Bill Moyers On Working With LBJ To Pass Medicare 52 Years Ago Journalist Bill Moyers once worked as the special assistant to President Johnson, where he witnessed first-hand the political maneuvering that resulted in the landmark health care legislation.
NPR logo

Bill Moyers On Working With LBJ To Pass Medicare 52 Years Ago

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/541278161/541406453" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Bill Moyers On Working With LBJ To Pass Medicare 52 Years Ago

Bill Moyers On Working With LBJ To Pass Medicare 52 Years Ago

Bill Moyers On Working With LBJ To Pass Medicare 52 Years Ago

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/541278161/541406453" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Journalist Bill Moyers once worked as the special assistant to President Johnson, where he witnessed first-hand the political maneuvering that resulted in the landmark health care legislation.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The failure of the latest attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act coincided with the 52nd anniversary of the passage of Medicare and Medicaid. My guest Bill Moyers has written a new article about how President Lyndon Johnson coaxed, cajoled, badgered, buttonholed and maneuvered Congress into enacting Medicare for the aging and Medicaid to help low-income people. At the time, Moyers was a special assistant to Johnson.

Later, from 1965 to '67, Moyer's served as Johnson's press secretary. He was a journalist before entering the political sphere and after leaving the Johnson administration, Moyers returned to journalism. He hosted public TV shows from 1971 until just a couple of years ago. He racked up about 36 Emmys and nine Peabody Awards. Although he's retired from hosting his own shows, he's the managing editor of billmoyers.com, where his article about the passage of Medicare is published. Bill Moyers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you back again.

BILL MOYERS: And I'm delighted to be here.

GROSS: So Medicare - the idea of health coverage for older people - took a long time to pass, but it dates back to 1935, when FDR proposed it. What was his proposal?

MOYERS: He wanted to get health insurance included as part of Social Security. Social Security was quite popular but health care was not. And the Republican Party and conservative Democrats and doctors around the country and an early form of the American Medical Association won that victory. It took us 40 years and four Democratic presidents before we finally accomplished Medicare 50 years ago in 1967.

GROSS: In your article, you describe what health care was like in your family. Why don't you tell us about that? At the time. And we're talking about the mid-'30s.

MOYERS: Well, in 1935, when Roosevelt made his proposal, I was a 1-year-old. My family was poor. The Great Depression had robbed my father of being a tenant farmer. He took a job for a dollar a day helping to build a highway in southeastern Oklahoma, a highway I think from Dallas to Oklahoma City. And my mother was marked all of her life by the fact that she had lost twin girls, one at birth and one some months later. I don't remember just how many because the nearest doctor - the only doctor - was too far away to get through the countryside in his horse and buggy in time to help.

So eventually, my mother and dad moved into town. And to pay the doctor who did deliver me, my father carried by hand very large sandy stones to the site that the physician had bought to build his first office. It's still there. This was exactly at the time, Terry, when, as I said earlier, those Republicans and conservative Democrats and the AMA were winning their fight to sink President Roosevelt's proposals. So all through my life, I was reminded of what it had meant to my parents and my family and, of course, to many others of that generation and beyond who didn't have coverage and good health care when they most needed it.

GROSS: Truman tried and failed to pass a version of Medicare. Then, Kennedy and LBJ made it a plank in their platform. You write that, you know, Kennedy's death helped Lyndon Johnson actually enact that agenda. How did LBJ use Kennedy's death to try to unite people behind the passage of Medicare?

MOYERS: Well, they knew that Kennedy's program was - his proposals on health care and civil rights and others were very important but were stalled in Congress. And on the plane back from Dallas - on Air Force One coming back from Dallas with the new president, a small coterie of aides and friends in the front compartment, and LBJ intuitively felt that this was the moment to try to move what had been a stalled agenda in the Congress. And so in a very - his first major address to Congress a few days after the funeral of Kennedy, Johnson at the end of it said in that slow Texas drawl of his but with genuine conviction, let us continue.

