- Bill MoyersHost of the weekly PBS program Bill Moyers Journal. He was one of the founding organizers of the Peace Corps, a spokesperson for President Lyndon Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He is the winner of more than thirty Emmy Awards and the author four bestselling books. His latest is Moyers on Democracy.
Legendary broadcaster Bill Moyers helped organize the Peace Corps and served under President Johnson before going on to a distinguished career in journalism that continues today with the PBS series Bill Moyers Journal. His latest book, just published, is Moyers on Democracy. Moyers joins us to talk about the 2008 elections, the media and war. He addresses the controversy over Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It was nearly two weeks ago on Bill Moyers Journal where Wright first spoke out since his criticism of US government policies became a major issue in the 2008 Democratic presidential race. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Legendary journalist Bill Moyers joins us now for the hour in our firehouse studio, the host of the weekly PBS program Bill Moyers Journal. He was one of the founding organizers of the Peace Corps. He was a spokesperson for President Lyndon Johnson, his press secretary, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He won more than thirty Emmy Awards. He’s the author of four bestselling books. His latest, just published, is called Moyers on Democracy.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much. I almost called the book “Moyers on Democracy Now.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, what do you think about what happened last night, this morning, the latest in the contest?
BILL MOYERS: I think that Barack Obama is like the long-distance runner who stumbles in the eighth — seventh and eight laps but regains his stride. That’s what I saw last night. That was a strong and moving speech he made in North Carolina, quite unlike his recent appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows. So I think he has regained the momentum. He showed he has real strength in his core constituency: African Americans, young people and liberals. And it seems impossible now, to me, for Hillary Clinton to even stay in the race without doing such damage to Obama that he’s hurt in the fall and she is hurt in her reputation.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Hillary Clinton now staying in the race?
BILL MOYERS: She’s a — you know, I admire Hillary Clinton. I know what it’s — I’ve seen over the years how hard it is for a woman, a married woman, to gain her independence in our society, whatever her profession, and I admire the way she’s tried to negotiate her own persona, her own position, her own place in our politics. But if she stays in this race, it can only be at the expense, as I said, of her reputation and of Obama, because she can only move forward by attacking him, by continuing to say he can’t win in November, which is not true.
I don’t have a horse in this race. I enjoy watching it, and I actually have admiration for all three of these candidates within the political system. But she’s got — she just cannot win, except — remember Marlene Dietrich in that great movie where Marlene Dietrich, the actress, says, “See what the boys in the back room will have and tell them I’ll have the same”? She can only win in the metaphorical back room, in the superdelegates.
And the key date is not these upcoming primaries. She’ll do alright in West Virginia. She’ll do alright in San Juan in Puerto Rico. He will do well in Montana, South Dakota, and probably in basically white but liberal Oregon. But this — on May 31st, the Democratic Rules Committee meets to assess how to deal with the Michigan and Florida delegates. Thirteen of the members of that thirty-person committee are Clinton supporters, eight are Obama supporters, the others are undecided. If she were to muscle her way to a decisive moment in that Rules Committee where they decide to change the rules here in the last inning, she will really be hurt.
But that’s the only way, barring lightning striking him. You know, that’s what she keeps hoping for every day, is that lightning will strike him, and she’ll have a — some October surprise in May will happen. That’s not going to happen. She can only win in a way that would leave the Democratic Party in shambles.
AMY GOODMAN: Last night, as I watched the returns come in, the very, very end, Gary, Indiana, it was puzzling why — as in other places, you say one percent of the vote in, 20 percent of the vote in, 50 percent, and they give you the counts — they wouldn’t release the counts until, what, seven hours — early closing of the polls in Indiana at 6:00 p.m. — and yet, it was 1:00 before — I think it was just a few hours before or one hour before they even said something like 25 percent of the votes in. This really historic city, Gary, Indiana, named for the chair of US Steel, Elbert Gary, in 1972 had this groundbreaking national black political convention in which thousands of African Americans gathered from around the country to establish an agenda, but Gary really key here to closing the gap between Clinton and Obama.
