Read a variety of 21st century speeches by Bill Moyers that use history to bring vital context to the present, and connect the dots to reveal vital truths.

‘The Religion of Inequality’, November 12, 2012

Thank you for that generous introduction, Serene. And thanks to all of you for that generous welcome. It is always a joy to be here at Union Theological Seminary among so many kindred spirits.

I had to think twice when Gary Dorrien invited me to speak in this series in memory of Forrest Church. I was honored by the request, but humbled at the prospect of trying to do justice to the man. Forrest was a complex compound of passion and principle. Both eloquent and earthy, in the public eye he was supremely self-confident, yet in private as embattled as any one of us who must fight the longest war of all, the war of the self – that civil war described by Emily Dickinson when she wrote:

I felt a cleaving in my mind,
As if my brain had split—
I tried to match it seam by seam—
But could not make it fit.

None of us is a seamless web, none, no matter how well intentioned, escapes a tear, a rift, a split in the inner garments of the self. Perhaps this is one reason why Forrest himself once acknowledged, “I don’t come thundering out of the pulpit with the quote-unquote truth. I am involved in a search, and all of my conclusions are tentative.” But of some things he was certain. He led All Souls Church in a far-reaching ministry that included homeless shelters for women, food for the hungry, and a task force that went about the city posting placards that read: “AIDS is a human disease and deserves a humane response.” In plain-spoken but learned sermons he challenged complacent living and in his more than 20 books he challenged conventional thinking. He was a questioning man; his was a questing soul.

After reading his book The Seven Deadly Virtues I called him up and asked him to join me for a conversation on my weekly television series “World of Ideas.” That interview remains one of my favorites from a long life of encountering lively minds. It was 1988. We had both just watched the televised hearings from Washington into the Iran-Contra scandal – President Reagan’s illegal sale of weapons to Iran and his administration’s troublesome encouragement of insurgency in Central America. One of Reagan’s loyal subalterns, Colonel Oliver North, was a seminal figure in the scandal and had been called before the Senate committee to testify. His Bible-thumping, flag-waving performance was so charismatic – so demagogic – that he turned public opinion in his favor. Forrest had written in his book that “the devil almost always appears in drag,” so I asked him to expand on the idea. He answered:

“Well, the devil is evil in disguise and often disguised as goodness…. [so]… One has to be particularly careful, therefore, in…the celebration of virtues because virtues –particularly great virtues – can veil great evil…I listened to Oliver North’s testimony… and he was able to justify every one of his acts according to the highest of virtues: faith and love and hope and fortitude and justice. The testimony, I think, was so powerful to the American people because, rhetorically and superficially, it represented everything we admire. But, for that very reason, it’s the more dangerous because the flip side, the dark side, isn’t being seen and we can do tremendous evil in this world in the name of good and in the name of God.”

You have an insight there into the thinking of the man for whom this lecture series was instituted. You can learn much more about him in the bracing and captivating biography–Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church, published just last year. The author – Dan Cryer, veteran journalist, indefatigable reporter, talented storyteller, and longtime member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls – is here tonight. Thank you for a work so lucid and engaging that Forrest’s story will now outlive him.

My text this evening is three-fold:

First, The Washington Post, November 9: a story by Steven Mufson about what happened at Murray Energy, an Ohio-based coal company, on the day after the election last week. Murray Energy is the largest privately owned coal mining company in the country. It is notorious for violating safety regulations, sometimes resulting in injuries and deaths, and for polluting the environment by repeatedly spilling coal slurry into a nearby stream. Robert Murray, the chairman and CEO, is known as a cutthroat businessman. Earlier this fall he reportedly forced miners to attend a Romney campaign speech. Now, after Barack Obama’s re-election, he called together some of his staff and read them this prayer:

Dear Lord. The American people have made their choice. They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance. We are a Country in favor of redistribution, national weakness and reduced standard of living and lower and lower levels of personal freedom…The takers outvoted the producers. In response to this, I have turned to my Bible and in II Peter, Chapter I, verses 4-9 it says, ‘To faith we are to add goodness; to goodness, knowledge; to knowledge, self control; to self control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, kindness; to brotherly kindness, love.’ Lord, please forgive me and anyone with me in Murray Energy Corporation for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build. We ask for your guidance in this drastic time with the drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business enterprise. Amen.

Then Robert Murray fired 156 of his workers.


Second, the Gospel of Luke, Chapter l0, a story told by Jesus of the lawyer who, intending to nettle him stood up and said:

“‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life? He said to him: What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] replied: ‘You must love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered right,’ said Jesus, ‘do this and life is yours.’ But the man was anxious to justify himself and said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied: ‘A man who was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hand of brigands [robbers]; they took all he had, beat him and then made off, leaving him half dead. Now a priest happened to be traveling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him, and passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him to his own mount, carried him to the inn and looked after him. Next day, he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have.’ ‘Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the brigands’ [robbers’] hands?’ ‘The one who took pity on him,’ [the lawyer] replied. Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do the same yourself.’”

Third, a short story by the late Stevie Smith, told through her poem “Not Waving but Drowning”:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Modern capitalism has turned the greed once considered sinful into virtue. Oliver Stone famously captured the transformation in his 1987 movie Wall Street. The high roller Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) has used information obtained by his ambitious young protégé, Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen) to manipulate the stock of a company that Gekko intends to sell off for a huge personal windfall while throwing overboard its workers, one of whom is Bud’s own blue-collar father. The younger man is aghast and repentant at having participated in such duplicity and chicanery, and he storms into Gekko’s office to protest, only to be abruptly reminded of how the world now works:

“It’s all about bucks, kid; the rest is conversation,” Gekko tells him. “Hey, buddy, you’re still going to be president [of this firm], alright? And when the time comes, you’re going to parachute out a rich man. With the money you’re going to make, your dad’s never going to have to work another day in his life.”

“So tell me, Gordon, when does it all end? How many yachts can you water ski behind? How much is enough?”

“It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero-sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another. Like magic. This painting here, I bought it ten
years ago for $60,000; I could sell it today for $600,000. The illusion has become real and the more real it becomes, the more desperately they want it. Capitalism at its finest.”

“How much is enough, Gordon?”

[And Gekko answers]: “The richest l% of this country owns half our country’s wealth – $5 trillion. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds from inheritance – interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons, and what I do – stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90% of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing; I own. We make the rules, pal: the news, war, peace, famine, upheaval; the price of paper clips. We pull the rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market and you’re part of it.”

That was 25 years ago, in the high-flying 80s. Today the New Gilded Age roars down on us like an uncaged tiger on a rampage. The Greek historian Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE) long ago warned that “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” Yet inequality in America has soared to the highest level since the Great Depression, with the top one percent taking 93% of the income earned in the first full year after the recovery from the Great Collapse of 2008.

When I was a young man in Washington in the 1960s, most of the country’s economic growth actually accrued to the bottom 90% of households – in other words, to the majority of everyday people. From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, incomes grew at a slightly faster rate at the bottom and middle of the economic distribution. The economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez looked at tax data from 1950 through 1980 and found that the share of all income going to everyone BUT the rich increased to 65%. The average income for 9 out of 10 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75% increase in income content in constant 2008 dollars, when their study was published.

Then something happened. Since 1980 the economy continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits went to the top. Workers were more productive but shared less in the wealth they were helping to create. As the richest among us began to capture the rising share of economic growth the line flattens for the bottom 90%. In the late 1970s the richest one percent received nine percent of total income and held 18% of the nation’s wealth. By 2007, they had more than 23% of total income and 35% of the wealth. Now, more than 50% of all the income gains go to the richest one percent. The 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans; those 400 possess more wealth than half the country combined. At no time in modern history has the top one hundredth of one percent owned more of our wealth or paid so low a tax rate.

This phenomenon has changed America, because inequality matters. Surveying its impact…

On economic growth, which it slows;
On health, which it undermines;
On social cohesion and solidarity, which it erodes;
On education, affordable housing and other public services, which it starves;
On government, which it hijacks.

The scholar Robert McChesney concludes, sadly: “This isn’t what democracy looks like.”

It isn’t. Bruce Springsteen sings of “the country we carry in our heart.” The real country is far different.

Let’s bring it down to where we live. Of America’s 25 largest cities, New York is now the most unequal, rivaling the questionable status of a third world country. The median income for the bottom 20% last year was less than $9,000, while the top one percent of New Yorkers has an average annual income of $2.2 million. Yet the powers-that-be recently awarded Donald Trump the right to run a luxury golf course in the Bronx which taxpayers are being charged at least $97 million to build. You’ve heard about the crane that the recent storm almost toppled from the skyscraper going up on West 57th Street. That crane has been serving the construction of what will be the tallest residential building in the city, which the The New York Times has already dubbed “the global billionaires club.” At least two of the apartments are under contract for more than $90 million each. More modest ones have been priced from $45 million to more than $50 million.

Another snapshot: In October The Daily News reported on how the mega-star Beyoncé delivered her baby – Blue Ivy – at Lenox Hill Hospital in a posh full-service suite that costs $1,700 a night. Babies cared for in those suites receive nearly one-on-one nursing care. “Two floors above,” the reporter Greg Smith wrote, “up to 18 newborns are sometimes tended by a single nurse.” Nurses told him the ratio is putting the babies’ lives at risk, because by contract, nurses are only supposed to work with eight newborns at a time.

So inequality impacts negatively on economic growth, health, solidarity, public policy, public services, and politics. Yet none of the embarrassing questions raised by this vast inequality were addressed in our recent campaign. They might have been if instead of establishment journalists from inside the Beltway the debates had been moderated by someone like, say, the distinguished literary critic Terry Eagleton. The author of Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, is a visiting professor at Notre Dame University. Last year, in The Chronicle Review, he asked:

Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality? What are the mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and indignity for the many? Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it, as the good-hearted liberal reformist suggests, that we have simply not got around to mopping up these pockets of human misery, but shall do so in the fullness of time [perhaps in Obama’s second term]? Or is it more plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality…?

These are questions politicians, financiers, and CEOs are not eager to discuss. As Eagleton recognizes, they no longer seem willing even to talk about capitalism. Not surprising. The recent economic crash forced us once again to think of the setup under which we live as a whole. “Whenever you hear capitalists talking about capitalism, you know the system is in trouble. Usually they prefer a more anodyne term, like ‘free enterprise’” [or ‘job creators,’ the euphemism of the season.] This, too, is not surprising. If we think too hard about the system, if we talk too candidly about it, we have to acknowledge it isn’t working for working people. Wages are stagnant. Twenty-three million Americans unemployed, underemployed, or no longer looking for work. Forty-seven million need food stamps. Life expectancy has been contracting by five years for women and by three years for men. Oliver Goldsmith’s famous lines seem taken right from today’s headlines: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Too harsh? Reality is harsh. Next weekend I’ll be in Milwaukee filming for the latest chapter in a series of documentaries our team has been producing over the past 20 years – the ongoing story of two families, one black, one white. Both families lost their breadwinners in the first wave of downsizing in 1991 as corporations speeded up the moving of jobs out of the city and out of the country. Since then we’ve been chronicling their efforts to cope with wrenching changes and finding a place for themselves in the so-called “the new global economy.” The Stanleys and the Neumanns are the kind of people my mother would have called “the salt of the earth.” They love their children, care about their communities, attend church every Sunday, and work hard all week. They thought of themselves as middle class.

To make ends meet after the layoffs, both mothers had to take full-time jobs. Both fathers became seriously ill. When one of them had to spend two months in the hospital, the family went $30,000 in debt for lack of adequate health coverage. We were present with our cameras when the bank began foreclosure on the modest home of one of the families because they couldn’t meet the mortgage. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching and revealing scenes in any film we’ve ever done. Like millions of Americans, the Stanleys and the Neumanns were playing by the rules and getting stiffed by the system. By the end of the decade they were running harder and slipping further behind, and the gap between them and the prosperous top of America was widening.

We called our first documentary on these two families “Minimum Wages” because they had gone from good-paying jobs at the beginning of the 90s to minimum wages at the end of the decade. Here’s what I said at the conclusion of that film, which aired in 2000:

Making it in America today means more family members working longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits. If the trend continues it will change radically America’s workforce and America’s future. Economic progress will come to fewer and fewer of us, the divisions among us will grow and millions will find that poverty and a paycheck go hand in hand. Our prosperity requires a workforce that can pay for its goods and services. Our society requires the simple justice that rewards hard work. As a nation we face no problem more vexing than people who can’t support themselves and families that barely survive – even when they are working hard.

As I say, that first documentary was broadcast 12 years ago. We called the next one “Surviving the Good Times” because prosperity was increasing for the top while people like the Stanleys and the Neumanns were just barely making it in a country where the middle class was slowly coming apart. Our team is in Milwaukee as I speak, filming with those same two families for the final film. One morning earlier this week they met the father of one family at 6 A.M. as he set off to pick up garbage for the City of Milwaukee. Later in the day they filmed the mother of the second family. She is a home health aide, divorced, caring for a disabled 15-year-old boy, making $9 an hour. She has no health insurance and says that if she wasn’t living in a spare room with a relative, she would likely be homeless. Nobody in her family has climbed up the economic ladder. They appear to be sinking into the growing ranks of the permanent underclass. They are not waving but drowning.

You don’t need to read Das Kapital to understand what’s happening, or to see that the United States has become one of the harshest and most unforgiving societies among the industrial democracies. Just read The Economist – arguably the most influential pro-capitalist, business-friendly magazine in the English-speaking world. I keep handy a sobering warning published in the magazine almost ten years ago, on the eve of George W. Bush’s second term. The editors examined the growing body of evidence and concluded that with income inequality in this country reaching levels not seen since the first Gilded Age, and social mobility rapidly diminishing, “The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”

Mind you, this was before the financial collapse, before the bailout of Wall Street, before the recession which accelerated the gap between the Superrich and everyone else. Accentuated by the Bush-Cheney tax cuts for their donor class, the great sucking sound we have been hearing is of wealth being redistributed upward from the middle and working classes to the very top. The degree to which our income distribution has skewed unequally is, as Robert McChesney writes, “historically unprecedented and so dramatic it is almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around it. It is like trying to calculate the distance from Earth to a distant galaxy in centimeters using Roman numerals.”

A century ago, in an essay appropriately titled “Utopia of Usurers”, the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton wrote that “In every serious doctrine of the destiny of men, there is some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men. But the capitalist really depends on some religion of inequality.”

Exactly. But this religion is not revelation, it is invention. Pundits, politicians, and economists tell us that this vast inequality is driven by globalization and technology, inevitable change brought on by universal pressures. Sorry: that diagnosis just isn’t good enough. It completely ignores the whole cloth of reality, including the work of such respected political scientists as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. They spent years researching their book, Winner-Take-All-Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. They conclude: “Step by step, debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”

In even fewer words, “It’s the politics, stupid.” The staggering inequality of today was politically engineered over the last 30 years.

To help the cover-up of this phenomenal heist our financial and political class needed an intellectual gloss. So they recruited – and subsidized – various public intellectuals who turned “globalization,” “neo-liberalism,” and “the Washington consensus” – whatever one chooses to call it – into a theological exercise. The “dismal science” of economics became a miracle of faith. Wall Street glistened as the Promised Land, and hardly anyone noticed that those angels dancing on the head of the pin were really witchdoctors with MBAs brewing voodoo magic. Their numbing narcotic injected into the body politic turned greed into a divinely sanctioned creed that underpins the religion of inequality. One of its high priests, Lloyd Blankfein, beholding all that Goldman Sachs had wrought, pronounced it “God’s Work.”

One prominent neoconservative religious philosophy even articulated a “theology of the corporation.” Thus it came to pass that the celestial chorus began to sing of wealth creation as participation in the Kingdom of Heaven Here on Earth. CEOs were now partners in the work of the Creator. Never mind that the philosophy of the atheist Ayn Rand – that altruism is evil, the self-preeminent, and government the enemy – seemed more influential with this crowd than the teachings of John Paul II, not to mention those of Jesus himself. Distorted derivatives of traditional doctrine became window dressing to promote an economic system based solely on self-interest. So help me, at one point I thought they were going to mount a crusade to change the Lord’s Prayer from “Give us this day our daily bread” to “Give me this day my daily bread – and everyone else’s, too.”

Back in the 1980s, when this neoconservative worldview was ascendant, I was struck by its silence – even indifference, if not hostility–toward the role of Catholic social teaching on the struggle of workers to organize in the 1930s. I am not Catholic, but this was an era and subject of interest to me because my parents were thrown out of work as tenant farmers when the Great Depression hit, and my father never had a stable job with decent wages until many years later when he finally joined a union. After meeting and filming with Dorothy Day, the inspiration with Peter Maurin behind the Catholic Social Workers, I began to read as much as I could about faith-based action during the Depression and the struggles which had preceded it in the populist and progressive eras.

That’s how I came upon the 1891 Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor. That’s the one that opens by taking note of the “unmistakable elements” wrought by “the spirit of revolutionary change” that were “disturbing the nations of the world” through “the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and the marvelous discoveries of science,” “the changed relations between masters and workmen,” and “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses.” The third paragraph of the Encyclical is remarkable to this day. Remember, this is 1891. The Pope is calling for “some opportune remedy” to be found “quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” In short pungent strokes the document describes how “the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place…Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” And then, a stinging condemnation of injustice by which [quote] “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”

When that Encyclical was published, America’s First Gilded Age was in full swing. Workers were fodder for the new machines of the industrialists, farmers were at the mercy of the banks and railroads, and in the south freed slaves had been betrayed into indentured servitude. The Pope got it right, and the message got through. In the same folder where I keep a copy of that Encyclical, I also keep an essay by the historian Perry Bush, describing how in the 1930s Phillip Murray of the steel workers, James Carey of the electrical workers, and John Brophy of the CIO (the Congress of Industrial Organizations) were fiercely pursuing justice with the hot breath of Catholic social teaching as the wind in their sails. When John Brophy was heckled at a labor rally, he shouted back: “Yes, I am a Catholic, and because I obey Catholic teaching I go forward in my chosen calling to fight against greed and privilege.”

Can’t do better than that, especially if you’re on the front lines of a class war launched from the top down.

The fight for what the Encyclical called “the laboring poor” was an ecumenical affair, as the historian Bush writes. Martin Luther King Jr. was a newborn when a handful of courageous ministers in the Deep South embarked upon “the dangerous task of cobbling together a biracial union” on the strength of common class interests. Joining with African-American Baptist ministers they sought to “pull sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta out from under the crushing system of debt peonage.” [Pay attention, indebted students: you are the new peons.] Against the threat of Jim Crow “justice” – which included the flaming crosses of the KKK and the lynching tree – these clergy were sustained by a Christian ethos that informed their organizing vision. Six of the 14 members of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union were preachers, Perry Bush tells us. Their meetings began and ended with prayer and were marked by hymns and spirituals. Just as Paul the Apostle had set forth in his letter to the Ephesians, they began to break down the dividing walls of caste and class “and helped model God’s reign in the midst of injustice.”

So, in 1950, did two young Catholics who had been assigned as “priests to the poor” in California’s Central Valley. Thomas McCullough and Donald McDonnell traveled relentlessly to meet farm workers who had been beyond the reach of the Church. They sat on the banks of ditches next to the fields and in the workers’ chicken-coop housing and talked about strength in numbers. They soon met the young organizer Cesar Chavez, who would later recall how the three of them read together from Pope Leo’s encyclical upholding labor unions. That, as Chavez would say, inspired his own efforts to infuse a powerful movement of “the laboring poor” with a dynamic faith at its core. There were nightly rallies blessed by priests; pray-ins outside a boycotted farm with striking farm workers kneeling and praying for the strikebreakers; crosses and statues of the Virgin carried aloft by the faithful on their pilgrimage of protest to Sacramento. Cesar Chavez himself fasted for a month trying to forestall the violence of frustrated field hands. These and all the other images, Perry Bush wrote – battle-weary mine organizers quoting scripture, clerical collars in picket lines in Youngstown and Chicago; white Presbyterian and black southern Baptist ministers proclaiming words of hope to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta – “speak to a powerful theme that pulsed through much of American history over the course of the past century.”

Yet here in this chapel among the spirits of our progressive tradition and you, its living agents, I admit to feeling weak in our cause. The great theological disputes that once made martyrs of our ancestors and toppled kings to make them free, have passed. Faith-based social movements seem a remnant of decades past more than a political force for the future (There were, alas, no pray-ins, outside Murray Energy after those workers were fired last week following Obama’s re-election.) As we see in the stories of the Stanleys and Neumanns, injustice is slower these days, although no less inexorable. It is experienced statistically rather than as a shared experience or through a soul on fire like Murray, Carey, Brophy, McCullough, McDonald, Chavez or King Jr. We have our faith, each of us. But what will become of our country?

And what happens to all those people who are not waving but drowning?

When the brilliant young French observer Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he was excited by the great democratic fervor he witnessed. Perhaps it was that excitement that caused him to exaggerate the equality he also celebrated. At the time Boston’s richest 15% of households controlled roughly 86 % of the wealth, and roughly 30% of America’s labor force was enslaved. But close readers of de Tocqueville will notice that he did in fact warn of aristocracy’s staying power, even in this new country. A half-century before the full flowering of the Gilded Age, he saw that that aristocracy would remake itself. In the second volume of Democracy in America he dedicated a chapter to examining organized capital – or what he called “aristocracy created by business.” He described it as among “the harshest ever created in the world,” and suggested further that “if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate the world, it may be predicted that this is the channel by which they will enter.”

And so it did. With the Gilded Age the new aristocracy surged and soared. Once again, the industrialists, robber barons, and Wall Street tycoons who celebrated it needed a theory to justify their exploitation and define their status. The most influential of their intellectual enablers was the Episcopal minister-turned-Yale professor of political economy, William Graham Sumner. As he famously explained, “Competition…is a law of nature” and nature “grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.” Logically, then, if “there be liberty…”

“Men get from [nature] just in proportion to their works, and their having and enjoying are just in proportion to their being and doing. Such is the system of nature. If we do not like it, and if we try to amend it, there is only one way in which we can do it. We can take from the better and give to the worse. We can deflect the penalties of those who have done ill and throw them on those who have done better. We can take the rewards from those who have done better and give them to those who have done worse. We shall thus lessen the inequalities. We shall favor the survival of the unfittest, and we shall accomplish this by destroying liberty. Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative; liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.

From this first flowering to its resurgence today, from the essays Sumner wrote against social legislation and trade unions in the violent infancy of those basic reforms, to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and their imitators, to Paul Ryan’s budget and Mitt Romney’s write-off of half of America, to the everyday fare of the right-wing media machine, the goal and effect of this worldview has been to legitimate and protect a hierarchy of monopolized resources, small powerful networks of privilege, and yawning differentials of political influence across our population. We can only be amazed at how the religion of inequality is again being touted precisely in a time when it should have collapsed from self-incrimination along with the markets. A privileged faction in a fervent culture of greed brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then blamed government and a “dependent” 47% of the population, and ended up richer and more powerful than ever.

How can this be?

Here is one explanation – from one of America’s richest men – Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund. He earned between two and three billion dollars in 2011 and wound up #55 on the Forbes 400 list. The New Yorker reports that he is a philosopher at heart. He claims to have figured out not only how the economic machine works but how the principles of natural selection – “the survival of the fittest” – apply to business. He has even produced a collection of maxims to explain, as he puts it, how “almost everything is like a machine. Nature is a machine. The family is a machine. The life cycle is a machine.” To succeed in this kind of world, he wrote in one essay, you need to “Be a hyena. Attack the wildebeest.”

(Wildebeests are antelopes native to southern Africa. They are no match for the flesh-eating dog-like spotted hyena that gorges on them.)

Here’s what Ray Dalio wrote about being a Wall Street hyena:

“When a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is that good or evil? At face value that might not be ‘good’ because it seems cruel, and the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently ‘cruel’ behavior exists throughout the animal kingdom. Like death itself, it is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life. It is good for both the hyenas who are operating in their self-interest and the interest of the greater system of the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution (i.e., the natural process of improvement.) In fact, if you changed anything about the way that dynamic works, the overall outcome would be worse…Like the hyenas attacking the wildebeest, successful people might not even know if or how their pursuit of self-interest helps society, but it typically does…”

Moreover, he concludes: “How much money people have earned is a rough measure of how much they gave society what it wanted.”

I don’t think so, Ray. Not this time. What we got this time was a disaster – the second almost-fatal catastrophe brought on by speculators in the past 70 years. Collapsing shares and house prices destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Americans were saddled with greater debt, holes were torn in the safety net, and broad financial risks were imposed on workers, investors, and taxpayers. The free-market for hyenas became a slaughter for wildebeest. By the hyena’s accounting that’s a social good – “an improvement in the natural process,” as Ray Dalio put it. Nonsense. Human beings have struggled long and hard to build civilization; this doctrine of “progress” would take us back to the jungle.

Our Founders warned against the corrupting power of a privileged faction to capture the machinery of democracy. James Madison, for one, studied history through a tragic lens. He saw that the life cycle of previous republics had degenerated into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy. He and others knew the republic they were creating could go the same way. They attempted to erect safeguards to prevent narrow private interests from subverting the moral and political compact that begins, “We, the people.” That foundation of our experiment in self-government has been under siege for three decades now, and something tells me we have reached the breaking point of this long crisis.

The recent Frankenstorm benignly named Sandy brought home to us just how much we need each other – and government. David Morris, one of our ablest citizens and public thinkers, reminds us that it was the government weather service, using data from government satellites, that delivered a remarkably accurate and sobering long range forecast that both catalyzed action and gave communities some time to prepare. It was governors and mayors who called for the evacuation of low lying areas, and public employees – police and firefighters – who saw that it happened peacefully. It was government 911 and 311 telephone operators who responded to hundreds of thousands of calls for help; public schools and other public buildings that were converted into temporary shelters; tens of thousands of National Guard troops who were mobilized to transport essential equipment and supplies, assist at evacuation center, clear roads and bridges. Public agencies swung into action to protect sewer plans, to organize a cleanup, repair infrastructure, and come to the relief of homeowners and businesses. Hurricane Katrina, says David Morris, showed the tragic consequences when government fails its duty, but that was the exception that proves the rule. Government can reach across jurisdictions and bring together both the public and private sectors exactly because its mission “is not to enhance its balance sheet but to preserve the well being of its citizens.”

And once again we saw human beings at our best: volunteers – many of them the members of Occupy – swarming into the devastated area to lend a hand; neighbors taking in neighbors; first responders risking their lives; visiting nurses climbing dark stairs and groping along dark hallways to reach isolated and desperate people; the doctors and nurses at Bellevue Hospital – the oldest public hospital in the country – forming a bucket brigade to lift fuel up 13 flights to backup generators so that its 32 stalled elevators might start working again. We’ll never know the name of all the heroes. We never do.

And of course there are exceptions. Hardly had the food store near our home in New Jersey hauled in a generator in order to open the next morning that thieves stole all the gasoline from it. A reminder of why the social contract matters in the first place.

All this drew me back to a small book by the gifted essayist Rebecca Solnit: A Paradise Built in Hell. Spurred by her own experiences in California’s Loma Prieta earthquake, Solnit reached back into other disasters to see what they had in common: the 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; 9/11 in New York; and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She found that in the aftermath of each disaster ordinary people became altruistic, resourceful, and brave, reaching out to strangers in kind and helpful ways. Paradoxically, some people found then the sense of purpose that had been absent from their everyday lives. Solnit concluded: “The desires and possibilities are so powerful that they shine from wreckage, carnage, and ashes.”

Some of you saw my series with Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth. In the first episode – “The Hero’s Journey” – we were talking about the influence on Campbell’s own thinking of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Because Schopenhauer believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality of human nature, he puzzled over how some people override it and give up their life for others. In a famous essay Schopenhauer asked himself: “How is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another human being that without thought, spontaneously, he (or she) sacrifices his own life to the other? How does it happen that what we normally think of as the first law of nature – self-preservation, survival – is suddenly dissolved, and we put another’s well-being ahead of our own?”

Campbell wrestled with this question in our conversation. He then told me the story of what had happened once near his home in Hawaii, in the heights where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains. People go there to experience this force of nature, to let their hair be blown in the winds – and sometimes they go there to commit suicide.

One day, two policemen were driving up that road when they saw, just beyond the railing, a young man about to jump. One of the policemen bolted from the car and grabbed the fellow just as he stepped off the ledge. His momentum threatened to carry both of them over the cliff. But the policeman wouldn’t let go. Somehow he held on to the man and the railing long enough for his partner to arrive and pull the two of them back to safety. When a newspaper reporter asked the first policeman, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed,” he answered: “I couldn’t…I couldn’t let go. If I had, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.”

Campbell then asked: “Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman? He had given himself over to death to save a stranger. Everything else in his life had dropped off; the wishes and hopes for his lifetime no longer matter. What mattered was saving that young man, even at the cost of his own life.”

How can this be, Campbell asked? And once again invoking Schopenhauer, he answered his own question: “Such a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical reality, which is that you and that other are two aspects of the one life, and your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time. Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life,” so that sometimes instinctively, sometimes deliberately, our actions affirm that reality, through some unselfish act, some personal sacrifice. It happens in marriage, in parenting, in our relations with the people immediately around us, and in our participation in building a society based on reciprocity. Give us this day our daily bread.

Rebecca Solnit puts it this way: “What actually sustains life is far closer to home and more essential, even if deeper in the shadows, than market forces, and much more interesting than selfishness. Most of the real work on this planet is not done for profit; it’s done at home, for each other, for affection, out of idealism, and it starts with the heroic effort [of parents] to sustain each helpless human being for all those years before fending for yourself becomes feasible…”

And that work travels outward, into “a shadow system of kindness that provides soup kitchens, food pantries, and giveaways, takes in the unemployed, evicted, and foreclosed upon, defends the indigent, tutors the poorly schooled, comforts the neglected, provides loans, gifts, donations and a thousand other forms of practical solidarity, as well as emotional support,” until inch by inch – inch by inch – people “reform or transform the system from the inside and out.”

Campbell said that the command to love our neighbor is obviously one of the hardest of all religious concepts. But to recognize our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery, and when you claim this as “the truth of your life” – when you live as if it’s so – you are threading yourself into the long-train of history and the fabric of civilization. You are recognizing at some deep level what the writer Alberto Rios once said: “I am in your family tree and you are in mine.” This recognition honors something more profound and more essential in us than the hyena’s appetite. Perhaps the simplest way to say it is that “We’re all in this together. We are all first responders to one another.”

The gods of the religion of inequality have failed. They are false gods. Once we admit this, we can get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.

‘The Pivotal Role of Public Television’, November 16, 2011

I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here. Or maybe I can. Last Friday, after filming in Washington for our new series, I was waiting at Union Station for the train back to New York when a woman about my age approached me with a quizzical look on her face. She asked:

“Weren’t you Bill Moyers?”

“Once upon a time,” I answered.

She said, “I’ll be darned…. I didn’t think you were still with us.”

“Well, I think I am,” I answered. I guessed that she was a news junkie, so I said: “Maybe you have me confused with other on-air journalists, old-timers like David Brinkley. Or Bob Pierpoint. Or Howard K. Smith… Paul Duke…Charles Kuralt…All of them have passed on.”

She was still unsure, and said: “Well, I always watched you when you were alive.”

She’ll have another chance come January. I trust she doesn’t get Moyers & Company mixed up with The Walking Dead.

So considering the alternatives, I’m glad to be here. Very glad. Like crime boss Michael Corleone trying to go legitimate in Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

Now I know the bind you’re in. As Eleanor Roosevelt said in the days leading up to World War II, we live in “no ordinary time.” Things are tough. The financial and emotional distress created by the economic meltdown makes it all the more difficult for people to hear each other – and makes your job harder. Not only to raise operating funds, but to figure out how to offer programming that doesn’t ignore the reality of America today: of men and women out of work; of parents wondering how they are going to pay the mortgage, rent, electricity or heating bill, let alone the car payment, gas, and phone bill; of college graduates who can’t find jobs but have massive student loans to repay; of senior citizens with shrunken pensions. Just the other day, the government published a new report confirming that the poverty rate is the highest in 52 years – 49 million of our fellow Americans, including 16 million children. One in seven American households is “food insecure,” living with the specter of too little to eat. And the inequality gap is greater than it’s been since 1929.

No wonder that in one recent survey, only 15% of Americans said our country is heading in the right direction. Washington is polarized and paralyzed, and our gross national psychology seems as bearish as our gross national product. On my desk I’ve kept a headline from the Wall Street Journal: “The End of American Optimism.” And I think often of the story Mark Twain wrote called “The Terrible Catastrophe.” In it he got his characters into such an impasse that no matter what anyone of them did, they would all be destroyed. Twain decided the situation was hopeless, and he ended the story by writing: “I have these characters in such a fix that I cannot get them out of it. Anyone who thinks he can, is welcome to try.”

He doesn’t tell us if anyone did.

In times like these, what do we do as public broadcasters?

During this new election season, for example, what’s our role? Some admirable journalists in the media will do their best to follow the money, trace the patterns of influence and power, analyze the veracity or relevance of partisan claims, and place them in context. But as usual, the “horse race” will dominate the coverage. We’ve seen it already: Trump’s in, Trump’s out; Palin will, Palin won’t; Bachmann’s up, Bachmann’s down; Christie will, Christie won’t; Perry’s Sir Galahad, no, Gomer Pyle; Cain’s able, oops, Cain ain’t; Obama’s Jimmy Carter, no, he’s Harry Truman – take your pick.

But many Americans want a place where they can go for something different. And that’s our opening – yours and mine. Our two major parties may be further apart ideologically than at any point since the late 19th century, and their most loyal voters seem “better sorted” than they used to be, with liberals more likely to be Democrats and conservatives more likely to be Republicans. Certainly the most passionate in both parties have moved further apart. But as the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write in their book, Winner Take All Politics, most Americans are just not that far apart in their views. Polarization reflects not the growing polarization of voters, they conclude, but the growing failure of politicians to respond to the real-life concerns of the broad majority of the country, people who have little time for politics because they’re too consumed by the challenges of just getting by.