And that kind of sparked the awakening of America from their deep grief and a realization that life had to go on. Government had to work. We had a new president. Let's back him as he does what he feels he needs to do. And he felt he needed to act not on some new agenda but on an agenda that had been much discussed, much very carefully conceived and stalled in Congress. And that's how it came about that he pulled the lever and sent us into action to do what eventually came to be known as the Great Society legislation, although I often had some doubts about that sort of grandiose term. But it nonetheless was the most aggressive legislative agenda since Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who - whose New Deal was a very important part of his surprise upset victory in 1948.

GROSS: So you became Lyndon Johnson's press secretary. So you were his press secretary during the passage of Medicare, right?

MOYERS: Well, the first two years in the White House - I came back with him from Dallas, went right to the White House with him, stayed in his home for a few days. And then although I at the time was the deputy director of the Peace Corps and wanted to go back to the Peace Corps, he insisted I stay. And my first major assignment - I had two major assignments in 1964. One was to manage the - his campaign for election in November in his own right.

But the most important assignment I had was to put together the task forces that would lead to the legislative program of 1965. That included, by the way, the Public Broadcasting Act, which was passed in 1967 to include education. It included poverty, and it included health insurance. So for 15 months, I worked intensely on helping to shape that legislation including Medicare. Then, in the mid part of 1965, as he had run through two or three press secretaries, he insisted that I take that job, and I did reluctantly.

GROSS: Why were you reluctant?

MOYERS: I loved what I was doing. I mean, I loved - at first, I wanted to go back to the Peace Corps when I could first get free. Secondly, I thought creating this legislation and working with some of the best minds in government and from around the country was exhilarating. It was exhausting, but it was exhilarating, and there was something coming out of it. There was something being created that would make a real difference in the lives of Henry and Ruby Moyers in Marshall, Texas, and millions of people like them that I liked doing that.

I liked the anonymity of it. It was easier to get things done when you were not Scaramucci or Bannon or somebody like that. And the second thing is I did not want to be press secretary. I mean, the third time he asked me, I couldn't say no. I said no twice. The third time, he insisted. And I still have a sore shoulder from that encounter.

And I went home. And that night, I said to my wife as we went to bed, well, this is the beginning of the end. And she said, why? And I said, because - obviously appealing to the New Testament with which I was familiar - no man can serve two masters. And I just didn't want to get caught in the middle between the press and the president. I loved what I had been doing. And I didn't covet that job. And the truth of the matter is in time, as I anticipated, our credibility was so bad we couldn't believe our own leaks.

GROSS: That was in part because of the war in Vietnam, right?

MOYERS: Yes - mainly. It was also because Lyndon Johnson, you know, was a - 13 of the most complex people I ever knew. And it was - you had to deal with a different persona from day to day or from week to week. And sometimes it was difficult to figure out who he was at that particular time. And you'd find yourself contradicting yourself, even though you hadn't intended to.

When I took the job, when it was announced, my father sent me a telegram. And he said, Bill - telegram, most of your listeners don't know what a telegram is, but it was the end - a tweet that took a long time to come by wire and paper. But he said, Bill, tell the truth if you can. But if you can't tell the truth, don't tell a lie. And I tried very hard to walk that line, sometimes I felt like on the wrong side of it, but I - it was a tough and tenuous assignment.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Bill Moyers, who's received about 36 Emmys and nine Peabodys. And he retired from hosting his own PBS shows, but he's still writing and is the managing editor of billmoyers.com, where his latest piece was just published. It's about how LBJ launched Medicare 52 years ago in spite of the opposition. Moyers was LBJ's press secretary from '65 to '67 and was a special assistant to LBJ before that. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ RADE'S "FREAK OUT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Bill Moyers, who is now the managing editor of billmoyers.com, in which he has a new piece about how LBJ launched Medicare 52 years ago in spite of the opposition. And it's a very interesting piece to read in the light of the attempts by Republicans and the Trump administration to repeal and replace Obamacare. One of the people trying to influence public opinion against Medicare was Ronald Reagan. He was a spokesperson for the AMA at the time. What was his role in the debate?