BILL MOYERS: I don’t understand why they held the votes and then delivered them in a bundle. Back when I started in politics fifty years ago, Daley in Chicago and Boss Parr in Duval County, Texas, they held back the votes out until they saw how many their candidates needed, and then they would deliver them. You know, last night, the Mayor of Gary was talking to reporters with a penciled list of returns. A penciled list of returns? I mean, look, the American people are very suspicious of our voting process as it is. I don’t understand that. I want to find out, as a journalist, in the next forty-eight hours why they held up those votes.
But Gary is an interesting phenomenon. I was there in 1970, when I did my first book called Listening to America. It was then in that transition from a predominantly white working class city into a mixed city with a lot of blacks, many of whom had come up from the South and moved down from Chicago, and it was beginning to change then. You had a real machine in the city at that time. You have a machine there now. And the missing piece of the puzzle for me is how that machine functioned in this election. Obviously, the African Americans voted en masse for Obama, as they did ninety-to-ten in North Carolina. But I was — I’m troubled by the fact that those votes were delivered in a package and not announced the moment they were available.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a moment, on a night like this, that everyone is watching. They want to see, you know, who’s won. But for those many, many hours, it’s only about the horse race. I don’t think I heard the word “war” once. I don’t think I heard, as I flipped from channel to channel, the word “healthcare.” I didn’t hear the issues discussed. It was all about the percentage points. And it went on, not just for a thirty-second summary of, you know, who was ahead and who was behind, but for hour after hour.
BILL MOYERS: Well, no. The main reason I put this book out, Moyers on Democracy, is because we are facing — you know, democracy is always a story of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck, because we’ve always thought the present was better than the — generally thought the present was better than the past and the future will be better than the present. All bets are off now, because we are not — our politics can create problems our policies can then not solve. Start a war, can’t finish it. Spend $2 trillion on healthcare, but can’t fix it. Infrastructure crumbling, highways full of potholes, can’t do anything about it.
These fundamental structural issues of American democracy are not being addressed by this campaign, even in the best of times, when it’s not just a horse race, when they’re on the Sunday morning talk shows, when they’re making speeches. They are so appealing to the particular interest of people, of groups, that they cannot take on — they’re not taking on the large issue. Obama talks about change. Hillary Clinton talks about, you know, a populist message. But neither one of them seem to me — and nor does John McCain — none of these three seem to me to be grasping what’s fundamentally at stake in this country, which is a system that is now dysfunctional. And so many powerful interests have a stake in maintaining the dysfunction that it’s almost impossible to change it.
That is the moment — this is the moment in which if we don’t solve that structural issue of our politics, we are in real trouble. And I don’t like to say that, because I have five grandchildren, and the future is theirs, not mine. But this is what we’re not hearing. This is what the system is not going to deal with in November. And it’s a very troubling reality.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Bill Moyers, legendary figure in public broadcasting; before that, the press secretary for Lyndon Johnson. He has a new book. It’s called Moyers on Democracy. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: On the whole issue of Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, it was Bill Moyers’s interview nearly two weeks ago on his show, Bill Moyers Journal, where he first spoke out since his criticism of US government policies had become a major issue in the 2008 Democratic presidential race. He had come under heavy criticism from political pundits for linking the attacks of September 11 to US foreign policy in the Middle East and for saying the United States was founded on racism. This is some of what he had to say on Bill Moyers Journal.
REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: The persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly. A failure to communicate is when something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public. That’s not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or, as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a “wackadoodle.” It’s to paint me as something—something’s wrong with me. “There’s nothing wrong with this country or its policies. We’re perfect. Our hands are free. Our hands have no blood on them.” That’s not a failure to communicate. The message that is being communicated by the sound bites is exactly what those pushing those sound bites want to communicate.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think they wanted to communicate?
REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ. And, by the way, guess who goes to his church, hint, hint, hint? That’s what they wanted to communicate.
