Bill Moyers' View Of Contemporary America

With three decades' worth of experience in broadcast journalism, PBS's Bill Moyers has witnessed his share of groundbreaking moments.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. It's day one for President-Elect Barack Obama and the start of a new political era of American history. What does the election of America's first African-American president mean for our country, and what does the future look like for the Republican Party, which lost the White House as well as seats in the House and Senate?

Later in the show, we'll hear from Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who is disillusioned with his party. He is the author of "Reclaiming Conservatism." And we'll talk with Mark Sawyer, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics at UCLA.

Our first guest is Bill Moyers, who closely followed the presidential campaign on his public TV program "Bill Moyers Journal." He was senior White House assistant and press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson from 1963 to '67. His latest book is called "Moyers on Democracy."

Bill Moyers, welcome back to Fresh Air. You were President Johnson's press secretary when he signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964. I'd love to hear your thoughts on witnessing the election of the first African-American president.

Mr. BILL MOYERS (Journalist, Public Commentator): I went back to that time, and not only in 1965, but right after President Johnson was tragically catapulted into the White House in 1963. I was down at his ranch with him in Texas. And his long-time housekeeper and her husband had driven down from Washington to be at the ranch in Houston, and they couldn't find a motel that would take them. They had to go miles out of the way in order to find a dingy little place where they could spent a night.

And when they got to the ranch, LBJ, the new president, tragically in the White House by the assassination, turned to me and said, Bill, we've got to move that Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act that had been introduced under John F. Kennedy. We've got to move that Civil Rights Act and stop this kind of shame.

And, of course, then the next year, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opening public accommodations to all people, and then in 1965, that historic act, the Voting Rights Act. So my reaction last night, not as a journalist but as a witness to history and a former participant in history, was one of deep gratitude that the arc of history had come around in my time. We passed the legal barriers in 1960. Yesterday, we passed the psychological barrier, and that was a very important thing.

I think I mentioned to you once in an earlier interview that Joseph Campbell, the popular scholar of mythology, had once said to me, Moyers, if you want to change the world, you change the metaphor. And yesterday, America changed the metaphor. It was a symbolic moment for a country whose whole history has been pinioned by race. I just felt a great stone lifting from my neck. It was a personal triumph of a man who organized for his ambition like no one else I've ever seen. I cannot tell you how impressed I was with the efficiency and confidence of that campaign.

GROSS: You've described how, after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, you came upon him in a private moment, and you looked disconsolate. And he said to you, now, we've lost the South. And so has that been reversed now?

Mr. MOYERS: No, it hasn't. If you look at the colored map of the election last night, the Republican Party's base is still the deeply racist states south of the Mason-Dixon Line - from South Carolina across to Arkansas. Those states have not changed in all these years. That's one of the other tragedies of American life, is that the racist-saturated mentality of those deep Southern states, stemming from slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow, remain in place.

I mean, Obama only got the votes of one out of every six white people in Mississippi, I think. So it's a sad and melancholic commentary on the root of prejudice, that the South remains below the Mason-Dixon Line and, of course, with the exception of North Carolina and Virginia, in the grip of those old passions and old those prejudices. The rest of the nation's moved along.

This is a great mistake the Republican Party has made. I figured this was coming, Terry, honestly, when I watched that Republican convention in St. Paul because I think there were only 34, if I remember correctly, only 34 people of color in that convention. And I thought, they don't understand how this country has changed, even in the last 10 years.

GROSS: The Democrats will now have the White House and both houses of Congress. What are some of the things you would like to see them accomplish?

Mr. MOYERS: Well, I'm not in the business of advising politicians. You'd be surprised at my pattern of voting ever since I left government for journalism, but I know what they have to do. I mean, the one note I have not heard struck in the last 24 hours is the extent to which this country is in a deep systemic crisis. It isn't just the recession, and it isn't just the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. It is the fact that our system has been failing us.

And the one thing I'm not sure Obama understands is just how betrayed most ordinary Americans are out there by a system that has been taken over by a political and media and financial class and ran into the ground over the last 20 years.

So he has to tackle this meltdown of the system, this corruption of our political process. He can do that. He got a margin yesterday that gives him the means, puts him in the seat of the car with the motor running, that he can do that. But you already see the lobbyists moving into place, the Democratic lobbyists in Washington anticipating the spoils of victory. And he's got to take that on because our democratic process is in a state of crisis.

GROSS: What are some of the most interesting things you observed about how race did and did not come in to play in this election and in the campaigns?

