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Bill Moyers on Impeachment: All Presidents Lie, But Trump Has Created a Culture of Lying

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We continue our conversation with legendary journalist Bill Moyers, who covered impeachment proceedings against Presidents Nixon and Clinton. The first televised impeachment hearings into President Trump begin today. Moyers says the current administration and the media have created a “culture of lying” that goes beyond what other presidents have done. “All presidents lie. It’s a defense they use. But not all presidents lie systemically,” Moyers says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is the legendary broadcaster Bill Moyers. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill, I wanted to ask you again about the Watergate hearings, John Dean’s testimony, as one of the inner circles of the president at the time, the impact that that had on the public, and also the fact that, in today’s situation, President Trump is doing everything possible to prevent any of his inner circle from being able to testify before Congress, in essence, running out the clock on this impeachment process, hoping that there won’t be time for the Congress to have the hearings with his people if a court decision has to be made about his inner circle being able to testify.

BILL MOYERS: Exactly. But in those days, they didn’t have that defense, and so one witness after another. Everybody alive today can remember when John Dean said, “What did you tell the president?” “I told the president there was a cancer on the presidency.” And again, you could hear a kind of unanimous gasp in the hearings and around the country. You knew, from that, that we were onto something different from — you know, President Johnson in 1866 [sic] was impeached.


BILL MOYERS: ’68, because he had fired the secretary of war, Stanton. That was the charge against him. This was not a cancer on the presidency. Suddenly you realized there was something metastasizing politically that we had better pay attention to. And John Dean, again, realized that this was the — that telling the truth now was the only way out of a hole in which the White House had dug itself.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in some of your statements recently, you’ve been talking about the importance that — of the so many lies that we’ve been exposed to, are actually undermining our democracy. Could you expand on that, as well?

BILL MOYERS: You know, all presidents lie. They do so tactically. They do so strategically. Franklin Roosevelt lied about Lend-Lease until he could convince the public to go along with it. All presidents lie. It’s a defense they use. But not all presidents lie systemically. Not all presidents lie constantly. And the fact of the matter is — and it’s not just the president, not just the White House lies that are filling the atmosphere with this toxic poison, that a good friend — my good friend and colleague Eric Alterman, the very distinguished journalist and professor here, of journalism, in town, has written about the lies of presidents. There’s a wonderful documentary called All Governments Lie. And they do. But what we have now is a culture of lying, not only from within politics, but from within media that is determined only to protect and save the president of the United States, Donald Trump. And they lie —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Lying about things big and small.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, exactly. And you don’t know what to believe anymore. I still believe that facts matter. But they’re trying to change the facts on us. And that’s where a few journalists and a few media outlets have a real role to play. It’s to always put on the table the evidence against the lies that are being told by the people who have a vested interest in lying.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what kind of response have you gotten to your full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the airing of these hearings, not only live, but in primetime? And the significance of PBS? Interestingly, back in Nixon’s time, Nixon wanted to get rid of PBS.

BILL MOYERS: His special assistant, Pat Buchanan, later the candidate for president and formidable right-wing champion, said, “Yes, let’s just defund it. Let’s just — got to get rid of it, not fund it.” And here, in those days, PBS bravely — bravely — stood up and said, “We’re going to carry the hearings.” Now, they were nervous, because the right wing was already taking PBS on. Nixon wanted it eliminated. They were harassing, trying to intimidate. And so they asked the stations, “What do you think?” And only 52% of the stations, just a little over half, said, “Let’s carry the hearings.” They did. I think, later, everyone claimed credit for having carried the hearings. But PBS did its role then as a public educator.

You know, impeachment proceedings are a civic education. We rarely get to see democracy on trial. We rarely know what’s really happening in government. So much more is happening than we know. And when you have an impeachment hearing — only four in Americans’ history, counting this one — you get to hear things you would never know otherwise. And PBS carried it all then, as we said earlier, and people did get the message. Even Republicans changed their position. Both of you are too young to remember that after a while a handful of Republicans in the Senate, Goldwater among them, Howard Baker among them, went down to see the president and said, “Mr. Nixon, Mr. President, you can’t stay. You’ve got to go.” That was the power of those hearings.

What we’re saying to public broadcasting now — and some of my colleagues in public television keep saying, “Well, this is — the media universe has changed.” Well, of course it’s changed. I know that. I’ve been a part of it, of that change. But what hasn’t changed is the importance of people to watch what can happen when they can. And we’re asking public television stations to put it on primetime, repeat it in primetime.