They know nothing about the church. They know nothing about our prison ministry. They know nothing about our food ministry. They know nothing about our senior citizens home. They know nothing about all we try to do as a church and have tried to do and still continue to do as a church that believes what Martin Marty said, that the two worlds have to be together and that the gospel of Jesus Christ has to speak to those worlds, not only in terms of the preached message on a Sunday morning but in terms of the lived-out ministry throughout the week.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think when you began to see those very brief sound bites circulating as they did?
REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: I felt it was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue. I felt those who were doing that were doing it for some very devious reasons.
AMY GOODMAN: After that interview on Bill Moyers Journal, Reverend Wright went on to speak before thousands at the NAACP. He also spoke at the National Press Club. Afterwards, Barack Obama sharply denounced his former pastor at a news conference in North Carolina.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: When he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the US government somehow being involved in AIDS, when he suggests that Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the twentieth and twenty-first century, when he equates the United States wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me. They rightly offend all Americans. And they should be denounced. And that’s what I’m doing very clearly and unequivocally here today.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Bill Moyers began Bill Moyers Journal with a scathing commentary of the media’s coverage of the Wright controversy.
BILL MOYERS: Wright’s offensive opinions and inflammatory appearances are judged differently. He doesn’t fire a shot in anger, put a noose around anyone’s neck, call for insurrection or plant a bomb in a church with children in Sunday school. What he does is to speak his mind in a language and style that unsettle some people and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship.
Politics often exposes us to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I’ve never seen anything like this, this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner. Both men, no doubt, will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the nonstop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we are paying for failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burckhardt, who said, “Beware the terrible simplifiers.”
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Moyers, on his show on PBS, Bill Moyers Journal. Bill Moyers, here today on Democracy Now! Bill, were you surprised you got the first interview with Jeremiah Wright after all of the controversy, after he had been quiet for weeks? Were you surprised when Senator Obama denounced him?
BILL MOYERS: No, because between my interview and Obama’s press conference, Jeremiah Wright had, as I said in that commentary, left Obama no choice, because of the way the momentum had been driven by the press and by the partisans and by opponents. Nobody stopped to put all of this into context. So I wasn’t surprised.
You know, we are accustomed in politics to seeing candidates having to jettison some of their closest supporters. Lyndon Johnson had to do that to the single man who was more responsible for his longtime success than anyone else, when he was arrested in 1964 in a men’s room in Washington. This aide had to be let go by Lyndon Johnson in a public statement, grieved LBJ for the rest of his life.
But no, you know, people have written me since all of this and said, “How do you explain that a man so reasonable in conversation on Friday night could on Sunday at the NAACP and Monday at the National Press Club be so angry?” And I had to say, “I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know.”
I know that — look, Jeremiah Wright was in this church for thirty-six years. I had never met him. I belong to the United Church of Christ denomination, but I had never heard of Jeremiah Wright. He was a local pastor. That was his calling. That was his commitment. That was his passion. If Obama had not been in his congregation, we’d never have heard of Jeremiah Wright.
But over the — someone figured out, at Christian Century magazine, figured out that over thirty-six years on the 11:00 Sunday morning services, he had preached 207,711 minutes. And the sound bites that were being looped throughout the mainstream media and the rightwing media were sixteen to twenty seconds. How would you like for your long career in journalism as a broadcaster to be summed up at the end in sixteen to twenty seconds? I understand that anger, that frustration, that he — that was driving him to finally want to speak.
I wanted to have him on my program, because I was curious myself: who is this man? I had never met him, although I had been a member of that same fellowship for forty years. I tried to put him in context. We did a piece about his church, trying to show the outreach, the ministry of his church. We dealt with black liberation theology, which is the view, simply put, that people interpret the scriptures through the experience of the oppressed, not the people on top of the slave ship, as Jeremiah Wright said, but the people in the hold of the slave ship.