Mr. MOYERS: I was deeply encouraged that the reptilian attacks on Obama in the last few days in Pennsylvania, by the Republicans in Pennsylvania didn't work. They tried out those tired cliches, videos of Jeremiah Wright, and tried to vilify him with him, and it didn't work as far as I can tell from the early returns that I've been studying early this morning. It didn't work. That was very encouraging to me.

I was appalled when they did that. I was appalled by the coded language used by Sarah Palin in the campaign that appealed to the baser instincts. And this is Obama's great genius, by the way. They would like to have trapped him into fighting on their ground, the ground of the last number of years, when they can divide the country and win on those old battles of values and ethnicity and that sort of thing.

I was coming down to the station this morning, and the cab driver, who looks like Obama - he's like Obama, half white, half black, he has the blood of the globe running through his veins. And he said, it's really to move on. It's time to stop being barricaded behind our color, and I think Obama is going to do that. He said, my 21-year-old son is jubilant this morning, and he's been cynical. Now, this sort of thing will wane in a while because the realities of power will cause Obama to make choices that will disappoint a lot of people.

But race did not take the root that it did when I was a boy growing up in the South or in the other campaigns. When Ronald Reagan opened his campaign in 1980 a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where those three civil rights workers had been murdered and buried, I thought, they're not learning. They're not moving. They're going to spin this web of race once again, and we're all going to be snared in it for years to come, and we have been.

Now, yesterday did not end issues of race in this country. You know, blacks do not have parity with whites. The black and white achievement gap is worse, as you know. 55 percent of all federal prisoners are black. The illegitimacy rate among blacks is over 70 percent. I mean, the realities are going to be with us. But again, I come back to my first point. Symbolically, metaphorically, and politically, I think race is not going to have us by the throat the way it has so long now.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers, the host of the public TV series "Bill Moyers Journal." His latest book is called "Moyers on Democracy." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers, and we're reflecting on the election of Barack Obama. As a result of what the McCain-Palin campaign and its surrogates had to say about Barack Obama palling around with terrorists, are you afraid that there are citizens of the United States who are going to think that our next president pals around with terrorists or is a terrorist by association?

Mr. MOYERS: I think that the Republicans deliberately tried, and I think they failed to delegitimate Barack Obama. They couldn't attack his character. They couldn't attack his family values. They couldn't attack his idealism, so they set out to vilify him. They tried to vilify him as a Marxist, a socialist, a secret Muslim, a friend of terrorists, as you say. I mean, there were conservative political commentators who actually compared him to Adolf Hitler's assumption of power in 1933.

This is the tactic of what I call the reptilian right, that in order to win, they must destroy; in order to govern, they must humiliate. And I think this is the wrong strategy. I don't think this is where this country is on the side of the divide of race and politics that Barack Obama outlined in his Philadelphia speech. But this has been their tactic, and this is the tactic they will now use as they tried to use it against the Clintons in '95 and '96. They will try to use this to delegitimate him as president.

You may have seen that Sean Hannity said he was going to use his radio show as the underground war, guerilla war against President Obama and the liberals in Washington. Well, it's not underground, and it's not guerilla. It's above ground and over the air, and they will keep this up. I think, in the long run, they think they can rebuild their constituency that way. I don't think so. I think that the country is moving on, and that's what's really behind Barack Obama's election last night.

GROSS: What are your observations about the role that religion, and the Christian right in particular, played in this election compared to the previous few presidential elections?

Mr. MOYERS: It will take some time to read the entrails of the returns last night. I have yet to see this morning any detailed exegesis of those returns. But clearly, the religious right played a big role in those deep red states below the Mason-Dixon line. As I said earlier, the Southern Baptist convention, which is, you know, there are more Baptists in Texas than there are people, and Texas went very significantly for John McCain because of the religious right.

So in their home state, where they are concentrated, the religious right is still a very influential force in the narrow confines of the Republican Party. And in the heartland out there, where there are either evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, they stayed with the party, apparently. As I said, I haven't seen these numbers yet. But at large, their message did not resonate. They cannot claim to have made the difference in the election, in yesterday's election, as they claim they did in George W. Bush's election in 2000 and his reelection.

And you know, Terry, the first I realized that John McCain was going to shoot himself in the foot was when he went down and gave the commencement at Jerry Falwell's College. These are the people who defeated John McCain in 2000. These are the religious-right people who held him up as the apostate, who disliked his stand on the social issues, and they were ruthless and merciless and vile in the way they beat him in South Carolina in 2000, spreading the rumor that he had a black child illegitimately.

