- Bill Moyersveteran journalist and former press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson.
Televised impeachment hearings begin today in the inquiry into whether President Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate his political rivals. Two witnesses are testifying today before the House Intelligence Committee: George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, and William Taylor, a former ambassador and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. Both officials have privately told congressional investigators that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Donald Trump is just the fourth U.S. president to face an impeachment inquiry. Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 prior to an impeachment vote. We speak with the legendary journalist Bill Moyers, who covered the Nixon and Clinton impeachment hearings. In the 1960s, Moyers was a founding organizer of the Peace Corps and served as press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson. In 1971, he began an award-winning career as a television broadcaster that would last for over four decades. During that time, Moyers received over 30 Emmys and countless other prizes. He was elected to the Television Hall of Fame in 1995. Last week Bill Moyers took out a full-page ad in The New York Times urging PBS to broadcast the impeachment hearings live and to rerun them in primetime.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Televised impeachment hearings begin today in the inquiry into whether President Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and his son. Two witnesses are testifying today before the House Intelligence Committee: George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, and William Taylor, a former ambassador and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. Both officials have privately told congressional investigators that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure the government to investigate the Bidens. Taylor confirmed there was a quid pro quo.
Donald Trump is just the fourth U.S. president to face an impeachment inquiry. Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 prior to an impeachment vote.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re joined by the legendary journalist Bill Moyers, who covered the Nixon and Clinton impeachment hearings. In the 1960s, Bill Moyers was a founding organizer of the Peace Corps. He served as press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson. In 1971, he began an award-winning career as a television broadcaster on PBS, as well as on CBS and other networks. Moyers has received 37 Emmys, nine Peabodys and countless other prizes. He was elected to the Television Hall of Fame in 1995. Last week, Bill Moyers took out a full page ad in The New York Times urging PBS to broadcast the impeachment hearings live and to rerun them in primetime.
Bill Moyers, welcome back to Democracy Now!
BILL MOYERS: Good to see you again, Amy and Juan. Thank you for having me. And I don’t know what this “legendary” means, except — does it mean I’m past tense?
AMY GOODMAN: You’re right here. You’re very current and now talking about the future. And thank you so much for that, Bill. Talk about this full-page ad that you took out and what you’re calling for.
BILL MOYERS: We’re calling for PBS, our friends and colleagues there, to put the hearings on, which they will carry live in the afternoons, when they happen, along with CBS, NBC and other networks, but to put them live, as they did with Watergate, in primetime, 8:00 at night, so people who have worked all day can come home and watch what they missed. Now, my friends at PBS, some of them, say to me, “Well, people can find it. It’s on this cable channel. It’s on that satellite channel. It’s on the internet.” But that’s different from — having to look for it in the Wild West of the modern media universe, from being able to see it simply, easily, right there in your living room. And many Americans still get their television the old-fashioned way: from the set in the evening. Primetime is still our public square. And for PBS to repeat the hearings in primetime gives the many millions more people the chance to see it collectively, in a sense, and see what’s happening, hear what’s happening, and make up their own minds.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, you were, obviously, front and center during the Watergate hearings. Talk about the impact of those televised debates on what people thought about Watergate and about President Nixon.
BILL MOYERS: Actually, our two main anchors at that time at PBS, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, were front and center. I did peripheral coverage, and then I did a documentary that summed it all up, called Essay on Watergate.
What those hearings did was to give millions of Americans the chance to hear the evidence as it unfolded, to test for themselves the credibility of the witnesses, whether they seem believable or not. And PBS was new then. It was a rookie network. Not many people were taking it seriously. And all of a sudden we were the only network in primetime, public service, that were giving these hearings full exposure, with very effective moderation by Jim and Robin. And they didn’t get in the way of the testimony. They were not pundits. They were guiding the viewers through it. And as a result, millions of Americans got to see for themselves democracy on trial, how it was handled. It was a more sedate era in Congress then than it is now. It was before Gingrich, who unleashed the forces of wrath when he was speaker of the House. And people were polite, but they asked serious questions. They developed their stories. And the result was, at the end, Americans felt they had a sense of what it was all about.
Nixon, I think, would have been impeached, but before that happened, several Republicans — it was a different Republican Party then — went down to the White House and said, “You’ve got to go.” It was those hearings that showed Americans how the process worked, was the evidence believable. And actually, actually, it was during those hearings that testimony came out about the hidden tapes that Nixon had made of every conversation he had in the White House. From there they went and found the tape that proved to be the incriminating, indefensible evidence that Nixon had told the FBI to keep the CIA from investigating the charges against him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you talk about punditry, one of the important roles of public broadcasting is precisely not only that — as you say, that the commentators generally take a back seat and let the actual events unfold of themselves rather than constantly commenting, but also there are no commercial interruptions. I mean, the whole idea that you’re in a serious public hearing, and then, whether it’s CNN or Fox or ABC, they have to break to commercials and decide what part of the testimony not to cover, it really does have an impact on how people digest the information, doesn’t it?