And it was a reasonable, interesting, revealing conversation. I’m not a very adversarial fellow. I’m not a gotcha kind of journalist. Mike Wallace can do that much better than I can. And it was a very reasonable interview. But I think that the pent-up frustration of how he was being treated in the mainstream media and the fact that he was being taken out of context — the remark about chickens come home to roost, he wasn’t saying that 9/11 was done because — as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said, because God wanted it to happen, but that there are consequences to actions.
The remark about HIV, I didn’t get to ask him that on the show. We ran out of time. But, you know, in the black community, where I’ve reported, done documentaries on black churches, black community organizers, in the black community, they’re still haunted by the fact, what is a historical fact, that the United States government used black men at Tuskegee Institute who think they were being treated for syphilis, when they were being allowed to die for a scientific test. That anger has been building up. I understand that. It’s unfortunate it gets in the mainstream media and Obama has to do what he did.
AMY GOODMAN: On the interview, the PBS ombudsman commented about it. He wrote a column critical of your questioning. Michael Getler wrote, “There were not enough questions asked and some that were asked came across as too reserved and too soft, considering the volatility of the charges. […] Statements that Moyers himself laid out at the top of the program went largely unchallenged and those that did come up didn’t really get addressed until well into the hour-long program.” Your response to that?
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s true. I didn’t get to ask all the questions I wanted to ask. It was a forty-minute interview. And I was much more interested — I knew what was going to happen when he went to the National Press Club on Monday morning. I knew that they were going to be asking all of these questions. I leave that to those people whose job it is for the commercial media.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you go to Wright, or did Wright come to you to do the interview?
BILL MOYERS: What happened was, a group of several African American ministers called me after all of this broke, and they said, “You know, is it possible on your show to have a discussion of black liberation theology?”
And my answer was, “You know, we can, of course. But that won’t do any good until Reverend Wright speaks for himself. Unless we hear from him, see who he is, what he thinks, where he’s coming from, then what the rest of us do might be interesting and even might be positive, but it won’t answer the questions.” So I said to them, “Reverend Wright should speak. And if he wants to come on my broadcast, I’ll give the whole broadcast to it.”
Well, about — he was on vacation at that time, a long-planned trip to Africa. The moment he got back, I got a call from his church, his communications person, saying he’d like to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you think of the ABC debate in Pennsylvania with the news anchors going for the first forty-five minutes — really going at Obama around issues, everything from pastors to pins, lapel pins?
BILL MOYERS: I thought it was a great exercise in irrelevance. Going back to one of your earlier questions, we never really — we rarely probe these candidates on what they would do about the fundamental systemic issues facing America. It has become a horse race in the media and on the campaign. That’s inevitable in some respects. But I was really sad to see our craft reduced to that kind of petty and parochial concerns. These debates, moderated and mediated by the press, have really become about the press. The Sunday morning talk shows are all about themselves. They’re not really about what’s happening — they’re not trying to help the people in Dubuque or Dallas or Des Moines get an understanding of the candidates.
AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of broadcasting and media, you’re broadcasting on PBS. Do you think it has become, well, let’s say, to put it mildly, risk-averse? Go back forty years to the Carnegie Commission and the founding of public broadcasting. You were there in the White House. You were the press secretary for Lyndon Johnson. You came in in ’63, when he came in after Kennedy’s assassination?
BILL MOYERS: Yes. The first two years, I was his general assistant and the fellow who was coordinating his domestic policy. I actually helped put together the task force that led to the creation of public broadcasting in — Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. I had left in January of ’67. But my first job, before he insisted — after three times I had said no — he insisted I become the press secretary, was dealing with issues like the environment, civil rights, public broadcasting and all of that. So, yes, I was present at the creation.
And I have to say that public broadcasting today is not the adventuresome, the risk-taking exercise in diversity and pluralism and democracy that we had hoped it would be. It lacks the financial independence to take the risks that you can only take when you have nothing to lose, because 70 percent of public broadcasting’s funding comes from Congress. That makes it political in the eyes of many people, even though that influence is marginal. You know, I’ve advocated for years publicly that Democracy Now! should be on public broadcasting.
AMY GOODMAN: And it is on a number of PBS stations.