MOYERS: He was hired by the AMA to be their pitchman for the campaign to stop Medicare. He was not yet in politics. He would not run for governor of California for two more years. This was 1964, remember. And he would travel the country making speeches to organize groups. And then he also cut a very persuasive audio and film - short film - that was circulated by an organization composed mainly of doctors' wives, who in their local communities - where they knew everybody because mostly small towns in those days and small and medium-sized towns - they would get together their neighbors and the patients of their doctors - husbands and play this audio or this little film clip if they had the means to do so.

And Ronald Reagan was very persuasive on that. Not persuasive enough to stop the Medicare legislation, but he was probably our most effective adversary. And Barry Goldwater, who was in 1964 the Republican presidential candidate - and I thought about this, by the way, when John McCain flew up from Arizona recently to make his stand - Barry Goldwater interrupted his campaign in the fall of 1964, flew to Washington and voted against the Medicare legislation we were then advocating. And we lost by four votes. His was one of those four votes. But Reagan was clearly - he could touch people in those days, just as he did when president. He was a superb communicator, as the saying goes.

GROSS: Well, embedded in your article about LBJ and Medicare, you have a short excerpt of the recording Ronald Reagan made when he was a spokesperson for the AMA trying to persuade people against Medicare. So thanks to you, let's hear a short excerpt of that recording. This is Ronald Reagan in 1964?

MOYERS: Yes.

GROSS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: Behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country. Until one day, as Norman Thomas said, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free.

GROSS: That sounds kind of familiar to me, the whole idea that, like, government's going to take over medicine and then it's going to take over your life. And that's going to be the end of freedom in America.

MOYERS: Well, that's a consistent conservative refrain, and it has been from the very beginning. It's not a - it's not one you can dismiss frivolously because none of us want to live in George Orwell's state, a state in which government is totalitarian, tyrannical and we're under constant surveillance. And you could hold out those fears of what was then, you know, the Stalinist, Communist state in Russia as a dystopian vision of America's future. And, of course, none of us want to be dictated to by anyone. And it was an argument that struck home with Americans who had - with many Americans who had a strong sense of individualism.

The country was founded in no small part on liberty and justice for all and each, therefore. So it was an argument that persuaded people, particularly when their local doctors and their doctors' local wives were saying, well, this is going to put the United States government - it's going to put Roosevelt or Truman or Kennedy or Johnson between you and your doctor. I mean, Reagan, who voted several times for Franklin Roosevelt, by the way, didn't seem to think then that his vote was going to diminish his freedom. And so conservatives had taken that article to a very extreme level.

I mean, there are many, many countries in the world who have some form of universal health care, even single-payer health care. And on the whole, there are always complaints because you can't have one policy that does fit all. On the whole, most people in Norway and Sweden and Taiwan and Canada and Japan and places where they do have a form of single payer or universal health care, they don't seem to feel that they've lost their freedom. It was an alarmist but effective argument.

GROSS: So Johnson had quite a reputation for being, like, a brilliant tactician in Congress. Give us an example of an arm he twisted or a deal he made to get an essential vote.

MOYERS: Well, he had very effective powers of persuasion. He knew how to phrase an issue or a challenge so that it would connect to people who had to vote on it in the House and Senate. I mean, when we were working on our bill in 1965, I and others had urged that the Medicare bill include a provision for a retroactive increase in Social Security payments because they would be an economic stimulus, and we sort of needed that at the moment. And he called me on the phone. And he said, well, I think it's fine to be retroactive, but I think it can be defended. I think Medicare can be defended on a hell of a better basis in Congress than this. I mean, we do know that it affects the economy. It helps in that respect. And here's a direct quote from that telephone call to me, "that's not the basis to go to the Hill, Moyers. It's not the justification. We've just got to say that, by God, you can't treat grandma this way. She's entitled. And we promised it to her."

