Millions of Americans have invited Bill Moyers into their homes over the years. With television programs covering topics from American history, politics, and religion to the role of media and the world of ideas, he has become one of America’s most trusted journalists. Now Moyers presents, for the first time, a powerful statement of his own personal beliefs—political and moral. Combining illuminating forays into American history with candid comments on today’s politics, Moyers delivers perceptive and trenchant insights into the American experience.
From his early years as a Texas journalist to his role as a founding organizer of the Peace Corps, top assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent and analyst for CBS News, and producer of many of public television’s groundbreaking series, Moyers has been actively engaged in some of the most volatile episodes of the past fifty years. Drawing from these experiences, he shares his unique understanding of American politics and an enduring faith in the nation’s promise and potential. Whether reflecting on today’s media climate, corporate scandals, or religious and political upheavals, Moyers on America recovers the hopes of the past to establish their relevance for the present.
“Not only a good reporter . . . a first-rate storyteller.” —The Boston Globe
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THIS IS YOUR STORY. PASS IT ON.
On my sixteenth birthday in 1950 I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town where I grew up. It was a good place to be a cub reporter — small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something every day. I soon had a stroke of luck. Some of the old-timers were on vacation or out sick, and I got assigned to cover what came to be known as the "Housewives' Rebellion." Fifteen women in my hometown decided not to pay the Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers. They argued that Social Security was unconstitutional, that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that — here's my favorite part — "requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage." They hired themselves a lawyer — none other than Martin Dies Jr., the former congressman best known, or worst known, for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1930s and 1940s. He was no more effective at defending rebellious women than he had been protecting against communist subversives, and eventually the housewives wound up holding their noses and paying the tax.
The stories I wrote for my local paper were picked up by the Associated Press wire. One day the managing editor called me over and pointed to the AP ticker beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing one Bill Moyers and the paper for the reporting we had done on the "rebellion."
That hooked me, and in one way or another — after a detour through seminary and then into politics and government for a spell — I've been covering the class war ever since. Those women in Marshall, Texas, were its advance guard. Not bad people, they were regulars at church; their children were my friends, many of them were active in community affairs, and their husbands were pillars of the business and professional class in town. They were respectable and upstanding citizens all, so it took me a while to figure out what had brought on that spasm of reactionary rebellion. It came to me one day, much later. They simply couldn't see beyond their own prerogatives. Fiercely loyal to their families, to their clubs, charities, and congregations — fiercely loyal, in other words, to their own kind — they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like them. The women who washed and ironed their laundry, wiped their children's bottoms, made their husbands' beds, and cooked their families' meals — these women, too, would grow old and frail, sick and decrepit, lose their husbands and face the ravages of time alone, with nothing to show from their years of labor but the creases in their brow and the knots on their knuckles. So be it; even on the distaff side of laissez-faire, security was personal, not social, and what injustice existed this side of heaven would no doubt be redeemed beyond the pearly gates. God would surely be just to the poor once they got past Judgment Day.
In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether "we, the people" is a spiritual idea embedded in a political reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.
I should make it clear that I don't harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy; after all, I worked for Lyndon Johnson. Nor do I romanticize "the people." You should read my mail or listen to the vitriol virtually spat at my answering machine. I understand what the politician meant who said of the Texas House of Representatives, "If you think these guys are bad, you should see their constituents."
But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud. That difference can be the difference between democracy and oligarchy.
Look at our history. The American Revolution ushered in what one historian called "the age of democratic revolutions." For the Great Seal of the United States the new Congress went all the way back to the Roman poet Virgil: novus ordo seclorum, "a new age now begins." Page Smith reminds us that "their ambition was not merely to free themselves from dependence and subordination to the Crown but to inspire people everywhere to create agencies of government and forms of common social life that would offer greater dignity and hope to the exploited and suppressed" — to those, in other words, who had been the losers. Not surprisingly, the winners often resisted. In the early years of constitution making in the states and the emerging nation, aristocrats wanted a government of propertied "gentlemen" to keep the scales tilted in their favor. Battling on the other side were moderates and even those radicals harboring the extraordinary idea of letting all white males have the vote. Luckily, the weapons were words and ideas, not bullets. Through compromise and conciliation the draftsmen achieved a constitution of checks and balances that is now the oldest in the world, even as the revolution of democracy that inspired it remains a tempestuous adolescent whose destiny is still up for grabs. For all the rhetoric about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," it took a civil war to free the slaves and another hundred years to invest their freedom with meaning. Women gained the right to vote only in my mother's time. New ages don't arrive overnight, or without blood, sweat, and tears.
