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Bill Moyers Talks Politics, Religion, Media


Long-time public broadcasting journalist and author Bill Moyers joins us today to discuss the state of politics, the role of religion in the U.S., and recent changes in the media.

Bill Moyers will speak at The Sun, The Butterfly and The Dove Symposium this Saturday, September 25, as part of Rancho La Puerta's 70th anniversary.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Journalist Bill Moyers retired last April from Public Television. But his programs have left a defining mark on both the network and a very appreciative audience. From Bill Moyers Journal to his most recent programs exploring American culture and faith and reason, his thoughtful interviews became a staple for PBS viewers through the years. And among the many awards and accolades he's acquired, he’s also a recent recipient of an Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Bill Moyers is getting ready to take part in a seminar near San Diego that focuses on aspects of spirituality. And it’s my pleasure to welcome Bill Moyers to These Days. Good morning, Bill.

BILL MOYERS (Former Television Host): My pleasure, Maureen. Good to join you and your listeners out there.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have questions or comments for Bill Moyers, about his many programs on PBS, what you may have learned from them, how you agreed or maybe even disagreed, you can give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, Bill, you’re going to be speaking, as I say, about spirituality at the symposium on Saturday, and we’ve seen you interview so many people about their take on spirituality. What does spirituality mean to you?

MOYERS: Well, it means finding resources for living and for your health. That may not be obvious to anyone who’s looking at the material or physical side of our experience. There are deep strengths we can call upon and I learned that when I was recovering from heart surgery and had just finished doing a series called “Healing In the Mind” about how emotions and our psychology affects our wellbeing or lack of it. So spirituality means reaching for those resources within you and in others that cannot be measured by quantifiable marks. It’s drawing on resources that medicine cannot prescribe for us but come with us inherently in our nature.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, so many of the people that you spoke to during the – your series “Faith and Reason” had – did not necessarily look towards organized religion to inform their understanding of spirituality. I wonder, does organized religion play into your understanding of spirituality for yourself?

MOYERS: Well, there’s no common definition of spirituality, no one sentence that will sum it up, so religion is very important to some people. I was just reading a study last night about how elderly people who continue their church experience tend to be healthier and live longer than those who don’t. But at the same time, organized religion can be a barrier to other people’s discovery of their inner resources. The reduction of the spiritual life to dogma, to creed, to bumper stickers, to sermons, to the liturgies that may have lost their meaning for us today, that’s been responsible and also the anger within some organized religion, the prejudice and the bigotry prevent some people who have deep spiritual cells – wells within them from actually discovering the greater transcendent meaning of religion. But, by the way, this – you’ve said I’m coming out to San Diego for a spiritual – to discuss spirituality but just look at who’s going to be at…


MOYERS: …this conference for – it’s actually a 70th anniversary of Rancho La Puerta, which is one of the first or maybe the first health fitness…


MOYERS: …centers in the country and Deborah Szekely, your own San Diego’s Deborah Szekely’s 85th birthday. Now Deborah Szekely puts into practice what I’m trying to say in my fumbling way about spirituality. She exercises, she watches her diet, she meditates, she stays on a moderate course that frees so many – frees her from so many of the frustrations the rest of us feel. She’s a living tribute to the fact that the life of the mind and the life of the spirit are as important to our health as the life of the body. So who’s coming tomorrow – this weekend? Linda Werthheimer, who’s the senior national correspondent of our own National Public Radio, Dr. Ken Dychtwald, who is one of the really foremost visionary thinkers on spirituality, Gail Sheehy. I’m interviewing Gail Sheehy on Saturday. She’s written this marvelous new bestselling book called “Passages in Caregiving” about how she cared for her husband, the famous editor, over 17 years of his bout with cancer, and she talks about what she learned in that experience about the spiritual nature and the spiritual resources we can draw upon. You’ve got Sheila and Jeffrey Lapinsky coming. You all know them in San Diego as community activists and supporters of the arts. You’ve got Lee Stein, who’s a San Diego business executive who’s going to be there. You see how many of these views – Kenneth Pelletier, who wrote that bestseller book, “Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer.”