BILL MOYERS: A number of stations, but it’s not fed through the system. It’s not a system-wide — it should be. And there should be other reasonable voices with different philosophies than yours and mine on the air. But it is hamstrung by financial penury, and it’s embedded in a system that is altogether too political, and so it doesn’t take the risks that we ought to be taking. We ought to be the forum for the country.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of Kenneth Tomlinson, the man who made you his target, possibly drove you off PBS for a while, giving $5 million to the Wall Street Journal Report that aired on PBS, $5 million? Now it goes to FOX, so PBS becomes the incubator for programs in the commercial media.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I address that story in two of the speeches I delivered that are published in Moyers on Democracy. They didn’t drive me off the air. PBS took — stood behind me. Pat Mitchell, the then-president of PBS, was under enormous pressure. I wasn’t even aware of how much pressure until I left.
The main reason I left — I had been doing this weekly broadcast, I was seventy years old, I was tired, I needed a rest. But the main reason I left is that I could not oppose — I knew what Kenneth Tomlinson and the — who was Karl Rove’s man at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — I knew what they were doing. I had friends still working at CPB. One of them called me and said, you know, Tomlinson has said his job is to get rid of Moyers. Well, I wasn’t going to let that happen, but I finally realized that the only way I could deal with Kenneth Tomlinson and the rightwing effort to intimidate public broadcasting was to leave the air for awhile, because I couldn’t use my broadcast, I couldn’t use the camera to oppose him, because it would appear to be self-serving. So I left.
I retired at the age of seventy, went out and made a series of speeches. Most of them are in that book. Two of them dealt directly with Tomlinson. And I worked with friends of public broadcasting in Washington to tell the story of what was happening.
As a result of that and other things, the integrity of — the inspector general at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting looked into Tomlinson’s activities and decided they were violating the rules and the regulations. He had to leave the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He was not reappointed. And then he had to also leave the Board of Governors of the overseas broadcasting, the United States overseas broadcasting, because he had engaged in many of the same questionable activities there that he had done at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. When that was over and I had felt that I had had my say without abusing my position at public broadcasting, I came back with a weekly series.
But this is not the first time, Amy. You know that starting with Richard Nixon and Patrick Buchanan, when Buchanan was Nixon’s director of communications, they tried to undo public broadcasting. Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole tried to undo public broadcasting. George W. Bush wants to defund even the modest amount of money we get from Congress. There’s been a consistent fight, because the conservatives don’t want an alternative view of reality. We’re not going to propagate their propaganda. They don’t like it when there’s any kind of opposition or any — someone who doesn’t cooperate with them, they don’t like. So they have been consistently, from 1970 forward, trying to undo public broadcasting. And that’s one of the reasons public broadcasting hasn’t soared as the independent source of journalism, analysis and debate that it should be.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the legendary broadcaster, Bill Moyers. He has a new book out. It’s called Moyers on Democracy. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Bill Moyers. He hosts the weekly PBS program Bill Moyers Journal. He was one of the founding organizers of the Peace Corps. He was the publisher of Newsday. He was a senior correspondent for CBS News. He was the press secretary for Lyndon Johnson. He has written a number of books, won scores of Emmys and other awards. His latest book, Moyers on Democracy.
Let’s talk about that time you were press secretary. Let’s talk about the Lyndon Johnson years, because, I mean, we’ve been doing this series, “1968: Forty Years Later.” And Johnson went down over the war. What about what was going on inside the White House then?
BILL MOYERS: Well, if you listen to these telephone tapes, they often tell you more than those of us working there knew, because Lyndon — any president has so many relationships with so many different people that even his closest aides can only keep up with a part of it. The telephone conversations that are now released from the LBJ Library confirm what those of us there at the time felt. This is a man deeply conflicted by the war, a little bit like Jeremiah Wright. You don’t know why there are two different personas there. But here was a man who knew very well in May of 1964 — there’s a tape of him talking to McGeorge Bundy, the special — the national security adviser, saying, “Mac, if we go into this war, Dick Russell tells me we all know it’s going to be a disaster. I don’t want to go to war.” And yet he does escalate. He was out of the Cold War era. He did believe that the containment policy had to be implemented. But he also at the same time knew there would be dire consequences from this. And to this day, I do not understand how in his own mind he made the final choices to escalate.