And when he talked like that to members of Congress, they got it. I mean, he could tailor his appeal to the interests and prejudices of the member of the Senate or House in front of him, but he knew how to get them to see it differently than the arcane language in the bill itself. And at one point, we were paralyzed again on the Medicare bill. We'd gotten a good bill out of the House, and it was in the Senate. And there was a conflict between the House and the Senate. And we went to him, said, how do you want us to sell it? We're down to the last round. And if we get the argument right, we can get a good majority in the Senate and a good majority in the House.

And he said, give everybody bragging rights. He said, you go to them and you say, one day, their grandson or their granddaughter is going to look back and say - I'm paraphrasing here - my grandfather was in the Congress when they passed Medicare. And he said, you know, those grandchildren are going to be so grateful to you, and their parents are going to be so great for you because they didn't have to find the money to pay for grandma and grandpa in the nursing home. So you go to them and say they can brag that they were there when the moment came to decide for their parents and their own generation.

And you know what? I can tell you one after - I saw the light go off in one congressional face after another when that argument was made. You're writing history. You can brag about it to your grandchildren. That was how he did it. And then, of course, he knew how to play the tough game of threats against members of Congress who didn't vote for it. He could offer a dam. You know, he knew - Lyndon Johnson was a genius in knowing everyone's price. And he knew that some senators just wanted to bring their wives to dinner at the White House. Some senators wanted a photograph of them with the president. Some senators wanted a dam built on a river in their home state. He knew how to trade.

He once said to us, you know, the cardinal rule of what you're doing up in Congress is if you don't got something to give, you're not going to get something to get. In other words, you got to trade. And that was his mandate. When you go up to see Wilbur Mills, the chairman of the House - powerful conservative Democrat who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who could have killed this bill at any moment and did for some time kill the Medicare bill - you've got to give him something for what you want to get from him. That was his genius.

I mean, what all of this shows is that it takes a president who is informed and engaged and active in the legislative process respecting the differences between the branches. But it takes somebody who knows what's going on, who cares about the details of the bill, who is willing to sit one-on-one. I mean, I can see right now Lyndon Johnson having individual and collective members of Congress to have coffee in the morning, lunch at noon, a drink at 6 o'clock, even dinner sometimes. And then he would invite in the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the head of the AFLCO (ph), very important to passage of Medicare. They brought their 14 million members to back it. That's how he worked at it.

You know, he had a large persona. He was out doing bawdy things in public, making speeches and that sort of thing, but he on Medicare preferred to work quietly and behind the scenes because he did not want the public to think he was dominating Congress. And he wasn't dominating Congress. He was persuading Congress.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers. His article about how LBJ convinced Congress to pass Medicare is published on billmoyers.com. After we take a short break, we'll talk about some of his experiences as LBJ's press secretary, his thoughts about President Trump's spokespeople. And he'll reflect on his life at the age of 83. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "WATER IN CUPPED HANDS - AUNG SAN SUU KYI")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bill Moyers. His latest article is about how President Johnson managed to convince Congress to pass Medicare. The latest attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare coincided with the 52nd anniversary of the passage of Medicare and Medicaid. Moyers worked as LBJ's special assistant and press secretary. After leaving the administration, Moyers returned to journalism. He hosted public TV series from 1971 until just a couple of years ago. He's now managing editor of billmoyers.com, where his article about Medicare is published.

You left the LBJ administration during the period when the war in Vietnam was at the center of American politics. And my understanding is when you left the administration, when you left your job as press secretary, that you and LBJ never spoke again. Why?