Yet these are people who also long to understand the relevance of policy to their lives – the connections between government decision-making and their own needs and duties. They rely on reason more than rant, and appreciate a place where conventional wisdom and misleading rhetoric are challenged, and where the true conversation of democracy continues – a conversation crucial to the quality of our lives and the character of our country.

Let me share with you a letter I received some weeks ago from a retired scholar of religion and society at one of our leading universities. I don’t know him personally, but I found what he had to say compelling. It actually was intended for you, too – for all of us. Because he implored me to urge public broadcasters to address the crisis in American politics. Confidence in government keeps falling, he wrote, as more and more people come to see that the downward slide in their quality of life has been brought on by “engineered economic inequality.” You and I, he said, have a special obligation to measure political speech against relevant data, to gauge political promises against deeds.

Democracy, he said, lives or dies on the process of political representation. And representation cannot happen unless citizens see that their personal situations and the condition of the nation are inextricably linked – unless they understand how their difficulties in providing for their children, sustaining their marriages, getting further education or training, are caused directly and indirectly by tax, fiscal and monetary policies at the national level.

So make it clear, he urged us, that no one can afford to be confused about politics; their livelihoods, and any hope for their children and generations beyond depend on what politicians do with their votes. So please, he asked, help us redress the imbalance between policy and partisanship. Clearly explain the distribution of tax burdens. Expose the special interest tax loopholes and how money and influence corrupt government. Show how increases in productivity connect to declining take-home wages, and unemployment rates to alcoholism, depression, divorce and suicide. In other words – and I could feel his sense of urgency – enable us to grasp the relationship between declining optimism about the future of the country and the social indicators of personal despair.

That’s a tall order, and it comes at a time when, as the old song goes, we ain’t got a barrel of money. Sometimes it feels like we don’t even have the barrel. And yet, while reeling from the same hard slap of austerity as the rest of the 99 percent, there are ways we in public television can help Americans address the crisis of hope that has enveloped our nation.

We start with assets – three things that that no other network or alliance of television stations possesses. We have our independence. Yes, we still rely on government funding and the largesse of foundations and corporations, but our core constituency is the public in public television. That’s why we’re here. And when we allow political or other outside pressures to misdirect our agenda, we’re letting the public down. We’ve sometimes censored ourselves even before the threat has been whispered. But we are not owned by a multinational syndicate with a not-so-hidden agenda, like the one where the promise of “fair and balanced” has been twisted on its head into a perversion worthy of George Orwell. As the group 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting notes, “In an era of increased media consolidation, public broadcasters are among the last remaining locally owned and controlled sources of news, information and cultural programming.” What an asset.

The second thing we have is trust. You may have seen the recent New York Times/ CBS News poll in which 89 percent of the American people say they don’t trust government to do the right thing – the highest level ever. But for the past several years, as measured by the Roper Public Opinion Poll, Americans in every age, ethnicity, income and education group have ranked public television as America’s most trusted institution. That’s all of us: the stations, APT, PBS, NETA and others. At the beginning of this year, a survey of trust in television news, conducted by the group Public Policy Polling, found public television, quote “at the top of the heap,” unquote.

To keep that trust we must never flinch from reality, no matter the loud and malicious attacks from partisans who come down on us for reporting what contradicts their propaganda.

When Newt Gingrich maliciously described public television as a “sandbox for rich people,” we should have kicked the sand right back in his face. Bullies don’t respect 97-lb weaklings until they fight back.

Ideology, remember, is a worldview people swear is true despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it’s one reason the attack against reason and reality has reached the proportions of an unholy crusade. The anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote that Americans “desperately need to reaffirm the principle that it is possible to carry out an analysis of social life which rational human beings will recognize as being true, regardless of whether they happen to be women or men, whites or blacks, straights or gays, employers or employees, Jews, Muslims, or born-again Christians” Or skeptics and secularists. “The alternative is to stand by helplessly as special interest groups tear the United States apart in the name of their ‘separate realities’ or to wait until one of them grows strong enough to force its irrational and subjective brand of reality on all the rest.” We’ve seen what happens then. We have to stand against that happening.

The third and perhaps most important asset we have is community. Those people who remain our most loyal supporters, and who give, and give again, to support us, know that for all the flaws of public television, our fundamental assumptions come down on their side, and on the side of democracy. Working harder to live up to their expectations – especially now, in such difficult times – would do more than anything to dispel the general malaise about the state of our industry and free us from the constant defensive strategy that drains our energy and imagination.

Public broadcasting has been around long enough to qualify as an American institution. Quite a remarkable achievement. But that’s also far enough away from the original vision to forget what inspired our creation. As some of you know, the original Carnegie Commission report landed on my desk when I was a young White House assistant to President Lyndon Johnson. The Commission envisioned that public television “…should seek out able people whose talents might otherwise not be known and shared…provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard…be a forum for debate and controversy…[and] have the means to be daring, to break away from narrow convention, to be human and earthy.” I had helped organize the Peace Corps in the early 60s, and not since those heady days had I read anything as exciting. The statement President Johnson made when he signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law in 1967 remains a classic endorsement of what was really meant by the term “the public interest” in the Communication Act of 1934.

Ten years later I had the privilege of serving on the second Carnegie Commission, convened to assess how public broadcasting had fared after its initial decade. That our report was largely ignored is not nearly as important as the verdict we rendered. We were candid about what was missing – enough funding, fearless independence and a clear grasp of what public media could mean to the public interest.

It was an honest assessment, and for all the marvelous programming over the years, most of its concerns still hold true. It’s just that today our situation is even more serious. The core problem is that we still don’t have an expansive national vision of what we’re about, where we want to go and what we want to become. Until we are able to say clearly and comprehensively what it is we really want to do, how much it will cost, and how we intend to get there, we can’t blame Congress, the White House or even the foundations for not supporting us more fully. In our candid moments, usually while bending elbows at the bar, we admit to each other that we’re mired in a sclerotic system that binds us to a politically cautious set of national entities that are both underfunded and themselves incapable of leading anyone towards a more vigorous notion of our future.

I know from talking to station managers that there’s been more discussion of what’s needed, at least internally, than producers like me may realize. But I also know that discussion has been halting in its resolve and implementation. There’s much talk about this going on among all your affinity groups and their coalition in the AGC, but it’s been difficult in such forums to frame the vision and the plan. Further, stations can only carry it so far on their own. Everyone involved in the system has a vested interest in the status quo, no matter how fragile and perilous. In truth, we all know that the better solutions demand a major overhaul of the national system. Yet there’s a huge vacuum between the system, nationally and locally, and the big foundations and no one has yet been inspired or capable enough to link the two at the level of a consensus national plan.

There are always people who remain afraid of change or an unknown process, fearful of where it might lead. But by contrast, the British and Canadians go through periodic charter reviews that invoke a national conversation; there’s a culture of discussion and planning for public media in those nations that help them survive even the worst assaults from detractors or vested interests. This could be a reason that public support for public media in nations like the UK exceeds $80 per capita, while we’re still limping along on $1.49 per capita. Perhaps it explains why, despite this multiplatform universe, we still have no serious, morning, national public television service other than programming for kids. As I’ve said before, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now is there for the asking – and Amy would bring with it a charismatic talent for raising funds for local stations that would build your membership. And there are other serious possibilities for such a day-starting service. See me if you want to know more.

In the meantime, I’m here to tell you that even within the fiscal crisis public television currently faces, we have an opportunity to serve the public – to renew our bond to our communities.

You may not have money for in-depth documentaries or other high-end productions but you have cameras, microphones, studios and the trust of the community. You can be the ombudsman for the public within your reach, provide the venue for forums, teach-ins, town meetings, and debates over the issues that matter to people where they live, telecast in an atmosphere of openness and clarity without the mean and mindless rhetoric or cant that are so triumphant today. Civic engagement is the lifeblood of democracy and the bedrock of its legitimacy. No media can nurture, foster, and empower it the way we can.

And there are other ways to tell your communities what’s going on that they need to know. Everyone knows there’s a crisis in journalism; commercial broadcasters and newspapers have cut more than 15,000 local journalism jobs in recent years. Watchdog reporting – covering city councils, school boards, state governments, public utilities, public services – is imperiled. The FCC commissioned a study on the information needs of communities and is now holding hearings around the country on how to improve local news. Several foundations are getting into the act. And some journalism schools – maybe even one near you, a potential partner in reviving local journalism.

Before you say this is a pipe dream, given our hard times: I am old enough to remember when public television stations created low-budget nightly broadcasts while local newspapers were on strike, bringing reporters into the studio to discuss the stories that no longer had a venue in print. It’s still a fact that the most powerful production value can be the human voice and the human face. The talent is out there – you’d be surprised how willing they are to work. You have the airtime; offer them the chairs and table and let them go at it. I’ll wager there are local institutions, foundations, organizations, and individuals who can be enlisted to put up the money for you to signify in this way. KPBS in San Diego has pioneered on this front. Check it out.

Just two nights ago, as I was cleaning off my desk to get ready for the trip to Memphis, I had a call from Chris Daggett, the dynamic president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey. He was excited to tell me about the collaboration taking shape to push back the news blackout that has been spreading in New Jersey since the Newark Star-Ledger cut loose 45% of its newsroom staff in 2008, and The New York Times closed its bureau in the state capitol of Trenton. Now, New Jersey Public Radio (owned and operated by New York Public Radio) is creating the New Jersey News Service and Montclair State University is establishing the NJ Digital Media Initiative, and they’ll work together to deliver public interest journalism for the twenty-one counties, 566 municipalities, 604 school districts, and all the independent authorities – almost too many to count – that operate in the state. These are the political and governmental entities that affect the daily lives of citizens, from taxes to law enforcement to our children’s’ minds.

Their impact reminds me of how the journalist and historian Richard Reeves responded when a student asked him for his definition of real news. Richard answered: “Real news is the news we need to keep our freedoms.” Keep your eye on this new development in public media–it could turn out to be a model for the future.

Meanwhile, let me offer just a few other ideas for you to consider: Take a whole evening of prime time and give it to a forum for the fight in your neighborhoods over charter schools. Do the same for other distressed public institutions – your libraries, for example. Or your parks; the governor of New Jersey announced this week he’s going to privatize our state parks – turn them over to corporations to run for a profit. Why not a teach-in on whether that’s a good idea – and who wins and who loses if it happens?

Or how about one week inviting as many social workers as you can get into your studio and asking them to share what they see every day – how people are coping each day with these worst hard times? Do a series of workshops on Occupy Wall Street, pro and con. Out there in Iowa, find the lady carrying the placard I saw last weekend on television that read: “I couldn’t afford to buy a politician so I bought this sign.” Bring her into the studio with her local member of Congress – have them talk frankly to each other about their different perceptions of money in politics. Do an evening of prime time on the fight going on right now in your state over redistricting – gerrymandering – the outcome will influence your state’s position and power for the next ten years. Get folks aware and involved. If you don’t, who will? Certainly not the commercial stations in your market, that’s for sure.

If you’re worried about the size of your audience for such programs, think again. Despite the thousands of cable, satellite and Internet options, the doom-and-gloom reports of declining audiences, you don’t have to play by the numbers, to compare your stations with those earning the highest ratings by groveling to the lowest common denominator. We’ve proven it with our programs time and again. It’s not the number of people who watch but the imprint on those who do, and the cumulative impact of your programming over time.

Do we want younger viewers, the famous 18-49 metric? Of course. But listen up. One of the smartest number guys in the business is David Poltrack, the long time chief research officer of CBS, the grand poobah of ratings and statistics. He recently confessed to a professional audience that “reliance on the 18 to 49 demographic is hazardous to all media and marketers… There is no link, none, between the age of the specified demographic delivery of the campaign and the sales generated by that campaign.”

This throws everything we have always believed about television audiences out the window. Marty Kaplan at the University of Southern California says, “The metrics are wearing no clothes.” So let’s not sell our birthright for fickle, fugitive numbers. Throw out mandates to get a 1, 2, or 3. It actually turns out that the audience more and more coveted is the audience public television has always had and which will continue to grow right into our hands. There are 80 million baby boomers out there. Another one turns fifty every 7.6 seconds. Graying boomers are the big catch — waiting to be hooked on what matters, ready for the serious side of public television. The ones most likely to become sustaining, dues-paying members.

These are people who have entered what educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls “The Third Chapter” of their lives. When I spoke with her on the Journal a couple of years ago she told me that boomers “were talking about new learning in their lives, new adventures that they were taking, new risks…this is the most, perhaps, transformative time of our lives,” she said. “Most exciting, in terms of new learning. Limitless in its opportunities…continuing to do work that’s meaningful. Continuing to figure out a way to be productive. To be purposeful. To be creative. To be innovative.”

And then Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot mentioned something completely relevant to the problem I’ve been discussing with you today. She said, “There’s a way in which this reduction in our resources forces us to think more dynamically, more creatively, about how we can do more with less. In fact, how we can shape a new legacy in this time of sacrifice.”

“A new legacy in this time of sacrifice.” Now there’s a challenge to public TV. Hard times give us perhaps our last and best chance to make ourselves indispensable to America – a chance to resurrect ideals long deferred by the unhappy combination of financial constraints and political pressure. The key to our future in the digital revolution may well rest on our analog past. We can build on our ability to give time and breathing room to the on-going conversation that America must have if its ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” -grounded in political action – are to survive, and if “We, The People” are to save our social compact.

One friend in the system brought me up short the other day when, harking back to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, he asked, “If you had to do it over again, what changes would you make?” I can’t get his question out of my mind, although I don’t yet have a full answer. I’d certainly call for a universal, system-wide, public media news service in every U.S. community, modeled along the lines of NPR and more of its stations. Some PTV stations have struggled to do this, but with two few resources. I’d ask CPB to put much more of its funds into this and at the same time to get serious in convening foundations large and small all over the country to make it happen: Give our influential friends and supporters something big to back. (I’d also inform certain foundations that keep telling us what to do but then refuse to follow through with real money to put up or shut up.)

And since David H. Koch of Koch Industries is on the board of both WGBH and WNET, I’d ask him to round up his billionaire buddies – and in a non-partisan spirit reach out to civic-minded progressive billionaires like George Soros – and together create an independent, fully endowed, self-governing production center (free of any partisan strings or influence) for American drama that would bring our epic history and culture to the screen just like we’ve brought over the Brits’. Downton Abbey, make room for Jefferson’s Monticello! Now there’s an Upstairs Downstairs story the public would make a pledge to see.

Come to think of it: If we had it to do over, I’d reach into American history for a really big idea. Remember the Articles of Confederation? That was the agreement that legally established the USA as a confederation of sovereign states – “a firm league of friendship,” they called it. The Articles held those 13 states together in the beginning, but were too weak for the long run; the new government couldn’t even raise the money for its modest needs -its paper money was useless, hence the saying, “not worth a continental.”

The idea grew for a “Grand Convention” in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation and strengthen them. But once the delegates met and began talking, thrashing out their differences and making their compromises, they wound up writing a new, spare and powerful constitution that saved the fledgling republic and survives today.

Why can’t public television learn from that experience? Forty years after the founding, our “Articles of Confederation” aren’t working all that well, either. Sure, over these four decades we’ve provided America with extraordinary fare that has touched and enriched the hearts, minds, and lives of millions. But we are in denial if we don’t read the signs. Time’s running out. We’re just hanging on, leaking away, fraying at the margins; scrambling year by year to survive, hoping all the while for what in an era of trillion-dollar deficits and austerity will never be – more and more funding from Congress.

What we need is a makeover of our own – a rebirth, yes, of vision, imagination, and creativity, but above all a structure and scheme for the 2lst century, one that uses the resources that the digital platform provides to realize the goals of our founders: diversity, public access, civic discourse, experimentation, a welcoming place for independent spirits.

One of my good friends in the field – a station manager – was scratching his head the other day as he wondered aloud why there has never been a comprehensive system-wide discussion about fundamental change in our Rube Goldberg system. From the second Carnegie Commission on, through the latest Aspen meetings, we haven’t engaged in a full and frank examination of the system – the full nature of the process – top to bottom and with all the interested internal and external public and private parties participating.

So why not have our own “Grand Convention” – a week-long gathering of the public television community? Delegates from the stations (large and small); board members, managers, and programmers; a cadre from Crystal City; representative producers and some “viewers like you” (chosen by straw, if that’s the way to do it) would convene for a conversation about where we are, what’s not working, where we want to go, and what the journey’s going to cost. We could even stream it live on every public station website in the country.

What would come of it? Nobody knows. But at least we’d be alive again – to each other, to ideas, to new possibilities, and to the American people – the public, I say again, in public broadcasting.

Impractical? Maybe. But Albert Einstein did say: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

Of one thing I am sure. Such a constitutional convention will not occur if the stations just sit by and wait for others to convene it. Your own national agencies have been unable to do it; Congress, successive White Houses, foundations, think tanks and other institutions have failed to act in concerted fashion. No one is informed enough, or willful enough, and no one leads. You, the stations, have more recently been trying to take on that role. But may I say you’re still hesitant, unsure of yourselves, setting only modest planning goals. I may be being too presumptive and sounding like the proverbial Dutch Uncle, but I think you are the ones who are going to have to lead this process with the vision, the in-depth research, thoughtful analysis and multiple scenarios planning it will require.

Now’s the time to be bold and broadly thinking. Don’t settle for simple short-term fixes. Think bigger, more aggressively about whole new multicast and online local and national program service plans and through them a much richer embrace with all the citizens of this nation.

Remember, there are still millions and millions of people who need us. And millions more who will find us if we but give them the real news, the cultural experiences, and the opportunity to learn that are otherwise missing in their lives.

People like those construction workers out west who many years ago happened on our series of “Six Great Ideas” – spirited debates among educators, business executives, lawyers, poets and jurists on liberty, justice, equality, truth, beauty, and goodness. They wrote to say:

(We) are sure that it’ s just due to our well-known ignorance as tradesmen that not a single one of us had ever heard of you until one Sunday afternoon we were watching public television and [you] came on with Six Great Ideas …We listened intensely and soon became addicted and have been ever since. We never knew a world of ideas existed…We thank you and we applaud you…We may be plumbers during the day, but at lunch time and at night and on the weekends, we are [now] philosophers at large. God bless you.

Or like the housewife in Utah, who discovered our series on the Constitution and wrote to say:

I have never written a letter like this before. I am a full-time mother of four children under seven years and I am entirely busy with the ordinary things of family life. However, I want to thank you very much for [your series.] I am moved by the experience of listening at the feet of thoughtful citizens, justices and philosophers of substance. All these are people with whom I will never converse on my own, and I am grateful to you for having brought these conversations within my sphere. I am aware that I lack eloquence to express the measure of my heart’s gratitude. I can say, however, that these programs are a landmark among my life’s experiences. Among all the things I must teach my children, a healthy interest in understanding the Constitution now ranks very prominently. Thank you.

Sandbox for the rich? Yeah, sure.

And like the fellow in Colorado who followed our series that sought to cover the election with respect for the whole motion of the race and not just the impassioned moments of conflict, controversy, and sound bites. He wrote:

Your series accomplished the impossible. As a sixties college graduate, disillusioned Vietnam combat veteran, embittered anti-war author, and indifferent citizen, I never thought I’d see the day when I’d register to vote… But yesterday I registered and November 4 I’ll vote. [The series] spurred me to again participate in our democracy. Thanks. It’s good to be back.

So it is. I’m glad to be back, too. Mighty glad, and thanks for your welcome. Eighteen months ago, we took leave from the conversation. And we’ve missed it. Let’s keep talking.

Public Citizen Anniversary, November 1, 2011

I am honored to share this occasion with you. No one beyond your collegial inner circle appreciates more than I do what you have stood for over these 40 years, or is more aware of the battles you have fought, the victories you have won, and the passion for democracy that still courses through your veins. The great progressive of a century ago, Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin – a Republican, by the way – believed that “Democracy is a life; and involves constant struggle.” Democracy has been your life for four decades now, and would have been even more imperiled today if you had not stayed the course.

I began my public journalism the same year you began your public advocacy, in 1971. Our paths often paralleled and sometimes crossed. Over these 40 years journalism for me has been a continuing course in adult education, and I came early on to consider the work you do as part of the curriculum – an open seminar on how government works – and for whom. Your muckraking investigations – into money and politics, corporate behavior, lobbying, regulatory oversight, public health and safety, openness in government, and consumer protection, among others – are models of accuracy and integrity. They drive home to journalists that while it is important to cover the news, it is more important to uncover the news. As one of my mentors said, “News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity.” And when a student asked the journalist and historian Richard Reeves for his definition of “real news”, he answered: “The news you and I need to keep our freedoms.” You keep reminding us how crucial that news is to democracy. And when the watchdogs of the press have fallen silent, your vigilant growls have told us something’s up.

So I’m here as both citizen and journalist to thank you for all you have done, to salute you for keeping the faith, and to implore you to fight on during the crisis of hope that now grips our country. The great American experience in creating a different future together – this “voluntary union for the common good” – has been flummoxed by a growing sense of political impotence – what the historian Lawrence Goodwyn has described as a mass resignation of people who believe “the dogma of democracy” on a superficial public level but who no longer believe it privately. There has been, he says, a decline in what people think they have a political right to aspire to – a decline of individual self-respect on the part of millions of Americans.

You can understand why. We hold elections, knowing they are unlikely to produce the policies favored by the majority of Americans. We speak, we write, we advocate – and those in power turn deaf ears and blind eyes to our deepest aspirations. We petition, plead, and even pray – yet the earth that is our commons, which should be passed on in good condition to coming generations, continues to be despoiled. We invoke the strain in our national DNA that attests to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the produce of political equality – yet private wealth multiplies as public goods are beggared. And the property qualifications for federal office that the framers of the Constitution expressly feared as an unseemly “veneration for wealth” are now openly in force; the common denominator of public office, even for our judges, is a common deference to cash.

So if belief in the “the dogma of democracy” seems only skin deep, there are reasons for it. During the prairie revolt that swept the Great Plains a century after the Constitution was ratified, the populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease exclaimed: “Wall Street owns the country…Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The [political] parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us…Money rules.”

That was 1890. Those agrarian populists boiled over with anger that corporations, banks, and government were ganging up to deprive every day people of their livelihood.

She should see us now.

John Boehner calls on the bankers, holds out his cup, and offers them total obeisance from the House majority if only they fill it.

That’s now the norm, and they get away with it. GOP once again means Guardians of Privilege.

Barack Obama criticizes bankers as “fat cats”, then invites them to dine at a pricey New York restaurant where the tasting menu runs to $195 a person.

That’s now the norm, and they get away with it. The President has raised more money from banks, hedge funds, and private equity managers than any Republican candidate, including Mitt Romney. Inch by inch he has conceded ground to them while espousing populist rhetoric that his very actions betray.

Let’s name this for what it is: Democratic deviancy defined further downward. Our politicians are little more than money launderers in the trafficking of power and policy – fewer than six degrees of separation from the spirit and tactics of Tony Soprano.

Why New York’s Zuccotti Park is filled with people is no mystery. Reporters keep scratching their heads and asking: “Why are you here?” But it’s clear they are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied the country. And that’s why in public places across the country workaday Americans are standing up in solidarity. Did you see the sign a woman was carrying at a fraternal march in Iowa the other day? It read: “I can’t afford to buy a politician so I bought this sign.”

We know what all this money buys. Americans have learned the hard way that when rich organizations and wealthy individuals shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they get what they want. They know that if you don’t contribute to their campaigns or spend generously on lobbying,

…you pick up a disproportionate share of America’s tax bill. You pay higher prices for a broad range of products from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying. You’re compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them. You must pay debts that you incur while others do not. You’re barred from writing off on your tax returns some of the money spent on necessities while others deduct the cost of their entertainment. You must run your business by one set of rules, while the government creates another set for your competitors… In contrast the fortunate few who contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business deal; the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below market wages, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore rules their competition must comply with, the government gives it approval. If they want to kill legislation that is intended for the public, it gets killed.

I didn’t crib that litany from Public Citizen’s muckraking investigations over the years, although I could have. Nor did I lift it from Das Kapital by Karl Marx or Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book. No, I was literally quoting Time Magazine, long a tribune of America’s establishment media. From the bosom of mainstream media comes the bald, spare, and damning conclusion: We now have “government for the few at the expense of the many.”

But let me call another witness from the pro-business and capitalist- friendly press. In the middle of the last decade – four years before the Great Collapse of 2008 – the editors of The Economist warned:

A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the (first) Gilded Age. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace….Everywhere you look in modern America – in the Hollywood Hills or the canyons of Wall Street, in the Nashville recording studios or the clapboard houses of Cambridge, Massachusetts – you see elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves. America is increasingly looking like imperial Britain, with dynastic ties proliferating, social circles interlocking, mechanisms of social exclusion strengthening, and a gap widening between the people who make decisions and shape the culture and the vast majority of working stiffs.

Hear the editors of The Economist: “The United States is on its way to becoming a European-style class-based society.”

Can you imagine what would happen if I had said that on PBS? Mitch McConnell and John Boehner would put Elmo and Big Bird under house arrest. Come to think of it, I did say it on PBS back when Karl Rove was president, and there was indeed hell to pay. You would have thought Che Guevara had run his motorcycle across the White House lawn. But I wasn’t quoting from a radical or even liberal manifesto. I was quoting – to repeat – one of the business world’s most respected journals. It is the editors of the The Economist who are warning us that “ The United States is on its way to becoming a European-style class-based society.”

And that was well before our financiers, drunk with greed and high on the illusions and conceits of laissez faire (“leave us alone”) fundamentalism, and humored by rented politicians who do their bidding, brought America to the edge of the abyss and our middle class to its knees.

How could it be? How could this happen in the country whose framers spoke of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the same breath as political equality? Democracy wasn’t meant to produce a class-ridden society. When that son of French aristocracy Alexander de Tocqueville traveled through the bustling young America of the 1830s, nothing struck him with greater force than “the equality of conditions.” Tocqueville knew first-hand the vast divisions between the wealth and poverty of Europe, where kings and feudal lords took what they wanted and left peasants the crumbs. But Americans, he wrote, “seemed to be remarkably equal economically.” “Some were richer, some were poorer, but within a comparative narrow band. Moreover, individuals had opportunities to better their economic circumstances over the course of a lifetime, and just about everyone [except of course slaves and Indians] seemed to be striving for that goal.” Tocqueville looked closely, and said: “I easily perceive the enormous influence that this primary fact exercises on the workings of the society.”

And so it does. Evidence abounds that large inequalities undermine community life, reduces trust among citizens, and increases violence. In one major study from data collected over 30 years (by the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger) the most consistent predictor of mental illness, infant mortality, educational achievements, teenage births, homicides, and incarceration, is economic inequality. And as Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow has written, “Vast inequalities of income weakens a society’s sense of mutual concern…The sense that we are all members of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization.”

The historian Gordon Wood won the Pulitzer Prize for his book on The Radicalism of the American Revolution: If you haven’t read it, now’s the time. Wood says that our nation discovered its greatness “by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and their pecuniary pursuits of happiness.” This democracy, he said, changed the lives “of hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people.”

Those words moved me when I read them. They moved me because Henry and Ruby Moyers were “common laboring people.” My father dropped out of the fourth grade and never returned to school because his family needed him to pick cotton to help make ends meet. Mother managed to finish the eighth grade before she followed him into the fields. They were tenant farmers when the Great Depression knocked them down and almost out. The year I was born my father was making $2 a day working on the highway to Oklahoma City. He never took home more than $100 a week in his working life, and made that only when he joined the union in the last job he held. I was one of the poorest white kids in town, but in many respects I was the equal of my friend who was the daughter of the richest man in town. I went to good public schools, had use of a good public library, played sand-lot baseball in a good public park, and traveled far on good public roads with good public facilities to a good public university. Because these public goods were there for us, I never thought of myself as poor. When I began to piece the story together years later, I came to realize that people like the Moyers had been included in the American deal: “We, the People” included us.

It’s heartbreaking to see what has become of that bargain. These days it’s every man for himself; may be the richest and most ruthless predators win!

How did this happen?

You know the story, because it begins the very same year that you began your public advocacy and I began my public journalism. 1971 was a seminal year.

On March 29 of that year, Ralph Nader bought ads in 13 publications and sent out letters asking people if they would invest their talents, skills, and yes, their lives, in working for the public interest. The seed sprouted swiftly that spring: By the end of May over 60,000 Americans responded, and Public Citizen was born.

But something else was also happening. Five months later, on August 23, 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell – a board member of the death-dealing tobacco giant Philip Morris and a future Justice of the United States Supreme Court – sent a confidential memorandum to his friends at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. We look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down.

Let’s recall the context: Big Business was being forced to clean up its act. It was bad enough to corporate interests that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had sustained its momentum through Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Suddenly this young lawyer named Ralph Nader arrived on the scene, arousing consumers with articles, speeches, and above all, an expose of the automobile industry, Unsafe at Any Speed. Young activists flocked to work with him on health, environmental, and economic concerns. Congress was moved to act. Even Republicans signed on. In l970 President Richard Nixon put his signature on the National Environmental Policy Act and named a White House Council to promote environmental quality. A few months later millions of Americans turned out for Earth Day. Nixon then agreed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress acted swiftly to pass tough new amendments to the Clean Air Act and the EPA announced the first air pollution standards. There were new regulations directed at lead paint and pesticides. Corporations were no longer getting away with murder.

And Lewis Powell was shocked – shocked! – at what he called “an attack on the American free enterprise system.” Not just from a few “extremists of the left,” he said, but also from “perfectly respectable elements of society,” including the media, politicians, and leading intellectuals. Fight back, and fight back hard, he urged his compatriots. Build a movement. Set speakers loose across the country. Take on prominent institutions of public opinion – especially the universities, the media, and the courts. Keep television programs under “constant surveillance.” And above all, recognize that political power must be “assiduously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination” and “without embarrassment.”

Powell imagined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a council of war. Since business executives had “little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics” and “little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate,” they should create new think tanks, legal foundations, and front groups of every stripe. It would take years, but these groups could, he said, be aligned into a united front (that) would only come about through “careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and united organizations.”

You have to admit it was a brilliant strategy. Although Powell may not have seen it at the time, he was pointing America toward plutocracy, where political power is derived from the wealthy and controlled by the wealthy to protect their wealth. As the only countervailing power to private greed and power, democracy could no longer be tolerated.

While Nader’s recruitment of citizens to champion democracy was open for all to see – depended, in fact, on public participation – Powell’s memo was for certain eyes only, those with the means and will to answer his call to arms. The public wouldn’t learn of the memo until after Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court and the enterprising reporter Jack Anderson obtained a copy, writing that it may have been the reason for Powell’s appointment.

By then his document had circulated widely in corporate suites. Within two years the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce formed a task force of 40 business executives – from U.S. Steel, GE, GM, Phillips Petroleum, 3M, Amway, and ABC and CBS (two media companies, we should note). Their assignment was to coordinate the crusade, put Powell’s recommendations into effect, and push the corporate agenda. Powell had set in motion a revolt of the rich. As the historian Kim Phillips-Fein subsequently wrote, “Many who read the memo cited it afterward as inspiration for their political choices.”

Those choices came soon. The National Association of Manufacturers announced it was moving its main offices from New York to Washington. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in the capital; by 1982, nearly twenty-five hundred did. Corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over twelve hundred by the middle of the l980s. From Powell’s impetus came the Business Roundtable, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy (precursor to what we now know as Americans for Prosperity) and other organizations united in pushing back against political equality and shared prosperity. [Thanks to Charlie Cray for a succinct analysis of the Powell memo and to Jim Hoggan for calling attention to it more recently.] They triggered an economic transformation that would in time touch every aspect of our lives.

Powell’s memo was delivered to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at its headquarters across from the White House on land that was formerly the home of Daniel Webster. That couldn’t have been more appropriate. History was coming full circle at 1615 H Street. Webster is remembered largely as the most eloquent orator in America during his years as Senator from Massachusetts and Secretary of State under three presidents in the years leading up to the Civil War. He was also the leading spokesman for banking and industry nabobs who funded his extravagant tastes in wine, boats, and mistresses. Some of them came to his relief when he couldn’t cover his debts wholly from bribes or the sale of diplomatic posts for personal gain. Webster apparently regarded the merchants and bankers of Boston’s State Street Corporation – one of the country’s first financial holding companies – very much as George W. Bush regarded the high rollers he called “my base.” The great orator even sent a famous letter to financiers requesting retainers from them that he might better serve them. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wondered how the American people could follow Webster “through hell or high water when he would not lead unless someone made up a purse for him.”

No wonder the U.S. Chamber of Commerce feels right as home with the landmark designation of its headquarters. 1615 H Street now masterminds the laundering of multi-millions of dollars raised from captains of industry and private wealth to finance – secretly – the political mercenaries who fight the class war in their behalf.

Even as the Chamber was doubling its membership and tripling its budget in response to Lewis Powell’s manifesto, the coalition got another powerful jolt of adrenalin from the wealthy right-winger who had served as Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, William Simon. His polemic entitled A Time for Truth argued that “funds generated by business” must “rush by multimillions” into conservative causes to uproot the institutions and “the heretical strategy” [his term] of the New Deal. He called on “men of action in the capitalist world” to mount “a veritable crusade” against progressive America. Business Week magazine somberly explained that “…it will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have move.”

I’m not making this up.

And so it came to pass; came to pass despite your heroic efforts and those of other kindred citizens; came to pass because those “men of action in the capitalist world” were not content with their wealth just to buy more homes, more cars, more planes, more vacations and more gizmos than anyone else. They were determined to buy more democracy than anyone else. And they succeeded beyond their own expectations. After their 40-year “veritable crusade” against our institutions, laws and regulations – against the ideas, norms and beliefs that helped to create America’s iconic middle class – the Gilded Age is back with a vengeance.

You know these things, of course, because you’ve been up against that “veritable crusade” all these years. But if you want to see the story pulled together in one compelling narrative, read this – perhaps the best book on politics of the last two years: Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Two accomplished political scientists wrote it: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson – the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science, who wanted to know how America had turned into a society starkly divided into winners and losers.

