A Conversation with Bill Moyers

The text of Moyers? speech at the Observer?s September 30 Austin fundraiser


Bill Moyers

Thank you for coming out tonight. Thanks for this second chance. Judith and I were looking forward to being with you last December for your 50th anniversary celebration when she experienced a sneak attack of Lyme Disease that persisted for several weeks. All’s well now but we were both deeply disappointed that we couldn’t be here to celebrate with you.

It would have been a double celebration. The first issue of The Texas Observer appeared in December 1954 one week before Judith Davidson and I were married. We had transferred here to the University of Texas from North Texas State and were renting a garage apartment that has totally disappeared from a block of East 18th Street that no longer exists. So many landmarks of our lives have come down that it’s a joy to come back and find one that stubbornly and gamely remains true to its mission. Although many people would have also buried the Observer under the rubble of time, a good idea is as hard to kill as a good marriage. And this little newspaper was a good idea.

As Ronnie Dugger reminds us in his epilogue to the book Fifty Years of The Texas Observer, those were the days when “there was a silence in Texas about racism, poverty, and corporate power.” We ranked dead last among the major states and next-to-last in the South in education, health care, and programs for the poor, and we were “as racist, segregated, and anti-union as the Deep South from which most of our Anglo pioneers had emerged. Mexican Americans were a hopeless underclass concentrated in South Texas. Women could vote and did the dog work in the political campaigns, but they were also ladies to be protected, above all from power. Gays and lesbians were as objectionable as communists. And the daily newspapers were as reactionary and dishonest a cynical gang as the First Amendment ever took the rap for.”

So here comes an upstart named Ronnie, backed by an angel named Frankie, to poke a thumb in the eye of orthodoxy. Ronnie summed up the mission in his lead editorial in that very first issue:

“We will have a good time and we hope you do. We will twit the self-important and honor the truly important. We will lay the bark to the dignity of any public man any time we see fit. Telling the whole truth is not an exercise to be limited to children before they reach the age of reason. It is the indispensable requirement for an effective democracy.

If the press and the politicians lie to the people, or hide those parts of the truth which trouble the conscience or offend a friend, how can the people’s falsely-based decisions be trusted? Here in the Southwest there is room for a great truth-telling newspaper, its editor free, its editorials cast in a liberal and reasonable frame of mind, its dedication Thoreau’s ‘The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth.'”

Molly Ivins and Bill Moyers

I wish I had written those words. I wish like Ronnie Dugger I had served them all my days.

But at the time I wasn’t even thinking such thoughts. Back then I was still in the elementary grade school of journalism. I had transferred to the University, in fact, for one simple reason: LBJ offered me a job on Lady Bird’s station paying $l00 a week, and that meant Judith and I could afford to get married. KTBC was the first in Texas to buy a station wagon, paint it red, and christen it – what else? – Red Rover. Charlton Heston churning a backlot in Hollywood pursuing the glories of Rome never had more fun than I did in that four-wheeled chariot, careening around Austin in style, broadcasting from crime scenes and accidents and the state legislature, which of course was the biggest crime scene in town. My boss, Paul Bolton, the crusty old news editor of KTBC, would look at the goings on in the Texas House of Representatives and sigh.  “If you think these guys are bad,” he said, “you should see their constituents.”

McCarthyism was a raging plague in the 50s and the virus rampaged across the state like tumbleweeds in a wind storm.  The legendary Maury Maverick Jr. served in the legislature at the time, one of the “Gashouse Gang” that fought as best they could against the poison of the times.  He would later tell his biographer, Larry Hufford, writing about that period in the Observer, that they were “the worst years” in his life. One by one, he said, “the lights were going out and no one [other than the Gashouse Gang] was speaking out in the legislature.” The low point, Maury Maverick said, came when the state senate passed a bill to remove all books from public libraries which “adversely” reflected on American and Texas history, the family, and religion. Even the State Teachers Association endorsed the bill, in exchange for a pay raise.  Maverick voted against it but walking back to his apartment that evening, the evil of what was happening overwhelmed him, and he “vomited until flecks of blood came up.”