MOYERS: We didn't. That was in - well, that was in January of 1967. I had been press secretary for over a year. He was escalating the war in Vietnam. I wish I could tell you that I had been a moral prophet and warning against the war. I wasn't. As the war went on and the damage was evident, it began to be deeply troubling. I was an advocate for stopping the bombing of North Vietnam. When I used to come to meetings in the cabinet room late, as I was often late because I was also press secretary and somebody had me cornered, he would sort of half-amusedly and half-cynically say, here comes Ban-The-Bomb Bill.

And - but mainly, Terry, I had, as I said earlier, been working on the domestic legislation. It was deeply satisfying to deal with the work on education reform and health reform and a better tax system and the war on poverty and all of that. And as the war escalated, more and more of the resources that the president intended to commit to these domestic programs, to a healthier, saner society, were going to war. If you wanted to make creative policy, it was not a good time and - to be in government because of the war was consuming everybody's energy, everybody's passion and everybody's time. And it was very hard to be constructive in such a destructive era. And I left.

GROSS: I understand that as a reason for leaving but not necessarily as a reason for never talking to LBJ again.

MOYERS: Well, this is difficult to talk about personally, but some people said he and I had a father-son relationship. And I don't know if that was true. I mean I never mistook him for Henry Moyer, who's my father whom I love deeply and who loved me. But he always had some young men recently graduated from college working for him because he had been head of the National Youth Administration for Franklin Roosevelt in Texas. That was a Depression-era organization that found jobs for young people, mostly young men. And he believed in nurturing the next generation of political leaders in Texas. And he saw in me possibly a politician of the future.

And we had a very special relationship. And I think both of us were heartbroken when we parted, with some other people feeding some rumors and some gossip and speculating, you know, what had caused us to part. And it just never - I mean I wrote him two or three letters, and he would respond tepidly but appropriately. And then - I did see him when we - at the dedication of the LBJ Library. I think that was in 1971. We just said hello, and a year - 18 months later, he was dead. And I - we never had a chance to talk again.

GROSS: Since you were the press secretary, I am really interested in hearing your reactions to what's been happening at the White House Communications Office. So what's your impression of how first Spicer and now Sanders has dealt with difficult questions from the press?

MOYERS: Well, let me say that I'm wary of criticizing my successors as press secretary. It's a hard job under any circumstance, and I certainly didn't handle the press secretary job beautifully or perfectly when I was there. You know, Terry, to be very frank, it's very hard to be a journalist today because we are supposed to observe behavior, not examine motives or psychological issues inside the people we're watching.

And it's hard to be a journalist because I don't have the language to describe adequately for my viewers or readers the malevolent furies that have been released into our body politic. This penchant for chaos, which is at the - a dagger being twisted in the heart of our political process - I don't get it, and I don't know how to explain it to people.

You have to watch - I watched the briefings of Sean Spicer to see if I could understand and explain the chaos that was there. It goes to the character and persona of the person they're trying to help communicate to the public. And I cannot explain satisfactorily as a journalist - perhaps I could as a psychoanalyst or a psychiatrist - what we're seeing.

But what we're seeing is a kind of chaos we don't have - have not have had. We've had failed presidents and brilliant and unsuccessful press secretaries. We've never had this situation where the president is living in a different reality from everybody else, including those who are trying to serve him in the White House. And penetrating that reality and helping the country - even his own administration - understand it is almost an impossible job. It's like that movie "Arrival" where the aliens come from beyond and try to communicate with humans. And because neither humans can communicate with the aliens, nor the aliens with the humans, it's a tragic exercise and a failed effort.

That's where we are right now. This is an alien force in the persona and presence of our president. And I feel for the people who try to serve him. I mean obviously they do it because they want to, and they're willing to put up with it. But it's very, very difficult to understand. Sean Spicer didn't have to do it. He could have quit. But he wanted to. He obviously felt drawn to. He wanted to try to make a difference. And it's impossible.