Mystified by what happened to the notion of “shared prosperity” that marked the years after World War II;

puzzled that over the last generation more and more wealth has gone to the rich and superrich, while middle-class and working people are left barely hanging on;

vexed that hedge-fund managers pulling down billions can pay a lower tax rate than their pedicurists, manicurists, cleaning ladies and chauffeurs;

curious as to why politicians keep slashing taxes on the very rich even as they grow richer, and how corporations keep being handed huge tax breaks and subsidies even as they fire hundreds of thousands of workers;

troubled that the heart of the American Dream – upward mobility – seems to have stopped beating;

astounded that the United States now leads in the competition for the gold medal for inequality;

and dumbfounded that all this could happen in a democracy whose politicians are supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number, and must regularly face the judgment of citizens at the polls if they haven’t done so;


Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wanted to find out “how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.” They wanted to know: “Who dunnit?”

They found the culprit: “It’s the politics, stupid!” Tracing the clues back to that “unseen revolution” of the 1970s – the revolt triggered by Lewis Powell, fired up by William Simon, and fueled by rich corporations and wealthy individuals – they found that ‘Step by step and debate by debate America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”

There you have it: they bought off the gatekeepers, got inside, and gamed the system. And when the fix was in, they let loose the animal spirits. turning our economy into a feast for predators. And they won – as the rich and powerful got richer and more powerful – they not only bought the government, they “saddled Americans with greater debt, tore new holes in the safety net, and imposed broad financial risks on workers, investors, and taxpayers.” Until – write Hacker and Pierson – “The United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely getting by.”

The revolt of the plutocrats has now been ratified by the Supreme Court in its notorious Citizens United decision last year. Rarely have so few imposed such damage on so many. When five pro-corporate conservative justices gave “artificial entities” the same rights of “free speech” as living, breathing human beings, they told our corporate sovereigns “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to their pouring money into political campaigns. The Roberts Court embodies the legacy of pro-corporate bias in justices determined to prevent democracy from acting as a brake on excessive greed and power in the private sector. Wealth acquired under capitalism is in and of itself no enemy of democracy, but wealth armed with political power – power to shake off opportunities for others to rise – is a proven danger. Thomas Jefferson had hoped that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and [to] bid defiance to the laws of our country.” James Madison feared that the “spirit of speculation” would lead to “a government operating by corrupt influence, substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty.”

Jefferson and Madison didn’t live to see reactionary justices fulfill their worst fears. In 1886 a conservative court conferred the divine gift of life on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Never mind that the Fourteenth Amendment declaring that no person should be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law” was enacted to protect the rights of freed slaves. The Court decided to give the same rights of “personhood” to corporations that possessed neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned. For over half a century the Court acted to protect the privileged. It gutted the Sherman Antitrust Act by finding a loophole for a sugar trust. It killed a New York state law limiting working hours. Likewise a ban against child labor. It wiped out a law that set minimum wages for women. And so on: one decision after another aimed at laws promoting the general welfare.” The Roberts Court has picked up the mantle: Moneyed interests first, the public interest second, if at all.

The ink was hardly dry on the Citizens United decision when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce organized a covertly funded front and rained drones packed with cash into the 2010 campaigns. According to the Sunlight Foundation, corporate front groups spent $126 million in the fall of 2010 while hiding the identities of the donors. Another corporate cover group – the American Action Network – spent over $26 million of undisclosed corporate money in just six Senate races and 26 House elections. And Karl Rove’s groups – American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS – seized on Citizens United to raise and spend at least $38 million that NBC News said came from “a small circle of extremely wealthy Wall Street hedge fund and private equity moguls”– all determined to water down financial reforms designed to prevent another collapse of the financial system. Jim Hightower has said it well: Today’s proponents of corporate plutocracy “have simply elevated money itself above votes, establishing cold, hard cash as the real coin of political power.”

No wonder so many Americans have felt that sense of political impotence that the historian Lawrence Goodwyn described as “the mass resignation” of people who believe in the “dogma of democracy” on a superficial public level but whose hearts no longer burn with the conviction that they are part of the deal. Against such odds, discouragement comes easily.

But if the generations before us had given up, slaves would still be waiting on these tables, on Election Day women would still be turned away from the voting booths, and workers would still be committing a crime if they organized.

So once again: Take heart from the past and don’t ever count the people out. During the last quarter of the 19th century, the industrial revolution created extraordinary wealth at the top and excruciating misery at the bottom. Embattled citizens rose up. Into their hearts, wrote the progressive Kansas journalist William Allen White, “had come a sense that their civilization needed recasting, that their government had fallen into the hands of self-seekers, that a new relation should be established between the haves and have-nots.” Not content to wring their hands and cry “Woe is us” everyday citizens researched the issues, organized to educate their neighbors, held rallies, made speeches, petitioned and canvassed, marched and marched again. They ploughed the fields and planted the seeds – sometimes in bloody soil – that twentieth century leaders used to restore “the general welfare” as a pillar of American democracy. They laid down the now-endangered markers of a civilized society: legally ordained minimum wages, child labor laws, workmen’s safety and compensation laws, pure foods and safe drugs, Social Security, Medicare, and rules that promote competitive markets over monopolies and cartels. Remember: Democracy doesn’t begin at the top; it begins at the bottom, when flesh-and-blood human beings fight to rekindle the patriot’s dream.

The Patriot’s Dream? Arlo Guthrie, remember? He wrote could be the unofficial anthem of Zuccotti Park. Listen up:

Living now here but for fortune
Placed by fate’s mysterious schemes
Who’d believe that we’re the ones asked
To try to rekindle the patriot’s dreams

Arise sweet destiny, time runs short
All of your patience has heard their retort
Hear us now for alone we can’t seem
To try to rekindle the patriot’s dreams

Can you hear the words being whispered
All along the American stream
Tyrants freed the just are imprisoned
Try to rekindle the patriot’s dreams

Ah but perhaps too much is being asked of too few
You and your children with nothing to do
Hear us now for alone we can’t seem
To try to rekindle the patriot’s dreams

Who, in these cynical times, when democracy is on the ropes and the blows of great wealth pound and pound and pound again against America’s body politic – who would dream such a radical thing?

Bill Moyers’s new show, Moyers & Company, premieres in January.

Common Cause Anniversary, October 6, 2010

Thank you for inviting me to join in this 40th anniversary of Common Cause.  Your founder, John Gardner, profoundly influenced my life and I welcome this opportunity to share some memories of him.  When we met in 1965 John Gardner was already very wise and I was still very young.   I never grew younger but he kept growing wiser. The chief of the New York Times bureau in Washington, Scotty Reston, drawing (I later learned) on Emerson, told me, “Take John as your mentor and you’ll see how to live the greatest number of good hours.”

He was right.

As we worked together – John as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and I as a White House Assistant – I came to know well the man who built meaning into his life because he saw no other way to achieve it.  Meaning doesn’t come in the genes, he said—you compose it out of your own past, out of your own affections, out of the experience of human beings as it is passed on to you, out of the things you believe in, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something.  The ingredients are there, he said: You are the only person who can put them together in the unique pattern that will be your life.

One of my White House colleagues said of him, “He thinks like a saint.”  “No,” Lyndon Johnson said, “he thinks like a good Republican.  They’re harder to find than saints. But one is all you need.”

John was the one.

And he and Lyndon Johnson were the right two at the right time.  Johnson: the intense, impetuous, impatient Democrat.  Gardner: the reflective, righteous and resolute Republican. Both were radical middle of the roaders, who believed in widening the road into a broad highway so more people could travel it.   When John joined the cabinet in 1965, he told us: “What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities, disguised as insoluble problems.” He knew the score, and wasn’t intimidated by it.   He wouldn’t be intimidated today in the midst of the largest special-interest-funded congressional campaign in our history. He would be outraged at all the dirty money pouring secretly into the political system, turning it into a sewer. And he would be engaged in trying to clean it up.

It was occasionally said that he was a romantic. After all, he had dropped out of Stanford intending to become a novelist, until he tried writing one.  He got his PhD in psychology instead.  He also enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II, and Marines are seldom duped by illusions.  His parents had separated before his birth and he never forgot the brokenness of things.  He knew how broken the world is, but he believed in trying to mend it.  He wasn’t naïve about this.  At his most eloquent, when he talked about the ‘rebirth of a nation’, he admitted that the notion might seem “wonderfully optimistic” but he quickly assured his audience that a successful rebirth of our country would involve severe labor pains.  ”We may howl with pain,” he said, “before we do what needs to be done.”

He also told us, “Don’t pray for the day when we finally solve our problems. Pray for freedom to continue working on the problems that the future will never cease to throw at us.”

I learned from him that the best way to live in the world is to imagine a more confident future and to get up every morning to do what you can to help bring it about.   “Don’t let the vast superstructure of civilization mislead you,” he said, “Everything comes back to the talent and energy and sense of purpose of human beings.”

One memorable summer evening we sat on the south lawn of the White House – just six of us: LBJ and Lady Bird, John and Aida Gardner, Judith and me, both of us barely thirty.  I just listened – to the astute and wily politician who understood politics and to the agile and wise intellectual who understood policy. Both wanted the widest possible participation of the largest number of citizens in the affairs and fruits of democracy. However they arrived at it – and it must have had something to do with the rigors of their youth – they shared a philosophy that whatever things are good for some human beings are really good for all human beings – that the happy or good life is essentially the same for all: a satisfaction of the same needs inherent in human nature.  In practice this meant acting on the conviction that what the richest parents in the country want for their children – the goods essential for life, liberty, and happiness – is what the poorest parents want for their children.

Looking back, I realize that in spirit they were social democrats, although no one used the term then.   I am more convinced of this after reading the book Ill Fares the Land that the historian Tony Judt published before his untimely death this past August.  Judt described a time when “the public” was no fiction and the word wasn’t even a term of opprobrium.  Public schools, public libraries, public parks, public highways, public goods and services were the means of creating a fair society for people who weren’t rich.  At its heart was an ethical compact without which society is a war of all against all and the free market for wolves becomes a slaughter for the lambs.

Guess where the historian Judt located the closest America came to that notion of social democracy?  In Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  Much of what was best in the legislation and social policy of the 20th century, he said, was social democracy in all but name.

We’ll never know what might have blossomed from that era if the relationship between these two men had not been orphaned by war.  LBJ appointed John to head H.E.W.  on the very next day after announcing that he was sending ground troops to Vietnam.  In the Rose Garden the president said to his new cabinet member, “Whatever happens in Vietnam, we’ll not fail to pursue the Great Society.”  But two years later John went to the LBJ ranch in Texas to plead for larger appropriations for his programs.   The president turned him down and instead cut even more from the budget as it was.  Gardener responded with a muted anguish that pained the president.  As they were about to get out of the car, LBJ put his arm around him and said, “Don’t worry, John. We’re going to end this damned war and then you’ll have all the money you want for education and health and everything else.”

It was not to be.  In an emotional private meeting one year later, Gardner told the president he was resigning:  “In an election year you deserve the total support of every cabinet member and a cabinet member who doesn’t think you should run shouldn’t be in the cabinet.”   Face to face, he said:  “I believe you can no longer pull the country together.”

That’s the kind of man he was.   He gave up his position but not his principles. He left the government but not the fight.  And he founded Common Cause because he didn’t want to sit on the sidelines.  ”Everybody’s organized but the people,” he said. ”Now it’s the citizen’s turn.”

Forty years later, here we are – that charge to us a presence in this room.

What might he think of the country today? I believe he would agree with Tony Judt: Ill Fares the Land. “The symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us,” Judt wrote. Bankrupt cities. Broken highways. Collapsing bridges. Failed Schools.  In a succinct and compelling review of Judt’s work in the current issue of Harper’s magazine, Terry Eagleton – a professor at Notre Dame and the National University of Ireland – concludes that “much of what seems natural to us — privatization, inequalities, an obsession with wealth” — has emerged from the last three decades, and that public squalor is once again “the other face of private affluence.”

The social-democratic climate that Judt thought so promising was remarkable, he said, for three features: how unprecedented it was, how quickly it came to seem plain common sense, and how abruptly it vanished from sight around 1980. The Vietnam War was over but its repercussions played out in politics.  The conservative movement once embodied in Barry Goldwater found its new hero in Ronald Reagan and launched a campaign to bring back radical laissez-faire, when there was no social contract and all but the privileged and powerful were left to forage on their own. Well-organized forces backed by wealthy right-wingers rushed in to bring it about.  Inspired by the fabulist Ayn Rand, infatuated with “Austrian” economics, spouting bumper sticker quotes lifted from Milton Friedman, propelled by cascades of cash from corporate chieftains like Coors and Koch and ‘Neutron’ Jack Welch, and fortified by the pious prescriptions of fundamentalist political preachers, the right marched on Washington, and succeeded brilliantly.  Freedom in America would come to mean the freedom of the rich to buy the government they wanted and to write the rules to their advantage, even if it meant leaving millions of Americans behind. Advocates of “limited government” in rhetoric only, they were never really opposed to government, only to one that wouldn’t tolerate their social Darwinism.

See for yourself.  Read the literature. Start with  A Time for Truth, the call to arms by Richard Nixon’s treasury secretary, William Simon, the Wall Street wheeler-dealer.  He argued that “funds generated by business” would have to “rush by multimillions” into right-wing causes in order to uproot the institutions and the “heretical” morality of the New Deal. He called for an “alliance” between right-wing ideologues and “men of action in the capitalist world” to mount a “veritable crusade” against everything brought forth by the long struggle for a progressive America.  It would mean, as Business Week noted at the time, “that some people will obviously have to do with less…It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.” But so be it.

A “bitter pill” was the least of it. This was class war ordered from the top down. Instead of creating a level playing field, government would become the agent of the powerful and privileged.  Public institutions, laws and regulation, as well as the ideas, norms, and beliefs which aimed to protect the common good and helped to create America’s iconic middle class, would now be greatly weakened and increasingly vulnerable to attack.  The Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow succinctly summed up the movement’s agenda:   ”The redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful.”

But this was not what America was meant to be.  America was not intended to be a country where the winner takes all.  Our system of checks and balances – read The Federalist Papers –was meant to keep an equilibrium in how power works and for whom. The aristocrat De Tocqueville came here from France in the 1830s and marveled at the egalitarian spirit he found in the new country.  As the economist Jeffrey Madrick reminds us, equitable access to public resources was the lifeblood of democracy.  Americans made primary schooling free to all because, as Isabel Sawhill and Sara McLanahn write in The Future of Children, the American ideal of a classless society was “one in which all children have a roughly equal chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they were born.”  Debtors, especially the relative poor, were protected by state law against rich creditors. Government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land, and even supported squatters’ rights.  By the time I was a teenager, equal access to opportunity began to materialize for millions and upward mobility after World War II, aided and abetted by such government programs as the GI Bill, created the world’s largest and most envied middle class.  Incomes of the bottom 80% grew faster than the incomes of the top 1%, and those at the bottom grew most rapidly of all.  This, at a time when the super-rich were taxed at a rate of 9l%. America was indeed becoming a shared project. Only four decades ago Robert Lampman, a key architect of anti-poverty programs, could argue that “the recent history of Western nations reveals an increasingly widespread adoption of the idea that substantial equality of social and economic conditions among individuals is a good thing.”

Then the financial class revolted. No one’s been more candid about it than the multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett: ”There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

John Gardner saw it coming.   He foresaw what would happen to America’s egalitarian spirit if the excesses of money in politics were not curbed.

He would nod knowingly but sadly today at the report that “thirty zip-codes in America have become fabulously wealthy while whole urban and rural communities are languishing in unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, growing insecurity and fear.”

He would wince at reading The Economist, on the eve of President George W. Bush’s second inauguration – well before the great collapse four years later – warning that the United States “risks calcifying into a European-style, class-based society.”

He would be appalled by the political power exerted by a handful of financial titans not only to avoid the penalties that the ‘free market’ would have inflicted on them for their role in helping to wreck the economy, but to emerge, with taxpayer bailouts, to reap huge profits while 29 million unemployed and underemployed people struggle to make ends meet.

He would be sympathetic to the everyday people who turn out for Tea Party rallies to protest our failing institutions.  Our institutions, after all, are failing, and why not oppose government if our political class has been bought off by the rich?  I’ll wager, however, that he would regard the movement itself as a Trojan horse for its secret bankrollers.

And he would be shocked by the activist reactionary majority on the Supreme Court that has opened the floodgates for oligarchs and plutocrats to secretly buy our elections and consolidate their hold on the corporate state. One of the greatest of our Supreme Court justices, Louis Brandeis, warned that “you can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or democracy, but you cannot have both.”  The pro-corporate Roberts majority looked at both options and declared, ‘OK. We’ll take the former.”

The founder of Common Cause was a prophet in seeing money as the dagger directed at the heart of democracy.  Like his fellow Republican Teddy Roosevelt, he opposed the ‘naked robbery’ of the public’s trust.  A century ago, in one of the most powerful speeches in American political history, Roosevelt said: “It is not a partisan issue; it is more than a political issue; it is a great moral issue. If we condone political theft, if we do not resent the kinds of wrong and injustice that injuriously affect the whole nation, not merely our democratic form of government but our civilization itself cannot endure.”

Democracy in America has been a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck.  The most widely shared assumption of our journey as Americans has been the idea of progress, the belief that the present is ‘better’ than the past and things will keep getting better in the future.  No matter what befalls us – we keep telling ourselves – ‘the system works.’

All bets are now off.   The  great American experiment in creating a different future together has come down to the worship of individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power, with both political parties cravenly subservient to Big Money.  The result is an economy that no longer serves ordinary men and woman and their families.  This, I believe, accounts for so much of the profound sense of betrayal in the country, for the despair about the future.  As Gabriel says in James Weldon Johnson’s epic Green Pastures:  “Everything that’s tied down is coming loose.”  America as a shared project is shattered, leaving us increasingly isolated in our separate realities.

John Gardner would understand this dark reading of our gross national psychology.  The workings of the human psyche were his field of study. But the Marine Corps, remember, was his finishing school, and Semper Fidelis his personal code.  So I will close with his own words, as relevant today as ever:

We are treading the edge of a precipice here….There is a disconnection between the people and their leaders.  Citizens do not trust their government. And a variety of polls indicate that this mistrust extends to corporations and the media.  People do not feel they have must control of their lives, and the sense of impotence grows like a great life-endangering tumor.  Civilizations die of disenchantment.  If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart. We must never let anger, fashionable cynicism, or political partisanship blur our vision of this point.

We must not despair of the Republic.

There, fellow celebrants, is the call. The only way to defeat organized money is with organized people.   Now it’s your turn.

‘Life on the Plantation’, January 12, 2007

It has long been said (ostensibly by Benjamin Franklin, but we can’t be sure) that “democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

My fellow lambs:

It’s good to be in Memphis and find you well-armed with passion for democracy, readiness for action, and courage for the next round in the fight for a free and independent press.

I salute the conviction that brought you here. I cherish the spirit that fills this hall and the camaraderie we share today. All too often the greatest obstacle to reform is the reform movement itself. Factions rise, fences are built, jealousies mount – and the cause all believe in is lost in the shattered fragments of what was once a clear and compelling vision.

Reformers, in fact, too often remind me of Baptists. I speak as a Baptist. I know Baptists.

One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge when another fellow runs up to him, crying: “Stop. Stop. Stop. Don’t do it.” The man on the bridge looks down and asks, “Why not?”

“Well, there’s much to live for.”

“Like what?”

“Well, your faith. Are you religious?”


“Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?”


“Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”


“Me, too. Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist?”


“Me, too. Are you original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”

“Reformed Baptist Church of  God.”

“Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1820, or Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1912?”


Whereupon the second fellow turned red in the face, shouted, “Die, you heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.”

That sounds like reformers, doesn’t it?

By avoiding contentious factionalism, you have created a strong movement. I will confess to you that I was skeptical when Bob McChesney and John Nichols first raised the issue of media consolidation a few years ago. I was sympathetic but skeptical. The challenge of actually doing something about this issue – beyond simply bemoaning its impact on democracy – was daunting. How could we hope to come up with an effective response to an inexorable force?

It seemed inexorable because over the previous two decades a series of mega-media mergers had swept the country, each deal even bigger than the last. The lobby representing the broadcast, cable, and newspaper industry is extremely powerful, with an iron grip on lawmakers and regulators alike. Both parties bowed to their will when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest and most powerful media conglomerates in the world – Goliaths whose handful of owners controlled, commodified and monetized everyone, and everything, in sight.

Call it the plantation mentality in its modern incarnation. Here in Memphis they know all about that mentality. Even in 1968 the Civil Rights movement was still battling the “plantation mentality” based on race, gender, and power that permeated Southern culture long before and even after the groundbreaking legislation of the mid-1960s. When Martin Luther King, Jr. came toMemphisto join the strike of garbage workers in 1968, the cry from every striker’s heart – “I am a man” – voiced the long suppressed outrage of a people whose rights were still being trampled by an ownership class that had arranged the world for its own benefit. The plantation mentality was a phenomenon deeply insulated in the American experience early on, and it permeated and corrupted our course as a nation. The journalist of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, had envisioned this new republic as “a community of occupations,” prospering “by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole.”  But that vision was repeatedly betrayed, so that less than a century after Thomas Paine’s death, Theodore Roosevelt, bolting a Republican party whose bosses had stolen the nomination from him, declared:

It is not to be wondered at that our opponents have been very bitter, for the lineup in this crisis is one that cuts deep to the foundations of government. Our democracy is now put to a vital test, for the conflict is between human rights on the one side and on the other special privilege asserted as a property right. The parting of the ways has come.

Today, a hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt’s death, those words ring just as true. America is socially divided and politically benighted. Inequality and poverty grow steadily along with risk and debt. Many working families cannot make ends meet with two people working, let alone if one stays home to care for children or aging parents. Young people without privilege and wealth struggle to get a footing. Seniors enjoy less and less security for a lifetime’s work. We are racially segregated in every meaningful sense except the letter of the law. And survivors of segregation and immigration toil for pennies on the dollar compared to those they serve.

None of this is accidental. Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow – not someone known for extreme political statements – characterizes what is happening as nothing less than elite plunder: “The redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful.” Indeed, nearly all of the wealth America created over the past 25 years has been captured by the top 20% of households, and most of the gains went to the wealthiest. The top 1% of households captured more than 50% of all gains in financial wealth. These households hold more than twice the share their predecessors held on the eve of the American Revolution. Of the early American democratic creeds, the anti-Federalist warning that government naturally works to “fortify the conspiracies of the rich” proved especially prophetic. So it is this that we confront today.  America’s choice between two fundamentally different economic visions. As Norton Garfinkle writes in his new book The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth, the historic vision of the American Dream is that continuing economic growth and political stability can be achieved by supporting income growth and the economic security of middle-class families without restricting the ability of successful businessmen to gain wealth. The counter belief is that providing maximum financial rewards to the most successful is the way to maintain high economic growth. The choice cannot be avoided: What kind of economy do we seek, and what kind of nation do we wish to be? Do we want to be a country in which the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer?” Or do we want to be a country committed to an economy that provides for the common good, offers upward mobility, supports a middle-class standard of living, and provides generous opportunity for all? In Garfinkle’s words, “When the richest nation in the world has to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to pay its bill, when its middle-class citizens sit on a mountain of debt to maintain their living standards, when the nation’s economy has difficulty producing secure jobs or enough jobs of any kind, something is amiss.”

You bet something is amiss. And it goes to the core of why we are here in Memphis for this conference. We are talking about a force– media– that cuts deep to the foundation of democracy. When Teddy Roosevelt dissected the “real masters of the reactionary forces” in his time, he concluded that they “directly or indirectly control the majority of the great daily newspapers that are against us.” Those newspapers – the dominant media of the day– “choked” (his word) the channels of information ordinary people needed to understand what was being done to them.

And today? Two basic pillars of American society – shared economic prosperity and a public sector capable of serving the common good – are crumbling. The third basic pillar of American democracy – an independent press– is under sustained attack, and the channels of information are choked.

A few huge corporations now dominate the media landscape inAmerica. Almost all the networks carried by most cable systems are owned by one of the major media conglomerates. Two thirds of today’s newspaper markets are monopolies. As ownership gets more and more concentrated, fewer and fewer independent sources of information have survived in the marketplace. And those few significant alternatives that do survive, such as PBS and NPR, are under growing financial and political pressure to reduce critical news content and shift their focus in a “mainstream” direction, which means being more attentive to the establishment than to the bleak realities of powerlessness that shape the lives of ordinary people.

What does today’s media system mean for the notion of the “informed public” cherished by democratic theory? Quite literally, it means that virtually everything the average person sees or hears outside of her own personal communications is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the company’s share price.  More insidiously, this small group of elites determines what ordinary people do not see or hear. In-depth news coverage of anything, let alone of the problems people face day-to-day, is as scarce as sex, violence, and voyeurism are pervasive. Successful business model or not, by democratic standards, this is censorship of knowledge by monopolization of the means of information. In its current form – which Barry Diller happily describes as oligopoly– media growth has one clear consequence: there is more information and easier access to it, but it’s more narrow in content and perspective, so that what we see from the couch is overwhelmingly a view from the top.

The pioneering communications scholar Murray Edelman wrote that “Opinions about public policy do not spring immaculately or automatically into people’s minds; they are always placed there by the interpretations of those who can most consistently get their claims and manufactured cues publicized widely.”  For years the media marketplace for “opinions about public policy” has been dominated by a highly-disciplined, thoroughly-networked ideological “noise machine,” to use David Brock’s term. Permeated with slogans concocted by big corporations, their lobbyists and their think-tank subsidiaries, public discourse has effectively changed how American values are perceived. Day after day, the ideals of fairness and liberty and mutual responsibility have been stripped of their essential dignity and meaning in people’s lives. Day after day, the egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is trampled underfoot by hired experts and sloganeers who speak of the “death tax,” the “ownership society,” the “culture of life,” the “liberal assault” on God and family, “compassionate conservation,” “weak on terrorism,” the “end of history,” the “clash of civilizations,” “no child left behind.” They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a “surge” – as if it were a current of electricity charging through a wire instead of blood spurting from a soldier’s ruptured veins. We have all the Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth.

So it is, that “limited government” has little to do with the constitution or local autonomy any more; now it means corporate domination and the shifting of risk from government and business to struggling families and workers. “Family values” now means imposing a sectarian definition on everyone else. “Religious freedom” now means majoritarianism and public benefits for organized religion without any public burdens. And “patriotism” now means blind support for failed leaders. It’s what happens when an interlocking media system filters, through commercial values or ideology, the information and moral viewpoints that people consume in their daily lives.

By no stretch of the imagination can we say the dominant institutions of today’s media are guardians of democracy. Despite the profusion of new information “platforms” on cable, on the Internet, on radio, blogs, podcasts, YouTube and MySpace, among others, the resources for solid original journalistic work, both investigative and interpretive, are contracting rather than expanding.  I’m old fashioned in this, a hangover from my days as a cub reporter and later a publisher. I agree with Michael Schudson, one of our leading scholars of communication, who writes in the current Columbia Journalism Review that “while all media matter, some matter more than others, and for the sake of democracy, print still counts most, especially print that devotes resources to gathering news. Network TV matters, cable TV matters, but when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media.” But newspapers are purposely dumbing down, driven down – says Schudson– by “Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil, seems determined to eviscerate newspapers.”  Meanwhile, despite some initial promise following the shock of 9/11, television has returned to its tabloid ways, chasing celebrity and murders – preferably both at the same time– while wallowing in triviality, banality and a self-referential view.

Worrying about the loss of real news is not a romantic cliché of journalism. It has been verified by history: from the days of royal absolutism to the present, the control of information and knowledge had been the first line of defense for failed regimes facing democratic unrest.

The suppression of parliamentary dissent during Charles I’s “eleven years tyranny” in England(1629-1640) rested largely on government censorship operating through strict licensing laws for the publication of books. The Federalists’ infamous Sedition Act of 1798 likewise sought to quell Republican insurgency by making it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government or its officials.

In those days, our governing bodies tried to squelch journalistic freedom with the blunt instruments of the law – padlocks for the presses and jail cells for outspoken editors and writers. Over time, with spectacular wartime exceptions, the courts and the constitution have struck those weapons out of their hands. But now they’ve found new methods, in the name of “national security” and even broader claims of “executive privilege.” The number of documents stamped “Top Secret,” “Secret” or “Confidential” has accelerated dramatically since 2001, including many formerly accessible documents which are now reclassified as secret. Vice-President Cheney’s office refuses to disclose what, in fact, it is classifying: even their secrecy is being kept a secret.

Beyond what is officially labeled “Secret” or “Privileged” information, there hovers on the plantation a culture of selective official news implementation, working through favored media insiders, to advance political agendas by leak and innuendo and spin, by outright propaganda mechanisms such as the misnamed “Public Information” offices that churn out blizzards of factually selective releases on a daily basis, and even by directly paying pundits and journalists to write on subjects of “mutual interest.” They needn’t have wasted the money. As we saw in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the plantation mentality that governs Washington turned the press corps into sitting ducks for the war party for government and neo-conservative propaganda and manipulation. There were notable exceptions – Knight Ridder’s bureau, for example – but on the whole all high-ranking officials had to do was say it, and the press repeated it, until it became gospel. The height of myopia came with the admission by a prominent beltway anchor that his responsibility is to provide officials a forum to be heard. Not surprisingly, the watchdog group FAIR found that during the three weeks leading up to the invasion, only three percent of U.S.sources on the evening news of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, and PBS expressed skeptical opinions of the impending war. Not surprisingly, two years after 9/11, almost seventy percent of the public still thought it likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks of that day. An Indiana school teacher told the Washington Post, “From what we’ve heard from the media, it seems like what they feel is that Saddam and the whole Al Qaeda thing are connected.” Much to the advantage of the Bush administration, a large majority of the public shared this erroneous view during the buildup to the war– a propaganda feat that Saddam himself would have envied. It is absolutely stunning –frightening– how the major media organizations were willing, even solicitous hand puppets of a state propaganda campaign, cheered on by the partisan ideological press to go to war.

There are many other ways the plantation mentality keeps Americans from reality. Take the staggering growth of money-in-politics. Compared to the magnitude of the problem, what the average person knows about how money determines policy is negligible. In fact, in the abstract, the polls tell us, most people generally assume that money controls our political system. But people will rarely act on something they understand only in the abstract. It took a constant stream of images – water hoses, dogs and churches ablaze– for the public at large to finally understand what was happening to Black people in the South. It took repeated scenes of destruction in Vietnam before the majority of Americans saw how we were destroying the country to save it. And it took repeated crime-scene images to maintain public support for many policing and sentencing policies. Likewise, people have to see how money-in-politics actually works, and concretely grasp the consequences for their pocket books and their lives, before they will act. Media organizations supply a lot of news and commentary, but almost nothing that would reveal who really wags the system, and how. When I watch one of those faux debates on a Washington public affairs show, with one politician saying this is a bad bill, and the other politician saying this is a good bill, I yearn to see the smiling, nodding beltway anchor suddenly interrupt and insist: “Good bill or bad bill, this is a bought bill. Whose financial interest are you serving here?”

Then there are the social costs of “free trade.” For over a decade, free trade has hovered over the political system like a biblical commandment, striking down anything–trade unions, the environment, indigenous rights, even the constitutional standing of our own laws passed by our elected representatives– that gets in the way of unbridled greed. The broader negative consequence of this agenda– increasingly well-documented by scholars– gets virtually no attention in the dominant media. Instead of reality, we get optimistic multicultural scenarios of coordinated global growth, and instead of substantive debate, we get a stark, formulaic choice between free trade to help the world and gloomy sounding “protectionism” that will set everyone back.

The degree to which this has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that can help people weigh net gains and losses, is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it – that is, simply because it stood for “free trade.” We have reached the stage when the pooh-bahs of punditry only have to declare the world is flat for everyone to agree it is, without even going to the edge to look for themselves.

I think what’s happened is not indifference or laziness or incompetence but the fact that most journalists on the plantation have so internalized conventional wisdom that they simply accept that the system is working as it should. I’m working on a documentary about the role of the press in the run-up to the war, and over and again reporters have told me it just never occurred to them that high officials would manipulate intelligence in order to go to war.


Similarly, the question of whether our political and economic system is truly just or not is off the table for investigation and discussion by most journalists. Alternative ideas, alternative critiques, alternative visions rarely get a hearing, and uncomfortable realities are obscured, such as growing inequality, the re-segregation of our public schools, the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation– all examples of what happens when independent sources of knowledge and analysis are so few and far between on the plantation.

So if we need to know what is happening, and big media won’t tell us; if we need to know why it matters, and big media won’t tell us; if we need to know what to do about it, and big media won’t tell us – it’s clear what we have to do: we have to tell the story ourselves.

And this is what the plantation owners fear most of all. Over all those decades here in the South when they used human beings as chattel and quoted scripture to justify it (property rights over human rights was God’s way), they secretly lived in fear that one day instead of saying, “Yes, Massa,” those gaunt, weary sweat-soaked field hands bending low over the cotton under the burning sun would suddenly stand up straight, look around at their stooped and sweltering kin, and announce: “This can’t be the product of intelligent design. The bossman’s been lying to me. Something is wrong with this system.”

This is the moment freedom begins – the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story and it’s time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself. When the garbage workers struck here in 1968, and the walls of these buildings echoed with the cry “I am a man,” they were writing their own story. Martin Luther King, Jr. came here to help them tell it, only to die on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The bullet killed him, but it couldn’t kill the story. You can’t kill the story once the people start writing it.

So I’m back now where I started – and with you – will travel where the movement is headed. The greatest challenge to the plantation mentality of the media giants is the innovation and expression made possible by the digital revolution. I may still prefer the newspaper for its investigative journalism and in-depth analysis but we now have in our hands the means to tell a different story than big media tells. Our story. The other story of America that says free speech is not just corporate speech, that news is not just chattel in the field, living the bossman’s story. This is the real gift of the digital revolution. The Internet, cell phones and digital cameras that can transmit images over the Internet, make possible a nation of story tellers…every citizen a Tom Paine. Let the man in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenuethink that over. And the woman of the House on Capitol Hill. And the media moguls in their chalets at Sun Valley, gathered to review the plantation’s assets and multiply them; nail it to the door– they no longer own the copyright to America’s story– it’s not a top-down story anymore. Other folks are going to write the story from the ground up and the truth will be out, that the media plantation, like the cotton plantation of old, is not divinely sanctioned, and it’s not the product of natural forces; the media system we have been living under was created behind closed doors, where the power brokers meet to divvy up the spoils.