Now, the response has been good from some and begs to differ from the others. I mean, WETA, our major station in the Washington area, is carrying it live in the afternoons or mornings, live during the day, and repeat it in the evenings. Wonderful. The small sister stations, up in Vermont, they’re carrying it the same way, and they’re preempting their regular programming. I mean, it’s always painful to disrupt your regular programming. But they are doing it, and they’re putting the regular programs on their digital channel, their subchannel, and they’re running a crawl, what we call a crawl in the business, across the bottom of the screen that says, “You can see Antiques Roadshow, you can see Nova, you can see your regular programming, on our subchannel.” But watch this one because this is what happened today. But here in New York, they explained that they think that their subchannel — their digital subchannel is enough. They’re sticking with their regular programming. I think it’s a lost opportunity to educate, help 15 million people in this area see for themselves what they can’t see during the day. But public television is not a top-down network. Stations have the autonomy to decide their own programming. Some are, and some aren’t. If you’re living where they aren’t, call them. Tell them to carry this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, back in the days of Watergate, there was no alternative, like C-SPAN. I’m wondering if you’re expecting rise, a sharp rise, in the viewership for C-SPAN, because C-SPAN usually not only broadcasts congressional events during the day, but then rebroadcasts them in the evenings, as well.

BILL MOYERS: That’s right. It’s available in primetime on C-SPAN, if you get C-SPAN. C-SPAN was created by a wonderful, inventive broadcaster in the early '70s. And you can go there now. But it's a small audience. It’s like PBS’s channels that are marginal. It’s a small audience. Sometimes it’s difficult to find, although it’s there all the time. But PBS is the last remaining — and I’m not claiming for a moment that we’d get the audience we got in 1973 and 1974, because you do have opportunities, through internet, through satellite, through your devices, to see it. But there’s nothing like seeing it, in a sense, collectively.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, you’re a wordsmith. There was a letter written to The New York Times, “A Plea from 33 Writers: Words Matter. Stop Using 'Quid Pro Quo.'” The writers write, “A plea from 33 writers: Please use language that will clarify the issues at hand. Please stop using the Latin phrase 'quid pro quo' regarding the impeachment inquiry. Most people don’t understand what it means, and in any case it doesn’t refer only to a crime. Asking for a favor is not a criminal act. We frequently demand things from foreign countries before giving them aid, like asking them to improve their human rights record. … Please use words that refer only to criminal behavior here. Use 'bribery' or 'extortion' to describe Mr. Trump’s demand to President [Volodymyr] Zelensky of Ukraine, making it very clear that this is a crime. The more we hear words that carry moral imputations, the more we understand the criminal nature of the act.”

BILL MOYERS: Well, language can be used to conceal, as well as to reveal. And when it’s being employed and subpoenaed to be used to defend a crime, you find a way to call a crime something other than a crime. I don’t know, we don’t know, that what President Trump did regarding Ukraine is a crime in a strict legal sense, but it can well be a crime against the Constitution in its abuse of power. And, look, if you listen to the testimony today and in ensuing days, if you read the transcripts, you will see that this is clearly a case — you know, circumstantial evidence is often the basis for a judgment in a legal trial. You will see that this president, in effect, extorted, offered to extort, the Ukraine out of a difficult situation. And that is a crime against the Constitution, if in fact it happened. And it’s something I would not want a Democratic president to do, to use his power or her power, one day, to get a foreign government to interfere in our elections.

AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s the question of whether this impeachment inquiry will expand. With President Clinton, it started as an investigation into Whitewater, and it went on to become around a relationship he had. It’ll be very interesting, and we’re going to look at that in coming days, the issue of whether this will remain with Ukraine or go to issues like the death of children on the border in U.S. custody, the separation of families and other issues. But we’re going to deal with that on another day, because today we have to move on to a debate on what’s happened in Bolivia. Bill Moyers, we want to thank you so much for being with us, legendary broadcaster, president of the Schumann Media Center, former host of Moyers & Company on PBS, has won more than 30 Emmys.

Democracy Now!, by the way, will be live-streaming today’s impeachment hearings beginning at 10:00 Eastern time at democracynow.org. Come to us.

When we come back, we look at the political crisis in Bolivia. President Evo Morales resigned over the weekend following what he described as a coup. A right-wing senator has now declared herself president. Stay with us.

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A Coup? A Debate on the Political Crisis in Bolivia That Led to Evo Morales’s Resignation

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