The reason I have been opposed to the war in Iraq is because I’ve seen the Bush administration make very similar mistakes to those of the Johnson administration. There was no second attack, we later learned, at the Gulf of Tonkin, the incident that Johnson used to get the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed in Congress, which gave him, in effect — he considered it a blank check. Same thing with Bush’s weapons of mass destruction. You know, the Constitution is a very powerful document, if it were adhered to. The framers of the Constitution said it should be very hard to go to war. They didn’t want to give the power of war making to a single man. Presidents are tempted to do that. Lyndon Johnson did. George W. Bush did. Great parallels between their own decision making at that particular time.
Victor Navasky and Christopher Cerf are out with a new book on the experts. You know, they run this Institute of Expertology, in which they hold experts up to scrutiny. You look at the comments of experts in the Vietnam period and compare them to the comments of the experts, the government officials, the pundits and all that in the era of Iraq, many of the same statements sound as if they’d come from the same source.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you leave in 1967? Why did you leave Johnson?
BILL MOYERS: I left in January of 1967, because, remember, my first portfolio had been domestic policy, civil rights, the environment, all of that, and the war began to eat up all of our domestic resources, and I lost my clout. I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do. Secondly, I began to have doubts about the war, and I could no longer — I felt that I was operating in an environment that was not hospitable to what I was about and what I wanted to do.
Also, when I — the President asked me three times to become press secretary, and each time I resisted, until the last, and I still feel the pain in my shoulder from how he wrenched it. But the day I finally had to say yes, I said to Judith, my wife, “You know, this is the beginning of the end for me, because no man can serve two masters.” And that is true. You can’t truly speak for the President and speak for the press, and that’s what I took my job to be. I took my job to go to tell the President what the press was saying and to try to give them what they needed. And in time, it just wore me down, and it cost me my — the relationship I had enjoyed with the President.
He became skeptical of me over my ability to help the press understand what he was doing, and he became skeptical over my concerns about the bombing in Vietnam and over my growing sense — you know, life is a continuing course of adult education. Every experience creates a new reality. And I hadn’t thought about the war. I was not involved in foreign policy until I got involved. And the more I was involved, the more I realized the more I had these doubts. And so, finally in January of ’67, I just felt the time had come to leave.
AMY GOODMAN: What did it teach you, being press secretary, about how to deal with press secretaries?
BILL MOYERS: It taught me that you have to treat the press as an equal. The press, without — the quality of journalism and the quality of democracy go hand in hand. And unless the White House press corps knows as much as it can about what the President’s intentions are, what his thinking is, it cannot do the job that it is supposed to do. The press can never be a member of the White House establishment. That’s what’s happened now. It becomes an arm of propaganda. And that’s wrong for democracy, wrong for the President. In time, a presidency thrives on the confidence of the people in it. And the more secretive a president is, the more contradictory he is between what he says and what he’s doing, the more trouble democracy is going to be in.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s a lot of conversation about ads and campaign ads. I want to go back to 1964 to perhaps the most famous ad, the ad against war by Lyndon Johnson versus Goldwater.
LITTLE GIRL: One, two, three, four, five, seven, six, eight, nine.
COUNTDOWN: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.
LYNDON JOHNSON: These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.
NARRATOR: Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.
AMY GOODMAN: And there you have it, the little girl pulling the petals off of a flower. Only aired once.
