Bill Moyers on Saving Our Democracy, ‘Selma’ and LBJ

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Bill Moyers headhshot on setDuring a live chat on Tuesday, January 13, Bill shared his thoughts on saving democracy, fighting corporate interests, the new film Selma, Ted Cruz’s political aspirations, President Lyndon B. Johnson and much more.

But first he started by answering a question that so many have been asking lately: What will you be doing next? Bill said he’ll be taking “a few deep breaths,” after working virtually nonstop and dealing with weekly deadlines over the past decade.

He added: “I’ll be more specific about the future after I give it more thought than has been possible to date. Our website billmoyers.com continues with contributions from a wide variety of sources on what we consider the perils to democracy – inequality, the corrupting power of money in politics and climate change.” He added that he reads the comments section, on both Facebook and on our site, everyday: “I look forward to hearing from all of you.”

He then went on to answer questions sent in via our website, email and social media. Below are some of the highlights taken from the chat transcript.

How can ordinary citizens and local communities defend themselves against the industrial juggernaut steamrolling our democracy?

Bill: Join with others who are already in the fight. You can learn who is leading the charge against money in politics in our recent feature: 8 Ways You Can Fight Citizens United. Remember the old African proverb: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” There has to be a long and concerted campaign to shame the politicians who participate in this perpetual system of bribery. It’s going to require activists, muckraking journalists, legal experts and voters to band with like-minded people in the congressional district where you live. Confront your member of Congress whenever he or she is holding a rally or town meeting. And don’t vote for anyone who refuses to take the pledge to cut this cancerous abomination from our body politic!

What’s it going to take to save our democracy?

We have to keep our goals clear — corporations are not people, money is not speech.
Bill: A real mobilization of citizens against the money and power that now governs us. Each of us has a special interest in one issue or another – the Keystone pipeline, climate change, a living wage, saving the Grand Canyon… you name your own. But it’s all over unless there’s a broad and sustained movement to take on the monied interests. It’s very, very hard to imagine making this happen, in no small part because the issues of money in politics are technical. But we have to keep our goals clear — corporations are not people, money is not speech. And hammer, hammer away, at every level.

No one says it better than John Lewis, who was almost killed in that Selma march across the Pettus Bridge in 1965 but survived to serve 28 years in Congress, where he remains today. He reminds us that the reason limits were placed on campaign contributions was to protect the integrity of the vote in this country, so that no one individual or corporation would have the power to override the public will or dictate the outcome of elections. But now the voices of the poor and working classes are silenced by the unfair advantage the John Roberts’ and the Mitch McConnells and their allies have given those who bankroll our politicians. How to save democracy? As Lewis himself says, only a determined people can do that.

What are your thoughts about the future of Ted Cruz in American politics, and higher office?

Bill: Ted Cruz? An ambidexterous demagogue. He’s able to pick the people’s pocket while aggrandizing his own self esteem. An Ivy Leaguer seemingly quite comfortable making a fool out of those who trust him.

Of all the interviews you’ve done, is there one that you particularly feel is important for young activists to watch?

Bill: The one with Marshall Ganz. Ganz remains one of our most experienced strategists of organizing — he teaches an international course on it at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Ganz was with Cesar Chavez and the field workers decades ago. You should also check out my interviews with Ai-Jen Poo, George Goehl and Peter Dreier.

What did you think of the film Selma?

There are some beautiful and poignant moments in the film that take us closer to the truth than anything I’ve seen to date — to the cruelty visited upon black people by everyday whites and armed authorities.
Bill: “There are some beautiful and poignant moments in the film that take us closer to the truth than anything I’ve seen to date — to the cruelty visited upon black people by everyday whites and armed authorities. To the courage and fear of those black people who put themselves on the line for freedom’s sake; the ambivalence in Martin Luther King Jr. facing the inevitability of leadership and the constant threat of death. As for Lyndon B. Johnson: There’s one egregious and outrageous portrayal that is the worst kind of creative license suggesting the very opposite of the truth, in this case, that the president was behind J. Edgar Hoover’s sending the ‘sex tape’ to Coretta King. Some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced that one. And even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way, way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him.