Bob McChesney has eloquently reminded us through the years how each medium –radio, television, and cable– was hailed as a technology that would give us greater diversity of voices, serious news, local programs and lots of public service for the community. In each the advertisers took over. Despite what I teasingly told you inSt. Louisthe last time we were together, the star that shined so brightly in the firmament the year I was born –1934– did not, I regret to say, appear above that little house in Hugo,Oklahoma. It appeared overWashingtonwhen Congress enacted the Communications Act of 1934. One hundred times in that cornerstone or our communication policy you will read the phrase “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Educators, union officials, religious leaders, parents were galvanized by the promise of radio as “a classroom for the air,” serving the life of the country and the life of the mind.  Then the media lobby cut a deal with the government to make certain nothing would threaten the already vested-interests of powerful radio networks and the advertising industry. Soon the public largely forgot about radio’s promise as we accepted the entertainment produced and controlled by Jell-o, Maxwell House, and Camel cigarettes. What happened to radio, happened to television and then to cable, and if we are not diligent, it will happen to the Internet.

Powerful forces are at work now – determined to create our media future for the benefit of the plantation: investors, advertisers, owners, and the parasites that depend on their indulgence, including much of the governing class. Old media acquire new media, and vice versa. Rupert Murdoch, forever savvy about the next key outlet that will attract eyeballs, purchased MySpace, spending nearly $600 million so he could (in the words of how Wall Street views new media) “monetize” those eyeballs. Google became a partner in Time Warner, investing one billion in its AOL online service, and now Google has bought YouTube so it would have a better vehicle for delivering interactive ads for Madison Avenue. Viacom, Microsoft, large ad agencies, and others, have been buying key media properties – many of them the leading online sites. The result will be a thoroughly commercialized environment – a media plantation for the 21st century dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have produced the system we have today.

So what do we do? Well, you’ve shown us what we have to do. Twice now you’ve shown us what we can do. Four years ago when FCC Chairman Michael Powell and his ideological side-kicks decided that it was OK if a single corporation owned a community’s major newspaper, three of its TV stations, eight radio stations, its cable TV system, and its major broadband Internet provider, you said, “Enough’s enough.” Free Press, Common Cause, Consumers Union, Media Access Project, the National Association for Hispanic Journalists, and others, working closely with Commissioners Adelstein and Copps– two of the most public-spirited men ever to serve on the FCC – and began organizing public hearings across the country.  People spoke up about how poorly the media was serving their communities. You flooded Congress with petitions. You never let up, and when the Court said Powell had to back off, the decision cited the importance of involving the public in these media decisions. Incidentally, Powell not only backed off, he backed out. He left the commission to become “senior advisor” at a “private investment firm specializing in equity investments in media companies around the world.”  That firm, by the way, made a bid to take over both the Tribune and Clear Channel, two mega-media companies that just a short time ago were under the corporate friendly purview of…you guessed it…Michael Powell. That whishing sound you hear is Washington’s perpetually revolving door, through which they come to serve the public and through which they leave to join the plantations.

You made a difference. You showed the public cares about media and democracy. You turned a little publicized vote on a seemingly arcane regulation into a big political fight and public debate. Now, it’s true as Commissioner Copps has reminded us, since that battle three years ago, there have been more than 3,300 TV and radio stations that have had their assignment and transfer grants approved. “So that even under the old rules, consolidation grows, localism suffers and diversity dwindles.” It’s also true, too, that even as we speak Michael Powell’s successor, Kevin Martin, put there by President Bush, is ready to take up where Powell left off and give the green light to more conglomeration. Get ready to fight. Inside the beltway plantation the media thought this largest telecommunications merger in our history was on a fast track for approval.

But then you did it again more recently – you lit a fire under people to put Washington on notice that it had to guarantee the Internet’s First Amendment protection in the $85 billion merger of AT&T and Bell South. Because of you, the so-called “Internet neutrality” – I much prefer to call it the “equal access” provision of the Internet – became a public issue that once again reminded the powers-that-be that people want the media to foster democracy. This is crucial because in a few years virtually all media will be delivered by high speed broadband, and without equality of access, the net could become just like cable television, where the provider decides what you see and what you pay.  After all, the Bush department of justice had blessed the deal last October without a single condition or statement of concern. But they hadn’t reckoned with Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, and hadn’t reckoned with this movement. FreePress and SavetheInternet.com orchestrated 800 organizations, a million and a half petitions, countless local events, legions of homemade videos, smart collaboration with allies in industry, and a topshelf communications campaign.  Who would have imagined that sitting together in the same democratic broadband pew would be the Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America, Common Cause, and MoveOn.org? Who would have imagined that these would link arms with some of the most powerful “new media” companies to fight for the Internet’s First Amendment ground? We owe a tip of the hat, of course, to Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell. Despite what must have been a great deal of pressure from his side, he did the honorable thing and rescued himself from the proceedings because of a conflict of interest. So AT&T had to cry “uncle” to Copps and Adelstein with a “voluntary commitment” to honor equal access for at least two years. The agreement marks the first time that the Federal government has imposed true neutrality –oops equality– requirements on an Internet access provider since the debate erupted almost two years ago. I believe you changed the terms of the debate. It is no longer about whether equality of access will govern the future of the Internet; it’s about when and how. It also signals a change from defense to offence for the backers of an open Net. Arguably the biggest, most effective online organizing campaign ever conducted on a media issue can now turn to passing good laws rather than always having to fight to block bad ones. Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, and Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican, introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act in January of 2007, to require fair and equitable access to all content. And over in the House, those champions of the public interest – Ed Markey and Maurice Hinchley– will be leading the fight.

But a caveat here. Those other folks don’t give up so easily. Remember, this agreement is only for two years, and they’ll be back with all the lobbyists money can hire. Furthermore, consider what AT&T got in the bargain. For giving up on neutrality, it got the green light from government to dominate over 67 million phone lines in 22 states, almost 12 million broadband users, and total control over Cingular wireless, the country’s largest mobile phone company with 58 million cell phone users. It’s as if China swallowed India.

I bring this up for a reason. Big media is ravenous. It never gets enough, it always wants more. And it will stop at nothing to get it. These are imperial conglomerates. Last week on his Web site, Danny Schecter, recalled how some years ago he marched with a band of media activists to the headquarters of all the big media companies concentrated in the Times Square area. Their formidable buildings, fronted with logos and limos and guarded by rent-a-cops, projected their power and prestige. Danny and his cohorts chanted and held up signs calling for honest news and an end to exploitative programming. They called for diversity and access for more perspectives. “It felt good,” Danny said, but “seemed like a fool’s errand. We were ignored, patronized, and marginalized. We couldn’t shake their edifices or influence their holy ‘business models’; we seemed to many like that lonely and forlorn nut in a New Yorker cartoon carrying an ‘end of the world is near’ placard.”

Well, yes, that’s exactly how they want us to feel – as if media and democracy is a fool’s errand. To his credit, Danny didn’t buy it. He’s never given up. Neither have some of the earlier pioneers in this movement – Andy Schwartzman, Don Hazen, Jeff Chester. Let me confess that I came very close to not making this speech today, in favor of just getting up here and reading from this book – Digital Destiny, by my friend and co-conspirator, Jeff Chester. Take my word for it: Make this your bible. As Don Hazen writes in his review on Alternet this week, it’s a terrific book – “A respectful, loving, fresh, intimate comprehensive history of the struggles for a ‘democratic media’ – the lost fights, the opportunities missed, and the small victories that have kept the corporate media system from having complete carte blanche over the communications channel.”

It’s also a terrifying book, because Jeff describes how “we are being shadowed online by a slew of software digital gumshoes working for Madison Avenue. Our movements in cyberspace are closely tracked and analyzed. And interactive advertising infiltrates our unconsciousness to promote the ‘brand-washing ofAmerica.’” Jeff asks the hard questions: do we really want television sets that monitor what we watch? Or an Internet that knows what sites we visit and reports back to advertising companies? Do we really want a media system designed mainly for advertisers?

But this is also a hopeful book. After scaring the bejeepers out of us, as one reviewer wrote, Jeff offers a “policy agenda for the broadcast era.” Here’s a man who practices what the Italian philosopher Gramsci called “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.” He sees the world as it is, without rose-colored glasses, and tries to change it despite what he knows. So you’ll find here the core of this movement’s mission. Media reform, yes. But as the Project in Excellence concluded in its State of the Media Report for 2006, “At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost.” The commercial networks are lost, too – lost to silliness, farce, cowardice, and ideology. Not much hope there. Can’t raise the dead.

Policy reform, yes. “But,” says Jeff, “we will likely see more consolidation of ownership, with newspapers, TV stations, and major online properties in fewer hands.” So we have to find other ways to ensure the public has access to diverse, independent, and credible sources of information. That means going to the market to find support for stronger independent media; Michael Moore and others have proved progressivism doesn’t have to equal penury. It means helping protect news gathering from predatory forces. It means fighting for more participatory media, hospitable to a full range of expression. It means building on Lawrence Lessig’s notion of the creative common and Brewster Kahle’s Internet archives with its philosophy of universal access to all knowledge.” It means bringing broadband service to those many millions of Americans too poor to participate in the digital revolution. It means ownership for women and people of color. It means reclaiming public broadcasting and restoring it to its original feisty, robust, fearless mission as an alternative to the dominant media, offering journalism you can’t ignore – public affairs of which you’re a part, and a wide range of civic and cultural discourse that leaves no one out; you can have an impact here. We need to remind people that the Federal commitment to public broadcasting in this country is about $1.50 per capita compared to $28-$85 per capita in other democracies.  

But there’s something else you can do. In moments of reverie, I imagine all of you returning home to organize a campaign to persuade your local public television station to start airing Amy Goodman’s broadcast of Democracy NOW! I can’t think of a single act more likely to remind people of what public broadcasting should be – or that this media reform movement really means business. We’ve got to get alternative content out there to people or this country’s going to die of too many lies. And the opening run down of news on Amy’s daily show is like nothing else on television, corporate or public. It’s as if you opened the window and a fresh breeze rolls over you from the ocean. Amy doesn’t practice trickle-down journalism. She goes where the silence is, she breaks the sound barrier. She doesn’t buy the Washington protocol that says the truth lies somewhere on the spectrum of opinion between the Democrats and Republicans– on Democracy NOW the truth lies where the facts are hidden, and Amy digs for them. And she believes the media should be a sanctuary for dissent…the Underground Railroad tunneling beneath the plantation. So go home and think about it. After all you are the public in public broadcasting; you can get the bossman in the big house at the local station to listen.

Meanwhile, be vigilant about what happens in Congress. Track it day by day and post what you learn far and wide. Because the decisions made in this session of Congress will affect the future of all media – corporate and non commercial – and if we lose the future now, we’ll never get it back.

So you have your work cut out for you. I’m glad you’re all younger than me, and up to it. I’m glad so many funders are here, because while an army may move on its stomach, this movement requires hard, cold cash to compete with big media in getting the attention of Congress and the public.

I’ll try to do my part. Last time we were together, I said to you that I should put detractors on notice. They just might compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair. Well, in April I will be back with a new weekly series called Bill Moyers Journal. I hope to complement the fine work of colleagues like David Brancaccio of NOW and David Fanning of Frontline, who also go for the truth behind the news.  

But I don’t want to tease you – I’m not coming back because of my detractors. I wouldn’t torture them that way (I’ll leave that to Dick Cheney.) I’m coming back because I believe television can still signify. And I don’t want you to feel so alone.

I’ll keep an eye on your work. You are to America what the abolition movement was, and the suffragette movement, and the Civil Rights movement – you touch the soul of democracy.

It’s not assured you’ll succeed in this fight. The armies of the Lord are up against mighty hosts. But as the spiritual leader Sojourner Thomas Merton wrote to an activist grown weary and discouraged while protesting the Vietnam War…”Do not depend on the hope of results…concentrate on the value…and the truth of the work itself.”

And in case you do get lonely, I’ll leave you with this:

As my plane was circling Memphis the other day I looked out across those vast miles of fertile soil that once were plantations watered by the Mississippi River and the sweat from the brow of countless men and women who had been forced to live someone else’s story. I thought about how in time they rose up, one here, then two, then many, forging a great movement that awakened America’s conscience and brought us close to the elusive but beautiful promise of the Declaration on Independence. As we made our last approach to land, the words of a Marge Piercy poem began to form in my head, and I remembered all over again why we were coming here:

What can they do 

to you? Whatever they want.

They can set you up, they can 

bust you, they can break 

your fingers, they can 

burn your brain with electricity, 

blur you with drugs till you 

can’t walk, can’t remember, they can 

take your child, wall up 

your lover. They can do anything 

you can’t stop them

from doing. How can you stop 

them? Alone, you can fight,

you can refuse, you can 

take what revenge you can 

but they roll over you.


But two people fighting 

back to back can cut through a mob, a snake-dancing file 

can break a cordon, an army 

can meet an army.


Two people can keep each other,

sane, can give support, conviction, 

love, massage, hope, sex. 

Three people are a delegation, 

a committee, a wedge. With four 

you can play bridge and start 

an organization. With six 

you can rent a whole house, 

eat pie for dinner with no 

seconds, and hold a fund raising party. 

A dozen make a demonstration. 

A hundred fill a hall.

A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter; 

ten thousand, power and your own paper; 

a hundred thousand, your own media;

ten million, your own country.


It goes on one at a time, 

it starts when you care 

to act, it starts when you do 

it again after they said no, 

it starts when you say We 

and know who you mean, and each 

day you mean one more.



From The Moon Is Always Female, by Marge Piercy

Copyright (c) 1980 by Marge Piercy


*Bill Moyers, Chairman of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy delivered these remarks at the Media Reform Conference on January 12, 2007 in Memphis, Tennessee.

‘For America’s Sake’, December 12, 2006

You could not have chosen a better time to gather.  Voters have provided a respite from a right-wing radicalism predicated on the philosophy that extremism in the pursuit of virtue is no vice.  It seems only yesterday that the Trojan horse of conservatism was hauled into Washington to disgorge Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist and their hearty band of ravenous predators masquerading as a political party of small government, fiscal restraint, and moral piety and promising “to restore accountability to Congress… (and) make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.”

Well, the long night of the junta is over, and Democrats are ebullient as they prepare to take charge of the multi-trillion dollar influence racket that we used to call the U.S. Congress.  Let them rejoice while they can, as long as they remember that while they ran some good campaigns, they have arrived at this moment mainly because George W. Bush lost a war most people have come to believe should never have been fought in the first place.  Let them remember, too, in this interim of sweet anticipation, that although they are reveling in the ruins of a Republican reign brought down by stupendous scandals, their own closet is stocked with skeletons from an  era when they were routed from office following ABSCAM bribes and Savings and Loan swindles that plucked the pockets and purses of hard-working tax-paying Americans.  As they rejoice Democrats would l be wise to be mindful of Shakespeare’s counsel, “Merit doth much, but fortune more.”  For they were delivered from the wilderness not by their own goodness and purity but by the grace of  K Street corruption, DeLay Inc.’s duplicity, the pitiless exploitation of Terry Schiavo, the disgrace of Mark Foley and a shameful partisan  cover-up, and   the  shamelessness of Jack Abramoff and a partisan conspiracy, and neo-con arrogance and amorality (yes, amoral: Apparently there is no end  to the number of  bodies Bill Kristol is prepare to watch pile up  in behalf of illusions that can’t stand the test of reality even one  beltway block from the think tanks where they are hatched.)   The Democrats couldn’t have been more favored by the gods if they had actually believed in one!

But whatever one might say about the election, the real political story is one that our political and media elites are loath to acknowledge or address.  I am not speaking of the lengthy list of priorities that progressives and liberals of every stripe are eager to put on the table now that Democrats hold the cards in Congress.  Just the other day a message popped up on my computer from a progressive advocate whose work I greatly admire. Committed to movement-building from the ground up, he has results to show for his labors.  His request was simple:  “With changes in Congress and at our state capitol, we want your input on what top issues our lawmakers should tackle. Click here to submit your top priority.”

I clicked. Sure enough, up came a list of 34 issues – an impressive list that began with “African-American” and ran alphabetically through “energy” and “higher education” to “guns,” “transportation,” “women’s issues” and “worker’s rights.”  It wasn’t a list to be dismissed, by any means, for it came from an unrequited thirst for action after a long season of malignant opposition to every item on the agenda.  I understand the mindset. Here’s a fellow who values allies and appreciates what it takes to build coalitions; who knows that although our interests as citizens vary, each one is an artery to the heart that pumps life through the body politic, and each is important to the health of democracy. This is an activist who knows political success is the sum of many parts.

But America needs something more right now than a “must-do” list from liberals and progressives.Americaneeds a different story.

The very morning I read the message from the progressive activist, The New York Times reported on Carol Ann Reyes. Carol Ann Reyes is 63. She lives in Los Angeles, suffers from dementia, and is homeless.  Somehow she made her way to a hospital with serious, untreated needs. No details were provided as to what happened to her there, except that the hospital – which is part of Kaiser Permanente, the largest H.M.O. in the country – called a cab and sent her back to skid row. True, they phoned ahead to workers at a rescue shelter to let them know she was coming. But some hours later a surveillance camera picked her up “wandering around the streets in a hospital gown and slippers.” Dumped in America.

Here is the real political story, the one most politicians  won’t even acknowledge: the reality of the  anonymous, disquieting daily struggle of ordinary people, including the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans but also young workers and elders and parents, families and communities, searching for dignity and fairness against long odds in a cruel market world.

Everywhere you turn you’ll find people who believe they have been written out of the story. Everywhere you turn there’s a sense of insecurity grounded in a gnawing fear that freedom in America has come to mean the freedom of the rich to get richer even as millions of Americans are dumped from the Dream. So let me say what I think upfront: the leaders, and thinkers, and activists who honestly tell that story and speak passionately of the moral and religious values it puts in play will be the first political generation since the New Deal to win power back for the people.

There’s no mistaking America is ready for change.  One of our leading analysts of public opinion, Daniel Yankelovich, reports that a majority want social cohesion and common ground based on pragmatism and compromise, patriotism and diversity. But because of the great disparities in wealth the “shining city on the hill” has become a gated community whose privileged occupants, surrounded by a moat of money and protected by a political system seduced with cash into subservience, are removed from the common life of the country.

The wreckage of this revolt of the elites is all around us.  Corporations are shredding the social compact, pensions are disappearing, medium incomes are flattening, and healthcare costs are soaring. In many ways, the average household is generally worse off today than it was 30 years ago, and the public sector that was a support system and safety net for millions of Americans across three generations is in tatters. For a time, stagnating wages were somewhat offset by more work and more personal debt. Both political parties craftily refashioned those major renovations of the average household as the new standard, shielding employers from responsibility for anything Wall Street didn’t care about. Now, however, the more acute major risks workers have been forced to bear as employers reduce their health and retirement costs – on orders from Wall Street – have made it clear that our fortunes are being reversed. Polls show that a majority of American workers now believe their children will be worse off than they were. In one recent survey, only 14% of workers said that they have obtained the American Dream.

It is hard to believe that less than four decades ago a key architect of the anti-poverty program, Robert Lampman, could argue that “[the] recent history of Western nations reveals an increasingly widespread adoption of the idea that substantial equality of social and economic conditions among individuals is a good thing.” Economists call that post-war era “the Great Compression.” Poverty and inequality had declined dramatically for the first time in our history. Here, as  Paul Krugman recently recounted, is how  TIME‘s report on the national outlook in l953 summed it up: “Even in the smallest towns and most isolated areas, the U.S. is wearing a very prosperous, middle-class suit of cloths, and an attitude of relaxation and confidence. People are not growing wealthy, but more of them than ever before are getting along…” African -Americans were still written out of the story, but that was changing, too, as heroic resistance emerged across the south to awaken our national conscience. Within a decade, thanks to the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson, the racial cast of many federal policies – including some New Deal programs – was aggressively repudiated, and shared prosperity began to breach the color line.

To this day I remember John F. Kennedy’s landmark speech at the Yale commencement in 1962. Echoing Daniel Bell’s Cold War classic, The End of Ideology, JFK proclaimed the triumph of “practical management of a modern economy” over the “grand warfare of rival ideologies.” The problem with this—and still a major problem today—is that the purported ideological cease-fire ended only a few years later. But the Democrats never re-armed, and they kept pinning all their hopes on economic growth, which by its very nature is valueless and cannot alone provide answers to social and moral questions that arise in the face of resurgent crisis.  While “practical management of a modern economy” had a kind of surrogate legitimacy as long as it worked, when it no longer worked, the nation faced a paralyzing moral void in deciding how the burdens should be borne.  Well-organized conservative forces, firing on all ideological pistons, rushed to fill this void with a story corporate America wanted us to hear. Inspired by bumper sticker abstractions of Milton Friedman’s ideas, propelled by cascades of cash from corporate chieftans like Coors and Koch and “Neutron” Jack Welch, fortified by the pious prescriptions of fundamentalist political preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the conservative armies marched on Washington.  And they succeeded brilliantly.

When Ronald Reagan addressed the Republican National Convention in 1980, he a told a simple political story, one that had great impact. “The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership—in the White House and in Congress—for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us.”  He declared “I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself.”  It was a speech of bold contrasts, of good private interest verses bad government, of course. More important, it personified  these  two forces in a larger narrative of freedom, reaching back across the Great Depression, the Civil War, and the American Revolution, all the way back to the Mayflower Compact. It so dazzled and demoralized Democrats they could not muster a response to the moral abandonment and social costs that came with the Reagan revolution.

We too have a story of freedom to tell, and it too reaches back across the Great Depression, the Civil War, and the American Revolution, all the way back to the Mayflower Compact. It’s a story with clear and certain foundations, like Reagan’s, but also a tumultuous and sometimes violent history of betrayal that he and other conservatives consistently and conveniently ignore.

Reagan’s story of freedom superficially alludes to the founding fathers, but its substance comes from the Gilded Age, devised by apologists for the robber barons. It is posed abstractly as the freedom of the individual from government control – a Jeffersonian ideal at the root of our Bill of Rights, to be sure. But what it meant in politics a century later, and still means today, is the freedom to accumulate wealth without social or democratic responsibilities and the license to buy the political system right out from under everyone else, so that democracy no longer has the ability to hold capitalism accountable for the good of the whole.

And that is not how freedom was understood when our country was founded. At the heart of our experience as a nation is the proposition that each one of us has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As flawed in its reach as it was at the time, it is brilliant in its inspiration for times to come, that proposition carries an inherent imperative:  “inasmuch as the members of a liberal society have a right to basic requirements of human development such as education and a minimum standard of security, they have obligations to each other, mutually and through their government, to ensure that conditions exist enabling every person to have the opportunity for success in life.” The quote comes directly from Paul Starr, one of our most formidable public thinkers, whose forthcoming book, Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism, is a profound and stirring call for liberals to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own. Starr’s book is one of three new books that in a just world would be on every desk in the House and Senate when Congress convenes again.

John E. Schwartz, in Freedom Reclaimed: Rediscovering the Vision, rescues the idea of freedom from market cultists whose “particular idea of freedom [has] taken us down a terribly mistaken road” toward a political order where “government ends up servicing the powerful and taking from everyone else.”  The free-market view “cannot provide us with a philosophy we find compelling or meaningful,” Schwartz writes.  Nor does it assure the availability of economic opportunities “that is truly adequate to each individual and the status of full legal and political equality.”  Yet since the late l9th century it has been used to shield vast disparities of private power from democratic accountability, in no small part because conservative rhetoric has succeeded in denigrating government even as conservative politicians plunder it.

But government, Schwartz reminds us, “is not simply the way we express ourselves collectively, but also often the only way we preserve our freedom from private power and its incursions.”  That is one reason the notion that every person has a right to meaningful opportunity “has assumed the position of a moral bottom line in nation’s popular culture ever since the beginning.”     Freedom, he says, is “considerably more than a private value.” It is an essentially a social idea, which explains why the worship of the free market “fails as a compelling idea in terms of the moral reasoning of freedom itself.”  Let’s get back to basics, is Schwartz’s message.  Let’s recapture our story.

Norton Garfinkle picks up on both Schwartz and Starr in The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth, Norton Garfinkle as he describes how America became the first nation on earth to offer an economic vision of opportunity for even the humblest beginner to advance, and then moved, in fits and starts – but always irrepressibly – to the invocation of positive government as the means to further that vision through politics.

No one understood this more clearly, Garfinkle writes, than Abraham Lincoln.    Lincolncalled on the federal government to save theUnion. He turned to large government expenditures for internal improvements – canals, bridges, and railroads. He supported a strong national bank to stabilize the currency. He provided the first major federal funding for education, with the creation of land grant colleges. And he kept close to his heart an abiding concern for the fate of the ordinary people, especially the ordinary worker but also the widow and orphan. Our greatest president kept his eye on the sparrow. He believed that government should be not just “of the people” and “by the people” but “for the people.” Including, we can imagine, a Carol Ann Reyes.

The great leaders of our tradition – Jefferson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts – understood the power of our story. In my time it was FDR who exposed the false freedom of the aristocratic narrative.  He made the simple but obvious point that where once political royalists stalked the land, now economic royalists owned everything standing. Mindful of Plutarch’s warning that “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics,” Roosevelt famously told America, in 1936, that “the average man once more confronts the problem faced by the Minute Man.” He gathered together the remnants of the great reform movements of the Progressive Age – including those of his late-blooming cousin, Teddy – into a singular political cause that would be ratified again and again by people who categorically rejected the laissez-faire anarchy that had produced destructive, unfettered, and ungovernable power.  Now came collective bargaining and workplace rules, cash assistance for poor children, Social Security, the GI Bill, home mortgage subsidies, progressive taxation – democratic instruments that checked economic tyranny and helped secure America’s great middle class. And these were only the beginning. The Marshall Plan, the civil rights revolution, reaching the moon, a huge leap in life expectancy – every one of these great outward achievements of the last century grew from shared goals and collaboration in the public interest.

So it is that contrary to what we have heard rhetorically for a generation now, the individualist greed-driven free-market ideology is at odds with our history and with what most Americans really care about. More and more people agree that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power, that money in politics is corrupting democracy, and that working families and poor communities need and deserve help when the market system fails to generate shared prosperity. Indeed, the American public is broadly committed to a set of values that almost perfectly contradicts the conservative agenda that has dominated American politics for a generation now.

The question, then, is not about changing people; it’s about reaching people. I’m not speaking simply of better information, a sharper and clearer factual presentation to disperse the thick fogs generated by today’s spin machines.  Of course we always need stronger empirical arguments to back up our case. It would certainly help if at least as many people who believe, say, in a “literal devil” or that God sent George W. Bush to the White House also know that the top one percent of households now has more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Yes, people need more information than they get from the media conglomerates with their obsession for nonsense, violence, and pap.  And we need, as we keep hearing, “new ideas.” But we are at an extraordinary moment.  The conservative movement stands intellectually and morally bankrupt while Democrats talk about a “new direction” without convincing us they know the difference between a weather vane and a compass. The right story will set our course for a generation to come.

Some stories doom us.  In Collapse:  How Societies Choose Success or Failure, Jared Diamond tells of the Viking colony that disappeared in the 15th century. The settlers had scratched a living on the sparse coast ofGreenland for years, until they encountered a series of harsh winters. Their livestock, the staple of their diet, began to die off. Although the nearby waters teemed with haddock and cod, the colony’s mythology prohibited the eating of fish. When their supply of hay ran out during a last terrible winter, the colony was finished. They had been doomed by their story.

Here in the first decade of the 21st century the story that becomes America’s dominant narrative will shape our collective imagination.  In the searching of our souls demanded by this challenge,  those of us in this room and kindred spirits across the nation must confront the most fundamental progressive failure of the current era: the failure to embrace a moral vision of America based on the transcendent faith that human beings are more than the sum of their material appetites, our country is more than an economic machine, and freedom is not license but responsibility – the gift we have received and the legacy we must bequeath.

In our brief sojourn here we are on a great journey. For those who came before us and for those who follow, our moral, political, and religious duty to make sure that his nation,  which was conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we are all created equal, is in good hands on our watch.

One story would return Americato the days of radical laissez-faire, when there was no social contract and the strong took what they could and the weak were left to forage.  The other story joins the memory of struggles that have been waged with the possibility of victories yet to be won, including health care for every American and a living wage for every worker.  Like the mustard seed to which Jesus compared the Kingdom of God, nurtured from small beginnings in a soil fertile and longing to produce, our story has been a long time unfolding. It reminds us that the freedoms and rights we treasure were not sent from heaven and did not grow on trees.  They were, as John Powers has written, “born of centuries of struggle by millions who fought and bled and died to assure that government can’t just walk into our bedrooms or read our mail, to protect ordinary people from being over run by massive corporations, to win a safety net against the sometimes cruel workings of the market, to stop businessmen from compelling employees to work more than 40 hours a week without compensation, to make us free to criticize our government without having our patriotism impugned, and to make sure our leaders are answerable to the people when they send our soldiers into war.” The eight-hour day, the minimum wage, the conservation of natural resources, free trade unions, old-age pensions, clean air and water, safe food – all these began with citizens and won the endorsement of the political class only after long struggles and bitter attacks.  Democracy works when people claim it as their own.

It is only rarely remembered that the definition of democracy immortalized by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address had been inspired by Theodore Parker, the abolitionist prophet.  Driven from his pulpit, Parker said, “I will go about and preach and lecture in the city and glen, by the roadside and field-side, and wherever men and women may be found” He became the Hound of freedom, and helped to change America through the power of the word.  We have a story of equal power. It is that the promise of America leaves no one out.  Go now, and tell it on the mountains.  From the rooftops, tell it. From your laptops, tell it. From the street corners and from Starbucks, from delis and from diners, tell it. From the workplace and the bookstore, tell it. On campus and at the mall, tell it. Tell it at the synagogue, sanctuary, and mosque. Tell it where you can, when you can, and while you can – to every candidate for office, to every talk show host and pundit, to corporate executives and school children.   Tell it – for America’s sake.

*Bill Moyers wishes to acknowledge with gratitude the significant assistance of Lew Daly, Senior Fellow at the Center, in the preparation of these remarks.

‘America 101′, October 27, 2006

Let’s be honest about what we mean by “urban education.” We are talking about the poorest and most vulnerable children in America– kids for whom “at risk” has come to describe their fate and not simply their circumstances.

Their education should be the centerpiece of a great and diverse America  made stronger by equality and shared prosperity.  It has instead become the epitome of public neglect, perpetuated by a class divide so permeated by race that it mocks the bedrock principles of the American Promise.

It has been said that the mark of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.  If so,America’s governing class should be knocked off their feet by the fact that more than 70% of black children are now attending schools that are overwhelmingly non-white.  In 1980 that figure was 63%.  Latino students are even more isolated.  Brown v. Board’s “all deliberate” speed of 1954 has become slow motion in reverse.  In Richard Kahlenberg’s words, “With the law in retreat, geography takes command.”

Not just the kids suffer.  A nation that devalues poor children also demeans their teachers. For the life of me I cannot fathom why we expect so much from teachers and provide them so little in return.  In 1940, the average pay of a male teacher was actually 3.6% more than what other college-educated men earned.  Today it is 60% lower.  Women teachers now earn 16% less than other college-educated women. This bewilders me.  Children aren’t born lawyers, corporate executives, engineers, and doctors.  Their achievements bear the imprint of their teachers.  There was no Plato without Socrates, and no John Coltrane without Miles Davis.  Is there anyone here whose path was not marked by the inspiration of some teacher?  Mary Sullivan, Bessie Bryant, Miss White, the Brotze sisters, Inez Hughes – I cannot imagine my life without them.  Their classrooms were my world, and each one of them kept enlarging it.

Yet teachers now are expected to staff the permanent emergency rooms of our country’s dysfunctional social order.  They are expected to compensate for what families, communities, and culture fail to do.  Like our soldiers inIraq, they are sent into urban combat zones, on impossible missions, under inhospitable conditions, and then abandoned by politicians and policy makers who have already cut and run, leaving teachers on their own.

One morning I opened The New York Times to read that tuition at Manhattan’s elite private schools had reached $26,000 a year, starting in kindergarten.  On that same page was another story about a school in Mount Vernon, just across the city line from the Bronx, where 97% of the students are black and 90% of those are so impoverished they are eligible for free lunches.  During Black History month, a six-grader researching Langston Hughes could not find a single book by Hughes in the library.  This wasn’t an oversight: There were virtually no books relevant to black history in that library.  Most of the books on the shelves date back to the l950s and l960s.  A child’s primer on work begins with a youngster learning to be a telegraph delivery boy!

It has taken constant litigation to bring to light this chronic neglect of basic learning in poor communities.  Just seven years ago (1999) the Department of Education said that $127 billion was needed to bring “the nation’s school facilities into good overall condition.” The National Education Association put the figure at $268 billion—that’s just to make sure our kids are physically safe, 28 or 30 or even 32 or more to a classroom. Now the New York State Court of Appeals has ruled that the New York City school system alone is due approximately $15 billion “to provide students with their constitutional right to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”

Surely this inexcusable under-investment is one significant reason why, despite our national wealth and GDP which are higher than virtually all of Europe combined, American students as a whole fare so poorly compared to their counterparts in other advanced countries.  In 2003, the United States ranked 24th out of 29 advanced countries in combined mathematical literacy, according to the Program for International Student Assessment.  A better ranking in combined reading literacy—15th out of 27 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in 2000—might be counted a success when compared to our abysmal math performance, but this can hardly be comforting if we consider that students are performing significantly better in countries without America’s vast wealth.

The neglect of urban education – a capital moral offense in its own right – is but a symptom of what is happening in America.  We are retreating from our social compact all down the line. Our country is falling apart.  Literally.  Last year (2005) the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report on our crumbling infrastructure. The engineers said we are “failing to maintain even substandard conditions” in our highway system – with significant economic effects.  Poor road conditions cost motorists $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, and the 3.5 billion hours per year Americans spend stuck in traffic, costs the economy more than $67 billion annually in lost productivity and wasted fuel.

