Enthusiasm for conversation, ideas, citizenship drove 'Bill Moyers Journal'

10:59 p.m Saturday, April 17, 2010 Movies

In his more wistful moments, Bill Moyers thinks of television — specifically his hour of weekly television on PBS — as a campfire. He imagines it as shared experience. A few sensitive souls gather. They sit by the fire. They talk. They listen. They feel warmth, appreciate a sense of ritual and community.

"I confess on Friday nights to feeling that beyond the camera pointing at me is a virtual circle of kindred spirits across the country," says Moyers, "and that for one fleeting hour, most especially that moment when the hour ends, we are one in having shared an experience that somehow makes us more human."

Bill Moyers has always seen something substantial in the essence of gathering, in earnest and welcoming conversation, in the name of citizenship. He tends the fire, still — sharing with us intimate, nuanced discussions on public affairs and poetry, war and race, God and baseball. He's so focused, in fact, that it's sometimes hard to believe he'll be leaving television on April 30. That's the end: the farewell broadcast of "Bill Moyers Journal."

With four decades of distinguished journalism behind him, Moyers is not in denial about his impending retirement. He's quick to point out that he's 75 years old, almost 76 — though he works with a vigor that belies his age. "You can't say retiring at 76 is premature," he says with a knowing sparkle in his eye. "I have known all along you need to know when the time has come to exit. There is a time. There is a season."

Yet for the most part, Moyers — the native of Marshall, in East Texas, who left the Johnson White House in 1967 to pursue one of the most eclectic careers in modern journalism — will have nothing to do with melancholy moods. He's too concerned with the next show, the next campfire. In the final weeks, he's still bringing up new ideas, proposing new guests, honing the focus of the next broadcast. Moyers hasn't started to clean out his office in Manhattan, and neither has his staff. "There will be plenty of time to pack on April 30," says one member of his team.

Moyers refers to his three-year run at the Journal as "the second act of my old age" — since he did, after all, retire from television once before, leaving the successful weekly show "Now with Bill Moyers" in December 2004. Moyers turned 70 that year. He and his wife, Judith Davidson Moyers, were soon to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Those round numbers felt right.

Within two years, however, Moyers was back on TV — most notably with the exquisite miniseries "Faith and Reason" in 2006, followed by the debut of the "Journal" in April 2007. Moyers says he was influenced, in part, by his friend Walter Cronkite's confession that he'd retired too soon at age 65. But more than that: A man renowned for his smart, long-form documentaries ("Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth," "World of Ideas," ) felt his work wasn't yet complete in weekly television.

"The best thing I ever did was take an offer to do a weekly show," says Moyers, alluding to a decade's line of work that began with "Now" in early 2002. "Coming in with a weekly broadcast, in the Bush administration after 9/11, actually sharpened and focused my journalism in a way it hadn't before.

"I was 65 when George W. Bush was elected, an age when most people were retiring. But because I had lived longer and traveled much and read widely, it's like ascending a hill or a mountain. The higher you go, the farther you can see, behind you and around you."

'My work is my play'

Bill Moyers' office at the studios of Public Affairs Television in New York City is cramped, practical space. Nothing pretentious or hierarchical about it. There is room enough for a small desk, some bookshelves. But there is no grand view of the Manhattan skyline, no window facing sunlight. It's too small to pace in, big enough to write in.

Yet on the top bookshelf — so high and out of the way you don't see it right away — is a row of Emmy Awards. They fill the entire shelf, 17, 19, 21 statuettes, too many to count, jammed shoulder to shoulder. His office isn't big enough to hold them all.

"My work is my play. You know that," says Moyers, off deadline, taking a moment to consider life and craft and impending retirement. He's at work, alone, on a snow-cold Saturday morning. Moyers is wearing khakis, blue shirt, rust-colored sweater. His mood is buoyant, cheerful, focused. There's a strikingly youthful spirit in him, his passions showing.

