Bill Moyers’s Progress

Published May 23, 2007

Weekly Standard

On April 25, Bill Moyers’ Journal opened its primetime season on PBS with the blare of trumpets and an undisclosed amount of taxpayer support. The Washington Post and Washington Times carried full-page ads touting his new series. Other papers chimed in. The Providence Journal called Moyers’s first program, “Buying the War,” “must-see TV.”

Aware of mounting criticism of his views, in a lengthy Christian Century interview Moyers blasted the “rise of an ideological partisan press that is contemptuous of reality,” “serves up right-wing propaganda as fact, and attempts to demonize anyone who says otherwise. . . . They actually work to keep reality from us, whether it’s . . . the social costs of ‘free trade,’ growing inequality,” or “the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation. It’s as if we are living on a huge plantation in a story told by the boss man.”

Moyers’s blast against “boss” men may be a reaction against his humble beginnings. Born in 1934 to a working-class family in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, he studied journalism and received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Baptist Theological Seminary.

For several years he was a top aide to President Lyndon Johnson, serving a stint as his press secretary. In some ways it was an odd couple. Of LBJ, Moyers once said: “I work for him despite his faults and he lets me work for him despite my deficiencies.” After they parted ways, Moyers became publisher of Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, from 1967 to 1970. From there, he ascended to PBS, from where he still sits in the taxpayer-funded bully pulpit.

I met Moyers before he became such an august personage. In 1968 an activist group, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, published a strident book, In the Name of America, whose findings were endorsed by 28 prominent liberal Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders, such as Father Robert Drinan, Bishop Paul Moore, Jr., and Martin Luther King, Jr. (In a Riverside Church speech the year before, King called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”)

Since these well-known religious leaders were calling U.S. policy illegal and immoral, I felt the book cried out for serious critical attention. I approached Moyers whom I had known in Washington and assumed he still backed LBJ on Vietnam. He took me to a Garden City restaurant for a cordial lunch. I asked why he had left the White House.

“It was largely for family and financial reasons, but I also wanted to establish my own identity,” he said.

“What about press reports saying you were LBJ’s conscience?” I asked.

“That’s simply not so. He has his own conscience and it’s as morally sensitive as any of his critics. He’s his own man and, down deep, a do-gooder.”

“Did you ever have policy clashes with him?” I asked.

“Not really. We got along well. And I was mainly responsible for getting John Roche [a former ADA chairman and a stout supporter of LBJ’s Vietnam policy] on the White House staff,” he said with some satisfaction.

I then asked him about the current criticism on Vietnam from church leaders.

“Well,” he said, “I left the Baptist ministry partly because I felt the churches didn’t understand the proper role of religion in public affairs.” Hinting a change in his outlook, he added, “I recently had several good discussions on Vietnam at two Mennonite colleges.”

I expressed my misgivings about In the Name of America and gave him the book. Assuming he would be critical of its stance, I asked if he would review it in Newsday. He was silent for a moment, a look of puzzlement in his big innocent eyes, and said he would. Two weeks later he wrote me, “I’m not going to be able to follow through on my intentions. Trusting you’ll forgive me.”

I was more disappointed than surprised.

— Ernest W. Lefever is a senior scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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