The report said the country’s power grid is likewise “in urgent need of modernization” as maintenance spending on transmission facilities has declined one percent annually since 1992, while growth in demand has risen 2.4% annually over the same period. In 2002, the Department of Energy warned that system “bottlenecks” due to transmission constraints were adding to consumer costs and threatening blackouts.  The next August (2003) a blackout blanketed the Midwestand Northeast (and parts of Canada), leaving 50 million people in the dark, some for days, costing billions of dollars in lost commerce and production.

Even our much-touted technological superiority is in doubt.   As my colleagues and I reported on my most recent PBS special – The Net at Risk – Asian and European countries have raced ahead of us in broadband speed – pushing America from 4th to 12th place on the information superhighway.  The Japanese, for example, have near-universal access to high-speed broadband connections, averaging 16 times faster than U.S. connections at a much lower cost.

Connect the dots:  Neglected schools, crumbling roads, permanent environmental “dead zones,” inadequate emergency systems, understaffed hospitals, library cutbacks, the lack of affordable housing, incompetent government agencies, whether it is FEMA or state bureaucracies charged with protecting helpless children – these are characteristic features of our public sector today.  Partly it’s about money; little noticed amid all the concern about growing deficits and entitlement spending is this fact – non-defense discretionary spending declined 38% between 1980 and 1999 as a share of Gross Domestic Product.  According to economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, federal investment in non-defense capacities, including research and education, plummeted in the 1980s – from over 2.5% of GDP to only 1.5% in the late 1990s.


The scariest thing is that this is only the beginning. America’s ship of state is floating in a sea of red ink.  In an important but largely neglected report in 2002,  Kent Smetters and Jagadeesh Gokhale found that our fiscal gap – the difference (in present value) between the government’s future receipts and expenditures – assuming the same net tax rates going forward, was a staggering $45 trillion dollars. This is $4 trillion more than the entire capital stock of industry ($25.9 trillion) and total market capitalization ($14.3 trillion) in 2003.


I said the report was “largely neglected.”  Ironically, it was originally commissioned by then-Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, but the government never released it, and O’Neill was fired shortly after it was completed. Later it was made public by a conservativeWashingtonthink tank on the condition that all visible traces to the Treasury Department be expunged.  Is it possible the suppression had anything to do with the third round of major tax cuts the White House had on tap for 2003?


In their study Smetters and Gokhale provide a “menu of pain” we can choose from to close the fiscal gap.  If we start today, we could raise federal income taxes by 69%, or increase payroll taxes (our most repressive tax) by 95%.  On the other hand, we could cut federal discretionary spending by 106%, or permanently cut Social Security and Medicare benefits by 45%.  Or we could do a combination of both at more “moderate’’ levels.


The “menu of delayed pain,” if we wait even three years to begin significant changes, is far worse.  By 2008, to close the fiscal gap we would need to raise payroll taxes 103% or cut benefits by 47%.  If we wait 15 years, compound interest will raise our fiscal gap to $76 trillion.  These figures underestimate the problem because the underlying fiscal gap was dramatically increased, by $6 trillion, when Congress, in one of the biggest giveaways to corporations in recent years, passed that new Medicare drug benefit in 2003.  At $51 trillion, government liabilities outstrip the current net worth of our population by nearly $10 trillion.  Put another way, as Matt Crenson recently did for the Associated Press, if the United States government conducts business as usual over the next few decades, a national debt that is already $8.5 trillion could reach $46 trillion or more, adjusted for inflation.  “That’s almost as much as the total net worth of every person inAmerica—Bill Gates,Warren Buffett and those Google guys included,” says Crenson.

This is the picture as 77 million longer-living baby boomers are on the way to retirement, confronting America with a “coming generational storm” (Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns) that threatens to swamp the U.S. government if not our entire financial system.  Gokhale and Smetters calculate that by 2030 Medicare will be about $5 trillion in the hole, measured in 2004 dollars.  By 2080, the fiscal imbalance will have risen to $25 trillion.

It’s not that the public at large doesn’t care about the looming catastrophe.  In a survey of 807 Americans last year by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, 42% of respondents said reducing the deficit should be a top priority; another 38% said it was important although a lower priority.

Nonetheless, President Bush acts as if he has a divine mandate to make the fiscal gap even worse.  When he took office in 2001, his top priority was to give the richest of the rich hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts (Richard Cheney said they deserved it).  The President prevailed, even pushing through a second and third round of tax cuts despite increased spending on homeland security and fighting terrorists abroad.  Bush’s 2001 tax cut alone gave the richest 1% of Americans $ 479 billion over ten years.  His first two tax cuts account for a hefty 15% of the total fiscal gap going forward.  At the same time, creditors and employers are now blatantly using government to cushion themselves against future losses, in what is certain to be a broadening trend.  Last year the President signed a bill some of his richest contributors had been pushing for eight years.  The new law imposes a stringent means test designed to force ordinary people in bankruptcy to continue paying a portion of their debt.  Yet the bill does nothing about homestead exemptions used by the privileged to shield their money in real estate.  Furthermore, after the new bankruptcy law was passed, a federal judge ruled that United Airlines, reorganizing under bankruptcy, could dump $6.6 billion worth of pension obligations onto the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, essentially making taxpayers pay its pension costs and leaving many of its workers with diminished benefits.  The pension agency, it should be noted, is itself already $23 billion in the red.

All this comes at a point when American workers are losing ground in the marketplace as cheaper labor overseas becomes increasingly available through globalization, trade agreements, foreign investment, and technological outsourcing. Rub the crystal ball: In the next few decades, when the huge liabilities start coming in due to Social Security and Medicare, there may be nothing left – less than nothing left – for public needs like education, highways, disaster relief, and social services, let alone national healthcare.

Small wonder that the Wall Street investor, Pete Peterson, a life-long Republican who served as President Nixon’s Commerce Secretary, says our children’s future is being ruined by a reckless fiscal “theology.”

Theology asserts propositions that are believed whether or not they meet the test of reality.  Not only do our governing elites act as if there’s no tomorrow, they behave as if there is no reality.  Alas, they won’t be around to feel our grandchildren’s pain. In his recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the Pulitzer-prize winning anthropologist Jared Diamond writes about how governing elites throughout history isolate and delude themselves until it is too late.  He reminds us that the change people inflict on their environment was one of the main factors in the decline of earlier societies.  For example: the Mayan natives on the Yucatan peninsula who suffered as their forests disappeared, their soil eroded, and their water supply deteriorated.  Chronic warfare made matters worse as they exhausted dwindling resources.  Although Mayan kings could see their forests vanishing and their hills eroding, they were able to insulate themselves from the rest of society.  By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well fed while everyone else was slowly starving.  Realizing too late that they could not reverse their deteriorating environment, they became casualties of their own privilege.

Any society contains a built-in blueprint for failure, Diamond warns, if elites insulate themselves from the consequences of their decisions. Then he describes an America in which elites have cocooned themselves in gated communities, guarded by private security patrols and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. Gradually they lose their motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, social security, and public schools.

The isolation of our schools, the crumbling of our infrastructure, and the reckless disregard of our fiscal affairs signal a retreat from the social compact that made America unique among nations.  Our culture of democracy derived from the rooted experience of shared values, common dreams, and mutual aspirations that are proclaimed in the most disregarded section in the Constitution – the prologue – which announces a moral contract among “We, the People of the United States.”  Yes, I know: When those words were written “We, the People” didn’t include slaves, or women, or exploited workers, or unwelcome immigrants.  To our everlasting shame American urtured slavery in the cradle of liberty.  But, oh, the very idea of it, the vision of it, the potential power of “We, the People” let loose in that brief astonishing span of history was to change the consciousness of the world.   How radical it was – the notion that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is every human being’s birthright – that all of us are equal in the scheme of Providence that every citizen shares equally in the consent required for self-government in the grand adventure of independence.

There was a time some years ago when in my head I carried on an argument with Thomas Jefferson about this.  I quarreled with his assertion about “equality being self-evident.”  Where I lived talent, opportunity, and outcomes were not equal.  Then, one day, while I was filming a series at Independence Hall for a documentary on the anniversary of the Constitution, it hit me full force: Jefferson had an intimate understanding of the contradiction in his assertion which would give it even greater force down through the years.  The hands that wrote “All men are created equal” also stroked the breasts and caressed the thighs of a black woman named Sally Hemings.  It’s true: The man whose noble words fired the revolutionary spirit in his generation had a long-term sexual relationship with this slave, and the children she bore him – his children – were slaves themselves.  One guest at  Monticello was startled to look up from dinner to see a young servant who was the spitting image of the master at the head of the table. Jefferson never acknowledged these children as his own, and as he grew older, he relied more and more on slavery to keep him financially afloat.  When he died his slaves were sold to satisfy his creditors – with this exception: Through an obscure passage in Jefferson’s will – one she must have negotiated with him – Sally Hemings was the only slave at Monticelloto secure the freedom of her children.

Think about it: Thomas Jefferson knew the truth even as he was living the lie.  He had to know the flesh-and-blood woman in his arms was his equal in her desire for life, her longing for liberty, her passion for happiness.   In a PBS series about the Declaration of Independence, the late philosopher Mortimer Adler said that whatever things are really good for any human beings are really good for all human beings – that what the richest parents in the country want for their children – the goods essential for life, liberty, and happiness – is what the poorest parents want for their children.  The happy or good life is essentially the same for all: a satisfaction of the same needs inherent in human nature.  So Sally Hemings’ heart burned with the pain of an inaudible cry: Let my children go!

I believe this is the agitating nucleus of the American experience – the relentless dynamo of desire that drives the American Dream.  We want a better life for our children.  That dream was made possible by the Revolution, for  Jefferson’s Declaration proclaimed an end to arbitrary rule and ultimately produced a form of government that meant kings and their courtiers – the people at the top – the powerful and the privileged – the master class – couldn’t keep it all to themselves.  Once let loose the notion “We, the People” – the sentiment of equal rights and equal opportunity and equal citizenship – could never again be caged. In time even slaves would invoke those ideas to claim their freedom.  Yes, I know: It took a bloody civil war to end slavery and yet another century before we confronted slavery’s bastard son, segregation.  Oppression is stubborn and privilege resistant, and the promise of America has long been ripening.  But it’s in our DNA and you can’t kill it – no matter how hard some people keep trying.

Abraham Lincoln understood this. He was the first American president to recognize fully that democracy requires an economic system in which individuals can enjoy the fruits of their labor, and that the job of government was to keep the playing field level. Lincoln fought to preserve the Union because he knew government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” rested on economic opportunity, social mobility, and shared prosperity. America’s great strength, in his eyes, derived from a unique and balanced blend of democracy and capitalism, and as the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Stephen Heinz, recently put it, “It is hard to imagine either democracy or capitalism functioning at peak performance without the other.”

But look around: Democracy has been made subservient to capitalism, and the great ideals of the American Revolution as articulated in the Preamble to the Constitution are being sacrificed to the Gospel of Wealth (for a brilliant exegesis of this development,  read The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth by Norton Garfinkle, Yale University Press, 2006.)

I could recite all the evidence, but I am sure you’ve heard it; you see it every day, all around you.  Despite continued growth in the economy, real median household income declined between 2000 and 2004.  Between 1980 and 2004, real wages in manufacturing fell 1% while the real income of the richest 1% rose – by 135%.  In 1976 the top 1% of Americans owned 22% of our total wealth. Today, the top 1% controls 38% of our total wealth.  In 1960, the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was 30 fold.  Now it is more than 75 fold.

Such concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefiting proportionately.  But that’s not the case.  According to Census Bureau data, Americans have become progressively less likely to advance up the socio-economic ladder.  One study cited by Stephen Heinz concludes, “The rich are likely to remain rich and the poor are likely to remain poor.”

Aristotle thought injustice resulted from pleonexia, literally, “having more.”  A class of people having more than their share of the common wealth was the characteristic feature of an unjust society.  Plato thought that the common good required a ratio of only 5 to 1 between the richest and poorest members of a society.  Even J.P. Morgan thought bosses should only get twenty times more than their workers, at most. How quaint: in 2005 the average CEO earned 262 times what the average worker got.

As hard as it is to believe, the average real weekly wage for blue-collar workers, adjusted for rising costs of living, was about $278 a week in 2004 (in constant 1982 dollars).  In 1972, it was $332 a week. That’s not a slight downward trend – it’s a significant and steady decline.  So what of the panacea, economic growth – remember the rising tide that lifts all boats?  What we are seeing today is closer to the old view of class struggle.  A recent Goldman Sachs report says it outright: “the most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor’s share of national income.”

Yet in a country where the press now represents the dominant class through an unprecedented concentration of media ownership, instead of this remarkable divergence of profits and wages making news, what grabs the headlines is the triumphal surge of the stock market to old highs. At the same time, the share of Gross Domestic Product going to wages is now at the lowest point since 1947, when the government started measuring things.  Those who look fondly on “market discipline” that’s been keeping wages down, ignore the deep distortions built into a system in which capital is highly organized and workers are not.

So it is that to make ends meet in the face of stagnant or declining incomes, regular Americans have gone deeper and deeper in debt – with credit card debt nearly tripling since 1989.  Poor kids are dropping out of high school and college at alarming rates, the middle class and working poor have been hit hard by a housing squeeze, 45 million or more Americans – eight out of ten of them in working families – are without health insurance.   “The strain on working people,” says the economist Jeffrey Madrick, “has become significant. Working families and the poor are losing ground under economic pressures that deeply affect household stability, family dynamics, social mobility, political participation, and civic life.”

The American Dream has had its heart cut out, and is on life support.

This wasn’t meant to be. Americawas not meant to be a country where the winner takes all.  Our system of checks and balances – read the Federalist papers — was going to keep an equilibrium in how power works, and for whom.  Because equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of democracy, Americans made primary schooling free to all. Because everyone deserves a second chance, debtors – especially the relatively poor – were protected by state law against rich creditors.  Charters to establish corporations were not restricted to elites.  Government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land, and even supported squatters’ rights.  Equal access to opportunity began to materialize for millions of us.

When I was born my father was making $2 a day working on the highway.  He and my mother were knocked down and almost out by the Great Depression and were poor all their lives.  But I had access to good public schools.  My brother went to college on the GI Bill.  When I borrowed $450 to buy my first car, I drove to a public university on public highways and rested in public parks.  I discovered America as a shared project, the central engine of our national experience.

I don’t need to tell you that a profound transformation is occurring in America.  And it’s man-made.  Over the last 30 years a disciplined, well-funded and closely-coordinated coalition of corporate elites, power-hungry religious conservatives, and hard-line right-wing operatives has mounted an aggressive drive to dismantle the public foundations and philosophy of shared prosperity and fairness in America.

It’s all right there in bold letters in the early manifestos of the Reagan Revolution – essential reading like William Simon’s A Time for Truth.   He argued that “funds generated by business” would have to “rush by multimillions” into conservative causes to uproot the institutions and the “heretical” morality of the New Deal.  An “alliance” between right-wing leaders and “men of action in the capitalist world” must mount a “veritable crusade” against everything brought forth by the Progressive era.  Reading right out of the new reactionary playbook, the business press somberly concluded that “some people will obviously have to do with less…It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more,” BusinessWeek sermonized.

They succeeded beyond expectations.  Instead of trying to keep a level playing field, government now favors the rich, powerful, and privileged.  The public institutions, the laws and regulations, the ideas, norms, and beliefs which aimed to protect the common good and helped to create America’s iconic middle class, are now gone, greatly weakened, or increasingly vulnerable to attack.  The Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow sums it up succinctly: What it’s all about, he says, “is the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful.”

Walking out of Union Station in Washington the other day, I saw the huge dome of the Capitol and was immediately struck by the realization that there’s not a stone in that building that isn’t owned by the people who make the big contributions.  They own both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue lock, stock, and barrel.  The simple proposition of the common good that might balance the influence of organized wealth with the interests of ordinary people – the most basic assumption of all political teaching since ancient Greece – is written out of Washington life.

Here’s an example of the difference it makes.  I learned of this parable from the maverick tax journalist David Cay Johnston:

Maritza Reyes cleans houses in East Los Angeles.  She scrubs toilets and mops floors for about $7,000 a year. She is also a liar and a fraud, if you believe the IRS after agents audited her tax returns.  They didn’t find unreported income or mysterious deductions on her returns; no, they found an address they thought made her ineligible to claim an Earned Income Tax Credit. She was ordered to return several years’ credits, equal to nearly a year’s worth of her wages.

The Earned Income Tax Credit is for the working poor, mainly those with children. First enacted in 1975, praised by Ronald Reagan, and significantly expanded under President Clinton, it helps lift working-poor families out of poverty by reducing their income taxes below zero and thus supplying a refund. It is essentially a type of wage support. Without it we would have many millions more in poverty today.

But after Clinton expanded the credit, the self-styled conservative revolutionaries who took over Congress in 1994 started to attack it as “backdoor welfare,” or, as Oklahoma Senator Don Nickles put it, as an “income redistribution program.” To save it, Clinton cut a deal with the Republicans that gave them more than $100 million a year for IRS audits of people who file for the credit.  It was hard for the radicals to repeal a tax policy that rewarded work when they were trying to abolish welfare for rewarding indolence. So they changed their drumbeat to fraud and deceit, making a cottage industry of attacking the credit as a haven for tax cheats.


The IRS said Reyes was cheating because she had an address that made it appear she lived with her husband. In fact, they were separated and she lived in a cottage at the back of his lot with their younger son—probably one step away from being homeless. Under the law, she is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit as a single “head of household” with children, but the IRS set out to prove that she was really living high-off-the-hog under her husband’s roof and her head-of-household filing was a charade designed to bilk the government.

But when the Tax Court judges came to Los Angeles in 2000, IRS lawyers had no evidence to disprove Reyes’ claims that she was head of a separate household on her husband’s lot.  A student from Chapman Law School helped her prevail before the tax judge, noting that “if just one person had taken the time to listen to her they would have seen what the judge did.”  To Frank Doti, head of Chapman’s legal clinic for poor people, Reyes’s case is typical of what he’s seen in recent years: government comes down hardest on the easiest targets—those without resources and power to defend themselves.

How does this measure-up in the scales of justice?

In 2001, 397,000 people who applied for the Earn Income Tax Credit were audited, one out of every 47 returns. That’s a rate eight times higher than the rate for people earning $100,000 or more. Only one out of every 366 returns of wealthy households was audited. Over the previous 11 years, in fact, audit rates for the poor increased by a third, while the wealthiest enjoyed a 90% decline in IRS scrutiny. Of all the 744,000 tax returns audited by the IRS in 2002, more than half, David Cay Johnston finds, were filed by the working poor.  More than half of IRS audits targeted people who account for less than 20% of taxpayers, the poorest 20%.

Now take at look at the 1998 tax return of President George W. Bush, when he was part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Never mind that he was also Governor of Texas at the time, he reported income of $18.4 million that year, $15 million of which was a capital gain from his Rangers’ stake when the team was sold. In fact, based on his investment, he was only entitled to a $2.2 million capital gain, but he was given a performance bonus for his work as a team executive.  This was considered part of his capital gain and not counted as income, however, and so it was taxed at the then-20% rate for capital gains (now lowered to 15%) instead of at the then-top income tax rate of 39.6%. A perfectly legal sleight-of-hand that netted him an extra $3 million dollars in foregone taxes on top of the eight-figure gift conferred by his partners.

It doesn’t add up, does it? Spend $100 million a year of taxpayer money to audit the working poor, while actively foregoing billions in revenue from the wealthy who hide or defer their income as capital gains.  But of course the government piles much, much more onto the rich man’s side of the scale: every year, as much as $70 billion is legally sheltered from taxation in off-shore trusts and other financial devices.  Big accounting firms like Ernst & Young actually sell tax shelters for a good share of their own huge profits.  One of their “products” costs $5 million and, in exchange, the client gets up to $20 million in tax obligations wiped out.

It’s stunning. All told, we have a “tax gap”—the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid—of more than $345 billion a year, more than nine times our entire homeland security budget.  There’s an entire new cottage industry devoted to making tax obligations disappear.  In other words, helping the rich get richer at the expense of those who have no choice but to pay their fair share—and mostly feel obligated to do so anyway.  And make no mistake; every foregone dollar the rich owe is one you ultimately pay for in either higher taxes or fewer services down the road. When our tax code permits such public larceny, you know who writes the laws in this country.

And even those who break the law have less and less to fear: last summer the IRS quietly moved to eliminate the jobs of nearly half of its estate tax auditors, a move that one IRS lawyer described as a “backdoor way for the Bush administration to achieve what it cannot get from Congress, which is repeal of the estate tax.”

William Henry Harrison, our ill-fated ninth president and unlikely Whig populist, once said that it’s “true Democratic feeling that all the measures of the Government are directed to the purpose of making the rich richer and the poor poorer.”  I’d say it’s more than a feeling. It’s the God’s honest truth, and we need to see it for what it is – the betrayal of the American Revolution.

The journalist of the revolution, Thomas Paine, described the United States of his day as the Archimedean point of democratic liberty. He quoted the Greek proverb, “Had we a place to stand upon, we might raise the world.” To Paine, that place was the United States of America in 1792. But that promise has been blunted by the counter-revolution of the last 30 years celebrating ostentatious wealth, inequality, and social Darwinism.   The egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is mocked in all but name, and the bar of tolerance for inequality is now brought so low that genetic sorting in the human population is once again respectfully debated as a leading cause.  The wealthy governing elites in America today – corporate executives, wealthy contributors, and the officials they have bankrolled into office – possess a degree of power and separation befitting a true ruling class. They are the Mayan kings and priests of the 21st century.

We know now that “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” can, indeed, perish. And perish not under fallen battlements and bombs raining down and the sneak attack of some fanatical distant foe, but by the deliberate plunder of an organized minority – for our governing elites do not represent the majority of Americans – that methodically imposes its will on the laws and institutions of a people until the whole foundation has become their very throne.

What these 30 years of redistributing wealth upward have done to America is documented in a growing literature on inequality and its social consequences. But the spiritual costs – lost moral confidence in democracy, failing empathy, growing distrust and division – may be greater.

Yet history tells us that concentrated wealth and political power can be challenged. The Jeffersonian “second revolution” of the 1790s; the populist revolt of the 1890s that led to the Progressive era of reform; the powerful electoral ratification of the New Deal; the equally powerful rejection of race and gender discrimination in the 1960s — all manifested the ordinary beliefs and values, collectively revived, to confront the domination by wealthy elites that had debased the American Promise inherent in our revolutionary beginnings.

So I have a practical suggestion for those of you who are principals, superintendents, school board members, and teachers:  Go home from here and revise your core curriculum.  Yes, teach the three Rs; teach the ABCs; make sure your kids learn algebra, biology, and calculus.  But teach them about the American Revolution – that it isn’t just about white men in powdered wigs carrying muskets in a time long gone. It’s about slaves who rose up and women who wouldn’t be denied and unwelcome immigrants and exploited workers who against great odds claimed the Revolution as their own and breathed life into it.  Teach your kids they don’t have to accept what they have been handed.  Teach them they are not only equal citizens under the law, but equal sons and daughters – heirs, everyone – of that revolution, and that it is their right to claim it as their own.  Teach them to shake the torpor that has been prescribed for them by calculating elders and ideologues.  Teach them there is only one force strong enough to counter the power of organized money today, and that is the power of organized people.  They are waiting for this message; the kids in your schools have been made to feel as victims, powerless, ashamed, inferior, and disenfranchised.  Tell them it’s a great big lie – despite their poverty, circumstance, and the long odds they’ve been handed, they have the power to make the world over again, in their image.

I was at the Presidio in San Francisco yesterday.   That former military enclave beneath the Golden Gate Bridge is now a marvelous and beautiful center of vital commerce and civic purpose – saved from exploitation and despoliation by citizens who rose up on its behalf.   On the wall of one of the main buildings I came upon a painting of an enormous deep blue wave with white caps against an equally blue sky.  The artist’s inscription beneath the painting reads: “This human wave expresses the concept of people at the bottom rungs of society waking up to using their united strength to claim their universal rights to economic, social, and environmental justice.”

Put that in your core curriculum. It’s America 101.


*Bill Moyers is grateful to Lew Daly, Senior Fellow of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, for his contributions to this speech.

‘Saving Democracy’, March 4, 2004

I will leave to Jon Stewart the rich threads of humor to pluck from the hunting incident in Texas.  All of us are relieved that the Vice President’s friend has survived.  I can accept Dick Cheney’s word that the accident was one of the worst moments of his life.  What intrigues me as a journalist now is the rare glimpse we have serendipitously been offered into the tightly knit world of the elites who govern today.

The Vice President was hunting on a 50-thousand acre ranch owned by a lobbyist friend who is the heiress to a family fortune of land, cattle, banking and oil (ah, yes, the quickest and surest way to the American dream remains to choose your parents well.)

The circumstances of the hunt and the identity of the hunters provoked a lament from The Economist. The most influential pro-business magazine in the world is concerned that hunting in America is becoming a matter of class: the rich are doing more, the working stiffs, less.   The annual loss of 1.5 millions of acres of wildlife habitat and 1 million acres of farm and ranchland to development and sprawl has come “at the expense of ‘The Deer Hunter’ crowd in the small towns of the north-east, the rednecks of the south and the cowboys of the west.”  Their places, says The Economist, are being taken by the affluent who pay plenty for such conveniences as being driven to where the covey cooperatively awaits.  The magazine (hardly a Marxist rag, remember) describes Mr. Cheney’s own expedition as “a lot closer to ‘Gosford Park’ than ‘The Deer Hunter’ – a group of fat old toffs waiting for wildlife to be flushed towards them at huge expense.”

At the heart of this story is a metaphor of power.  The Vice President turned his host, the lobbyist who is also the ranch owner, into his de facto news manager. She would disclose the shooting only when Cheney was ready and only on his terms.  Sure enough, nothing was made public for almost 20 hours until she finally leaked the authorized version to the local newspaper.  Ms. Armstrong suggested the blame lay with the victim, who, she indicated, had failed to inform the Vice President of his whereabouts and walked into a hail of friendly fire.  Three days later Cheney revised the story and apologized.  Don’t you wonder what went back and forth with the White House that long night of trying to agree on the official line?

We do know someone from the hunting party was in touch with Karl Rove at the White House.  For certain Rove’s the kind of fellow you want on the other end of the line when great concoctions are being hatched, especially if you wish the victim to hang for the crime committed against him. Watching these people work is a study of the inner circle at the top of American politics.  The journalist Sidney Blumenthal, writing on Salon.com, reminds us of the relationship between the Armstrong dynasty and the Bush family and its retainers.  Armstrong’s father invested in Rove’s political consulting firm that managed George W. Bush’s election as governor of Texas and as president.  Her mother, Anne Armstrong, is a longtime Republican activist and donor.  Ronald Reagan appointed her to the  Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board after her tenure as Ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Ford, whose chief of staff was a young Dick Cheney.  Anne Armstrong served on the board of directors of Halliburton that hired Cheney to run the company.  Her daughter, Katherine Armstrong, host of the hunting party, was once a lobbyist for the powerful Houston law firm founded by the family of James A. Baker III, who was chief of staff to Reagan, Secretary of State under the first George Bush, and the man designated by the Bush family to make sure the younger Bush was named President in 2000 despite having lost the popular vote.  According to Blumenthal, one of her more recent lobbying jobs was with a large construction firm with contracts in Iraq.

It is a Dick Cheney world out there – a world where politicians and lobbyists hunt together, dine together, drink together, play together, pray together and prey together, all the while carving up the world according to their own interests.

Two years ago, in a report entitled Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality, the American Political Science Association concluded that progress toward realizing American ideals of democracy “may have stalled, and even, in some areas, reversed.”  Privileged Americans “roar with a clarity and consistency that public officials readily hear and routinely follow” while citizens “with lower or moderate incomes are speaking with a whisper.”  The following year, on the eve of President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, the editors of The Economist,  reporting on inequality in America, concluded that the United States “risks calcifying into a European-style, class-based society.”

As great wealth has accumulated at the top, the rest of society has not been benefiting proportionally.  In 1960 the gap between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was thirtyfold.  Now it is seventy-five fold.  Thirty years ago the average annual compensation of the top 100 chief executives in the country was 30 times the pay of the average worker.  Today it is 1000 times the pay of the average worker.   A recent article in The Financial Times reports on a study by the American economist Robert J. Gordon, who finds “little long-term change in workers’ share of U.S. income over the past half century.”  Middle-ranking Americans are being squeezed, he says, because the top ten percent of earners have captured almost half the total income gains in the past four decades and the top one percent have gained the most of all – “more in fact, than all the bottom 50 percent.”

No wonder working men and women and their families are strained to cope with the rising cost of health care, pharmaceutical drugs, housing, higher education, and public transportation – all of which have risen faster in price than typical family incomes.  The recent book, Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity, describes how “thirty zipcodes in America have become fabulously wealthy” while “whole urban and rural communities are languishing in unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, growing insecurity, and fear.”

This is a profound transformation in a country whose DNA contains the inherent promise of an equal opportunity at  “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”  and whose collective memory resonates with the hallowed idea – hallowed by blood – of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The great progressive struggles in our history have been waged to make sure ordinary citizens, and not just the rich, share in the benefits of a free society.  Yet today the public may support such broad social goals as affordable medical coverage for all, decent wages for working people, safe working conditions, a secure retirement, and clean air and water, but there is no government  “of, by, and for the people”  to deliver on  those aspirations.  Instead, our elections are bought out from under us and our public officials do the bidding of mercenaries.   Money is choking democracy to death.  So powerfully has wealth shaped our political agenda that we cannot say America is working for all of America.

In the words of Louis Brandeis, one of the greatest of our Supreme Court justices: “You can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or democracy, but you cannot have both.”

Some simple facts:

The cost of running for public office is skyrocketing.  In 1996, $1.6 billion was spent on the Congressional and Presidential elections. Eight years later, that total had more than doubled, to $3.9 billion.

Thanks to our system of privately financed campaigns, millions of regular Americans are being priced out of any meaningful participation in democracy.  Less than one half of one percent of all Americans made a political contribution of $200 or more to a federal candidate in 2004.  When the average cost of running and winning a seat in the House of Representatives has topped one million dollars, we can no longer refer to that August chamber as “The People’s House.”  If you were thinking of running for Congress, do you have any idea where you would get the money to be a viable candidate?

At the same time that the cost of getting elected is exploding beyond the reach of ordinary people, the business of gaining access to and influence with our elected Representatives has become a growth industry.  Six years ago, in his first campaign for President, George W. Bush promised he would “restore honor and integrity” to the government.  Repeatedly, during his first campaign for President, he would raise his right hand and, as if taking an oath, tell voters that he would change how things were done in the nation’s capitol.  “It’s time to clean up the toxic environment in Washington, DC,” he would say.  His administration would ask”not only what is legal but what is right, not what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves.”


Since Bush was elected the number of lobbyists registered to do business in Washington has more than doubled.   That’s 16,342 lobbyists in 2000 to 34,785 last year.  Sixty-five lobbyists for every member of Congress. The amount that lobbyists charge their new clients has increased by nearly one hundred percent in that same period, according to The Washington Post, going up to anything from $20,000 to $40,000 a month.  Starting salaries have risen to nearly $300,000 a year for the best-connected people, those leaving Congress or the administration. The total spent per month by special interests wining, dining, and seducing federal officials is now nearly $200 million.  Per month.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story.   There has been a qualitative change as well.  With pro-corporate business officials running both the executive and legislative branches, lobbying that was once reactive has gone on the offense, seeking huge windfalls from public policy and public monies.

One example cited by The Washington Post:    Hewlett-Packard, the California computer maker.  The company nearly doubled its budget for contract lobbyists in 2004 and took on an elite lobbying firm as its Washington arm.  Its goal was to pass Republican-backed legislation that would enable the company to bring back to the United States, at a dramatically lowered tax rate, as much as $14.5 billion in profit from foreign subsidiaries.  The extra lobbying paid off. The legislation passed and Hewlett Packard can now reduce its share of the social contract.  The company’s director of government affairs was quite candid:   “We’re trying to take advantage of the fact that Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House.”  Whatever the company paid for the lobbying, the investment returned enormous dividends.

I want to point out here that I believe in equal opportunity muckraking.    When I left Washington for journalism I did not leave behind my conviction that government should see to it that we have a more level playing field with one set of rules for everyone, but I did leave behind my partisan affections.  Anyone who saw the documentary my team and I  produced a few years ago on the illegal fund raising for Bill Clinton’s re-election, knows I am no fan of the democratic money machine that helped tear the party away from whatever roots it once had in the daily lives and struggles of working people, turning it into a junior partner of the Chamber of Commerce.  I mean people like California’s Congressman Tony Coelho, who in the 1980s realized that Congressional Democrats could milk the business community for money if they promised to “pay for play.”  I mean people like Terry McAuliffe, the  former Democratic National Committee Chairman  who gave Bill Clinton the idea of renting the Lincoln bedroom out to donors, and who did such a good job raising big money for the Democrats that by the end of his reign, Democrats had fewer small donors than the Republicans and more fat cats writing them million-dollar checks.

But let’s be realistic here. When the notorious Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he answered, “Because there is where the money is.” If I seem to be singling out the Republicans, it’s for one reason: that’s where the power is.  They own the government lock, stock, and barrel.  Once they gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994, their self-proclaimed revolution has gone into overdrive with their taking of the White House in 2000 and the Senate in 2002. Their revolution soon became a cash cow and Washington a one party state ruled by money.

Look back at the bulk of legislation passed by Congress in the past decade:   an energy bill which gave oil companies huge tax breaks at the same time that Exxon Mobil just posted $36 in profits in 2005 and our gasoline and home heating bills are at an all-time high; a bankruptcy “reform” bill written by credit card companies to make it harder for poor debtors to escape the burdens of divorce or medical catastrophe; the deregulation of the banking, securities and insurance sectors which led to rampant corporate malfeasance and greed and the destruction of the retirement plans of millions of small investors; the deregulation of the telecommunications sector which led to cable industry price gouging and an undermining of news coverage; protection for rampant overpricing of pharmaceutical drugs; and the blocking of even the mildest attempt to prevent American corporations from dodging an estimated $50 billion in annual taxes by opening a PO Box in an off-shore tax haven like Bermuda or the Cayman islands.