And there - the fact that you have a new chief of staff - the new chief of staff is not going to change the character of the principal whom he's trying to help. So it's a weird, bizarre and very, very tumultuous situation that is very difficult to decipher.

GROSS: So in one of your articles, you called Kellyanne Conway the Queen of Bull.

MOYERS: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: So when you hear one of the White House spokespeople saying things that you know are factually not true and, say, you hear it on TV, how would you like to see it treated? I think so many journalists are just struggling to keep up with correcting misstatements that are coming out during live interviews.

MOYERS: And that's very difficult because it changes the relationship of the conversation. But I really wish all of our interrogators, our interviewers, our hosts would, you know, try to learn from the BBC, which although it's a state-sponsored, taxpayer-paid-for system, they really are tougher on politicians than we are. And they're really harder on the propagandas for the other side.

And look; I was not a perfect press secretary. I made a lot of mistakes, but I did feel that the job was to try to help the reporters get what they needed to tell their stories and help the president understand what the reporters were trying to do. I never did think of myself as a propagandist for the administration or the White House. But these people I'm listening to and have been watching in the Trump administration are really just - you know, they're lying. They're deceiving us. And if you don't call that out, then the lie becomes a part of the lived experience of the people who are watching or listening.

And it's true. We haven't found a way to deal with the Kellyanne Conways or the Sean Spicers who deliberately are lying in behalf of their president. I wouldn't have lasted. Pierre Salinger wouldn't have lasted. James Hagerty wouldn't have lasted. We wouldn't have lasted six weeks if we had said we were going to lie for the president that we served.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Moyers. And his latest piece on his website, billmoyers.com, is about how LBJ launched Medicare 52 years ago in spite of the opposition, a piece that's interesting to read in the light of the attempts to repeal and replace the ACA. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCO BENEVENTO'S "GREENPOINT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is journalist Bill Moyers, who's received about 36 Emmys and 9 Peabodys. He hosted several public television shows over many years. Now he's the managing editor of billmoyers.com, where his latest piece was published. It's about how LBJ launched Medicare 52 years ago in spite of the opposition. And Moyers was LBJ's press secretary from '65 to '67 and, before that, was a special assistant to President Johnson.

Let's talk about you. You're 83 now. It's an age most people are retired. Now, you're not doing your TV shows anymore, but you're still writing and serving as managing editor of the website billmoyers.com. Why have you chosen to not fully retire?

MOYERS: Well, you know, I took on a weekly series when I was 70. And I kept it going until I was 82. And it was exhilarating, and it was satisfying. And it gave me - I didn't think of it as a treatment for old age. I just thought of it as a challenge of every day. And I'm lucky with my DNA. My mother lived to be in her early 90s. My grandmother lived that long. My father lived into his late-80s. I just have the DNA in me. Some of us are blessed that way, and some of us aren't.

And as long as you can - as long as there's something useful to do every day and something that's - is satisfying and challenging, I don't see any reason to give it up. I did give up the show because there's some other things I do want to do, including writing, as you say. But I just think being engaged in the life of the mind, and the life of your country and the life of your craft is the greatest blessing that a man or woman can have. And I am blessed that way. And I'm going to do what I can every day to contribute to my grandkids' future.

GROSS: What did the 80s mean to you when you were considerably younger?

MOYERS: I didn't know. When I was growing up, Terry, sick people in their 60s were very old to me.

GROSS: Yeah, me too, yeah, mmm hmm.

MOYERS: They seemed very old. I didn't think my - of myself old when I turned 60 or 70 or 75 or 80. You know, I retired three times from my work as a television journalist and came back not for any sense of distress - out of any sense of distress but just because I had a more - another opportunity to do it.

You know, we've raised every penny of every production that we have created, my wife and I, over these years. She was my business partner as well as my marital partner of the last 62 years. And there were times when it was more difficult to raise money than other times, so we'd take a hiatus. And during that hiatus, we'd raise more funds and come back and do something interesting.