In this regard we are heirs of a great movement, the Progressive movement, which began late in the nineteenth century and remade the American experience piece by piece until it peaked in the last third of the twentieth century. (I call it the Progressive movement for lack of a more precise term.) Its aim was to keep blood pumping through the veins of democracy when others were ready to call in the mortician. Progressives exalted and extended the original American revolution. They spelled out new terms of partnership between the people and their rulers. And they kindled a flame that lit some of the most prosperous decades in modern history, not only here but in aspiring democracies everywhere, especially those of Western Europe.
Step back with me to the curtain-raiser, the founding convention of the People's Party — better known as the Populists — in 1892. Mainly cotton and wheat farmers from the recently reconstructed South and the newly settled Great Plains, they had come on hard, hard times, driven to the wall by falling prices for their crops on one hand and by racking interest rates, freight charges, and supply costs, on the other: all this in the midst of a booming and growing industrial America. They were angry, and their platform — issued deliberately on the Fourth of July — pulled no punches. "We meet," it said, "in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. ... Corruption dominates the ballot box, the [state] legislatures and the Congress and touches even the bench. ... The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced. ... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few."
Furious words indeed from rural men and women who were traditionally conservative and whose memories of taming the frontier were fresh and personal, but who in their fury invoked an American tradition as powerful as frontier individualism, namely, the war on inequality — especially government's role in promoting and preserving inequality by favoring the rich. The Founding Fathers turned their backs on the idea of property qualifications for holding office under the Constitution because they wanted absolutely no "veneration for wealth" in the document. Thomas Jefferson, while claiming no interest in politics, built up a Democratic-Republican party to take the government back from the speculators and "stockjobbers" who were in the saddle in 1800. Andrew Jackson slew the monster Second Bank of the United States, the six-hundred-pound gorilla of the credit system in the 1830s, in the name of the people versus the aristocrats who sat on the bank's governing board.
All these leaders were on record in favor of small government, but their opposition wasn't simply to government as such. They objected to government's power to confer privilege on the democracy's equivalent of the royal favorites of monarchist days: on the rich, on the insiders, on what today we know as the crony capitalists. The Populists knew it was the government that granted millions of acres of public land to the railroad builders. It was the government that gave the manufacturers of farm machinery a monopoly of the domestic market by a protective tariff that was no longer necessary to shelter infant industries. It was the government that contracted the national currency and sparked a deflationary cycle that crushed debtors and fattened the wallets of creditors. And those who made the great fortunes used them to buy the legislative and judicial favors that kept them on top. So the Populists recognized one great principle: the job of preserving equality of opportunity and democracy demanded the end of any unholy alliance between government and wealth. It was, to quote that platform again, "from the same womb of governmental injustice" that tramps and millionaires were bred (emphasis added).
The question remained, however: how was the democratic revolution to be revived, the promise of the Declaration reclaimed? How were Americans to restore government to its job of promoting the general welfare? And here the Populists made a breakthrough to another principle. In a modern, large-scale, industrial, and nationalized economy it wasn't enough simply to curb the government's outreach. Such a policy would simply leave power in the hands of the great corporations whose existence was inseparable from growth and progress. The answer was to turn government into an active player in the economy, at the very least enforcing fair play and when necessary being the friend, the helper, and the agent of the people at large in the contest against entrenched power. As a result, the Populist platform called for government loans to farmers about to lose their mortgaged homesteads, for government granaries to grade and store their crops fairly, for governmental inflation of the currency (a classical plea of debtors), and for some decidedly nonclassical actions: government ownership of the railroad, telephone, and telegraph systems; a graduated (i.e., progressive) tax on incomes; a flat ban on subsidies to "any private corporation." Moreover, in order to ensure that the government stayed on the side of the people, the party called for two electoral reforms, the initiative and referendum and the direct election of senators.
Predictably, the Populists were denounced, feared, and mocked as fanatical hayseeds ignorantly playing with socialist fire. They received twenty-two electoral votes for their 1892 candidate, plus some congressional seats and state houses, but this would prove to be the party's peak. America wasn't — and probably still isn't — ready for a new major party. The People's Party was a spent rocket by 1904. At the same time, when political organizations perish, their key ideas endure, and this is a perspective of great importance to today's progressives. Much of the Populist agenda would become law within a few years of the party's extinction because their goals were generally shared by a rising generation of young Republicans and Democrats who, justly or not, were seen as less outrageously outdated than the embattled farmers. These were the Progressives, the intellectual forebears of those of us who today call ourselves by the same name.