That was the lay of the land in 1950s. And it all happened under Democrats; Texas was a one-party state at the time, remember – one-party government is dangerous, no matter the party. In that rocky soil and toxic climate Frankie Randolph and Ronnie Dugger and a fistful of fellow dissenters launched The Texas Observer.  I wasn’t among them, alas; I still belonged in those days to that category of journalists described by George Bernard Shaw as “unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” I had yet to work myself out beyond the cozy confinements of an insular East Texas Baptist culture where you could be well loved, well churched, and well taught and still be unaware of the reality of other people’s lives.

So Judith and I graduated and left town. the Observer stayed: stayed to live out Ronnie Dugger’s dare to report what the oligarchy was doing to Texas. What kept that original band of scribblers going remains a mystery to me; apparently they made up in irreverence and revelry what they lacked in financial security. Far away in Washington I.F. Stone was doing the same thing at the same time. In his four-page Weekly he would catch the government’s lies and contradictions in the government’s own official documents. Amid the thunder of battle he said what Dugger and company also boasted: “I have so much fun I ought to be arrested.” Fortunately, Bernard Rapoport showed up in Austin to add to the fun and the cash flow of The Texas Observer.

Bill Moyers and Bernard Rapoport

It took me a long time to catch up – to realize that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power but how close you are to the truth. I had gone on to seminary, was suddenly catapulted into the Washington maelstrom, and then wound up publishing a daily paper in New York where I started to get my feet on the ground again.

Here at home The Texas Observer was doing what journalism does best: setting the record straight. The late reporter Martha Gellhorn understood this mission well.  She spent half a life observing war and politicians and journalists, too. 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. “Victory and defeat are both passing moments,” she said. “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. Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the reader.”

Honorable behavior. Think of the journalists who embodied it on this paper:  Ronnie Dugger, Willie Morris, Robert Sherrill, Larry Goodwyn, Kaye Northcott, Jim Hightower, Geoffrey Rips, Lou Dubose, Michael King, Nate Blakeslee, Molly Ivins.

Think of the writers whose work testified to it in these pages: J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, Walter Prescott Webb, Bud Shrake, Garry Cartwright, Larry King, Larry McMurtry, Bill Helmer, Billy Porterfield, Elroy Bode, Amado Muro, Katherine Anne Porter – and I’ve named but a few.

Think of the record that’s been kept and the legacy in progress.

In these pages forty years ago, Ronnie Dugger called on liberals to remember our commitment to personal liberty, personal love, personal joy and pain; to take seriously the tide of criticism against big government – “It is big, it is impersonal, it is confused” – and to be vigilant in the name of the lone individual. For “we must test our system, not by whether we get to the moon, but by whether a man [or woman] can freely and fully express himself here on earth; not by whether we are ahead in weapons, but by whether we are ahead in real room to be free and alive…to be ourselves.”

It was also Ronnie who wrote in l960 that Lyndon Johnson “might be a great liberal President – might transcend his thin education, his rural bias, his evident dislike of city-industrial liberalism, his mottled record in civil rights and civil liberties, his relative ignorance in foreign policy – might lead the nation to great new public works and world service.” That made LBJ think a little more kindly toward “that fly in Austin that keeps swimming in my soup.” But it was also Ronnie who, six years later, cried out against escalating the war in Vietnam, against bombing “the men, women, and children in Hanoi” in order “to force our will” on them, and who warned the president that he “has already scarred his place in history” by bringing to the turmoil there “a West Texan’s simplistic frontier ideas about man-to-man relationships and how to behave in a fight with the enemy.”

In these pages Lou Dubose predicted early on what would happen when the chickens of Reaganomics and (Phil) Grammonomics came home to roost; Robert Sherrill anticipated the rapacity of corporate greed; James Ridgeway imagined a perversion of populism that could serve multinational corporations even as they moved their operations further away from the mainland, exploiting poor countries for cheap labor and raw materials and costing American workers their jobs.