Even now, Moyers admits he is governed by "eureka" moments — the discovery of substantial ideas and the urge to share those revelations with his audience. "I'm always thinking to myself, 'God, I need to do this person.' Or: 'I want people to know about this person.' ... You want everybody to experience that 'eureka.' That's what drives me. And it has since I was 16 years old, covering the courthouse" in Marshall.

Moyers' devotion to the eureka moment has defined the "Journal." His show doesn't just follow the news, or react to it. It is journalism of foresight. In tune with his vigorous belief in an active, citizen's democracy, Moyers sees his role on the "Journal" in the context of an offering. His job: to lovingly provide the best ideas, the best information, the best insight available so that his citizen-viewers can make the best decisions possible.

Moyers has always chosen "the road less taken" in his documentary approach. Poetry? Death and Dying? Eastern medicine? On primetime television? Are you kidding? Likewise, his weekly shows forever welcome guests and perspectives one doesn't offer encounter on, say, "Meet the Press."

For example: Moyers did a riveting hour, in 2007, with African American theologian Dr. James Cone on race in America — built around American innocence, American sin and "the lynching tree" of the American South. Cone's premise: "The lynching tree, like the Christian cross, is transcendent in defeat."

These two men, each raised in the shadow of racism, engaged in a sensitive, sophisticated conversation about accountability and denial and oppression. Cone referenced biblical scholars who referred to Jesus' crucifixion as a lynching and raised the notion that America is wounded by its inability to come to grips with its own "original sin."

"You can look anywhere," Cone said near the end of the segment. "There's always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word?"

Animal rights activist Jane Goodall's visit to the "Journal" in 2009 was rich with eureka moments. Goodall remarked that her beloved African chimpanzees were living in a shrinking forest habitat, segregated into forest islands that didn't allow them to roam. It was weakening their gene pool. Spontaneously, Moyers asked Goodall if she thought these intelligent animals had a sense of "why" — why their habitat was disappearing.

Moyers wanted to know the answer. But in a very subtle way, his question invited his viewers to consider more deeply the notion of human culpability.

The "Journal" doesn't implore you to believe; it merely invites you to consider a broader point of view. That's why Moyers held the door open to Republican Party renegade Ron Paul and liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich (on the same show) during the 2008 presidential campaign. That's why he welcomed conversation about single-payer health care at a time when President Obama removed it from public conversation. That's why he produced a full show, in 2007, assessing arguments for impeachment hearings against George W. Bush — not with the intent to "punish" a president, but to set a precedent against unchecked executive power in future administrations.

The "Journal" was conservative scholar Andrew Bacevich, at the height of the Obama "hope" campaign of 2008, cautioning America against investing too much faith in the idea of any modern president as a national savior. It was choreographer Bill T. Jones reflecting on the legacy of Lincoln through modern dance. It was University of Texas economist James K. Galbraith advocating a new Medicare threshold at age 55 in the fall of 2009 — months before the idea popped up in the U.S. Senate. It was theologian Karen Armstrong championing an International Charter for Compassion. And it was the poet Robert Bly wondering why American schoolchildren don't take field trips to the tomb of Walt Whitman, in the way he saw Persian kids celebrate the legacy of the poet Hafez by visiting his gravesite.

"There's a growing hostility to knowledge in this country," New York University President John Sexton remarked to Moyers during a recent interview, worrying aloud about the state of American critical thinking. "There's an allergy to thought, an allergy to complexity, nuance. A kind of collapse into an intellectual relativism where opinions become fact and even knowledge and wisdom."

Not on Friday nights. Not on the "Journal."

The oath

Bill Moyers worries about the state of American journalism, even as he articulates his belief in its potential — and its responsibility — in this time of transition. He ponders the failures of the press during the build-up of the Iraq war, set against the heroism of Ernie Pyle.

"I still wish," he wrote in his most recent book, "we had some kind of professional oath, a Hippocratic vow of our own, that might haunt us in the night when we stray from our mission."

So: What would such an oath sound like?

Moyers considers the question a moment, takes it into his body. His leans forward in his chair for emphasis.