Then he turned around and embraced them, and I thought, you know, John McCain, you're reputation is a man of independence, a man who reaches to the nonpartisan sectors of the electorate and brings them in, and here you are embracing the sectarian forces in your own party. This is not going to bode well for you, and it didn't. John McCain's fundamental mistake, I think, in this election - and I think you know we had two good men running for president, we really did.

But John McCain's mistake was that he tried to run on the shoulders of his former enemies, and they're never going to be as enthusiastic. And if you are a man or a woman of principle, you're just pinched when you try to appease the people who've tried to vilify you. And he, John McCain, had this pinched looked throughout this campaign, almost up until the last 24 to 36 hours, and I think it was because he was trying to make his bed with porcupines.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you a question that we could probably talk about for several hours or perhaps several days. But if you can handle it in 90 seconds or so, so what do you think the Bush legacy will be?

Mr. MOYERS: I think that - you know, Lyndon Johnson left office in a state of great turmoil - left the country in a state of great turmoil. It was 40 years ago this year at Grant Park, the scene last night of such joyful and tearful jubilation, that Chicago came apart, the Democratic Party came apart in Chicago in 1968. So Lyndon Johnson left a legacy of turmoil and turbulence from which the Democrats didn't recover for a long time, not withstanding Jimmy Carter's post-Watergate election.

But Lyndon Johnson also did some things like the Voting Rights Act of '65, the Civil Rights Act of '64. That also enhanced and protected the democratic process, despite the turbulence that was to come. I cannot find one contribution that the Bush-Cheney administration is leaving in that sense. I mean, the fact of the matter is, John McCain was running with an albatross around his neck. The Bush-Cheney brand is like tainted milk in China, and McCain was never able to remove the odor, nor was he able to remove the albatross because the reputation of this administration, and you'll hear this from many Republicans, is of incompetence, of corruption and cronyism.

It happened in the '20s with the Hardy administration. People who don't believe in government are likely to defy our government. And the record that has been left by the Bush administration is one of using government to shift resources from the public to the private sector, to redistribute wealth up. And it will be a long time before the country recovers from eight years of so destructive public policy.

GROSS: Any final thoughts you want to leave us with?

Mr. MOYERS: Well, you know, as I watched that marvelous scene in Grant Park last night, I had a lot of history on my mind because I was aware of this when I was in the White House in the '60s. You know, it was only in 1867 that the first freed man voted in an American election. It was only in 1870, after the 15th Amendment had been passed to the Constitution that intended to keep the government from preventing a citizen from voting based on race, color, or previous status as a slave, that over in Perth Amboy just right across the Hudson River from where I'm talking to you now, a man named Thomas Mundy Peterson of Perth Amboy became the first African-American to vote in an election under the provisions of the 15th Amendment.

1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African-American to serve in the Senate, in a seat once held by Jefferson Davis, the former presidency of the Confederacy. 1872, Frederick Douglass became the first African-American nominated for vice president. He ran, by the way, Terry, on the Equal Rights Party with Victoria Woodhull. August 1st, 1944, when I was a 10-year-old, Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem became the first African-American elected to Congress from the East.

August the 6th, 1965, L.B.J. signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed voting rights practices. Jesse Jackson ran. Shirley Chisholm ran. Edward Brooke ran. Carl Stokes was elected the Mayor of Cleveland all in my lifetime, the last 60 years.

When I remember that, in Marshall, Texas, where I grew up, some of my classmates went out at night and with a broomstick, drove down the road, and drove that broomstick against the heads of black children, and then went out and had beer to celebrate. When I think of the great arc of history in just my time, and I'm 74 years old, I do think that we're not a finished country yet, and that we may be recovering our compass.

It won't be because Barack Obama brought that change. It will be because he personified it. He was young enough and sensitive enough to see that this country had changed in the last 10 years, and he embodies that change. What happens now is going to require a lot from all of us, including speaking truth to Obama when he goes astray, and that's an important part of what progressives in particular and journalists in particular need to do. But anyway, it's been a great historical arc, and I'm so glad I lived long enough to see it come this way.

GROSS: Bill Moyers, thank you so much for talking with us, and I'll be watching your show to hear the always-thoughtful and insightful conversations you have about the direction America is heading, and thank you so much.

Mr. MOYERS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bill Moyers is the host of "Bill Moyers Journal," which is broadcast Friday nights on public television. His latest book is called "Moyers on Democracy." More on the election of Barack Obama in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

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