Bill Moyers

In these pages Larry Goodwyn ruminated on the difference between “a politics of the present” and “a politics of the future,” urging liberals to think hard on whether they were making a real difference and if their strategy meant a winning coalition ten years down the road; would the election next spring, say, of a “given liberal candidate in Dallas have any real meaning in altering the caste system under which the people of Dallas live?” The headline above that essay read: “Caste and Righteousness.” A startling headline that, consistent with The Texas Observer‘s penchant for describing political reality here, fits even today. For Texas is run by the rich and the righteous, and the result is a state of piracy and piety that puts the medieval papacy to shame.

There was your governor a few weeks ago, surrounded by cheering God-folk in Fort Worth, holding a pep rally in behalf of punishing people on account of sex. Who was the main speaker? None other than the Reverend Rod Parsley of Ohio. Look out for Reverend Parsley. He heads a $40 million a year televangelist ministry based in Columbus with access worldwide to 400 TV stations and cable affiliates. Although he describes himself as neither Republican nor Democrat but a “Christo-crat” – a gladiator for God marching against “the very hordes of hell in our society” – he nonetheless shows up with so many Republicans in Washington and elsewhere that he has been publicly described as the Republican Party’s “spiritual advisor.”

And what does he advise them? He tells them “the god of Islam and the god of Christianity are not the same being.” He tells them that “the separation of church and state is a lie perpetrated on Americans – especially on believers in Jesus Christ.” But his main message is the scapegoating of gay people – a message so full of lies, distortions, and loathing that you cannot help but think of the 1930s when the powerful and the pious in Germany demonized Jews and homosexuals in order to arouse and manipulate public passions. In 1938 Himmler even organized a special section of the Gestapo to deal with homosexuality and abortion and on October 11 of that year he declared in a speech: “Germany’s forebears knew what to do with homosexuals. They drowned them in bags.” You know Governor Perry can’t even imagine such horrors, much less condone such horrors, but you want to grab him by the lapels and shake him and tell him that preaching hate is the first spark to the kindling of evil.

The governor’s pal Rod Parsley is a master of mass psychology. He sees the church as a sleeping giant that has the ability and the anointing from God to transform America. And the giant is stirring. At a rally in July Reverend Parsley worked the crowd into a lather as he proclaimed: “Let the Revolution begin!” And the congregation responded: “Let the Revolution begin.”

This is the man your governor wanted to help him make a television commercial. The governor seems right at home with people like this. He had them to Austin earlier this month for a “Pastors’ Policy Briefing” sponsored by the Texas Restoration Project. Pay attention to this outfit; there’s an Ohio Restoration Project and a Pennsylvania Restoration Party and I suspect by the next election there will be restoration projects in every state of the union. Their goal is to sign up “Patriot Pastors” who will call on their congregations to vote the Lord’s will on Election Day. Aided and abetted, no doubt, by a little loose change from Karl Rove’s faith-based slush fund!

By the way, one of the speakers at that “Pastors’ Policy Briefing” here in Austin was Ohio’s secretary of state, Ken Blackwell, who oversaw the election process in Ohio last year when a surge of conservative Christian voters narrowly carried Bush to victory there. Blackwell has modestly acknowledged that “God wanted him as secretary of state in 2004” because it was such a critical election. Now he’s the divinely designated candidate for governor in 2006. Wouldn’t you like to know what he and Governor Perry talked about at that Pastor’s briefing? Unfortunately, you can’t find out, because the praying and the preaching were closed to the press and public, as befits the stealth salvation they are plotting for you. You can be confident that they agree on God being an American, but it’s possible they may have disagreed over whether the Lord’s primary voting residence is Ohio or Texas.

Neither will you find out who put up the estimated half-a-million dollars to pay for that politically religious rally here in Austin. It’s a secret, too.  Two of your noted Texas oligarchs were spotted there – James Leininger and Bo Pilgrim – and they may have dropped something into the offering plate. But it’s not known where the half million shekels came from to bring the good brethren to town where clearly they dined on more than a few loaves and fishes. God only knows who picked up the tab. But between you and me, I suspect She’s got a surprise in store for these holy warriors. America is not yet a theocracy but Texas almost is and the Republican Party already is, and I suspect God just might be pissed off at the presumption that GOP now stands for God’s Own Party.