In every case the pursuit of this legislation was driven by big money.  Our public representatives, the holders of our trust, need huge sums to finance their campaigns, especially to pay for television advertising, and men and women who have mastered the money game have taken advantage of that weakness in our democracy to systematically sell it off to the highest bidders.

Let’s start with the “K Street Project.” K Street is the Wall Street of lobbying, the address of many of Washington’s biggest lobbying firms.  The K Street Project was the brainchild of Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist, the right wing strategist who famously said that his goal is to shrink government so that it can be “drowned in a bathtub.” This, of course, would render it impotent to defend ordinary people against the large economic forces – the so-called free market – that Norquist and his pals believe should be running America.

Tom DeLay, meanwhile, was a small businessman from Sugar Land, Texas, who ran a pest extermination business before he entered politics.   He hated the government regulators who dared to tell him that some of the pesticides he used were dangerous – as, in fact, they were.  He got himself elected to the Texas legislature at a time the Republicans were becoming the majority in the once-solid Democratic south, and his reputation for joining in the wild parties around the state capital in Austin earned him the nickname “Hot Tub Tom.”  But early in his political career, and with exquisite timing and the help of some videos from the right wing political evangelist, James Dobson, Tom DeLay found Jesus and became a full-fledged born again Christian.  He would later humbly acknowledge that God had chosen him to restore America to its biblical worldview.  “God,” said Tom DeLay, “has been walking me through an incredible journey…God is using me, all the time, everywhere…God is training me. God is working with me….”

Yes, indeed: God does work in mysterious ways.  In addition to finding Jesus, Tom DeLay also discovered a secular ally to serve his ambitions.  He found out the power of money to power his career. “Money is not the root of all evil in politics,” DeLay once said.  “In fact, money is the lifeblood of politics.”  By raising more than two million dollars from lobbyists and business groups and distributing the money to dozens of Republican candidates in 1994, the year of the Republican breakthrough in the House, DeLay bought the loyalty of many freshmen legislators and got himself elected Majority Whip, the number three man in Newt Gingrich’s “Gang of Seven”  who ran the House.

Here’s how they ran it: On the day before the Republicans formally took control of Congress on January 3, 1995, DeLay met in his office with a coterie of lobbyists from some of the biggest companies in America.  The journalists Michael Weisskopf and David Maraniss report that “the session inaugurated an unambiguous collaboration of political and commercial interests, certainly not uncommon in Washington but remarkable this time for the ease and eagerness with which these allies combined.”

DeLay virtually invited them to write the Republican agenda.  What they wanted first was “Project Relief” — a wide-ranging moratorium on regulations that had originally been put into place for the health and safety of the public.     For starters, they wanted “relief” from labor standards that protected workers from the physical injuries of repetitive work.  They wanted “relief’ from tougher rules on meat inspection.  And they wanted “relief” from effective monitoring of hazardous air pollutants.  Scores of companies were soon gorging on Tom DeLay’s generosity, adding one juicy and expensive tid-bit after another to the bill.  According to Weisskopf and Maraniss, on the eve of the debate 20 major corporate groups advised lawmakers that “this was a key vote, one that would be considered in future campaign contributions.”  On the day of the vote lobbyists on Capitol Hill were still writing amendments on their laptops and forwarding them to House leaders.

The Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, famously told the lobbyists:  “If you are going to play in our revolution, you have to live by our rules.”  Tom DeLay became his enforcer. The rules were simple and blunt. Contribute to Republicans only. Hire Republicans only.  When the electronics industry ignored the warning and chose a Democratic Member of Congress to run its trade association, DeLay played so rough – pulling  from the calendar a bill that the industry had worked on two years, aimed at bringing most of the world in alignment with U.S.  copyright law – that even the House Ethics Committee, the watchdog that seldom barks and rarely bites, stirred itself to rebuke him – privately, of course.

DeLay wasn’t fazed.  Not only did he continue to make sure the lobbying jobs went to Republicans, he also saw to it that his own people got a lion’s share of the best jobs.   At least 29 of his former employees landed major lobbying positions – the most of any Congressional office.  The journalist John Judis found that together ex-DeLay people represent around 350 firms, including thirteen of the biggest trade associations, most of the energy companies, the giants in finance and technology, the airlines, auto makers, tobacco companies, and the largest health care and pharmaceutical companies.  When tobacco companies wanted to block the FDA from regulating cigarettes, they hired DeLay’s man.  When the pharmaceutical companies – Big Pharma – wanted to make sure companies wouldn’t be forced to negotiate cheaper prices for drugs, they hired six of Tom DeLay’s team, including his former chief of staff.  The machine became a blitzkrieg, oiled by campaign contributions that poured in like a gusher.

Watching as DeLay, with the approval of the House leadership, become the virtual dictator of Capitol Hill, , I was reminded of the card shark in Texas who said to his prey, “Now play the cards fair, Reuben, I know what I dealt you.”  Tom DeLay and his cronies were stacking the deck.

They centralized in their own hands the power to write legislation.   Drastic revisions to major bills were often written at night, with lobbyists hovering over them, then rushed through as “emergency’ measures,” giving members as little as half an hour to consider what they may be voting on. The Democratic minority was locked out of conference committees where the House and Senate are supposed to iron out their differences with both parties in the loop.  The Republican bosses even took upon themselves the power to rewrite a bill in secrecy and move it directly to a vote without any other hearings or public review.

Sometimes this meant overruling what the majority of House members really wanted.  Consider what happened with the bill to provide Medicare prescription drug coverage, as analyzed by Robert Kuttner in  The American Prospect. As the measure was coming to a vote, a majority of the full House was sympathetic to allowing cheaper imports from Canada and to giving the government the power to negotiate wholesale drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries.  But DeLay and his cronies were working in behalf of the big pharmaceutical companies and would have none of it.  So they made sure there would be no amendments on the floor.  They held off the final roll call a full three hours – well after midnight – in order to strong-arm members who wanted to vote against the bill.

It was not a pretty sight out there on the floor of the House.  At one point DeLay marched over to one reluctant Republican – Representative Nick Smith – who opposed the Medicare bill – and attempted to change his mind.  Smith, who was serving his final term in office, later alleged that he was offered a bribe – $100,000 for his son’s campaign to succeed him.  When he subsequently retracted his accusation, the House Ethics Committee looked into the charges and countercharges and wound up admonishing both Smith and DeLay, who admitted that he had offered to endorse Smith’s son in exchange for Smith’s support but that no money or bribe were involved.  Timothy Noah of slate.com has mused about what DeLay’s endorsement would nonetheless have meant in later campaign contributions if Smith had gone along.  While the report of the ethics committee never did find out the true story, Noah asks: “Who did whisper ‘$100,000’ in Smith’s ear?  The report is full of plausible suspects, including DeLay himself, but it lacks any evidence on this crucial finding. You get the feeling the authors would prefer to forget this mystery ever existed.”

There are no victimless crimes in politics. The price of corruption is passed on to you.  What came of all these shenanigans was a bill that gave industry what it wanted and gave taxpayers the shaft.  The bill covers only a small share of drug expenses.  It has a major gap in coverage – the so-called ‘donut hole.’  It explicitly forbids beneficiaries from purchasing private coverage to fill in the gap and explicitly forbids the federal government from bargaining for lower drug prices. More than one consumer organization has estimated that most seniors could end up paying even more for prescription drugs than before the bill passed.

Furthermore, despite these large flaws the cost of the bill is horrendous – between five hundred billion and one trillion dollars in its first ten years.  The chief actuary for Medicare calculated a realistic estimate of what the bill would cost,  but he later testified before Congress that he was  forbidden from releasing the information by his boss, Thomas Scully, the head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who was then negotiating for a lucrative job with the health care industry.  Sure enough, hardly had the prescription drug bill become law than Scully went to work for the largest private equity investor in health care and at a powerful law firm focusing on health care and regulatory matters.

One is reminded of Senator Boies Penrose.   Back in the first Gilded Age Penrose was a United States senator from Pennsylvania who had been put and kept in office by the railroad tycoons and oil barons.  He assured the moguls: “I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money…and out of your profits you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.”

Gilded Ages – then and now – have one thing in common: Audacious and shameless people for whom the very idea of the public trust is a cynical joke. Tom DeLay was elected to Congress by the ordinary people of Sugar Land, Texas.  They had the right to expect him to represent them.  This expectation is the very soul of democracy.  We can’t all govern – not even tiny, homogenous Switzerland practices pure democracy.  So we Americans came to believe our best chance of responsible government lies in obtaining the considered judgments of those we elect to represent us.  Having cast our ballots in the sanctity of the voting booth with its assurance of political equality, we go about our daily lives expecting the people we put in office to weigh the competing interests and decide to the best of their ability what is right.

Instead, they have given the American people reason to believe the conservative journalist P.J. O’Rourke was right when he described Congress as “a parliament of whores.” A recent CBS news/New York Times poll found that 70% of Americans believe lobbyists bribing members of Congress is the way things work.  Fifty seven percent thinks at least half of the members of Congress accept bribes or gifts that affect their votes.  A Fox News poll reported that sixty five percent believe most elected officials in Washington make policy decisions or take actions on the basis of campaign contributions.  Findings like these underscore the fact that ordinary people believe their bonds with democracy are not only stretched but sundered.

You see the breach clearly with Tom DeLay.   As he became the king of campaign fundraising, the Associated Press writes, “He began to live a lifestyle his constituents back in Sugar Land would have a hard time ever imagining.”   Big corporation such as R.J. Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Reliant, El Paso and Dynegy provided private jets to take him to places of luxury most Americans have never seen – places with “dazzling views, warm golden sunsets, golf, goose-down comforters, marble bathrooms and balconies overlooking the ocean.”   The AP reports that various organizations – campaign committees, political action committees, even a children’s charity established by DeLay – paid over $1 million on hotels, restaurants, golf resorts and corporate jets in DeLay’s behalf: at least 48 visits to golf clubs and resorts (the Ritz Carlton in Jamaica, the Prince Hotel in Hawaii, the Michelangelo in new York, the Phoenician in Scottsdale, the El Conquistador in Puerto Rico, where villas average $1,300 a night); 100 flights aboard corporate jets arranged by lobbyists; and 500 meals at fancy  restaurants, some averaging $200 for a dinner for two.  There was even a $2,896 shopping spree at a boutique on Florida’s Amelia Island offering “gourmet cookware, sabbatier cutlery and gadgets for your every need.”

DeLay was a man on the move and on the take.  But he needed help to sustain the cash flow.  He found it in a fellow right wing ideologue named Jack Abramoff. Abramoff personifies the Republican money machine of which DeLay with the blessing of the House leadership was the major domo.  It was Abramoff who helped DeLay raise those millions of dollars from campaign donors that bought the support of other politicians and became the base for an empire of corruption.  DeLay praised Abramoff as “one of my closest friends.”  Abramoff, in turn, told a convention of college Republicans, “Thank God Tom DeLay is majority leader of the house.  Tom DeLay is who all of us want to be when we grow up.”

Just last month Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials, a spectacular fall for a man whose rise to power began 25 years ago with his election as Chairman of the College Republicans.   Despite its innocuous name, the organization became a political attack machine for the Far Right and a launching pad for younger conservatives on the make.  “Our job,” Abramoff, then 22 years old,  wrote after his first visit to the Reagan White House, “is to remove liberals from power permanently [from] student newspaper and radio stations, student governments, and academia.” Karl Rove had once held the same job as chairman.   So did Grover Norquist, who ran  Abramoff’s campaign.   A youthful $200-a-month intern named Ralph Reed was at their side.  These were the rising young stars of the conservative movement who came to town to lead a revolution and stayed to run a racket.

They reeked piety.  Like DeLay, who had proclaimed himself God’s messenger, Ralph Reed found Jesus, was born again, and wound up running Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, landing on the cover of Time as  “the Right Hand of God.”  Reportedly after seeing “Fiddler on the Roof” Abramoff became an Orthodox religious Jew who finagled fake awards as “Scholar of Biblical and American History,” “Distinguished Bible Scholar” (from an apparently non-existent organization), the “Biblical Mercantile Award” allegedly from the Cascadian Business Institute through which money was funded for DeLay’s famous visit to a plush Scottish golf club, and the national order of merit from the USA Foundation, whose chairman was…Jack Abramoff.

It is impossible to treat all the schemes and scams this crowd concocted to subvert democracy in the name of God and greed.  But thanks to some superb reporting from, The Associated Press, and Knight-Ridder, among others, we can touch on a few.

Abramoff made his name, so to speak, representing Indian tribes with gambling interests.  As his partner he hired a DeLay crony named Michael Scanlon.    Together they would bilk half a dozen Indian tribes who hired them to protect their tribal gambling interests from competition.  What they had to offer, of course, was their well-known connections to the Republican power structure, including members of Congress, friends at the White House (Abramoff’s personal assistant became Karl Rove’s personal assistant),  Christian Right activists like Ralph Reed, and right wing ideologues like Grover Norquist (according to The Texas Observer, two lobbying clients of Abramoff paid $25,000 to Norquist’s organization –  Americans for Tax Reform – for a lunch date and meeting with President Bush in May 2001.)

Abramoff and Scanlon came up with one  scheme they called “Gimme Five,” Abramoff would refer tribes to Scanlon for grassroots public relations work, and Scanlon would then kick back about 50 percent to Abramoff, all without the tribes’ knowledge.  Before it was over the tribes had paid them $82 million dollars, much of it going directly into Abramoff’s and Scanlon’s pockets.   And that doesn’t count the thousands more that Abramoff directed the tribes to pay out in campaign contributions.

Some of the money found its way into an outfit called the Council of Republicans for Environment Advocacy (CREA),  founded by Gale Norton before she became Interior Secretary, the cabinet position most responsible for Indian gaming rights (as well as oil and gas issues, public lands and parks, and something else we’ll get to in a moment) .

Some of the money went to so-called charities set up by Abramoff and DeLay that filtered money for lavish trips for members of Congress and their staff, as well as salaries for Congressional family members and DeLay’s pet projects.

And some of the money found its way to the righteous folks of the Christian Right.  One who had his hand out was Ralph Reed, the religious right’s poster boy against gambling.  “We believe gambling is a cancer on the American body politic,” Reed had said.  “It is stealing food from the mouths of children… (and) turning wives into widows.”  When he resigned from the Christian Coalition (just as it was coming under federal investigation and slipping into financial arrears), Reed sought a cut of the lucre flowing to Abramoff and Scanlon.  He sent Abramoff an email: “Now that I am leaving electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts… I’m counting of you to help me with some contacts.”

Abramoff came through.  According to Susan Schmidt and R. Jeffrey Smith, he and Scanlon paid Reed some $4 million to whip up Christian opposition to gambling initiatives that could cut into the profits of Jack Abramoff’s clients.  Reed called in some of the brightest stars in the Christian firmament – Pat Robertson, Jerry Fawell, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly – to participate in what became a ruse in Abramoff’s behalf:  They would oppose gambling on religious and moral grounds in strategic places (Texas, Louisiana, Alabama) at decisive moments when competitive challenges threatened Abramoff’s .  Bogus Christian fronts were part of the strategy.   Baptist preachers in Texas rallied to Reed’s appeals.   Unsuspecting folks in Louisiana heard the voice of God  on radio – with Jerry Fawell and Pat Robertson doing the honors –  thundering against a riverboat gambling scheme, which one of Abramoff’s clients feared would undermine its  advantage.  Reed even got James Dobson, whose nationwide radio “ministry” reaches millions of people, to deluge phone lines at the Interior Department and White House with calls from indignant Christians.

In 1999 Abramoff arranged for the Mississippi Choctaws, who were trying to stave off competition from other tribes, to contribute over $1 million to Norquist’s  Americans for Tax Reform, which then passed the money along to the Alabama Christian Coalition and to another anti-gambling group Reed had duped into aiding the cause.  It is unclear how much these Christian soldiers, “marching as to war,” knew about the true purpose of their crusade, but Ralph Reed knew all along that his money was coming from Abramoff.  The emails between the two men read like  Elmer Gantry.

It gets worse.

Some of Abramoff’s money from lobbying went to start a non-profit organization called the U.S. Family Network.   Nice name, yes? An uplifting all-American name, like so many others that fly the conservative banner in Washington.   Tom DeLay wrote a fundraising letter in which he described the U.S. Family Network as “a powerful nationwide organization dedicated to restoring our government to citizen control.”  Fund raising appeals warned that the American family “is being attacked from all sides:  crime, drugs, pornography…and gambling.”  So help me, I’m not making this up. You can read R. Jeffrey’s Smith mind-boggling account of it on the Washington Post website, where he writes that the organization did no discernable grassroots organizing and its money came from business groups with no demonstrated interest in the “moral fitness” agenda that was the network’s professed aim.

Let’s call it what it was: a scam – one more cog in the money-laundering machine controlled by DeLay and Abramoff.   A former top assistant founded the organization.  It bought a townhouse just three blocks from DeLay’s Congressional quarters and provided him with fancy free office space where he would go to raise money.  DeLay’s wife also got a sizeable salary.  But that’s the least of it.

Working with Abramoff through a now defunct law firm in London and an obscure off-shore company in the Bahamas, Russian oil and gas executives were using the U.S. Family Network to funnel money to influence the majority leader of the House of Representatives – yes, that chamber of American government once  known as “The People’s House.”

Our witness for this is the Christian pastor who served as the titular president of the U.S.  Family Network, the Reverend Christopher Geeslin.  He told The Washington Post  that the founder of the organization, the former DeLay aide, told him that a million dollars was passed through from sources in Russia who wanted DeLay’s support for legislation enabling the International Monetary fund to bail out the faltering Russian economy without demanding the country raise taxes on its energy industry.  As Molly Ivins pointed out in a recent column, right on cue DeLay found his way onto Fox News Sunday to argue the Russian position.  That same titular head of the U.S. Family Network, the Christian pastor, said DeLay’s former chief of staff also told him, “This is the way things work in Washington.”

This is the way things work in Washington.

Twenty five years ago Grover Norquist had said that “What Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs in Washington.  Then this will be a different town.” Well, they got what they needed, and the arc of the conservative takeover of government has now been completed. As Abramoff had once said his goal was to banish liberals from college campuses, and later that “All of my political work is driven by philosophical interests, not by the desire to gain wealth,” now his intentions, as he admitted to Michael Crowley of The New York Times, were “to push the Republicans on K Street to be more helpful to the conservative movement.” Money, politics, and ideology became one and the same in a juggernaut of power that crushed everything in sight, including core conservative principles.

Here we come to the heart of darkness.

One of Abramoff’s first big lobbying clients was the Northern Marianas Islands in the Pacific.  After World War II the Marianas became a trusteeship of the United Nations, administered by the U.S. Government under the stewardship of the Interior Department. We should all remember that thousands of Marines died there, fighting for our way of life and our freedoms.  Today, these islands are a haven for tourists – first-class hotels, beautiful beaches, championship golf course.  But there is a dark side.  The islands were exempted from U.S. labor and immigration laws, and over the years tens of thousands of people, primarily Chinese, mostly women, were brought there as garment workers.   These so-called “guest workers” found themselves living in crowded barracks in miserable conditions.  The main island, Saipan, became known as America’s biggest sweatshop.

In 1998 a government report found workers there living in substandard conditions, suffering severe malnutrition and health problems and subjected to unprovoked acts of violence.   Many had signed “shadow contracts” which required them to pay up to $7000 just to get the job.  They also had to renounce their claim to basic human rights, including political and religious activities, socializing and marrying.  If they protested, they could be summarily deported. As Greg Mcdonald wrote in The Houston Chronicle, the garments produced on Saipan were manufactured for American companies from tariff-free Asian cloth and shipped duty- and quota-free – to the United States.  Some of the biggest names in the retail clothing industry – Levi Strauss, The Gap,  J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, Reebok, Polo, Tommy Helfiger, Nordstrom’s, Lord and Taylor, Jones New York, and Liz Claiborne – had been able to slap a “made in the USA” label on the clothes and import them to America, while paying the workers practically nothing.

When these scandalous conditions began to attract attention, the sweatshop moguls fought all efforts at reform.  Knowing that Jack Abramoff was close to Tom DeLay, they hired him to lobby for the islands.  Conservative members of Congress lined up as Abramoff’s team arranged for them to visit the islands on carefully guided junkets.  Conservative intellectuals and journalists, for hire at rates considerably above what the women on the islands were making, also signed up for expense-free trips to the Marianas.  They flew first-class, dined at posh restaurants, slept in comfort at the beachfront hotel, and returned to write and speak of the islands as “a true free market success story” and “a laboratory of liberty.”

Abramoff took Tom DeLay and his wife there, too.   DeLay practically swooned.  He said the Marianas “represented what is best about America.”  He called them “my Galapagos” – “a perfect petri dish of capitalism.”

These fellow travelers – conservative members of Congress, their staffs and their lapdogs in the rightwing press and think tanks – became a solid phalanx against any and all attempts to provide the workers on the islands with a living wage and decent living conditions.   For instance, when a liberal California Democrat, George Miller, and a conservative Alaskan Senator, Frank Murkowski, indignant at the “appalling conditions,” wanted to enact a bill to raise minimum wages on the islands and at least prevent summary deportation of the workers, DeLay and Abramoff stopped them cold. As Representative Miller told it, “They killed my reform bill year after year.  And even when an immigration reform bill by Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican, was approved by the full Senate, they blocked it repeatedly in the House.”

After the 2000 election, when the spoils of victory were being divided up,   Abramoff got himself named to the Bush transition team for the Interior Department.  He wanted to make sure the right people wound up overseeing his clients, the Marianas.   He enlisted Reed, who said he would raise the matter with Rove, to stop at least one appointment to Interior that might prove troublesome.  Small wonder that about this time Reed wrote an email to Enron’s top lobbyist touting his pal Abramoff as “arguably the most influential and effective gop lobbyist in congress. I share several clients with him and have yet to see him lose a battle.  He also is very close to DeLay and could help enormously on that front. raised $ for bush…he [sic] assistant is Susan Ralston [who would become Rove’s assistant.]”

For his services to the Marianas Jack Abramoff was paid nearly $10 million dollars, including the fees he charged for booking his guests on the golf courses and providing them copies of Newt Gingrich’s book.   One of the sweatshop moguls with whom Abramoff was particularly close contributed half a million dollars to – you guessed it – the U. S. Family Network that laundered money from Russian oligarchs to Tom DeLay.

To this day, workers on the Marianas are still denied the federal minimum wage while working long hours for subsistence income in their little “petri dish of capitalism” – “America at its best.”

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were now in sync.  George W. Bush had created his own version of the K Street Project.  Remember how he emerged from the crowded field of Republican candidates in early 1999 and literally blew several of them out of the water?  He did so by drowning his opponents with money. In just his first six months of fundraising, Bush collected some $36 million – nine times more than his nearest opponent, John McCain.  The money came from the titans of America business and lobbying who understood their contributions would be rewarded. You’ve heard of the Pioneers and Rangers – people who raised at least $100,000 and $200,000 for Bush.  Among them were people like Tom DeLay’s brother, also a lobbyist; the CEO of Enron, Kenneth (“Kenny Boy”) Lay; and   hundreds of executives from the country’s banks, investment houses, oil and gas companies, electric utilities, and other companies.

While Tom DeLay kept a ledger on K Street, ranking lobbyists as friendly and unfriendly, the Bush campaign gave every one of his Pioneers and Rangers a tracking number, making sure to know who was bringing in the bucks and where they were coming from.  In May of 1999 the trade association for the electric utility industry sent a letter to potential contributors on Bush campaign stationery.  He told his colleagues that Bush’s campaign managers “have stressed the importance of having our industry incorporate the tracking number in your fundraising efforts…it does ensure that our industry is credited and that your progress is listed…”

The bounty was waiting.  A score of Pioneers and Rangers were paid off with ambassadorships.  At least 37 were named to post-election transition teams, where they had a major say in selecting political appointees at key regulatory positions across the government.  Remember the California energy crisis, when Enron traders boasted of gouging grandmothers to drive up the prices for energy?  Well, Enron’s Kenneth Lay had been Bush’s biggest campaign funder over the years and what he asked now as a pay-off was appointment to the Energy Department transition team.  This is how Enron’s boss got to name two of the five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who looked the other way while Enron rigged California’s energy prices and looted billions right out from the  pockets and pocketbooks of California’s citizens.

There are, as I said, no victimless crimes in politics. The cost of corruption is passed on to you.  When the government of the United States falls under the thumb of the powerful and privileged, regular folks get squashed. This week I visited for the first time the Museum of the Presidio in San Francisco.  From there American troops shipped out to combat in the Pacific.  Many never came back.  On the walls of one corridor are photographs of some of those troops, a long way from home.  Looking at them, I wondered:  Is this what those Marines died for on the Marianas – for sweatshops, the plunder of our public trust, the corruption of democracy?  Government of the Abramoffs, by the DeLays, and for the people who bribe them?

I don’t think so.

But this crowd in charge has a vision sharply at odds with the American people.  They would arrange Washington and the world for the convenience of themselves and the transnational corporations that pay for their elections.  In the words of Al Meyeroff, the Los Angeles attorney who led a successful class action suit for the  workers on Saipan,  the people who now control the U.S. Government today want “a society run by the powerful, oblivious to the weak, free of any oversight, enjoying a cozy relationship with government, and thriving on crony capitalism.”

America as their petri dish – the Marianas, many times over.

This is an old story and a continuing struggle.  A century ago Theodore Roosevelt said the central fact of his time was that corporations had become so dominant they would chew up democracy and spit it out.  His cousin Franklin Roosevelt warned that a government of money was as much to be feared as a government by mob.  One was a progressive Republican, the other a liberal Democrat.  Their sentiments were echoed by an icon of the conservative movement, Barry Goldwater, in 1987:

The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution.  They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of Constitutional liberty, an independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people…representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe their vote counts. Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups who speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community.

I have painted a bleak picture of democracy today.  I believe it is a true picture.  But it is not a hopeless picture.  Something can be done about it.   Organized people have always had to take on organized money.  If they had not, blacks would still be three-fifths of a person, women wouldn’t have the vote, workers couldn’t organize, and children would still be working in the mines.  Our democracy today is more real and more inclusive than existed in the days of the Founders because time and again, the people have organized themselves to insist that America become “a more perfect union.”

It is time to fight again.  These people in Washington have no right to be doing what they are doing. It’s not their government, it’s your  government.  They work for you.  They’re public employees – and if they let us down and sell us out, they should be fired. That goes for the lowliest bureaucrat in town to the senior leaders of Congress on up to the President of the United States.

They would have you believe this is just “a lobbying scandal.” They would have you think that if they pass a few nominal reforms, put a little more distance between the politician and the lobbyist, you will think everything is okay and they can go back to business as usual. They’re trying it now.  Just look at Congressman John Boehner, elected to replace Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader.  Today he speaks the language of reform, but ten years ago Boehner was handing out checks from the tobacco executives on the floor of the House.  He’s been a full player in the K Street Project and DeLay’s money machine, holding weekly meetings with some of the most powerful lobbyists in the Speaker’s suite at the Capitol.  He has thought nothing of hopping on corporate jets or cruising Caribbean during winter breaks with high-powered lobbyists.  Moreover, the man Boehner  beat to succeed DeLay – Congressman Roy Blunt – has been elected to DeLay’s first job as Majority Whip despite being deeply compromised by millions upon millions of dollars raised from the same interests that bought off DeLay.

And what now of DeLay? He’s under indictment for money laundering inTexas and had to resign as Majority Leader.   But the other day the party bosses in Congress gave him a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee where big contributors get their rewards. And – are you ready for this? – they put him on the subcommittee overseeing the Justice Department which is investigating the Abramoff scandal, including Abramoff’s connections to DeLay.

Business as usual.  The usual rot.  The power of arrogance. You may say, see? These forces can’t be defeated.  They’re too rich, they’re too powerful, they’re too entrenched.

But look at what has happened in Connecticut, one of the most corrupt states in the union.  Rocked by multiple scandals that brought down a state treasurer, a state senator, and the governor himself with convictions of bribery, tax evasion, and worse, the people finally had enough.  Although many of the parties had to be forced, kicking and screaming to do it, last December the legislature passed clean money reform and the new governor signed it into law.   The bill bans campaign contributions from lobbyists and state contractors and makes Connecticut the very first state in the nation where the legislature and governor approved full public funding for their own races.

Connecticut isn’t the only place where the link between public officials and private campaign contributions has been broken.  Both Arizona and Maine offer full public financing of statewide and legislative races.  New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont have clean money systems for some races.   The cities of Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico recently approved full public financing for citywide races.

In these places, candidates for public office – executive, legislative, and in some cases judicial – have the option of running on a limited and equal grant of full public funding, provided they take little or no private contributions.  To qualify they have to pass a threshold by raising a large number of small contributions from voters in their district.  The system allows candidates to run competitive campaigns for office even if they do not have ties to well-heeled donors or big money lobbyists, a near impossibility when public elections are privately funded.

In places where clean elections are law, we see more competition for legislative seats and a more diverse group of people running for office.  In David Sirota’s words, they “are encouraged to run on their ideas, their convictions and their integrity instead of on how effectively they can shake down the big money.”  And there are policy results as well.  In Arizona, one of the first acts of Governor Janet Napolitano, elected under the state’s public financing program, was to institute reforms establishing low-cost prescription drug subsidies for seniors.  Compare that to the Medicare debacle going on at the national level.  In Maine, where clean elections has been in place since 2000, there have also been advances in providing low cost pharmaceutical drugs for residents, and in making sure that every state resident has medical coverage. Why?  Because the politicians can do what’s right, not what they’re paid to do by big donors.  They, not the lobbyists, write the legislation.   As one blogger put it this past weekend, instead of dialing for dollars, they might have time even to read bills like ‘The Patriot Act’ and find the small print establishing a secret police.

California may soon follow Connecticut.  Calling for the political equivalent of electroshock therapy, the Los Angeles Times recently urged Californians: “Forget half-measures. The cure is voluntary public financing of election campaigns.” Already the Clean Money and Fair Elections Bill has passed the state assembly and is headed for the senate.

Think about this:  Californians could buy back their elected representatives at a cost of about $5 or $6 per California resident.  Nationally we could buy back our Congress and the White House with full public financing for about $10 per taxpayer per year. You can check this out on the website Public Campaign. Public funding won’t solve all the problems.  There’s no way to legislate truly immoral people from abusing our trust.  But it would go a long way to breaking the link between big donors and public officials and to restoring democracy to the people. Until we offer qualified candidates a different source of funding for their campaigns – “clean,” disinterested, accountable public money – the selling of America will go on.  From scandal to scandal.

The people out across the country on the front lines of this fight have brought the message down to earth, in plain language and clear metaphors.  If a player sliding into home plate reached into his pocket and handed the umpire $1000 before he made the call, what would we call that?  A bribe. And if a lawyer handed a judge $1000 before he issued a ruling, what do we call that?  A bribe.  But when a lobbyist or CEO sidles up to a member of Congress at a fundraiser or in a skybox and hands him a check for $1000, what do we call that?  A campaign contribution.

Representative Barney Frank likes to say of Congress: “We are the only people in the world required by law to take large amounts of money from strangers and then act as if it has no effect on our behavior.” What law is he talking about? The unwritten law that says your Congressman has to raise $2000 per day from the day he or she is sworn in to the next election days – weekdays, Saturdays, Sundays, Christmas Eve and the Fourth of July.  As long as elected officials need that constant stream of cash, someone will run our country but it won’t be you.

Even some business lobbyists are having second thoughts.  One of them, Stanton Anderson, was recently quoted in Business Week: “As a conservative, I’ve always opposed government involvement.  But it seems to me the real answer is federal financing of Congressional elections.” Mr. Anderson understand this isn’t about a “few bad apples.”  This is about the system.  We can change the system.  But we have to believe democracy is worth fighting for.

Listen to what Theodore Roosevelt said one hundred years ago when he took on the political bosses and big money of his time for committing “treason to the people.”

We are standing for the great fundamental rights upon which all successful free government must be based. We are standing for elementary decency in politics.  We are fighting for honesty against naked robbery.  It is not a partisan issue; it is more than a political issue; it is a great moral issue.  If we condone political theft, if we do not resent the kinds of wrong and injustice that injuriously affect the whole nation, not merely our democratic form of government but our civilization itself cannot endure.

We need that fighting spirit today – the tough, outraged and resilient spirit that knows we have been delivered a great and precious legacy, you and I – “government of, by and for the people” – and, by God we’re going to pass it on.


*Thanks to my long-time editorial colleague, Rebecca Wharton; my assistant, Karen Kimball; and Public Campaign’s Micah Sifry and Nancy Waltzman for their contributions to this speech.

‘Democracy, Secrecy and Ideology’, December 9, 2005

Thank you for inviting me to take part in this anniversary celebration of The National Security Archive. Your organization has become indispensable to journalists, scholars, and any other citizen who believes the USA belongs to the people and not to the government.

It’s always a fight to find out what the government doesn’t want us to know.  And no one in this town has done more to fight for open democracy or done more to see that the Freedom of Information Act fulfills its promise than the Archive.  The fight goes back a long way.  You’ll find a fine account of it in Herbert Foerstel’s book, Freedom of Information and the Right to Know: The Origins and Application of the Freedom of Information Act (Greenwood Press, 1999).  Foerstel tells us that although every other 18th century democratic constitution includes the public’s right to information, there were two exceptions:Sweden and the United States.

But in 1955 the American Society of Newspaper Editors decided to battle government secrecy.  The Washington Post’s James Russell Wiggins and Representative John Moss of California teamed up to spearhead that fight.  President Kennedy subsequently resisted their efforts.  When he asked reporters to censor themselves on the grounds that these were times of “clear and present danger,” journalists were outraged and agreed that his administration represented a low point in their battle.  But Congressman Moss refused to give up, and in 1966 he managed to pass the Freedom of Information Act, although in a crippled and compromised form.

I was there, as the White House press secretary, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the act on July 4, 1966; signed it with language that was almost lyrical – “With a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.”  Well, yes, but I knew that LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony.  He hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets and opening government files; hated them challenging the official view of reality.  He dug in his heels and even threatened to pocket veto the bill after it reached the White House.  And he might have followed through if Moss and Wiggins and other editors hadn’t barraged him with pleas and petitions.  He relented and signed “the damned thing,” as he called it (I’m paraphrasing what he actually said in case C-Span is here.)   He signed it, and then went out to claim credit for it.