"I will never betray my audience. Or my reader," he says very softly, very earnestly. "I will ... promise ... that if you give me an hour of your life, I'm going to give you something of value in return. Something that's honest, that's true to experience, that represents — and represents is an under-appreciated word in journalism — the truth of what I've found. It may be a short article. It may be an hour interview. But it will represent truth. That's the oath."

Moyers' devotion to craft, to oath, is legendary. "We all think he never sleeps," says Judy Doctoroff, executive producer of "Bill Moyers Journal," who has worked with Moyers and his wife for 30 years. "He reads more than any of us. And he's extremely good at synthesis, knowing what's important — and when."

In the office, Moyers moves about with an air of confidence, efficiency, openness and good cheer. He's very much "the captain of the ship," even as he encourages collaboration, interaction, criticism. Moyers involves everyone — to the point of sitting with interns, asking them what books they're reading, whom they'd like to see on the show.

"Collaboration seems to come naturally to him," says Doctoroff. "My opinion mattered to him just as much 30 years ago, when I was a personal assistant, as it does today as executive producer. If a 23-year-old (member of the staff) feels we didn't get something right, or missed a key point, that input is welcomed."

Moyers usually tapes on Thursdays — and if circumstance demands it, he'll tape two segments in one day. Moments before the camera rolls, he is poised, jolly, self-deprecating. "This is Maria, who does my makeup," he calls out. "I tell her to make me look like Tom Hanks."

On camera, Moyers lets his intellect and intuition guide him. Sometimes, the interviews are seamless, the chemistry so right, the answers so bright, that a 25-minute spot is over and done within 40 minutes. On the other hand: He recently filmed for more than two hours and 15 minutes with novelist Louise Erdrich — resisting several logical stopping points and sensing, correctly, the eureka moments that lay ahead.

Moyers can be extremely nimble in the midst of intense and courteous listening. Last spring, he was engaged in a brisk interview with economist Robert Johnson about the banking crisis, bailouts, the concept of "nationalized" banks. Deep into the session, Moyers sensed they were talking over the viewers' heads. But rather than shut down the camera and hash out the dilemma with his guest, Moyers coyly asked some questions a second time, rephrasing a bit, reversing field. The interview gained intimacy right away.

On the second pass, Johnson used a football metaphor to describe the pitfalls of taxpayers supporting banks considered too big to fail. "The one danger you have, when you keep these banks open, when they're insolvent, is they have a temptation to very risky activity," said Johnson. "(It's) sort of like a quarterback throwing a Hail Mary pass. The losses on an interception accrue to the taxpayers. And the touchdown is kept by the stockholders."

Several hours later, Moyers interviewed author and linguist John McWhorter. When the session ended, the camera at rest, the two men lingered on the set and chatted amicably about family, about writing, about modern journalism. The subject eventually turned to blogging — and reports of "blog fatigue" in the press corps during the last presidential campaign.

"Do you blog?" asked McWhorter.

"Oh, no," Moyers answered gently, sincerely, with no hesitation. "I don't think fast enough."

The edge

Bill Moyers' evolution as a journalist is its own fascinating story — bigger than his role on television. His speeches crackle with an activist's urgency. His writings evoke the spirit of Thomas Paine or Cesar Chavez. Consider this passage, from the introduction of his 2008 book, "Moyers on America":

"Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists: 'No one can eliminate prejudices — just recognize them.' Here is my bias: Extremes of wealth and poverty cannot be reconciled with a genuinely democratic politics."

"America needs a different story," he writes a little later, decrying the increasingly mainstream notion that "freedom simply means freedom to choose among competing brands of consumer goods, that taxes are an unfair theft from the pockets of the successful to reward the incompetent, and that the market will meet all human needs while government itself becomes an enabler of privilege."

Outside of his commentaries, Moyers doesn't often speak this boldly on his show — devoted, as it is, to a respectful exchange of ideas, whether the topic is the legacy of William F. Buckley or the effect of health care legislation on women. At the same time, Moyers has devoted considerable attention to an "imperial" executive branch, consolidation of media control, disparity of wealth in America, the environment.