BILL MOYERS: Yes. We slice and dice the news today — all of us do it — a bit here, a bit there, an episode here, an episode there, in this kind of a daily coverage. It’s hard to get the main story of the big event that’s going on. You know, I have many friends, and we all three of us have many friends, in commercial television. But commercial networks have made their peace with the little lies and merchandising of our economic system. I mean, that’s how they make their living. PBS was intended not to be a commercial enterprise, but to be a public service, supported by the public, as we are, in fact. We all pay a little bit in taxes to keep PBS on the air. And that makes a difference. If you can read or see a story without a constant interruption, without somebody else’s voice getting inside your ear and beginning to interfere with your story, it’s a different experience.
AMY GOODMAN: And it’s free over the airwaves. That’s a big difference.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, that’s a big thing. It’s where everybody can come home, and without having paid a cable fee or a streaming fee, you can see it right there in your living room.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the difference between the coverage of the Nixon impeachment hearings and what we’re seeing today. How do you think the coverage of the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, on this first day, as we lead into the public part of the inquiry is happening?
BILL MOYERS: Well, as The New York Times said yesterday, the Watergate hearings took place in a more, as I said earlier, sedate environment. I mean, the Republicans and Democrats were much more civil to each other than they are in Congress now. That was more a civic education than it was a food fight. The Clinton impeachment became a food fight. That was the turn in our history when the ability of the two parties to seriously explore an issue together dissolved into conflict and accusations and what we see today. But they were able in those days to let the evidence come out slowly. I think it was 51 nights and days that PBS carried the hearings then.
Today, as we know, it will be a circus. I mean, there will be efforts to try — and the Democrats tried it in the Clinton impeachment trials. They tried to keep interrupting the Republicans and prevent them from making their case against Bill Clinton. That, of course, is going to happen in these hearings.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Richard Nixon addressing the country in the face of the growing threat of impeachment.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I have earned everything I’ve got.
AMY GOODMAN: After two years of denials and under growing pressure, Nixon left the White House on August 9, 1974. He resigned, becoming the only U.S. president ever to resign from office.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow.
You are here to say goodbye to us. And we don’t have a good word for it in English. The best is au revoir. We’ll see you again.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Nixon. Bill Moyers, you remember that moment well.
BILL MOYERS: We did see him again, too, because he was resurrected after his political death. And there he was, making speeches, writing books and all that. Yes, I watched that moment and wasn’t surprised, because I had watched the Watergate hearings all the time, and the evidence was, as I said earlier, indefensible. You couldn’t undermine that evidence. And there were so many serious constitutional charges against Nixon that the country took it much more seriously than they did the Clinton impeachment.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, there was this seminal moment in the summer of 1973 when Tennessee Republican Senator Fred [Thompson] — people may know him more as the Law & Order DA from television — asked Alexander Butterfield about the existence of any recording system. Butterfield pauses, then details the system for about an hour nonstop. He was only called like — he only knew — he had like three hours before, I think, to testify. He didn’t have a lawyer with him. He didn’t consult with a lawyer. If he did, he might never have revealed this. But talk about that moment.
BILL MOYERS: Well, Alexander Butterfield was an honorable man. And there were many honorable Republicans in that time who decided they had to really be honest with the American people. And when he disclosed that there was this tape, that these tapes existed and Nixon was on the record, so that the members of the Congress and the public could actually hear what he was saying, there was almost — it was almost like a great sucking in of the breath of the hearings and of Americans. They suddenly knew they didn’t have to take somebody else’s word for it; they could listen to Richard Nixon. And you suddenly — you just realized this was going to take a significant turn, a dramatic turn.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever meet Butterfield?
BILL MOYERS: I did meet Butterfield, many years later.
AMY GOODMAN: He ran the, like, security system at the White House.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, yes. He was the equivalent of — you know, LBJ had his own Alexander Butterfield. But he didn’t have as many recordings as Nixon did. Yes, you could almost look at that face again of Alexander Butterfield making sure he was going to do it and determining to do it and then doing it. I mean, television, you know, makes us intimate strangers. That moment made Butterfield an intimate ally of everybody who believed the Constitution was in danger. And it’s a memorable moment in American history.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s a recording of the Trump phone call?
BILL MOYERS: Well, I have wondered that, not because I know anything, just watching the pattern of the Nixon hearings and what brought him down finally. I think there could well be a recording of that phone call. I happen to know that, you know, most of Lyndon Johnson’s phone calls, important ones, were recorded. Nixon recorded, apparently, many more than LBJ did. And I’m sure that the security people in the White House have something more telling than we have seen so far, because everything we’ve seen has had ellipses in it, the transcripts of that phone call, and people have talked around it. But somewhere buried in the White House may well be a recording that, as with the Nixon tapes, you had to go to the court — the Congress had to go to court to get the Supreme Court to rule yes or no on whether those tapes could be made — that tape that Butterfield was talking about could be made public. Congress ruled for the public and for Congress. We could come down to that in this, if somebody reveals in the course of the next few days that, yes, there is a tape of the recording between President Trump and the president of Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with legendary broadcaster, journalist, president of the Schumann Media Center, Bill Moyers. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack. It was one of the top hits back in 1973 in the midst of the, well, impeachment inquiry into Richard Nixon.