Here’s the point: the classicist William Arrowsm
th once described in these pages the “worst of Texas attitudes” – “th
rock-bottom conviction, expressed in stone throughout the state and in the hearts of politicians, that what counts is always and only wealth, that everything is for sale and can be bought.” Including, now, the Rock of Ages.

The phenomenon of our time is how the religious, political, and corporate right, under the cloak of ‘moral values,’ has forged a mighty coalition for the looting of America. With one hand they stretch upward for the pearly gates, and with the other they reach down and behind your back to pick your pocket or your purse.

Their appointed poster boy is George W. Bush. Everything he knows, he learned here in Texas. Unfortunately. I don’t mean this as a knock on your schools. What I mean is that the system here is rigged to assure the political progeny needed to perpetuate itself with minimum interference from the nuisances of liberal democracy. You remember liberal democracy:  the rule of law, the protection of individual and minority rights, checks and balances against arbitrary power, an independent press, and the separation of church and state. But George W. Bush was nurtured by a dynasty of patronage and privilege that mocks those values, a system that owes its perpetuation to a permanent fix. the Observer got it right some years ago: “The men who run the Lone Star State, through a tacit but powerful interlocking directorate of politicians and corporation executives, are perpetrating and perpetuating a monstrous deception on the public” – namely, the illusion of self-government.

The crowd that came to Washington from Texas arrived like atheists at the Vatican – they don’t believe in government – except as the means for aggrandizing their autonomy, wealth, and privilege.

Bill Moyers

What we’re seeing today has been forty years in the making. No sooner had Barry Goldwater gone down to a crushing defeat in 1964 that the Radical Right of the Republican Party resolved that the election would not be the end of the campaign but the beginning of a movement. For four decades they honed their slogans into a mantra: military strength, limited government, no taxes, individual responsibility, and faith in God. Forty years later they exercise a monopoly over Washington – the White House, the Congress, the regulatory agencies, and (soon) the judiciary. And they have muzzled the mainstream media that should have been the watchdog over one-party rule.

But look at what they have delivered: reckless tax cuts, a relentless assault on social services, monumental debt, pre-emptive war, an exhausted military, booming corporate welfare, and pervasive corruption. The face of modern conservatism – the embodiment of the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Taft, and Dwight Eisenhower – is the face of Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist. They came to lead a revolution and stayed to run a racket. They don’t believe in government except as it enriches them.

Much has been made of the President’s bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina. First he joked about the fun he had as a frat boy in New Orleans. When a reporter pressed him on what had gone wrong after the hurricane struck, he indignantly asked: “Who says something went wrong?” His manner would have surprised no one who read the profile of Governor Bush in 1999 by a conservative journalist who reported how Bush had made fun of Karla Fay Tucker’s appeals to be spared the death penalty. The journalist – a conservative, remember – wrote that Bush mocked and dismissed the woman, like him a born-again Christian, as he depicted her begging him, “Please don’t kill me!” But she had not said that. Bush made it up. An indifference to other people’s reality remains the mark of the system of privilege and patronage that is Texas politics.

Nor did the stumbling and fumbling tell us much that we did not already know about the team assembled by George W. Bush.  This is the crowd that was asleep at the switch in the months leading up to 9/11 when the intelligence traffic crackled with warning [look it up in the official commission report]. It’s the same crowd that made a mess of the occupation of Iraq. Who can forget that after Baghdad’s libraries and museums were sacked, Donald Rumsfeld shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Stuff happens.’

What the hurricane exposed is what the progressive advocate Robert Borrosage calls the “catastrophic conservatism” of the long right-wing crusade to denigrate government, ‘starve the beast,’ scorn its purposes and malign its officials.

We know now the results of an economic policy focused on top end tax cuts and deregulations to reward private investors, as opposed to public investments in the country’s vital infrastructure.