BILL MOYERS: You are lucky if you live long enough to revisit your former opinions and your errors. The people who created that ad, Doyle, Dane & Bernbach here in New York, had been charged to try to make it clear that in a time of nuclear terror — remember, we’d just been through the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we were that close to a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union under John F. Kennedy. Barry Goldwater was campaigning — was going to campaign against Lyndon Johnson on lobbing — “Let’s lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin.” Barry Goldwater was talking about using tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam. And the President said, “We’ve got to remind people that we’ve got this huge nuclear arsenal, and you want somebody who understands it to have his finger on the button.” So that ad was designed — never mentioned Goldwater. It was designed to remind people of the importance of thinking through whose hand you did want on that button.
Now, Vietnam was not an issue at this time. This was about the nuclear arsenal, not about the war in Vietnam. And the damning and troubling indictment that comes is that this war made it appear that Lyndon Johnson was the man — who was the right man for the hand on the trigger, but it made it appear that he was against, might be against Vietnam. He then turns around a year later and escalates the war in Vietnam. So the ad has become conflated over time with Vietnam, when it was really about the fact that we were all living at that time under the dread of a nuclear exchange.
I have since, subsequently — and I once did a broadcast called “The 30-Second President” about what’s wrong with advertising. And I’m totally against these short commercials now. But what was wrong with that ad — what I learned from that ad is how quickly you can inject emotions into the mainstream of voters, because ads are impressionistic. Ads are about feelings, not about rational thought, about reason. And they are like heroin. They just give you that high very quickly. And that’s wrong, because people could — we could have the best of intentions with that ad, and voters could take away from it exactly the opposite of what we intended. And so, not long after that, I did this series on politics and one of the broadcasts was about these ads, and I said, somehow we’ve got to find a way to relieve our politics of these highly stimulated, highly distorted messages that we send through these thirty-second commercials.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think these candidates, the leading candidates of the Democratic supposedly opposition party, do not call for an immediate end to the war, do not call for single-payer healthcare?
BILL MOYERS: Because the media doesn’t allow complicated thought to be articulated in ways that enlighten instead of misinform people. Partisans seize upon these sound bites and turn them into — seize upon these speeches, take the sound bites and turn them against the candidates. It’s fear. It’s fear of being misquoted. It’s fear of having your ideas misappropriated.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it money in politics?
BILL MOYERS: Oh, it’s who, the big winners in all this money that’s being spent? Obama outspent Clinton three-to-one, and that was all in television ads. It’s the industry that doesn’t want to reform that benefits from the ads. Yes, it’s money in politics, and it’s the triumph of ambition for self over ambition for the country. You know, Mrs. Clinton has a very serious issue to wrestle with in the next seventy-two hours. Is this race about the country, or is it about the Clintons? And ambition and power and particularly the appetite to see the first woman, who happens to be the first wife of a former president, the Adams tradition, the Roosevelt tradition — I mean, that takes over.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think she’s running for vice president right now?
BILL MOYERS: I don’t know. I learned a long time ago, including when I worked there, not to read the minds of politicians. You can only judge them by their acts. Both camps will really look hard at the strategy. There are some places where an Obama-Clinton ticket would not do well: Colorado, probably, Missouri, maybe. There are other places where it might.
You know, the tragic — in the Jeremiah Wright episode, it was tragic to see that most intimate of relationships between a parishioner and his pastor have to become a public debacle.
It’s also sad to see — you know, back in the days of the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson said to me, “You know, one of these days, we’re going to see a black man sitting right here because of what we’re doing now in the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Civil Rights Act of ’65. My daughter, my wife have all longed to see, to live in a time when the first woman became president.” And here, we have a black man and a woman running. In a sense, that’s a dramatic result of America’s pluralism, but it also makes some hard choices.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you proudest of, your work, Bill Moyers? We only have ten seconds for you to respond.
BILL MOYERS: The fact that I’ve been around long enough to learn from my experience and to do a variety of things that — I mean, I’ve had a great life as a journalist. Journalism has, in my time, been a marvelous calling, and I’ve been very lucky to do all the things that I have done. And I’m very grateful for that. I couldn’t single out any one broadcast or one series, but I’ve just been a very fortunate journalist.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you very much for joining us today. Bill Moyers’s latest book is a collection of his writings and his speeches called Moyers on Democracy.