But I never thought of the 80s as a downward slope. I mean I'm quite aware. I mean I've done seven eulogies in the last couple of years for dear friends of mine who are my age. I'm quite aware that every step is a potential last step. I'm well aware that I may not see tomorrow's dawn. On the other hand, I might see 10 more. I might be one of those Lyndon Johnson anticipated would live to be 100. I want to find something every day to do to keep me alive and with the world. And it's just - it's not something I gave a great deal of thought to - becoming 80. I might when I become 90.

But I'm very - one of my dearest friends is Norman Lear. At 94, he's still producing situation comedies out in California and still actively engaged through his organization People For the American Way. He's lucky. I'm lucky. I'm going to keep at it as long as I can.

GROSS: You've mentioned the eulogies that you've given lately. Do you find yourself thinking more about mortality?

MOYERS: No. I find myself wondering what it's like not to be here.

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

MOYERS: I mean I've been around a long time. I have no idea where I came from. I have no idea where I'm going. But being here has been remarkable. And it's difficult to imagine not being here. But I sometimes think about that. What will it be like (laughter) not to be here? And of course, like any officer in the military who's had a long career in that, he doesn't want to quit before the next war begins. And I don't want to quit before the next big story or the next big evolution in American democracy happens. But of course I will be. And I'm accustomed to it. I can't tell you what it's going to be. I mean I'm just reading this wonderful memoir on dying.

And, you know, Judith and I did a - one of our most popular series, believe it or not, was about death and dying. It was called "On Our Own" and how most Americans want to choose the way they go. I occasionally think about what it will be like in the last hours or days or weeks of one's life. But for the moment, I can't see that far ahead. I can only see the challenge of the next day on the website, the next essay, the next special.

We just did a very important documentary called "Rikers: An American Jail" about the culture of cruelty in New York's largest and meanest jail, Rikers Island, here between Queens and Manhattan. That kept me engaged fully for two years with young men and women who had been brutalized at Rikers. I mean I can't think of not having done that documentary over the last two years between my 81st and 83rd birthday.

I can't think of what documentary I don't want to do between 83 and 85. And if I die in the - halfway through it, somebody will finish it. That I know. The work will go on. The world will go on. And there will be other people as concerned and more concerned about democracy than I am.

GROSS: You said you have no idea where you came from or where you're going. You had been a Baptist minister. You're very well-read in the Bible. You're very well-schooled in other religions as well. You've done a lot of programs about faith and reason. Do you feel like all of your immersion in religion has not given you answers to where you came from or where you're going? And do you mind that it hasn't given you answers?

MOYERS: No, I think that - you know, seminary was where I got my questions answered. And life is where I got my answers questioned.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOYERS: And I mean that. I mean that. The experience of life is remarkable. And you learn far less than you want to learn and far more than you expected to. And the big questions that religious - people ask me, why do you keep covering religion so much? And by the way, I do as much expose - investigative journalism of corruption and wrongdoing and Wall Street and all that as anybody else. But I do keep coming back to religion because I know that religion is a powerful, animating force in people's lives, far more than I think many of us who live in a secular world of journalism understand.

But religion is a motivator of behavior. It's a motivator of - you know, probably more wars have been fought over religion than for any other reason. But also more hospitals have been built for - from people convicted to a good thing, who are religious. Religion is a mixed blessing in our lives. But it's a powerful presence in the lives of millions of millions of people. And for a journalist to ignore it would be irresponsible. Or it would - not irresponsible, but it would be unfortunate because that journalist would be overlooking the powerful intuitions that come from faith.

GROSS: Bill Moyers, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much for coming back to our show.

MOYERS: Thank you, Terry, for being who you are.

GROSS: Thank you. Bill Moyers' latest article about how LBJ convinced Congress to pass Medicare is published on billmoyers.com. After we take a short break, David Edelstein will review the new film "Wind River," starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.