We know now the results of a governing philosophy that provides license for routine corruption and cronyism – paying for the bridge to nowhere in Alaska while cutting money for the levees, putting old buddies in charge of critical agencies, and gutting any prospect for energy independence.

We know now the results of their social ideal – the “You get yours/I’ll get mine” ethic as opposed to shared sacrifice and responsibility. It’s as if they had scissored out of their Bible, “I am my brother’s keeper.”

On the day that Katrina struck the coast the census bureau reported that last year one million people had been added to the 36 million Americans living in poverty. Earlier the Labor Department had reported that while incomes had grown more impressively last year, the gains had gone mostly to the top – the people with stocks and bonds and income other than wages. But the eighty million people who live paycheck to paycheck barely stayed even. When Katrina hit we couldn’t escape seeing the stunning inequality and poverty produced when people are written off and shoved to the margins. Nor could we miss the dearth of basic investment in the boring but essential public works vital to civilization – schools, public transport, water systems, public health, and yes, wetlands and trees.

No one embodies more clearly the ethos of this administration than the President’s buddy Joe Allbaugh. When he took over FEMA, he described the agency as “an oversized entitlement program” and told states and cities to rely instead on faith-based organizations. Sure enough, after Katrina struck one of the first faith-based organizations lined up at the front door was Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing. Although he had only recently called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and had prayed in public for God to open some Supreme Court vacancies “one way or the other,” Pat Robertson’s organization got one of the first faith-based grants for relief of the Gulf Coast. According to a Christian magazine, he is using some of those tax dollars to help rush 80,000 Bibles to the stricken region.

Brother Allbaugh, meanwhile, was already down there. He had earlier turned the leadership of FEMA over to his old college roommate ‘Brownie,’ and set up a lobbying firm located near the White House. Soon he was facilitating business for contractors in Iraq and running another company that provides security for private companies operating there. (You have to wonder where he learned about Iraq or security while running FEMA or, before that, running George W. Bush’s political campaigns in Texas.) It turns out that Allbaugh’s entire complex is housed at the Washington lobbying and law firm of Barbour, Griffith and Rogers. Just who is the ‘Barbour’ in that lineup? None other that the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour.  The ‘Rogers’ is Ed Rogers, Barbour’s partner, who is also – hold your breath – one of Allbaugh’s vice presidents. (I almost forgot: The President’s brother, Neil, has been a paid consultant to Allbaugh; maybe he taught him about Iraq by osmosis.) Haley Barbour is now governor of Mississippi, where he will play a big hand in passing out your tax dollars for reconstruction. And where did Joe Allbaugh head right after Katrina? One guess.

You will not be surprised to hear that on September 1 the Pentagon announced a major contract for repair of Naval facilities on the Gulf Coast to Halliburton, whose chief lobbyist is … are you sitting down? Joe Allbaugh.

It’s commonplace now what we’ve seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: an utter lack of competence and the sorry state of our public institutions after a generation of the wrong priorities. But it wasn’t the lack of resources that prevented the administration from responding effectively to the disaster. The Washington Post’s Bill Arkin, among others, reminds us that the federal government had water, medicine, food and security at hand, in addition to the transportation needed to get it down to the coast in a hurry. The problem was “leadership, decisiveness, foresight.” And that goes to the core of the governing philosophy that has never had more power but never been more intellectually and morally bankrupt:  They don’t believe in government.

As you know, some folks on the Religious Right have been suggesting Katrina was sent by God to punish America for decadence, including homosexuality and abortions. That’s what Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said about 9/11:  God had withdrawn his protection because America had become the new Sodom and Gomorrah, infested with the likes of the ACLU and People for the American Way. Frankly, I think it more likely that Katrina and Rita were the inspiration of Karl Rove, to fill Republican pockets before all the indictments start coming down.

