “If you want
to change the world “change the metaphor. “Change the story.” – As Joseph Campbell
would say meta-pher, instead of metaphor, the
heroes journey is one as he describes it as,
“The person man or woman “who goes out to
an unknown place, “faces dangers and
terrors and drama, “returns with the
prize after the fight “and tells the story
and from the story “we then the heroes of it can
begin our own heroes journey.” Bill Moyers I speak
for a lot of people, but this is very personal,
you are the metaphor. You are the heroes journey,
and I thank you so much for being a part
of this evening. – Well thank you. (audience applause) (upbeat music)

7 thoughts on “A Conversation with Bill Moyers

  1. This conversation is exactly the inspiration I needed to hear this morning. Thank you Don Shelby for making this conversation happen. Thank you to the camera and audio people and editors and producers (and PBS donors) for ensuring the reflections of these wise elders ripple into the future.

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