Because of the Freedom of Information Act and the relentless fight by the Archive to defend and exercise it, some of us have learned more since leaving the White House about what happened on our watch than we knew when we were there.  Funny, isn’t it, how the farther one gets from power, the closer one often gets to the truth? Consider the recent disclosures about what happened in the Gulfof Tonkinin 1964.  These documents, now four decades old, seem to confirm that there was no second attack on U.S. ships on the 4th of August and that President Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam on the basis of intelligence that either had been “mishandled” or “misinterpreted” or had been deliberately skewed by subordinates to provide him the excuse he was looking for to attack North Vietnam.

I was not then a player in foreign policy and had not yet become the President’s press secretary – my portfolio was politics and domestic policy.  But I was there beside him during those frenetic hours.  I heard the conversations from the President’s side, although I could not hear what was being told to him by the Situation Room or the Pentagon.

I accept now that it was never nailed down for certain that there was a second attack, but I believe that LBJ thought there had been.  It is true that for months he had wanted to send a message to Ho Chi Minh that he meant business about standing behind America’s commitment to South Vietnam.  It is true that he was not about to allow the hawkish Barry Goldwater to outflank him on national security in the fall campaign.  It is also true that he often wrestled with the real or imaginary fear that liberal Democrats, whose hearts still belonged to their late fallen leader, would be watching and sizing him up according to their speculation of how Kennedy would have decided the moment.

So yes, I think the President’s mind was prepared to act if the North Vietnamese presented him a tit-for-tat opportunity.  But he wasn’t looking for a wider war at that time, only a show of resolve, a flexing of muscles, the chance to swat the fly when it landed. Nonetheless, this state of mind plus cloudy intelligence proved a combustible and tragic mix.  In the belief that a second attack suggested an intent on the part of an adversary that one attack alone left open, the President did order strikes against North Vietnam, thus widening the war.  He asked Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that was passed three days later and opened the way for future large-scale commitments of American forces.  Haste is so often the enemy of good judgment.  Rarely does it produce such costly consequences as it did this time.

But did the President order-up fabricated evidence to suit his wish?  No.  Did subordinates rig the evidence to support what they thought he wanted to do?  It’s possible, but I swear I cannot imagine who they might have been – certainly it was no one in the inner-circle, as far as I could tell.  I don’t believe this is what happened.  Did the President act prematurely?  Yes.  Was the response disproportionate to the events?  Yes.  Did he later agonize over so precipitous a decision?  Yes.  “For all I know,” he said the next year, “our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”  By then, however, he thought he had other reasons to escalate the war, and did.  All these years later, I find it painful to wonder what could have been if we had waited until the fog lifted, or had made public what we did and didn’t know, trusting the debate in the press, Congress, and the country to help us shape policies more aligned with events and with the opinion of an informed public.

I had hoped we would learn from experience.  Two years ago, prior to the invasion of Iraq, I said on the air that Vietnam didn’t make me a dove; it made me read the Constitution.  Government’s first obligation is to defend its citizens.  There is nothing in the Constitution that says it is permissible for our government to launch a preemptive attack on another nation.  Common sense carries one to the same conclusion: it’s hard to get the leash back on once you let the wild dogs of war out of the kennel.  Our present Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has a plaque on his desk that reads, “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”  Perhaps, but while war is sometimes necessary, to treat it as sport is obscene.  At best, war is a crude alternative to shrewd, disciplined diplomacy and the forging of a true alliance acting in the name of international law.  Unprovoked, “the noblest sport of war” becomes the slaughter of the innocent.

I left the White House in early 1967 to practice journalism.  Because our beat is the present and not the past – we are journalists after all, not historians – I put those years and events behind me, except occasionally to reflect on how they might inform my reporting and analysis of what’s happening today.  I was chastened by our mistakes back then, and chagrined now when others fail to learn from them.

The country suffers not only when presidents act hastily in secret, but when the press goes along.  I keep an article in my files by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon (“30 Year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War”) written a decade ago and long before the recent disclosures.  They might have written it over again during the buildup for the recent invasion of Iraq.  On August 5, 1964, the headline in The Washington Post read: “American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers: Move Taken to Halt Aggression.”  That, of course, was the official line, spelled out verbatim and succinctly on the nation’s front pages.  The New York Times proclaimed in an editorial that the President “went to the people last night with the somber facts.”  The Los Angeles Times urged Americans “to face the fact that the communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have escalated the hostilities.”  It was not only Lyndon Johnson whose mind was predisposed to judge on the spot, with half a loaf.  It was also those reporters and editors who were willing to accept the official view of reality as the truth of the matter.  In his book, Censored War, Daniel Hallin found that journalists at the time had a great deal of information available which contradicted the official account of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, but “it simply wasn’t used.”

Tim Wells, who wrote a compelling book on The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, told Cohen and Solomon it was yet another case of “the media’s almost exclusive reliance on the U.S. government officials as sources of information,” as well as “their reluctance to question official pronouncements on national security issues.”  There are many branches on the family tree of journalism where Judith Miller blossomed.  I can imagine that one day the National Security Archive will turn up a document explaining how reporters waited outside the Garden of Eden to snap up Adam and Eve’s account of what had happened inside, but never bothered to interview the snake.

I am taking your time with all this hoping you will understand why I have become something of a fundamentalist on the First Amendment protection of an independent press, a press that will resist the seductions, persuasions, and intimidations of people who hold great power – over life and death, war and peace, taxes, the fate of the environment – and would exercise it undisturbed, in great secrecy, if they are allowed.

In a telling moment, the Bush Administration opposed the declassification of 40 year old Gulf of Tonkin documents.  Why?  Because they fear uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.  And well they might.  Just as absurd is their opposition to the release of two intelligence briefings given to President Johnson in 1965 and 1968.  The CIA claims they should be kept secret on the grounds that their release could impair its mission by revealing its sources and methods of forty years ago.  That’s bull.  The actual methods used by the CIA back then have largely been declassified, which is why I signed a statement in your support when the National Security Archive went to court over this matter.  I was as disappointed as you were when the federal judge, who ruled this past summer, preferred the government’s penchant for secrecy to the people’s right to know what goes on in their name and with their money.

It has to be said: there has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration’s obsession with secrecy.  This may seem self-serving coming from someone who worked for two previous presidents who were no paragons of openness.  But I am only one of legions who have reached this conclusion.  See the recent pair of articles by the independent journalist, Michael Massing, in The New York Review of Books.  He concludes, “The Bush Administration has restricted access to public documents as no other before it.”  And he backs this up with evidence.  For example, a recent report on government secrecy by the watchdog group, OpenTheGovernment.org, says the Feds classified a record 15.6 million new documents in fiscal year 2004, an increase of 81% over the year before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  What’s more, 64% of Federal Advisory Committee meetings in 2004 were completely closed to the public.  No wonder the public knows so little about how this administration has deliberately ignored or distorted reputable scientific research to advance its political agenda and the wishes of its corporate patrons.  I’m talking about the suppression of that EPA report questioning aspects of the White House Clear Skies Act; research censorship at the departments of health and human services, interior and agriculture; the elimination of qualified scientists from advisory committees on kids and lead poisoning, reproductive health, and drug abuse; the distortion of scientific knowledge on emergency contraception; the manipulation of the scientific process involving the Endangered Species Act; and the internal sabotage of government scientific reports on global warming

It’s an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption.

This is the administration that has illegally produced phony television news stories with fake reporters about Medicare and government anti-drug programs, then distributed them to local TV stations around the country.  In several markets, they aired on the six o’clock news with nary a mention that they were propaganda bought and paid for with your tax dollars.

This is the administration that paid almost a quarter of a million dollars for right wing commentator Armstrong Williams to talk up its No-Child-Left-Behind education program and bankrolled two other conservative columnists to shill for programs promoting the President’s marriage initiative.

This is the administration that tacitly allowed inside the White House a phony journalist under the nom de plume of Jeff Gannon to file Republican press releases as legitimate news stories and to ask President Bush planted questions to which he could respond with preconceived answers.

And this is the administration that has paid over one hundred million dollars to plant stories in Iraqi newspapers and disguise the source, while banning TV cameras at the return of caskets from Iraq as well as prohibiting the publication of photographs of those caskets – a restriction that was lifted only following a request through the Freedom of Information Act.

Ah, FOIA.  Obsessed with secrecy, Bush and Cheney have made the Freedom of Information Act their number one target, more fervently pursued for elimination than Osama Bin Laden.  No sooner had he come to office than George W. Bush set out to eviscerate both FOIA and the Presidential Records Act.  He has been determined to protect his father’s secrets when the first Bush was Vice President and then President –as well as his own.  Call it Bush Omerta.

This enmity toward FOIA springs from deep roots in their extended official family.  Just read your own National Security Archive briefing book #142, edited by Dan Lopez, Tom Blanton, Meredith Fuchs, and Barbara Elias.  It is a compelling story of how in 1974 President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff – one Donald Rumsfeld – and his deputy chief of staff – one Dick Cheney – talked the President out of signing amendments that would have put stronger teeth in the Freedom of Information Act.  As members of the House of Representatives, Congressman Rumsfeld actually co-sponsored the Act and as a Congressman, Ford voted for it.  But then Richard Nixon was sent scuttling from the White House in disgrace after the secrets of Watergate came spilling out.  Rumsfeld and Cheney wanted no more embarrassing revelations of their party’s abuse of power; and they were assisted in their arguments by yet another rising Republican star, Antonin Scalia, then a top lawyer at the Justice Department.  Fast forward to 2001, when in the early months of George W. Bush’s Administration, Vice President Cheney invited the tycoons of oil, gas, and coal to the White House to divide up the spoils of victory.  They had, after all, contributed millions of dollars to the cause, and as Cheney would later say of tax cuts for the fraternity of elites who had financed the campaign, they deserved their payoff.  But to keep the plunder from disgusting the public, the identities of the participants in the meetings were kept secret.  The liberal Sierra Club and the conservative Judicial Watch filed suit to open this insider trading to public scrutiny.

But after losing in the lower court, the White House asked the Supreme Court to intervene.  Lo and behold, hardly had Justice Scalia returned from a duck hunting trip with the Vice President – the blind leading the blind to the blind – than the Supreme Court upheld the White House privilege to keep secret the names of those corporate predators who came to slice the pie.  You have to wonder if sitting there in the marsh, shotguns in hand, Scalia and Cheney reminisced about their collaboration many years earlier when as young men in government they had tried to shoot down the dreaded Freedom of Information Act that kept them looking over their shoulders (Congress, by the way, overrode President Ford’s veto.)

They have much to fear from the Freedom of Information Act.  Just a few days ago, FOIA was used to force the Department of Justice to make available legal documents related to Supreme Court nominee Judge Alito’s record.  The department reluctantly complied but under very restricted circumstances.  The records were made available on one day, for three hours, from 3to 6pm, for reporters only.  No citizen or advocacy groups were permitted access.  There were 470 pages to review.  The blogspot Mpetrelis reckons this meant a reporter had about 34 seconds to quickly read each page and figure out if the information was newsworthy or worth pursuing further.  “Not a lot of time to carefully examine documents from our next Supreme Court justice.”

It’s no surprise that the White House doesn’t want reporters roaming the halls of justice.  The Washington Post reports that two years ago six Justice Department attorneys and two analysts wrote a memo stating unequivocally that theTexas Congressional redistricting plan concocted by Tom DeLay violated the Voting Rights Act.  Those career professional civil servants were overruled by senior officials, Bush’s political appointees, who went ahead and approved the plan anyway.

We’re only finding this out now because someone leaked the memo.  According to The Post, the document was kept under tight wraps and “lawyers who worked on the case were subjected to an unusual gag rule.”  Why?  Because it is a devastating account of how DeLay allegedly helped launder corporate money to elect a Texas Legislature that then shuffled Congressional districts to add five new Republican members of the House, nailing down control of Congress for the radical right and their corporate pals.

They couldn’t get away with all of this if the press was at the top of their game.  Never has the need for an independent media been greater.  People are frightened, their skepticism of power – their respect for checks and balances – eclipsed by their desire for security.  Writing in The New York Times, Michael Ignatieff has reminded us that democracy’s dark secret is that the fight against terror has to be waged in secret, by men and women who defend us with a bodyguard of lies and armory of deadly weapons.  Because this is democracy’s dark secret, Ignatieff continues, it can also be democracy’s dark nemesis.  We need to know more about what’s being done in our name; even if what we learn is hard, the painful truth is better than lies and illusions.  The news photographer in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day, sums its up: “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse in the places where everybody is kept in the dark.”

Yet the press is hobbled today – hobbled by the vicissitudes of Wall Street investors who demand greater and greater profit margins at the expense of more investment in reporting (look at what’s going on with Knight-Ridder.)  Layoffs are hitting papers all across the country.  Just last week, the Long Island daily Newsday, of which I was once publisher, cut 72 jobs and eliminated 40 vacancies – that’s in addition to 59 newsroom jobs eliminated the previous month.  There are fewer editors and reporters with less time, resources and freedom to burn shoe leather andmidnight oil, make endless phone calls, and knock on doors in pursuit of the unreported story.

The press is also hobbled by the intimidation from ideological bullies in the propaganda wing of the Republican Party who hector, demonize, and lie about journalists who ask hard questions of this regime. Hobbled, too, by what Ken Silverstein, The Los Angeles Times investigative reporter, calls “spurious balance,” kowtowing to those with the loudest voice or the most august title who demand that when it comes to reporting, lies must be treated as the equivalent of truth; that covering the news, including the official press release, has greater priority than uncovering the news.

Consider a parable from the past, from the early seventh century, when an Irish warrior named Congal went nearly blind after he was attacked by a swarm of bees.  When he became king he changed Irish law to make bee attacks criminal.  Thereafter he was known as Congal Caech which means “Congal the Squinting” or “Congal the Half-Blind.”  If this administration has its way, that description will apply to the press.

Which brings me to a parable for our day.

Once upon a time – four years ago to be exact – PBS asked me to create a new weekly broadcast of news, analysis, and interviews.  They wanted it based outside the beltway and to be like nothing else on the air: report stories no one else was covering, conduct a conversation you couldn’t hear anywhere else.  That we did.  We offered our viewers a choice, not an echo.  In our mandate, we reached back to the words of Lord Byron that once graced the masthead of many small town newspapers: “Without, or with, offence to friends or foes,” he said, “I sketch your world exactly as it goes.”

We did it with a team of professional journalists recruited from the best in the business: our own NOW staff; public radio’s Daniel Zwerdling, Rick Karr and Deborah Amos; Network veterans Brian Ross, Michele Martin, and Sylvia Chase; Washington’s Sherry Jones; The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Mark Shapiro; Frontline’s Lowell Bergman; Newsweek’s Joe Contreras.  We collaborated on major investigations with U.S. News and World Report, NPR, and The New York Times. 

We reported real stories and talked with real people about real problems.  We told how faraway decision-making affected their lives.  We reported on political influence that led to mountaintop removal mining and how the government was colluding with industry to cover up the effect of mercury in fish on pregnant women.

We described what life was like for homeless veterans and child migrants working in the fields.  We exposed Wall Street shenanigans and tracked the Washington revolving door.  We reported how Congress had defeated efforts to enact safeguards that would mitigate a scandal like Enron, and how those efforts were shot down by some of the same politicians who were then charged with investigating the scandal.  We investigated the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Steven Griles, a full eighteen months before he resigned over conflicts of interest involving the oil and mining industries for which he had been a lobbyist on the other side of that revolving door.  We reported on those secret meetings held by Cheney with his industry pals and attempted to find out who was in the room and what was discussed.  We reported how ExxonMobil had influenced the White House to replace a scientist who believes global warming is real.

We won an Emmy for the hour-long profile of Chuck Spinney, the Pentagon whistleblower who worked from within to expose graft and waste in defense spending.

And the blog, Dailykos.com, speculated that it was our interview with Ambassador Joe Wilson, two weeks before the invasion ofIraqand months before Robert Novak outedWilson’s wife Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, that first outraged the administration. “An honor I dreamed not of…

None of this escaped the attention of the Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, a buddy of Karl Rove and the designated driver for the administration’s partisan agenda for public broadcasting.  Tomlinson set out, secretly, to discredit our broadcast.  He accused us of being unfair and unbalanced, but that wouldn’t wash.  We did talk with liberal voices like Howard Zinn, Susan Sontag, Sister Joan Chittester, Isabel Allende, Thomas Frank and Arundhati Roy.  But we also spoke with right-wingers like Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Cal Thomas, Frank Luntz, Richard Viguerie, Robert Bartley of The Wall Street Journal editorial page and then his successor, Paul Gigot.

What got Tomlinson’s goat was our reporting.  After all, we kept after his political pals for keeping secrets, and over and again we reported on how the big media conglomerates were in cahoots with official Washington, scheming for permission to get bigger and bigger.  The mainstream media wouldn’t touch this topic.  Murdoch, Time Warner, Viacom, GE/NBC, Disney/ABC, Clear Channel, Sinclair – all stood to gain if their lobbying succeeded.  Barry Diller appeared on our broadcast and described the relationship between the big news media and Washington as an “oligarchy.”  Sure enough, except for NOW with Bill Moyers, the broadcast media were silent about how they were lobbying for more and more power over what Americans see, read, and hear.  It was left to one little broadcast, relegated to the black hole of Friday night, to shine the light on one of the most important stories of the decade.

What finally sent Tomlinson over the edge and off to the ramparts, however, was a documentary we did about the people of Tamaqua, a small town in Pennsylvania.  The Morgan Knitting Mill there had just laid off more than a third of its workforce – the last of 25 textile mills that sustained the townspeople after the demise of the coal industry.  The jobs were going to Honduras and China.  Our report told how free trade agreements like NAFTA had encouraged companies to lay off American workers, produce goods more cheaply abroad and then import the goods back here.  We showed how the global economy contributes to the growing inequality in America, with the gap between the rich and poor doubling in the last three decades until it is now wider than in the days of the Great Depression.

Those are the facts – “reality-based” reporting – that caused Tomlinson to tell The Washington Post that what he saw was “liberal advocacy journalism.”  Well, if reporting what happens to ordinary people because of events beyond their control, and the indifference of government to their fate, is liberalism, I plead guilty.

Tomlinson was now on the warpath.  In secret (his preferred modus operandi) he hired an acquaintance out in Indianapolis named Fred Mann to monitor the content of our show.  What qualified Fred Mann for the job has been hard to learn.  His most recent position was as director of the Job Bank and alumni services at the National Journalism Center in Herndon,Virginia, an organization that is administered by the Young America’s Foundation, which is, in turn, affiliated with the right wing Young Americans for Freedom.  The foundation describes itself as “the principle outreach organization for the conservative movement” and has received funding from Exxon Mobil and Phillip Morris, among others.  But the trail to Mann went cold there.  Several journalists have tried telephoning or emailing him.  I tried four times just this week to reach him.  One enterprising young reporter even left notes for him at an Indianapolis Hallmark Store where Mann frequently faxed data to Tomlinson.  No luck.  I guess we’ll have to wait for Robert Novak to out him.

Fred Mann never got around to writing his full report, but when members of Congress pressed Tomlinson to show them the notes from Mann, it turns out that he had divided NOW’s guests into categories, with headings like, “Anti-Bush,” “Anti-business,” and “Anti-Tom DeLay.”  He characterized Republicans Senator Chuck Hagel, who departed from Republican orthodoxy to question the Iraq war, as “liberal,” which must have come as a quite a shock to the senator.

During all this I sought several times to meet with Tomlinson and the Board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  I wanted to ask them first-hand what was going on and to discuss the importance of public broadcasting’s independence.  They refused.  I invited Tomlinson more than once to go on the air with me, with a moderator and format of his choosing, to discuss our views on the role of public broadcasting.  He refused.

But all the while he was crudely pressuring the President of PBS, Pat Mitchell, to counter NOW.   And he himself was in direct contact with Paul Gigot, the rightwing editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial pages, to bring to PBS a show that Gigot had hosted on the cable business network CNBC until it was cancelled for lack of an audience.  So the Journal Editorial Report came to PBS, with The Wall Street Journal, that fierce defender of the free market, accepting over $4 million of taxpayer dollars courtesy of Ken Tomlinson.

The emails between Tomlinson and Gigot during this time reveal two ideological soul mates scheming to make sure “our side,” as they described themselves, gets “an absolute duplication of what Moyers is doing.”  But as the record will show, Gigot’s show was nowhere near what NOW with Bill Moyers was doing.  We were digging, investigating, and reporting; they were opining.  We were offering a wide range of opinions and views; they were talking to each other.  The participants on Gigot’s broadcast were his own staff members at the newspaper whose editorial pages are the Pravda of American journalism, where the Right speaks only to the Right.  To be blunt about it, we had more diversity of opinion on a single broadcast than Gigot had all year or than he has ever tolerated on his own editorial pages.  Reporting?  You have to be kidding.  In their private exchange of emails Tomlinson informs Gigot that he doesn’t really need to do field reporting.  Gigot agrees, and goes on to say that he finds such reporting not only a waste of time and money, but  “boring” [I’m not making this up: the editor of the editorial page of a great American newspaper finds field reporting “boring.”]   So it is that ideologues like Gigot can hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality.

I had always thought Gigot an honorable, if ideological fellow.  The emails confirm that he is for certain an ideologue – and a partisan.  The saddest part of this story, personally, is that on my own initiative – with no prompting from anyone – I had Gigot on my broadcast three times and had asked him to become a regular presence through the elections.  I even solicited Pat Mitchell, the PBS President, to urge him to accept my invitation.  I had no idea that at this very same time he was secretly negotiating with Tomlinson for his own show.  He never bothered to tell me.  After reading the emails, I realized this was deceitful on his part.  Even as I was asking him in good faith to join me on the broadcast, Gigot was back-channeling with Tomlinson on how they could complete their deal and was advising Tomlinson on “the line” that the CPB chairman should follow.

Of the many disclosures in the email exchange between the two, this is the most intriguing.  On August 13, 2004, Tomlinson wrote Gigot: “Protect me on this. I am breaking my word by forwarding this Mintz/Moyers stuff – but it’s too rich for you not to see. Please, please don’t show it to anyone. But keep in mind as we have fun with this. Cheers—KT.”

What’s he talking about?  Mintz is Morton Mintz, the octogenarian (now retired) and much honored investigative reporter for the Washington Post.  I know nothing about his politics; during his long career he broke exposes of both Democrats and Republicans.   That August he and I were emailing about the possibility of an appearance by him on my broadcast, and two months later, just prior to the first Bush-Kerry debate, I did interview him about the questions he would put to both candidates if he were an interlocutor who wanted to break through the polite protocol of the staged event in the hope of getting the politicians to touch reality.  Neither Mintz nor I can recall the exact subject of our email exchanges that August, long before the debate.  Tomlinson somehow gained access to our correspondence – Mintz speculates that he found someone who hacked into our emails –and promised his source that he wouldn’t share it with anyone else. Nonetheless, “breaking my word” and begging Gigot to “protect me on this,” he forwarded it to his co-conspirator.  In a sane world, both men would be drummed out of town for such behavior.

Gigot has now taken his show to FOX News, where such tactics will find a compatible home among like-minded partisans.  “Our side” turns out to be the great Republican noise machine.  A couple of days after that announcement, The Wall Street Journal published a thoroughly disingenuous editorial, obviously written by Gigot, defending Kenneth Tomlinson and their own involvement with him, while taking potshots at the Inspector General of CPB who had investigated the whole mess at the request of members of Congress.  The editorial compared him to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

But in a final triumph of reporting and evidence over ideology and spin, the Inspector found that Tomlinson had committed multiple transgressions: he broke the law, violated the corporation’s guidelines for contracting, meddled in program decisions, injected politics into hiring procedures, and admonished CPB executive staff “not to interfere with his deal” with Gigot.  The emails show Tomlinson bragging to Karl Rove, who played an important role in his appointment as chairman, about his success in “shaking things up” at CPB.  They also confirm that he had consulted the White House about recruiting loyalist Republicans to serve as his confederates in an organization that had been created in 1967 to prevent just such partisan meddling in public broadcasting.  (Thanks to Tomlinson and his White House allies, the new President of CPB is the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee.  She arrives under a cloud that only her actions can dispel. We shall see.)

Curiously, Gigot’s Wall Street Journal editorial conveniently failed to mention that the emails between himself and Tomlinson indicate Tomlinson perjured himself under oath, before Congress, when he said he had nothing to do with the agreement that landed Gigot at PBS.  Fact is, they worked hand-in-glove.  As I just mentioned, Tomlinson told his own staff not to interfere with “his deal” with Gigot.  There’s even an email in which Tomlinson says to Gigot, after they have been plotting on how to bring the proposed Gigot show to fruition, “Let’s stay in close touch.”  Obviously, lying by an ally doesn’t offend Gigot, who is otherwise known as a scourge of moral transgressions by Democrats, liberals, and other pagans.

As all this was becoming public, Tomlinson was forced to resign from the CPB board.  He is now under investigation by the State Department for irregularities in his other job as Chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other international broadcasting sponsored by the United States.  As I say, great secrecy breeds great corruption.

I have shared this sordid little story with you because it is a cautionary tale about the regime in power.  If they were so determined to go with all guns blazing at a single broadcast of public television that is simply doing the job journalism is supposed to do – setting the record straight – you can imagine the pressure that has been applied to mainstream media.  And you can understand what’s at stake when journalism gets the message and pulls its punches.  We saw it once again when Ahmed Chalabi was in town.  This is the man who played a key and sinister role in fostering both media and intelligence reports that misled the American people about weapons of mass destruction.  Although still under investigation by the FBI, Chalabi has maneuvered himself into the position of Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. He came to Washington recently to schmooze with the President and to meet with the armchair warriors of the neoconservative crowd who had helped him spin the case for going to war.  The old Houdini was back, rolling the beltway press who treated him with deference that might have been accorded George Washington. Watching him knock one soft pitch after another over the wall, I was reminded that the greatest moments in the history of the press have come not when journalists made common cause with power but when they stood fearlessly independent of it.  This was not one of them.

In his recent book, The Gospel According to America, David Dark reminds us again of a lesson we seem always to be forgetting, that “as learners of freedom, we might come to understand that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”  He might well have been directly addressing the press when he wrote, “Keeping one’s head safe for democracy (or avoiding the worship of false gods) will require a diligent questioning of any and all tribal storytellers.  In an age of information technology, we will have to look especially hard at the forces that shape discourse and the various high-powered attempts, new every morning, to invent public reality.”

So be it.

Collaborating with Bill Moyers on this speech was Michael Winship.

‘Welcome to Doomsday’, March 24, 2005

There are times when what we journalists see and intend to write about dispassionately sends a shiver down the spine, shaking us from our neutrality. This has been happening to me frequently of late as one story after another drives home the fact that the delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power. We are witnessing today a coupling of ideology and theology that threatens our ability to meet the growing ecological crisis. Theology asserts propositions that need not be proven true, while ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The combination can make it impossible for a democracy to fashion real-world solutions to otherwise intractable challenges.

In the just-concluded election cycle, as Mark Silk writes in Religion in the News, the assiduous cultivation of religious constituencies by the Bush apparat, and the undisguised intrusion of evangelical leaders and some conservative Catholic hierarchs into the presidential campaign, demonstrated that the old rule of maintaining a decent respect for the non-partisanship of religion can now be broken with impunity.

The result is what the Italian scholar Emilio Gentile, quoted in Silk’s newsletter, calls “political religion”—religion as an instrument of political combat. On gay marriage and abortion— the most conspicuous of the “non-negotiable” items in a widely distributed Catholic voter’s guide—no one should be surprised what this political religion portends. The agenda has been foreshadowed for years, ever since Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other right-wing Protestants set out to turn white evangelicals into a solid Republican voting bloc and reached out to make allies of their former antagonists, conservative Catholics.

What has been less apparent is the impact of the new political religion on environmental policy. Evangelical Christians have been divided. Some were indifferent. The majority of conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, have long hooked their view to the account in the first book of the Bible:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

There are widely varying interpretations of this text, but it is safe to say that all presume human beings have inherited the earth to be used as they see fit. For many, God’s gift to Adam and Eve of “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures has been taken as the right to unlimited exploitation. But as Blaine Harden reported recently in The Washington Post, some evangelicals are beginning to “go for the green.” Last October the National Association of Evangelicals adopted an “Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” affirming that “God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part.” The declaration acknowledged that for the sake of clean air, clean water, and adequate resources, the government “has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation.”

But even for green activists in evangelical circles, Harden wrote, “there are landmines.”

Welcome to the Rapture!

There are millions of Christians who believe the Bible is literally true, word for word. Some of them—we’ll come back to the question of how many— subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the nineteenth century by two immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them with their own hallucinations into a narrative foretelling the return of Jesus and the end of the world. Google the “Rapture Index” and you will see just how the notion has seized the imagination of many a good and sincere believer (you will also see just where we stand right now in the ticking of the clock toward the culmination of history in the apocalypse). It is the inspiration for the best-selling books in America today—the twelve novels in the Left Behind series by Christian fundamentalist and religious- right warrior Tim LaHaye, a co- founder with Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority.

The plot of the Rapture—the word never appears in the Bible although some fantasists insist it is the hidden code to the Book of Revelation—is rather simple, if bizarre. (The British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for refreshing my own insights.) Once Israel has occupied the rest of its “biblical lands,” legions of the Antichrist will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned the Messiah will return for the Rapture. True believers will be transported to heaven where, seated at the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents writhe in the misery of plagues—boils, sores, locusts, and frogs—during the several years of tribulation that follow.

I’m not making this up. Like Monbiot, I read the literature, including The Rapture Exposed, a recent book by Barbara Rossing, who teaches the New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and America Right or Wrong, by Anatol Lieven, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. On my weekly broadcast for PBS, we reported on these true believers, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. To this end they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers.

For them the invasion of Iraq was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation, where four angels “bound in the great river Euphrates” will be released “to slay the third part of man.” A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed—an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the Rapture Index stood at 144—approaching the critical threshold when the prophecy is fulfilled, the whole thing blows, the Son of God returns, and the righteous enter paradise while sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.

What does this mean for public policy and the environment? Listen to John Hagee, pastor of the 17,000- member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, who is quoted in Rossing’s book as saying: “Mark it down, take it to heart, and comfort one another with these words. Doomsday is coming for the earth, for the nations, and for individuals, but those who have trusted in Jesus will not be present on earth to witness the dire time of tribulation.” Rossing sums up the message in five words that she says are basic Rapture credo: “The world cannot be saved.” It leads to “appalling ethics,” she reasons, because the faithful are relieved of concern for the environment, violence, and everything else except their personal salvation. The earth suffers the same fate as the unsaved. All are destroyed.

How many true believers are there? It’s impossible to pin down. But there is a constituency for the End Times. A Newsweek poll found that 36 percent of respondents held the Book of Revelation to be “true prophecy.” (A Time/ CNN poll reported that one quarter think the Bible predicted the 9/11 attacks.) Drive across the country with your radio tuned to some of the 1,600 Christian radio stations or turn to some of the 250 Christian TV stations and you can hear the Gospel of the Apocalypse in sermon and song. Or go, as The Toronto Star’s Tom Harpur did, to the Florida Panhandle where he came across an all-day conference “at one of the largest Protestant churches I have ever been in,” the Village Baptist Church in Destin. The theme of the day was “Left Behind: A Conference on Biblical Prophecy about End Times” and among the speakers were none other than Tim LaHaye and two other leading voices in the religious right today, Gary Frazier and Ed Hindson. Here is what Harpur wrote for his newspaper:

I have never heard so much venom and dangerous ignorance spouted before an utterly unquestioning, otherwise normal-looking crowd in my life…. There were stunning statements about humans having been only 6,000 years on Earth and other denials of contemporary geology and biology. And we learned that the Rapture, which could happen any second now, but certainly within the next 40 years, will instantly sweep all the “saved” Americans (perhaps one-half the population) to heaven….

But these fantasies were harmless compared with the hatred against Islam that followed. Here are some direct quotes: “Islam is an intolerant religion—and it’s clear whose side we should be on in the Middle East.” Applause greeted these words: “Allah and Jehovah are not the same God…. Islam is a Satanic religion…. They’re going to attack Israel for certain….” Gary Frazier shouted at the top of his lungs: “Wake Up! Wake Up!” And roughly eight hundred heads (at $25.00 per) nodded approval as he added that the left-wing, anti-Israel media—“for example, CNN”—will never tell the world the truth about Islam. According to these three, and the millions of Americans they lead, Muslims intend ultimately “to impose their religion on us all.” It was clear, Harpur wrote: “A terrible, final war in the region is inevitable.”

You can understand why people in the grip of such fantasies cannot be expected to worry about the environment. As Glenn Scherer writes in his report for the on-line environmental magazine Grist, why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture? Why bother to convert to alternative sources of energy and reduce dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East? Anyway, until Christ does return, the Lord will provide.

Scherer came upon a high school history book, America’s Providential History, which is used in fundamentalist circles. Students are told that “the secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie…that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece.” The Christian, however, “knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s Earth…. While many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people.”

While it is impossible to know how many people hold these views, we do know that fundamentalists constitute a large and powerful proportion of the Republican base, and, as Anatol Lieven writes, “fundamentalist religiosity has become an integral part of the radicalization of the right in the US and of the tendency to demonize political opponents as traitors and enemies of God and America”—including, one must note, environmentalists, who are routinely castigated as villains and worse by the right. No wonder Karl Rove wandered the White House whistling “Onward Christian Soldiers” as he prepared for the 2004 elections.

I am not suggesting that fundamentalists are running the government, but they constitute a significant force in the coalition that now holds a monopoly of power in Washington under a Republican Party that for a generation has been moved steadily to the right by its more extreme variants even as it has become more and more beholden to the corporations that finance it. One is foolish to think that their bizarre ideas do not matter. I have no idea what President Bush thinks of the fundamentalists’ fantastical theology, but he would not be president without them. He suffuses his language with images and metaphors they appreciate, and they were bound to say amen when Bob Woodward reported that the President “was casting his vision, and that of the country, in the grand vision of God’s master plan.”