MOYERS: You’ve got all these people from different perspectives who would be hard pressed to define spirituality like Webster does in the dictionary, but live it in ways in business, in life, that give extra dimension. It’s reaching for that extra dimension in our nature that we often, in America, which is so consumer and materialistic oriented, we often don’t plumb.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with veteran journalist Bill Moyers and taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. Joan is on the line from Kensington. She wants to join the conversation. Good morning, Joan. Welcome to These Days.

JOAN (Caller, Kensington): Good morning. And it’s a pleasure to talk to Bill Moyers. I’ve watched your programs for years and years.

MOYERS: Thank you.

JOAN: I digress from your spiritual talk and would like for you to comment on how the Bush administration influenced Public Television in particular and your show very much in particular during its…


JOAN: …eight years.

CAVANAUGH: We’re going to have to let you go, Joan, because your line is a little rocky there. But you got the question, right, Bill?

MOYERS: Yes, and, of course, as Joan obviously knows, my little broadcast on Friday nights on Public Broadcasting became a cause celebre because we did not see the world the way – through the lens of official reality. We told what was happening and happening at – We said the mass news about – the rumors about mass destruction – weapons of mass destruction…


MOYERS: …in Iraq were invalid. We did reporting that undermined and confronted the propaganda that was coming from the Bush administration and they didn’t like that. They used their influence, their appointees to bring pressure to bear on PBS and on my broadcast. It didn’t affect us. PBS was very brave and courageous and my staff just kept doing what we were supposed to be doing as journalists and that’s report what we find and document it so that you can reach your own conclusion about events. But they did bring the heavy arm of Karl Rove and his acolytes at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to bear on us in an effort to try to silence us and it didn’t work.

CAVANAUGH: Now you were, during the Bush years, you were very critical of the kind of Karl Rove style of politics. You referred to that a number of times that you saw during that time. And I’m wondering, as you look around today, has anything changed?

MOYERS: Well, certain things have changed, of course. I don’t see the Obama administration all that much more open or transparent about what it’s been doing. The president, President Obama, has very few press conferences where he can be really challenged by an inquiring press, and they have the same penchant for secrecy that almost all administrations do. In fact, anyone coming to power decides that they better keep – they’re going to do better by not being open and transparent. So I don’t see much difference between a Republican administration and a Democratic administration when it comes to trying to control the flow of news. Remember, forty-some-odd years ago, I served in the Kennedy and Johnson administration two years as Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary and our credibility was so bad we couldn’t believe our own leaks. But we, ourselves, you know, we’re trying to manage the news, we were trying to keep our options open. The president didn’t want news to be disclosed. I’ve never seen one, though, as heavy-handed and as obnoxiously so as the Bush administration, and they were very successful, by the way. They cowed the mainstream press, they used their report – and they used the rightwing press, Fox News and talk radio to be virtually propaganda arms of the administration policy. It – We didn’t have, when I was a young man in Washington, the wall-to-wall broadcasts and radio that you have today and part of that, you know, we have a corporate press in America which pretty well skates on the surface of conventional wisdom. We have the rightwing media, Fox News and talk radio, that essentially serve as ministries of truth for the Republican administration. And we have public media, that’s Public Radio and Public Television, which I think do a reasonably good job of providing an alternative to both the corporate and the ideological press. And the administration, then and now, doesn’t really like independent voices that are challenging the official view of reality.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Bill Moyers, taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Bill, from that forty-year vantage point of looking at current affairs and politics in the United States, you mentioned several things that you’re uncomfortable with on the political scene. What is it that worries you most about the political climate in America?

MOYERS: Democracy in America’s a series of narrow escapes and I fear we may be running out of luck. I mean, you know, I grew up with—and most of us grew up with—the presumption that the American experience is grounded in the idea of progress, the conviction that the present is better than the past and that the future will bring even more improvement. You know, for all of our shortcomings, we’ve been telling ourselves year in and year out that the system works. Today, all bets are off. The fact of the matter is, we are a dysfunctional democracy, a failing democracy. That’s behind the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party is an old tradition in America of insurgent outsiders who feel that the system isn’t working for them. And the fact of the matter is, our system isn’t working. We have a dysfunctional democracy that cannot solve the problems we have created for ourselves. And this is really scaring people and for the first time you see large majorities in the polls saying they don’t think the children are going to be better off in the next generation than they are – than we were in our generation. That’s scary because the American dream, as its been defined, is wide participation in a middle class prosperity that is maintained by the system and the system isn’t working except, Maureen, for the people at the very top.