During the first week of the Obama presidency — inaugural confetti still on the minds of most Americans — Moyers started his show with a segment on the morality of drone warfare and the looming spectre of Afghanistan. Later, he devoted a full hour to Lyndon Johnson's tragic descent into the Vietnam War, broadcast just days before President Obama made the decision to escalate the fighting in Afghanistan.

As LBJ's special assistant in the White House, Moyers witnessed how the war wounded a president and two countries. So he broadcast this Vietnam show — featuring so many Oval Office tape recordings illustrating the gradual, insidious decline into tragedy — as a gesture of service. He wanted Obama to know his experience.

"The one consuming lesson that Lyndon Johnson taught me, and then violated himself, was a man's judgment is no better than his information," says Moyers. "I knew, unintentionally, that our information was always more flawed and incomplete and less reliable than it should be, at that level of affairs.

"Everything I've done as a journalist, intentionally or unintentionally, unmarked or marked, unknown or known to me, was in the hope that (President George W.) Bush wouldn't make our mistakes, repeat our mistakes. That Obama wouldn't repeat our mistakes."

In many ways, Moyers sees himself as a divided person — "torn between explaining the world, which is the work of a journalist — and changing the world, which is the work of an advocate and activist." Long ago, LBJ encouraged him to pursue a political life, not a journalistic one, with higher social aims in mind. Moyers admits he wonders about the choice he made, every day.

"I may have diminished my impact in journalism by spending those years (too) aware of that objectivity mandate that all of us who went to journalism school in the 1950s came out with," he says. Still: "The First Amendment includes the right to reach a conclusion based upon the information you gather. That's part of that oath."

The campfire

In his more practical moments, Bill Moyers thinks that the television-as-campfire metaphor isn't quite right. To be precise: There are many, many disparate campfires these days. It's a more fragmented landscape. It's not like the era of Murrow, or Cronkite, when the size of the campfire was unfathomably large.

Reflective for a moment, Moyers recalls flying into LaGuardia Airport in the 1970s. He was just starting in broadcast journalism then, hosting the first rendition of "Bill Moyers Journal." Moyers looked out the window, considered the flickering of light beneath him — traffic on the parkway, the bustle in Queens, planes ascending, planes landing, the energy of the airport. It was 9 o'clock on a Thursday night.

"And I thought, you know, look: All those people are not watching my show," he says with a smile, considering "because of that moment of recognition, I have never persuaded myself — or been persuaded — that I signify that much. I matter to people who watch. ... but I do not have the exaggerated sense of myself or the role that good friends and honest strangers attribute to me."

During his early days at PBS, Moyers made a pact with himself. It didn't matter how many people tuned in. What mattered was intimate and substantial connection with those who did. That's what makes the parting so difficult — for his two million weekly viewers, and for many conflicted members of Moyers' team at PBS.

"I don't think of this as the end of a career, just the end of a show," says Doctoroff. The consensus seems to be that her boss will never completely retire. Maybe he'll blog. Maybe he'll do radio. Maybe he'll write the book on Lyndon Johnson that's been on his back burner for a while — and reflect on a time "when it was permissible to be idealistic."

Moyers has devoted much of his life to the larger idea of an informed democracy. Yet he bows his head ever so slightly at the mention of Robert F. Kennedy's intent, articulated in 1968, to have the major TV networks air a two-hour prime time documentary on American poverty if he were elected president. If the people knew, certainly they would act.

"I no longer believe that, by the way," he says softly. "We have so much information. We know what's wrong. The predicament is: We don't do anything about it. That may be a factor in my decision to retire. ... We're saturated. There are more people who know than there are people who do. That's a quandary I haven't resolved yet. But it's a fact."

Right now, Moyers says what he wants most is to step away, find some solitude, "to let rise whatever lies dormant that I haven't had the opportunity to hear." And, yes: to let nature have its way.

"We don't serve time in journalism. We serve the moment," says Moyers, standing in the green room after his session with Erdrich. "That's the thing about age, about death. It takes us out of the story before we get to see the end."

Comes a time, says Bill Moyers, for a younger generation to tell the story. But in this moment, someone's summoning him to the editing room. There's a show to produce, a campfire to build.

View full experience