They were a diverse lot, held together by a common admiration of progress — hence the name — and a shared dismay at the paradox of poverty stubbornly persisting in the midst of progress like an unwanted guest at a wedding. Of course they welcomed, just as we do, the new marvels in the gift bag of technology — the telephones, the automobiles, the electrically powered urban transport and lighting systems, the indoor heating and plumbing, the processed foods and home appliances and machine-made clothing that reduced the sweat and drudgery of homemaking and were affordable to an ever-swelling number of people. At the same time, however, they saw the underside: the slums lurking in the shadows of the glittering cities; the exploited and unprotected workers whose low-paid labor filled the horn of plenty for others; the misery of those whom age, sickness, accident, or hard times condemned to servitude and poverty with no hope of comfort or security.
Incredibly, in little more than a century, the still-young revolution of 1776 was being strangled by the hard grip of a merciless ruling class. The large corporations that were called into being by modern industrialism after 1865 — the end of the Civil War — had combined into trusts capable of making minions of both politics and government. What Henry George called "an immense wedge" was being forced through American society by "the maldistribution of wealth, status, and opportunity."
We should pause here to consider that this is Karl Rove's cherished period of American history; it was, as I read him, the seminal influence on the man who is said to be the mastermind of George W. Bush's success. From his own public comments and my reading of the record, it is apparent that Karl Rove has modeled the Bush presidency on that of William McKinley, who was in the White House from 1897 to 1901, and modeled himself on Mark Hanna, the man who virtually manufactured McKinley. Hanna had one consummate passion: to serve corporate and imperial power. He believed without compunction, according to a critic, that "the state of Ohio existed for property. It had no other function. ... Great wealth was to be gained through monopoly, through using the State for private ends; it was axiomatic therefore that businessmen should run the government and run it for personal profit."
Mark Hanna made William McKinley governor of Ohio by shaking down the corporate interests of the day. Fortunately, it was said, McKinley had the invaluable gift of emitting sonorous platitudes as though they were recently discovered truth. Behind his benign gaze the wily intrigues of Mark Hanna saw to it that first Ohio and then Washington were, in his words, "ruled by business ... by bankers, railroads, and public utility corporations." Any who opposed the oligarchy were smeared as disturbers of the peace, socialists, anarchists, or worse. Back then they didn't bother with hollow euphemisms such as "compassionate conservatism" to disguise the raw reactionary politics that produced government of, by, and for the ruling corporate class. They just saw the loot and went for it.
The historian Clinton Rossiter describes this as the period of "the great train robbery of American intellectual history." Conservatives — or, better, pro-corporate apologists — hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian liberalism and turned words such as progress, opportunity, and individualism into tools for making the plunder of America sound like divine right. This "degenerate and unlovely age," as one historian calls it, seemingly exists in the mind of Karl Rove as the age of inspiration for the politics and governance of America today.
It is no wonder, then, that what troubled our Progressive forebears was not only the miasma of poverty in their nostrils but also the sour stink of a political system for sale. The United States Senate was a millionaires' club. Money given to the political machines that controlled nominations could buy controlling influence in city halls, statehouses, and even courtrooms. Reforms and improvements ran into the immovable resistance of the almighty dollar. What, Progressives wondered, would this would this do to the principles of popular government? All of them, whatever their political party, were inspired by the gospel of democracy. Inevitably, this swept them into the currents of politics, whether as active officeholders or persistent advocates.
Here is a small but representative sampling of their ranks. Jane Addams forsook the comforts of a well-to-do college graduate's life to live in Hull House in the midst of a disease-ridden and crowded Chicago immigrant neighborhood, determined to make it an educational and social center that would bring pride, health, and beauty into the lives of her poor neighbors. In her words, "an almost passionate devotion to the ideals of democracy" inspired Addams to combat the prevailing notion "that the wellbeing of a privileged few might justly be built upon the ignorance and sacrifice of the many." Community and fellowship were the lessons she drew from her teachers, Jesus and Abraham Lincoln, but people simply helping one another couldn't move mountains of disadvantage. She came to see that "private beneficence" was not enough. To bring justice to the poor would take more than soup kitchens and fund-raising prayer meetings. "Social arrangements," she wrote, "can be transformed through man's conscious and deliberate effort." Take note: she spoke not of individual regeneration or the magic of the market but of conscious, cooperative effort.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Moyers on America"
Copyright © 2004 Bill Moyers.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One - AMERICA NOW,
THIS IS YOUR STORY. PASS IT ON.,
WHICH AMERICA WILL WE BE NOW?,
CROSSING THE EUPHRATES,
Part Two - THE SOUL OF DEMOCRACY,
THE DECLARATION IN OUR TIMES,
MANY FAITHS, ONE NATION,
THE SOUL OF DEMOCRACY,
WEARING THE FLAG,
Part Three - THE MEDIA,
THE MAKING OF A JOURNALIST,
JOURNALISM AND DEMOCRACY,
COUNTERING THE BASTARD MUSES,
THE FIGHT OF OUR LIVES,
Part Four - LOOKING BACK,
WHERE THE JACKRABBITS WERE,