CAVANAUGH: That’s what I was going to ask you. So the linchpin, the key of this dysfunction that you’re talking about is the disparity that is in wealth in this country.

MOYERS: The consequence of this dysfunction is the great gap between the people at the very top and everyone else. It’s the greatest gap since the late 1920s leading up to the Great Depression. That’s the consequence of a dysfunctional system. The cause of the dysfunctional system is a monopoly of money that is exercised by the contributors to our political class. You know, our politicians are largely, and there are exceptions, but they’re largely marionettes for their financial backers so that money trumps your vote. You go to the polls and you vote because you think this is going to happen or that’s going to happen but then in the corridors of power, in the backrooms of Washington where the lobbyists and the politicians make their deals, you get bumped. You get betrayed, so that we cannot, as I said, solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves whether it’s the environment, the infrastructure, education, whatever, because too many monied interests have a veto power over good policy. And I mean this is true of both Republicans and Democrats. We have a one political class in this country that is saturated by money so that – that’s the determining – they’re the determining force over whether or not we can do anything about climate change or crowded highways or broken water mains or the pollution of our environment. Money is the great negative hammer in American life. If you take on the big interests, they come after you. If you don’t take them on, they’ll go along with it, so we’ve got to figure out how to break the monopoly of money over our political system.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with journalist Bill Moyers. He is headed to San Diego this weekend to speak at an event at Rancho La Puerta’s 70th anniversary. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Jason is calling us from Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Jason, and welcome to These Days.

JASON (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Good morning. Thank you, Maureen. Nice to talk to you, Bill. I’ve been a big fan of your show over the years, and the guests that you’ve brought in and the questions that you’ve asked have formed largely who I am and how I think in a lot of ways.

MOYERS: Well, I’m touched by that.

JASON: I have a question regarding last Sunday 60 Minutes had President Jimmy Carter on and a very outspoken man, of course, and he – you know, a lot of parallels have been drawn between Jimmy Carter and President Obama and their so-called ineffectiveness while in office. And I’m wondering what your opinion is on maybe President Carter as a post-administration – as an ex-president but also kind of – Is it more important to get into office and bring about effective change or to be popular and get elected for two terms?

CAVANAUGH: Jason, thank you. Thank you for those questions. I appreciate it.

MOYERS: Well, the important thing is for the president to do his best to try to solve and address some of the problems that we are facing. The problems were different in 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected. By the way, I heard him say just last night on the Jon Stewart Show that he was the Tea Party of his time.


MOYERS: Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, ran as an outsider against the Democratic establishment because people were so disenthralled with the Democratic Party at that time. And he said, I’m the – I was the Tea Party of 1976. The Tea Party today is an insurgent force trying to take over the Republican establishment, and that’s a worthy goal, by the way, because – I’ll come back to that. But what’s important is for a president to try to carry out his campaign promises or his campaign agenda and to get some of the major issues we face on the table and, hopefully, solved off the table. But the fact of the matter is everything that was bad in the Carter years, money, the power of money, the influence of lobbyists, the rabid opposition, for example, that came from – comes from the extremes, is more so in Obama’s time. I mean, Obama has been a disappointment to many progressives because he does not seem to be as – championing what he proposed in his campaign of ’08. But he did, in fact, move into a Washington that has thirty-some-odd-thousand lobbyists now as compared to 11,000 several years ago where there are more interest groups that can checkmate his policies and where the system is clogged and paralyzed. And it’s far more profoundly dysfunctional than it was even in Carter’s time. Both of them suffer from a common malady, which is they cannot find the words most of the time to express how their mind is thinking and seeing. And they – this is surprising for Obama because he was a great orator in the campaign of 2008 but he seems to have been swallowed behind that bully pulpit in the White House. It’s a mystery.