Can’t you see the light bulb going off in Brother Karl’s head? “Gee, why don’t we pass a big supplemental spending bill so we can start handing out money to all our supporters who bungled the reconstruction of Iraq, and while we’re at it, let’s get the President to nullify the law providing federal protection for wages so that we can send the profits of our no-bid contractors soaring by depressing the pay of ordinary people who will work for them?” I’m not in the business of advising Democrats but they could certainly have helped their cause in next year’s Congressional elections if every one of them in the House and Senate had staged a sit-in on the Capitol steps chanting: “Mr. President, pay Americans a living wage! Working men and women deserve a living wage!”

But they didn’t.

In the same spirit right-wing senators couldn’t wait until the winds and water died down before leaping to their feet to announce that it couldn’t be a better time to put the repeal of estate taxes back on the legislative agenda. And corporate lobbyists were swarming over Capitol Hill beating the drums for more tax reductions and more loopholes and exemptions and for the lifting of environmental safeguards along the Gulf Coast.

This is what they’ve done. They have taken the notion of the Commonwealth, the public good – the ‘We the People’ in that magnificent preamble to the Constitution – and they have soaked it in the sanctimony of homegrown Ayatollahs, squeezed it through a rigged market, and auctioned it to the highest bidder for private advantage, at the expense of working people, their families, and their communities.

If only we could clone The Texas Observer, and plant it smack dab in the center of Washington, D.C. We need some Tom Paine kind of journalism. Thomas Paine was the journalist of the American Revolution, the champion of liberty, equality, and democracy. His pen shook the powerful and the propertied, the prestigious and the pious, the sunshine patriots who turned their backs on the ideals of the Revolution itself. Such bold journalism in Washington today  would  probe deep into the causes of our shocking inequality; would expose the corruption of our public life; would  tell the truth about how the political, corporate, and religious cartel are hollowing out our middle class, punishing working people, and looting the future.

Bold journalism might yet stir the American imagination to believe again in the promise of America – the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of us: men and women, old and young, black, brown, yellow and white, devout and agnostic, straight or gay.

The Texas Observer has been doing Tom Paine kind of journalism for half a century now – and doing it still. Thanks to Nate Blakeslee and The Texas Observer, there are 36 wrongly accused people in Tulia finally out of jail. Thanks to Jake Bernstein and Dave Mann and the Observer, “The Rise of the Machine’ – the story of modern political corruption in Texas which became a foundation stone of the corruption that saturates Washington – finally caught the attention of the national press and the dominoes are beginning to fall.

As I read the Observer I think of the Irishman who comes upon a brawl in the street and asks, “Is this a private fight, or can anyone get in it?” You keep reminding us that democracy is a public fight. You tell the stories of Texans who have waded into the middle of it: Warren Burnett, Otto Mullinax, John Duncan, William Wayne Justice, Frances Farenthold, Ralph Yarborough, Sarah Weddington, Linda Coffee.  Peter Tuerina and Maldef. Ernie Cortes and COPS, James Harrington and the Texas Civil Liberties Union.  David Hall and Rural Legal Aid.  From Bastrop County, and Deaf Smith County, from Hidalgo County, Smith County and occasionally even from Harrison County you’ve been reporting on men and women struggling against much larger forces, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of others, knowing that whether they succeed or not, they had to make a fight of it, had to take a stand, for Texas to yield to justice.

For half a century now you have covered that story like no other journalists in the state. You richly deserve this encore celebration. Judith and I are honored to be here with you. But the evening will be over soon enough, and the fight has just begun. Good luck – and may the dollars rain down on you from good folks far and wide to make possible another fifty years.

Beginning as a cub reporter for the Marshall News Messenger at the age of l6, Bill Moyers went on to serve as a founding organizer of the Peace Corps, a special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, the publisher of Newsday, a reporter and anchor for public television, senior correspondent for the distinguished documentary series CBS Reports, senior news analyst for the CBS Evening News, and, with his wife and creative partner Judith Davidson Moyers, the producer of dozens of pioneering television programs, including Now with Bill Moyers. His several books include the following bestsellers: Listening to America, The Power of Myth, Healing and the Mind, The Language of Life, and, most recently, Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times. Today, he is president of The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.