Then casting the president as opposed to the Selma march, which the director does, is an exaggeration. He was concerned that coming so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 there was little political will in Congress to follow up so soon with voting rights legislation. As he said to Martin Luther King Jr., “You’re an activist; I’m a politician” and politicians read the tide of events better than most of us read the hands on our watch; he knew he needed public sentiment to gather sufficient momentum before he could introduce and quickly pass a voting rights bill. He asked King to give him more time to bring a few Southern ‘moderates’ over to the cause, but after King made the case that blacks had waited too long for too little, Johnson told him: “Then go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.” He wouldn’t have welcome the bloodshed at the bridge, but when it happened he knew the time had come and within days he made his own famous ‘We Shall Overcome’ speech that transformed the political environment. (By the way, this is one of the weakest moments in the film.)

Also, the director has a limpid president speaking in the Senate chamber to a normal number of senators. In fact, he made that speech in the House of Representatives where the State of Union speeches are delivered. Johnson was more animated and passionate than I have ever seen him, and I was standing very near him, off to the right. The nation was electrified. Watching on television, Martin Luther King Jr. wept. The film blows the possibility for true drama here — the drama of history happening right before our eyes. Nonetheless, go see it. You’ll be reminded of what happens when courage on the street is met by a moral response from power.

You were involved in passing the Voting Rights Act? How do you assess its impact all these years later?

Bill: Just as Lyndon B. Johnson said at the time, the right to vote is “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” We’re a different country today because of what happened then, obviously — with black Americans holding office all the way up to the president of the United States. After he signed the Voting Rights Act I asked LBJ if he thought this meant we’d have a black president in our time. He said no, we would have a woman first. Well, one down, another to go. On the other hand, the reactionaries never give up.

Roberts’s great conceit — shared by other conservative members of the court, including Clarence Thomas who keeps trying to kick over the ladder by which he himself was hoisted to prominence — is that racism is no longer the problem it once was.

The George Wallace of then would be pleased with the John Roberts of today. You may know the chief justice was a young lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice during the 1980s and doing everything he could to undermine the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. Roberts’s great conceit – shared by other conservative members of the court, including Clarence Thomas who keeps trying to kick over the ladder by which he himself was hoisted to prominence — is that racism is no longer the problem it once was. More or less what you can imagine a privileged elite of corporate law would think, no? Read some of the memos and op-eds the younger Roberts wrote arguing for watering down the Voting Rights Act and you will understand why the conservative movement saw him as their new white hope on the bench. He seems to believe discrimination has to be intentional to be unconstitutional – that there’s no such thing as systemic racism, or racism layered over decades or centuries. So we have now a good soldier for the conservative strategy of legal resistance to equal rights would now occupying its commanding heights.

How do you remember LBJ?
(Note: Bill served as Lyndon B. Johnson’s press secretary from 1965 to 1967.)

Bill: Lyndon B. Johnson owned and operated a ferocious ego. But he was curiously ill at ease with himself. He had an animal sense of weakness in other men (he wanted to know what you loved and what you feared and once he knew, he came after you). He was at times proud, sensitive, impulsive, flamboyant, sentimental, bold, magnanimous and graceful (the best dancer in the White House since George Washington); at times temperamental, paranoid, ill of spirit, vulgar. He had a passion for power but suffered violent dissent in the ranks of his own personality. He could absolutely do the right thing at the right time — the reassuring grace, if you will, when he was thrust into the White House after Kennedy’s assassination; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But when he did the wrong thing — escalating the Vietnam war — the damage was irreparable.

How would you describe the most striking and significant differences in our government that you have observed between the Vietnam era and today?

Bill: First, the sheer size and complexity of government — check out a recent post on billmoyers.com by John J. Dilulio Jr. reviewing Francis Fukuyama’s new book on the state of democracy; the two of them — Dilulio and Fukuyama — make this point brilliantly.

Second, the growth of the deep state — private instruments or agencies of power acting for and funded by the government (intelligence, the military, etc.). There’s a vast government we don’t see. A long-time senior Republican staff member of Congress, Mike Lofgren, wrote an extraordinary essay for billmoyers.com under the title The Deep State. Read it before you go to bed tonight. Rather, first thing in the morning. If you tackle it before bedtime, you won’t sleep.

And finally — although I should have started with this one: The triumph of money over every aspect of government. Money’s always been a force, but never to the extent it is today. We are just this close (I’m squeezing my index finger and thumb tightly) from oligarchy — the rule of the wealthy few for the purpose of increasing their wealth.

Replay the entire chat with Bill »

Karin Kamp is a multimedia journalist and producer. She has produced content for BillMoyers.com, NOW on PBS and WNYC public radio and worked as a reporter for Swiss Radio International. She also helped launch The Story Exchange, a site dedicated to women's entrepreneurship.
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