CAVANAUGH: Now, however, President Obama did pass at least a rudimentary healthcare reform law. Is that – In your estimation, is that, so far, his great accomplishment?

MOYERS: Well, against his – against implacable opposition from the corporate business and reactionary forces in this country, he did get healthcare. A lot of people don’t like it but he did make some fundamental changes. As of this week, for example, your children can stay on your health program until you’re (sic) 26. This week you can no longer be disqualified because of prior disability, prior illness. He has made – he has moved the goalposts a little farther on healthcare and one day we’ll get universal healthcare like Medicare, which is the best system in the country. He did get financial regulation through, not as strong as I think it should have been. And he’s changed the image of America in the world, although that’s a constant fight as well. And he’s done some things that, you know, obviously – he’s put people, for the first time, I think, in 12 years, the bureaucracy of Washington is concerned about ordinary people. They’re trying to articulate and execute the public interest. George Bush put lawyers and lobbyists in charge of the Interior Department and there are consequences to that. George Bush put pro-business forces on the Security and Exchange Commission, there are consequences of that. The regulation was throttled, it was gagged, it was diminished and rendered impotent in the Bush years. So Obama came in with a mess that is as bad as I think when Franklin Roosevelt – He’s not Franklin Roosevelt. The system is more resistant today, and more clogged. And he hasn’t done much of – many of the things he wanted to do. But I think he’s trying and it’s still early.

CAVANAUGH: We’re going to take another call. Mark is on the line from Spring Valley. Good morning, Mark. Welcome to These Days.

MARK (Caller, Spring Valley): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for taking my call. And I’d like to agree with Mr. Moyer (sic). I think you’re right on the fact that greed is what is destroying our democracy. But if you look at through history, greed destroys pretty much every form of government that you have. You know, the small group of people, they fool the rest and steal the money and take everything and we always tend towards feudalism, and that’s where we’re heading in this country.


MARK: And as far as Obama, I think his failure, his only failure, is to not do what he took the oath to do, was defend the Constitution and that means justice for everyone, and that’s equal justice. And right now we’re seeing that these guys have stolen our money at Wall Street. I had nothing to do with it, I didn’t have any gain or anything, but I lost a lot.


MARK: A lot of people lost a lot…

CAVANAUGH: I want to…

MARK: … and we need to have some trials.

CAVANAUGH: Mark, thank you so much. I want to take one – another call and then have Mr. Moyers respond. Sam is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Sam. Welcome to These Days.

SAM (Caller, San Diego): Yeah, good morning. I’ve just been listening and it’s been very refreshing and – but the one thing I realize is, I’ve been listening to Mr. Moyers talk and I suspect that he would say that he’s probably on the other side of the spectrum from the Tea Party folks and yet a lot of what he said is very – if I didn’t know who was speaking, I’d say it was a Tea Party person, that the system’s broken, money is in charge of all politics, you know, you vote for people but they really don’t – it doesn’t really matter who you vote for. It seems like such a pessimistic perspective. And I just wonder whether the, you know, as he would probably put it, the rightwing, the Tea Party folks, and then people on the left and, you know, or – are kind of coming together and really saying the same thing. Obviously they would probably not put themselves in the same bed together but that’s what it’s sounding to me like, which is pretty pessimistic.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Sam, thank you for that comment. And, Bill, would you like to respond?

MOYERS: Oh, certainly. I mean, I don’t know how to be in the world except to expect the more confident future and then get up every morning to do something to bring it around. The fact that we – that a doctor says you have cancer is not pessimism, it’s realism, and I think it’s realistic when we look at our problems and then try to address them, try to overcome them. I mean, there was a great Italian philosopher, political scientist, who said practice a pessimism of the mind, an optimism of the will. Pessimism of the mind means to see, as I think we journalists are supposed to see, the world without rose colored glasses. Optimism of the will is to do something about it if you can. And let me just talk quickly about the Tea Party. Look, I come from that part of the country, that part, that culture. My parents would have been probably sympathetic with the Tea Party down in east Texas because they felt the big powers of the country, the big institutions of the country were not serving their interests. I live right now not far from Bucks County, Pennsylvania and there one of the most active Tea Party groups in the country is led by a woman named Jennifer Stefano. In the 2000 – Let me tell you about her. In the 2008 campaign, she called the Republican Party offering to volunteer, to be a poll watcher, a precinct captain, anything. But she could hardly get her calls returned. And I saw a quote where she said no one was representing me, not the Republicans, not the Democrats. The Republicans gave away the country under Bush. Nobody cared about the middle class. Nobody cared about people like me at all. And I think Ms. Stefano was exactly describing what’s wrong with our two party system. It’s two parties, both wedded to the same monied interests. But instead of getting mad, she got busy. She signed up to actually monitor for e-mails from, that’s a liberal activist…


MOYERS: …group, right. She disagreed with everything that Move On stood for but she was impressed with how well it mobilized energy in voters and she wanted to learn. Then she joined the Thomas Jefferson Club, which is a local Tea Party, and she persuaded members of that club to start running for the lowest, most meanest jobs in politics, that is, you know, to be a leadership captain at the local level, to be a precinct captain, because she said we’re going to take over the local Republican Party, which also was entrenched in this whole hierarchy of money. She realized that before she could join the battle for the Democrats, she would have to get rid of another obstacle and that’s the Republicans. She was frustrated with their establishment so she decided to replace the establishment. She filed papers to run for two local positions, as I say, the committeewoman for her local precinct, and the county representative to the state Republican Party, and then she recruited 100 other conservatives to do the same. Now, that’s democracy at work. I don’t know any big, quick solutions to the problems we face but whether you’re a conservative or a liberal or an independent or have no alignment, doing what Jennifer Stefano did is expressing the consistently insurgent character of America, which should be, and usually is, suspicious of all authority and acts as a check on it. So I may not – I’m a liberal. I would not wind up on that end of the spectrum where Ms. Stefano does but I admire her because she’s not at home asleep. You know, M.S. Merwin (sic), the poets’ poet, said, we the people are asleep with our compasses in our hand. We are asleep with our compasses in our hand. Well, as long as we are asleep, as long as there aren’t enough Jennifer Stefanos, whether liberal or what else, the monied class – I found this – The earlier caller talked about money.


MOYERS: The truth of the matter is our founders excluded property qualifications for federal office because they didn’t want the government to be guided by a veneration of wealth. But we have that today. Both of our parties venerate the riches that bring them the campaign contributions that they need. And, you know, look, Edward R. Murrow, who was my hero, one of the first generations of broadcast journalists, said no one can eliminate prejudice but you can recognize them. And here’s my prejudice: Extremes of wealth and poverty cannot be reconciled with a genuine democracy. And you would think, as I said earlier, Maureen, that the measure of any Democratic system of politics would be its ability to address the problems we’ve created for ourselves. But as Stefano knows and your – this caller just said, in America today, nothing seems to be working for anyone’s satisfaction except for the wealth machine at the top. We have to change that if we’re going to be true to the Consitution. Democracy is the best brake—b-r-a-k-e—the best brake against the excesses of unfettered money and that’s why we’re in trouble today. It’s not acting as a brake on capitalism.

CAVANAUGH: Bill, you’ve given us a really good point to end that. We could probably go on with this for a long, long time. I know you have to go and we have to end it, but thank you so much.

MOYERS: May is just say one thing, Maureen?

CAVANAUGH: Please do.

MOYERS: Thank you, and everybody’s welcome at “The Sun, The Butterfly and The Dove” Symposium…


MOYERS: …and luncheon on Saturday and it’s right there in San Diego at the Bayfront Hotel.

CAVANAUGH: I will tell them that…

MOYERS: All right.

CAVANAUGH: …”The Sun, The Butterfly and The Dove” Symposium is this Saturday, September 25th. It is part of Rancho La Puerta's 70th anniversary. For more information, you can go to And thanks very much to Bill Moyers for…

MOYERS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: …his time. Thank you.

MOYERS: Bye-bye.

CAVANAUGH: Coming up, we savor the flavors of the season with Chef Bernard Guillas as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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