That will mean one thing to Dick Cheney and another to Tim LaHaye, but it will confirm their fraternity in a regime whose chief characteristics are ideological disdain for evidence and theological distrust of science. Many of the constituencies who make up this alliance don’t see eye to eye on many things, but for President Bush’s master plan for rolling back environmental protections they are united. A powerful current connects the administration’s multinational corporate cronies who regard the environment as ripe for the picking and a hard-core constituency of fundamentalists who regard the environment as fuel for the fire that is coming. Once again, populist religion winds up serving the interests of economic elites.

The corporate, political, and religious right’s hammerlock on environmental policy extends to the US Congress. Nearly half of its members before the election—231 legislators in all (more since the election)—are backed by the religious right, which includes several powerful fundamentalist leaders like LaHaye. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the most influential Christian Right advocacy groups. Not one includes the environment as one of their celebrated “moral values.”

When I talk about this before a live audience I can see from the look on the faces before me just how hard it is for a journalist to report on such things with any credibility. So let me put on a personal level what sends the shiver down my spine.

I myself don’t know how to be in this world without expecting a confident future and getting up every morning to do what I can to bring it about. I confess to having always been an optimist. Now, however, I remember my friend on Wall Street whom I once asked: “What do you think of the market?” “I’m optimistic,” he answered.  “Then why do you look so worried?” And he answered, “Because I am not sure my optimism is justified.”

I’m not, either. Once upon a time I believed that people will protect the natural environment when they realize its importance to their health and to the health and lives of their children. Now I am not so sure. It’s not that I don’t want to believe this—it’s just that as a journalist I have been trained to read the news and connect the dots.

I read that the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency has declared the election a mandate for President Bush on the environment. This for an administration:

• that wants to rewrite the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act protecting rare plant and animal species and their habitats, as well as the national Environmental Policy Act that requires the government to judge beforehand if actions might damage natural resources;

• that wants to relax pollution limits for ozone, eliminate vehicle tailpipe inspections, and ease pollution standards for cars, sport utility vehicles, and diesel-powered big trucks and heavy equipment;

• that wants a new international audit law to allow corporations to keep certain information about environmental problems secret from the public;

• that wants to drop all its New-Source Review suits against polluting coal-fired power plans and weaken consent decrees reached earlier with coal companies;

• that wants to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to drilling and

increase drilling in Padre Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world and the last great coastal wild land in America;

• that is radically changing the management of our national forests to eliminate critical environmental reviews, open them to new roads, and give the timber companies a green light to slash and cut as they please.

I read the news and learned how the Environmental Protection Agency plotted to spend $9 million—$2 million of it from the President’s friends at the American Chemistry Council—to pay poor families to continue the use of pesticides in their homes. These pesticides have been linked to neurological damage in children, but instead of ordering an end to their use, the government and the industry concocted a scheme to offer the families $970 each, as well as a camcorder and children’s clothing, to serve as guinea pigs for the study.

I read that President Bush has more than one hundred high-level officials in his administration overseeing industries they once represented as lobbyists, lawyers, or corporate advocates—company insiders waved through the revolving door of government to assure that drug laws, food policies, land use, and the regulation of air pollution are industry-friendly. Among the “advocates-turned-regulators” are a former meat industry lobbyist who helps decide how meat is labeled; a former drug company lobbyist who influences prescription drug policies; a former energy lobbyist who, while accepting payments for bringing clients into his old lobbying firm, helps to determine how much of our public lands those former clients can use for oil and gas drilling.

I read that civil penalties imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency against polluters in 2004 hit an fifteen-year low, in what amounts to an extended holiday for industry from effective compliance with environmental laws.

I read that the administration’s allies at the International Policy Network, which is supported by Exxon-Mobil and others of like mind and interest, have issued a report describing global warming as “a myth” at practically the same time the President, who earlier rejected the international treaty outlining limits on greenhouse gases, wants to prevent any “written or oral report” from being issued by any international meetings on the issue.

I read not only the news but the fine print of a recent appropriations bill passed by Congress, with obscure amendments removing all endangered species protections from pesticides, prohibiting judicial review for a forest in Oregon, waiving environmental review for grazing permits on public lands, and weakening protection against development for crucial habitats in California.

I read all this and look up at the pictures on my desk, next to the computer —pictures of my grandchildren: Henry, age twelve; Thomas, ten; Nancy, eight; Jassie, three; SaraJane, one. I see the future looking back at me from those photographs and I say, “Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.” And then the shiver runs down my spine and I am seized by the realization: “That’s not right. We do know what we are doing. We are stealing their future. Betraying their trust. Despoiling their world.”

And I ask myself: Why? Is it because we don’t care? Because we are greedy? Because we have lost our capacity for outrage, our ability to sustain indignation at injustice? What has happened to our moral imagination?

On the heath Lear asks Gloucester: “How do you see the world?” And Gloucester, who is blind, answers: “I see it feelingly.’” I see it feelingly.  Why don’t we feel the world enough to save it—for our kin to come? The news is not good these days. But as a journalist I know the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free not only to feel but to fight for the future we want. The will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk. We must match the science of human health to what the ancient Israelites called hochma—the science of the heart, the capacity to see and feel and then to act as if the future depended on us.

Believe me, it does.


‘Inequality Matters’, June 3, 2004

It is important from time to time to remember that some things are worth getting mad about.

Here’s one: On March 10 of this year, on page B8, with a headline that stretched across all six columns, the New York Times reported that tuition in the city’s elite private schools would hit $26,000 for the coming school year – for kindergarten as well as high school.  On the same page, under a two-column headline,  Michael Winerup wrote about a school in nearby Mount Vernon, the first stop out of the Bronx,  with a student body that is 97 percent black.  It is the poorest school in the town: nine out of ten children qualify for free lunches; one out of 10 lives in a homeless shelter. During black history month this past February, a sixth grader wanted to write a report on Langston Hughes.  There were no books on Langston Hughes in the library – no books about the great poet, nor any of his poems.  There is only one book in the library on Frederick Douglass.  None on Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker, Leontyne Price, or other giants like them in the modern era.  In fact, except for a few Newberry Award books the librarian bought with her own money, the library is mostly old books – largely from the l950s and 60s when the school was all white. A 1960 child’s primer on work begins with a youngster learning how to be a telegraph delivery boy.  All the jobs in the book – the dry cleaner, the deliveryman, the cleaning lady – are white.  There’s a 1967 book about telephones which says: “when you phone you usually dial the number. But on some new phones you can push buttons.”  The newest encyclopedia dates from l991, with two volumes – “b” and “r” – missing.  There is no card catalog in the library – no index cards or computer. Something to get mad about.

Here’s something else: Caroline Payne’s face and gums are distorted because her Medicaid-financed dentures don’t fit. Because they don’t fit, she is continuously turned down for jobs on account of her appearance.  Caroline Payne is one of the people in David shipper’s new book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America.” She was born poor, and in spite of having once owned her own home and having earned a two-year college degree, Caroline Payne has bounced from one poverty-wage job to another all her life, equipped with the will to move up, but not the resources to deal with unexpected and overlapping problems like a mentally handicapped daughter, a broken marriage, a sudden layoff crisis that forced her to sell her few assets, pull up roots and move on.  “In the house of the poor,” Shipler writes….” the walls are thin and fragile and troubles seep into one another.”

Here’s something else to get mad about.  Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives, the body of Congress owned and operated by the corporate, political, and religious right, approved new tax credits for children.  Not for poor children, mind you. But for families earning as much as $309,000 a year—families that already enjoy significant benefits from earlier tax cuts. The editorial page of the Washington Post called this “bad social policy, bad tax policy, and bad fiscal policy.  You’d think they’d be embarrassed,” said the Post, “but they’re not.”

And this, too, is something to get mad about: nothing seems to embarrass the political class in Washington today. Not the fact that more children are growing up in poverty in America than in any other industrial nation; not the fact that millions of workers are actually making less money today in real dollars than they did twenty years ago; not the fact that working people are putting in longer and longer hours and still falling behind;  not the fact that while we have the most advanced medical care in the world, nearly 44 million Americans – eight out of ten of them in working families—are uninsured and cannot get the basic care they need.

Astonishing as it seems, no one in official Washington seems embarrassed by the fact that the gap between rich and poor is greater than it’s been in 50 years – the worst inequality among all western nations.  Or that we are experiencing a shift in poverty.   For years it was said those people down there at the bottom were single jobless mothers. For years they were told work, education, and marriage is how they move up the economic ladder.  But poverty is showing up where we didn’t expect it – among families that include two parents, a worker, and a head of the household with more than a high school education.  These are the newly poor.  Our political, financial and business class expects them to climb out of poverty on an escalator moving downward.

Let me tell you about the Stanleys and the Neumanns.  During the last decade I produced a series of documentaries for PBS called “Surviving the Good Times.” The title refers to the boom time of the 90s when the country achieved the longest period of economic growth in its entire history.  Some good things happened then, but not everyone shared equally in the benefits. To the contrary.  The decade began with a sustained period of downsizing by corporations moving jobs out of America and many of those people never recovered what was taken from them.  We decided early on to tell the stories of two families in Milwaukee– one black, one white — whose breadwinners were laid off in the first wave of layoffs in 1991.  We reported on how they were coping with the wrenching changes in their lives, and we stayed with them over the next ten years as they tried to find a place in the new global economy. They’re the kind of Americans my mother would have called “the salt of the earth”. They love their kids, care about their communities, go to church every Sunday, and work hard all week – both mothers have had to take full-time jobs.

During our time with them the fathers in both families became seriously ill. One had to stay in the hospital two months, putting his family $30,000 in debt because they didn’t have adequate health care.  We were there with our camera when the bank started to foreclose on the modest home of the other family because they couldn’t meet the mortgage payments after dad lost his good-paying manufacturing job. Like millions of Americans, the Stanleys and the Neumanns were playing by the rules and still getting stiffed.  By the end of the decade they were running harder but slipping behind, and the gap between them and prosperous America was widening.

What turns their personal tragedy into a political travesty is that they are patriotic. They love this country.  But they no longer believe they matter to the people who run the country.  When our film opens both families are watching the inauguration of Bill Clinton on television in 1992. By the end of the decade they were no longer paying attention to politics. They don’t see it connecting to their lives. They don’t think their concerns will ever be addressed by the political, corporate, and media elites who make up our dominant class.  They are not cynical, because they are deeply religious people with no capacity for cynicism, but they know the system is rigged against them.  They know this, and we know this.  For years now a small fraction of American households have been garnering an extreme concentration of wealth and income while large corporations and financial institutions have obtained unprecedented levels of economic and political power over daily life.  In 1960, the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was 30 fold.  Four decades later it is more than 75 fold.  Such concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefiting proportionately.  But that’s not the case.  As the economist Jeff Madrick reminds us, the pressures of inequality on middle and working class Americans are now quite severe. “The strain on working people and on family life, as spouses have gone to work in dramatic numbers, has become significant. VCRs and television sets are cheap, but higher education, health care, public transportation, drugs, housing and cars have risen faster in price than typical family incomes.  And life has grown neither calm nor secure for most Americans, by any means.”  You can find many sources to support this conclusion.  I like the language of a small outfit here in New York called the Commonwealth Foundation/Center for the Renewal of American Democracy. They conclude that working families and the poor “are losing ground under economic pressures that deeply affect household stability, family dynamics, social mobility, political participation, and civic life.”

Household economics is not the only area where inequality is growing in America.  Equality doesn’t mean equal incomes but a fair and decent society where money is not the sole arbiter of status or comfort. In a fair and just society, the common wealth will be valued even as individual wealth is encouraged.

Let me make something clear here.  I wasn’t born yesterday.  I’m old enough to know that the tension between haves and have-nots are built into human psychology, it is a constant in human history, and it has been a factor in every society.  But I also know America was going to be different.  I know that because I read Mr. Jefferson’s writings, Mr. Lincoln’s speeches and other documents in the growing American creed.  I presumptuously disagreed with Thomas Jefferson about human equality being self-evident.  Where I lived, neither talent, nor opportunity, nor outcomes were equal.  Life is rarely fair and never equal.  So what could he possibly have meant by that ringing but ambiguous declaration: “All men are created equal”? Two things, possibly. One, although none of us are good, all of us are sacred (Glenn Tinder), that’s the basis for thinking we are by nature kin.  Second, he may have come to see the meaning of those words through the experience of the slave who was his mistress.  As is now widely acknowledged, the hands that wrote “all men are created equal” also stroked the breasts and caressed the thighs of a black woman named Sally Hennings.  She bore him six children whom he never acknowledged as his own but who were the only slaves freed by his will when he died – the one request we think Sally Hennings made of her master. Thomas Jefferson could not have been insensitive to the flesh-and-blood woman in his arms.  He had to know she was his equal in her desire for life, her longing for liberty, her passion for happiness.  In his book on the Declaration, my late friend Mortimer Adler said Jefferson realized that whatever things are really good for any human beings are really good for all other human beings. The happy or good life is essentially the same for all: a satisfaction of the same needs inherent in human nature.  A just society is grounded in that recognition. So Jefferson kept as a slave a woman whose nature he knew was equal to his. All Sally Hennings got from her long sufferance – perhaps it was all she sought from what may have grown into a secret and unacknowledged love – was that he let her children go.  “Let my children go” – one of the oldest of all petitions.  It has long been the promise of America – a broken promise, to be sure.  But the idea took hold that we could fix what was broken so that our children would live a bountiful life.  We could prevent the polarization between the very rich and the very poor that poisoned other societies. We could provide that each and every citizen would enjoy the basic necessities of life, a voice in the system of self-government, and a better chance for their children.  We could preclude the vast divides that produced the turmoil and tyranny of the very countries from which so many of our families had fled.

We were going to do these things because we understood our dark side – none of us is good – but we also understood the other side – all of us are sacred. From Jefferson forward we have grappled with these two notions in our collective head – that we are worthy of the creator but that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Believing the one and knowing the other, we created a country where the winners didn’t take all.  Through a system of checks and balances we were going to maintain a safe, if shifting, equilibrium between wealth and commonwealth.  We believed equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of any democracy.  So early on [in Jeff Madrick’s description,] “primary schooling was made free to all. States changed laws to protect debtors, often the relatively poor, against their rich creditors.  Charters to establish corporations were open to most if not all white comers, rather than held for the elite. The government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land, and even supported squatters’ rights.  The court challenged monopoly – all in the name of we the people. In my time we went to public schools.  My brother made it to college on the GI bill.  When I bought my first car for $450 I drove to a subsidized university on free public highways and stopped to rest in state-maintained public parks.  This is what I mean by the commonwealth. Rudely recognized in its formative years, always subject to struggle, constantly vulnerable to reactionary counterattacks, the notion of America as a shared project has been the central engine of our national experience.

Until now.  I don’t have to tell you that a profound transformation is occurring in America:  the balance between wealth and the commonwealth is being upended.  By design.  Deliberately.  We have been subjected to what the Commonwealth Foundation calls “a fanatical drive to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that have shaped public responsibility from social harms arising from the excesses of private power.” From land, water and other natural resources, to media and the broadcast and digital spectrums, to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, and to politics itself, a broad range of the American commons is undergoing a powerful shift toward private and corporate control.  And with little public debate.  Indeed, what passes for ‘political debate’ in this country has become a cynical charade behind which the real business goes on—the not-so-scrupulous business of getting and keeping power in order to divide up the spoils.

We could have seen this coming if we had followed the money.  The  veteran Washington reporter, Elizabeth Drew, says “the greatest change in Washington over the past twenty-five years – in its culture, in the way it does business and the ever-burgeoning amount of business transactions that go on here – has been in the preoccupation with money.”  Jeffrey Birnbaum, who covered Washington for nearly twenty years for the Wall Street Journal, put it more strongly:  “[campaign cash] has flooded over the gunwales of the ship of state and threatens to sink the entire vessel.  Political donations determine the course and speed of many government actions that deeply affect our daily lives.”  Politics is suffocating from the stranglehold of money.   During his brief campaign in 2000, before he was ambushed by the dirty tricks of the religious right in South Carolina and big money from George W. Bush’s wealthy elites, John McCain said elections today are nothing less than an “influence peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.”

Small wonder that with the exception of people like John McCain and Russ Feingold, official Washington no longer finds anything wrong with a democracy dominated by the people with money.  Hit the pause button here and recall Roger Tamraz.  He’s the wealthy oilman who paid $300,000 to get a private meeting in the white house with President Clinton; he wanted help in securing a big pipeline in central Asia. This got him called before congressional hearings on the financial excesses of the 1996 campaign. If you watched the hearings on C-Span you heard him say he didn’t think he had done anything out of the ordinary. When they pressed him he told the senators:  “Look, when it comes to money and politics, you make the rules. I’m just playing by your rules.” One senator then asked if Tamraz had registered and voted. And he was blunt in his reply: “No, senator, I think money’s a bit more than the vote.”

So what does this come down to, practically? Here is one accounting:

“When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But its ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price and most of them never see it coming. This is what happens if you don’t contribute to their campaigns of spend generously on lobbying. You pick up a disproportionate share of America’s tax bill. You pay higher prices for a broad range of products from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying. You’re compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them. You must pay debts that you incur while others do not. You’re barred from writing off on your tax returns some of the money spent on necessities while others deduct the cost of their entertainment. You must run your business by one set of rules, while the government creates another set for your competitors. In contrast, the fortunate few who contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business deal; the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below market wages, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore rules their competition must comply with, the government gives its approval. If they want to kill legislation that is intended for the public, it gets killed.”

I’m not quoting from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Mao’s Little Red Book. I’m quoting TIME magazine. TIME’s premier investigative journalists – Donald Bartlett and James Steele – concluded in a series last year that America now has “government for the few at the expense of the many.” Economic inequality begets political inequality, and vice versa.

That’s why the Stanleys and the Neumanns were turned off by politics.  It’s why we’re losing the balance between wealth and the commonwealth.  It’s why we can’t put things right.  And it is the single most destructive force tearing at the soul of democracy.  Hear the great justice Learned Hand on this: “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’ ” Learned Hand was a prophet of democracy.  The rich have the right to buy more homes than anyone else.  They have the right to buy more cars than anyone else, more gizmos than anyone else, more clothes and vacations than anyone else.  But they do not have the right to buy more democracy than anyone else.

I know, I know: this sounds very much like a call for class war.  But the class war was declared a generation ago, in a powerful paperback polemic by William Simon, who was soon to be Secretary of the Treasury.  He called on the financial and business class, in effect, to take back the power and privileges they had lost in the depression and new deal.  They got the message, and soon they began a stealthy class war against the rest of society and the principles of our democracy.  They set out to trash the social contract, to cut workforces and their wages, to scour the globe in search of cheap wages, and to shred the social safety net that was supposed to protect people from hardships beyond their control.  Business Week put it bluntly at the time:  “Some people will obviously have to do with less….it will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.”

The middle class and working poor are told that what’s happening to them is the consequence of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”. This is a lie. What’s happening to them is the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual propaganda, the rise of a religious orthodoxy that in its hunger for government subsidies has made an idol of power, and a string of political decisions favoring the powerful and the privileged who bought the political system right out from under us.

To create the intellectual framework for this takeover of public policy, they funded conservative think tanks – The Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, and the American Enterprise Institute – that churned out study after study advocating their agenda.

To put political muscle behind these ideas, they created a formidable political machine.  One of the few journalists to cover the issues of class – Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post – wrote: “During the 1970s, business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperate action in the legislative area.” Big business political action committees flooded the political arena with a deluge of dollars. And they built alliances with the religious right –Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition – who mounted a cultural war because a smokescreen to the class war, hiding the economic plunder of the very people who were enlisted as foot soldiers in the cause of privilege.

In a book to be published this summer, Daniel Altman describes what he calls the “neo-economy – a place without taxes, without a social safety net, where rich and poor live in different financial worlds – and [said Altman] it’s coming to America.” He’s a little late. It’s here. Says Warren Buffett, the savviest investor of them all: “My class won.”

Look at the spoils of victory:

Over the past three years, they’ve pushed through $2 trillion dollars in tax cuts – almost all tilted towards the wealthiest people in the country.Cuts in taxes on the largest incomes. Cuts in taxes on investment income. And cuts in taxes on huge inheritances.

More than half of the benefits are going to the wealthiest one percent.  You could call it trickle-down economics, except that the only thing that trickled down was a sea of red ink in our state and local governments, forcing them to cut services and raise taxes on middle class working America. Now the Congressional Budget Office forecasts deficits totaling $2.75 trillion over the next ten years.

These deficits have been part of their strategy.  Some of you will remember that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan tried to warn us twenty years ago, when he predicted that President Ronald Reagan’s real strategy was to force the government to cut domestic social programs by fostering federal deficits of historic dimensions.  Reagan’s own budget director, David Stockman, admitted as such. Now the leading rightwing political strategist, Grover Norquist, says  the goal is to “starve the beast” – with trillions of dollars in deficits resulting from trillions of dollars in tax cuts, until the United States Government is so anemic and anorexic it can be drowned in the bathtub.

There’s no question about it:  The corporate conservatives and their allies in the political and religious right are achieving a vast transformation of American life that only they understand because they are its advocates, its architects, and its beneficiaries.  In creating the greatest economic inequality in the advanced world, they have saddled our nation, our states, and our cities and counties with structural deficits that will last until our children’s children are ready for retirement and they are systematically stripping government of all its functions except rewarding the rich and waging war.

And they are proud of what they have done to our economy and our society.  If instead of practicing journalism I was writing for Saturday Night Live, I couldn’t have made up the things that this crew have been saying.  The president’s chief economic adviser says shipping technical and professional jobs overseas is good for the economy. The president’s Council of Economic Advisers report that hamburger chefs in fast food restaurants can be considered manufacturing workers. The president’s Federal Reserve chairman says that the tax cuts may force cutbacks in social security – but hey, we should make the tax cuts permanent anyway. The president’s labor secretary says it doesn’t matter if job growth has stalled because “the stock market is the ultimate arbiter.”

You just can’t make this stuff up.  You have to hear it to believe it.  This may be the first class war in history where the victims will die laughing.

But what they are doing to middle class and working Americans – and to the workings of American democracy – is no laughing matter.  Go on line and read those transcripts of Enron traders in the energy crisis four years ago, discussing how they were  manipulating the California power market in telephone calls in which they gloat about ripping off “those poor grandmothers.” Read how they talk about political contributions to politicians like “Kenny Boy” Lay’s best friend George W. Bush.  Go on line and read how Citigroup has been fined $70 Million for abuses in loans to low-income, high risk borrowers – the largest penalty ever imposed by the Federal Reserve.  A few clicks later, you can find the story of how a subsidiary of the corporate computer giant NEC has been fined over $20 million after pleading guilty to corruption in a federal plan to bring Internet access to poor schools and libraries. And this, the story says, is just one piece of a nationwide scheme to rip off the government and the poor.

Let’s face the reality: If ripping off the public trust, if distributing tax breaks to the wealthy at the expense of the poor; if driving the country into deficits deliberately to starve social benefits, requiring states to balance their budgets on the backs of the poor; if squeezing the wages of workers until the labor force resembles a nation of serfs – if this isn’t class war, what is?

It’s un-American. It’s unpatriotic. And it’s wrong.

But I don’t need to tell you this.  You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t know it.  Your presence at this gathering confirms that while an America with liberty and justice for all is a broken promise, it is not a lost cause.   Once upon a time I thought the mass media – my industry – would help mend this broken promise and save this cause. After all, the sight of police dogs attacking peaceful demonstrators forced America to recognize the reality of racial injustice.  The sight of carnage in Vietnam forced us to recognize the war was unwinnable.  The sight of terrorists striking the World Trade Center woke us from a long slumber of denial and distraction.  I thought the mass media might awaken Americans to the reality that this ideology of winner-take-all is working against them and not for them.   I was wrong. With honorable exceptions, we can’t count on the mass media.

What we need is a mass movement of people like you.  Get mad, yes – there’s plenty to be mad about.  Then get organized and get busy.  This is the fight of our lives.

‘Journalism Matters’, March 30, 2000

Half a century ago my own journalism teachers – Selma Brotze in high school, Cecil Schumann and Delbert Maguire at North Texas State, and Dewitt Reddick and Paul Thompson at the University of Texas – stoked my passion for journalism, as you do for so many young people today.

That passion bloomed early.   In 1950, on my 16th birthday I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town where I grew up – the Marshall News Messenger.  It was a good place to be a cub reporter – small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something every day.  I soon had a stroke of good luck. Shakespeare said: “Merit doth much but fortune doth more.” Some of the old-timers were on vacation or out sick, and I got assigned to cover what came to be known as the “Housewives’ Rebellion.”  Fifteen women in my hometown decided not to pay the Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers.  They argued that Social Security was unconstitutional, that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that – here’s my favorite part – “requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.”  They hired themselves a lawyer but lost the case and wound up holding their noses and paying the tax.

I’ve thought over the years about those women and the impact their story had on my life and on my journalism.  They were not bad people, they were regulars at church, their children were my friends, many of them were active in community affairs and their husbands were pillars of the business and professional class in town.  They were respectable and upstanding citizens in all.  So it took me a while to figure out what had brought on their spasm of reactionary rebellion.  It came to me one day many years later.  Fiercely loyal to their families, to their clubs charities and congregations – fiercely loyal in other words to their own kind – they narrowly defined democracy to include only people like themselves.   The women who washed and ironed their laundry, wiped their children’s bottoms, made their husband’s beds and cooked their families’ meals, these women too would grow old and frail, sick and decrepit, lose their men and face the ravages of time alone, with nothing to show from their years of labor but the creases in their brow and the knots on their knuckles.

So over the years I came to realize that small revolt in Marshall, Texas, embodied the oldest story in America – the struggle to determine whether “We, the People” is a political truth – one nation indivisible – or merely an economic arrangement masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

Some of the stories I wrote about the housewives were picked up by the AP.  One day the managing editor, Spencer Jones, called me over and pointed to the AP ticker beside his desk.  Moving across the wire was a notice citing the News Messenger for our reporting.  I was hooked.  I went off to college two years later with enough experience to land a job working for the school’s news office.  The spring of my sophomore year I wrote a letter to Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, whom I’d never met, and said I wanted to become a political journalist and could he teach me something about politics?   I spent the summer in Washington and then at his urging transferred to the University of Texas where I attended classes full-time and worked overtime at the Johnson’s radio and television station. We were the first inTexas to buy a station wagon, paint it red, and christen it – what else? – Red Rover.  I wheeled around town in style, broadcasting from crime scenes and accidents and the state legislature, which some people said was the biggest crime scene in town.

My path led me on to graduate school, through seminary, and in 1960 back to Washington, where I helped organize the Peace Corps before the assassination of John Kennedy tragically thrust Lyndon Johnson suddenly into the White House and me with him.  I left in 1967 to become publisher of Newsday until it was sold to the Los Angeles Times, and then I made the leap from print to television, to PBS and CBS and back again to public television – one of those vagrant journalistic souls who, intoxicated with the moment, is always looking for the next high: the lede yet to be written, the photo yet to be taken, the interview yet to be conducted, the story yet to be told.

I mention all this not to review my C.V. with the intention of applying for an adjunct position – although don’t count that out – but to put in perspective what I want to say about the changing landscape of journalism.  Before he became a celebrated humorist Robert Benchley was a student at Harvard.  He arrived at his final examination in international law to find the test consisted of one question: “Discuss the abstract of the international fisheries protocol and dragnet and procedure as it affects (A) the point of view of the United States and (B) the point of view of Great Britain.” Benchley was desperate but he was also honest.  He wrote: “I know nothing of the point of view of Great Britain in regard to the arbitration of the international fisheries problem and nothing of the point of view of the U.S.  I will therefore discuss the issue from the point of view of the fish.”

Here’s the point of view of one fish in the vast ocean of the media.

Journalism’s been a good life for me.  A continuing course in adult education – my own.  It enabled me to cover the summits of world leaders and the lives of poor people in Newark.  I was paid richly as a CBS news analyst to put in my two cents’ worth on just about anything that had happened that day. I produced documentaries on issues and subjects that fascinate me – from money in politics to the Chinese experience in America, the history of the Hudson River, the power of myth, and the making of a poem.  With journalism came a passport into the world of ideas, my favorite beat.  I’ve enjoyed the sometimes intimidating privilege of talking to some of the wisest and sanest people around – scientists, historians, scholars, philosophers, artists and writers – to ask them important questions: Why is there something instead of nothing? What do we mean by a moral life?  Can we learn to be creative?

And one of my favorite of all questions; what does it mean to be a Texan?  I put that one to the sainted writer, raconteur, and radio personality John Henry Faulk shortly before his death in 1990. Faulk, some of you old-timers may remember, was the popular CBS Radio host hounded by the right-wing out of his job and into court where he won an important case.   In that interview John Henry told me the story of how he and his friend Boots Cooper were playing in the chicken house behind their homes in Central Texas when they were about 12 years old.  They spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests, so close it looked like a boa constrictor. As John Henry told it to me, “All our frontier courage drained out of our heels – actually, it tricked down our overall legs – and Boots and I made a new door through the hen house wall.”  John Henry’s momma came out and, learning what all the fuss was about, said to the boys “Don’t you know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you!” And Boots, rubbing his forehead and behind at the same time, said, “Yes, Mrs. Faulk, I know that, but they can scare you so bad, it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.”

That’s such an important lesson to teach your students.  I had to work hard at times to remember it.  After the early twists and turns put me in the White House as LBJ’s press secretary it took me awhile to get my footing back in journalism.  I had to learn all over again that what’s important for the journalist is not how close you are to power but how close you are to reality.  I would touch that reality in assignment after assignment, from reporting on famine in Africa and guerilla war in Central Americato documentaries about working families in Wisconsin ravaged by global economics and corporate cruelty.

I also had to relearn another of journalism’s basic lessons. The job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place.  One of my mentors years ago told me that “news is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity.”  When you’re digging for what’s hidden, unless you’re willing to fight and re-fight the same battles until you go blue in the face, drive your colleagues nuts going over every last detail to make certain you’ve got it right, and then take hit after unfair hit accusing you of bias, there’s no use even trying. You have to love it, and I do.  But I have had to keep telling myself to remember John Henry Faulk’s counsel:  You can’t spook out.

When the indomitable Washington producer Sherry Jones and I reported the first documentary ever about the purchase of political influence by political action committees, we unfurled across the Capitol grounds yard after yard of computer printouts listing campaign contributions to every member of Congress.  On that printout were names of politicians who had been allies just a few years earlier when I worked at the White House.  Supporters in Congress of public television were also outraged.

I learned something from that.  There’s a story about the medieval knight who returns to the castle after a long absence.  He rides back through the gate with his helmet battered, his shield dented, his shield broken, and his horse limping. The master of the castle looks down from the parapet and shouts: “Sir Knight, what has happened to you?”  And the knight looks up and says “Oh Sire, I’ve been up pillaging and plundering your enemies to the east and the west.”  And the lord of the castle looks down at him and says, “But I have no enemies to the east and the west.”  And the knight answers:  “Now you do. Now you do.”  We do make enemies in journalism.

Later, when Sherry and I went digging into the Iran-Contra scandal in a documentary called “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,”Washington’s right-wing vigilantes ran to their allies in Congress who then accused PBS of committing in public the terrible sin – horrors! – of journalism!    The Clinton White House also complained after we reported on the unbridled and illegal fundraising by Democrats in the president’s re-election campaign in 1996.

But taking on political scandal is nothing compared to what can happen if you raise questions about corporate power in Washington.  When the producer Marty Koughan and I started looking into the subject of pesticides and food for a Frontline documentary, Marty learned that the industry was attempting behind closed doors to dilute the findings of a National Academy of Sciences study on the effects of pesticide residues on children.  The industry heard we were poking around and mounted a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit our broadcast before it aired. Television reviewers and the editorial pages of key newspapers were flooded with allegations and innuendos. It was a steady whispering campaign hard to discern and confront.    A columnist for The Washington Post took a dig at the broadcast without even seeing it – and later admitted to me that the dirt had been supplied by a top lobbyist for the chemical industry, who was his neighbor. The industry even prepared letters which some nervous public television station managers signed and sent to PBS here inWashington protesting a film they hadn’t even seen.  My colleagues at PBS stood firm – even though some of those snakes were boa constrictors – and the documentary aired, the journalism held up, and the National Academy of Sciences was emboldened to release the study that the industry had tried to stifle.

Even when you win one battle, the war goes on.   Sherry and I spent more than a year working on another documentary called Trade Secrets. This one was a two-hour special based on revelations – found in the industry’s own archives – that big chemical companies had deliberately withheld from workers and consumers damaging information about toxic chemicals in their products.  These internal documents were a fact.  What they contained was not a matter of opinion or point of view.  You could read right there in the industry’s own records what the companies knew, when they knew it, and what they did with what they knew – which was to deep six it.  The facts portrayed a deep and pervasive corruption in a major American industry and raised profound implications for public policy.  So when the companies got wind of what we were doing, they sharpened their hatchets and went to work.

They hired a public relations firm here in town noted for using private detectives and former CIA, FBI, and drug enforcement personnel to investigate competitors and critics. One of the founders of that firm is on record boasting of using “unconventional” methods – including deceit – on behalf of his clients.  To say they tried to smear the messenger is an understatement.   To complicate matters, the single biggest Congressional recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry was the very member of Congress whose committee had jurisdiction over public broadcasting’s appropriations.  We didn’t use any public funds to produce the documentary, but that didn’t spare PBS from another wave of ferocious pressure.  Again they stood firm, Trade Secrets aired – every fact documented – and a year later the National Academy of Television named it the outstanding investigative documentary of the year.

Nowadays journalists who try to dig up what’s hidden still bring down on their heads the opprobrium of government and corporations. But they must also face the wrath of right-wing media whose worldview is to see a liberal lurking behind every fact.  Journalism is under withering fire these days from ideologues – those true believers who have closed their mind to all contrary evidence and hung a sign on the door with the words:  DO NOT DISTURB.  Any journalist whose reporting dares to challenge the party line becomes a candidate for Guantanamo.  Rush Limbaugh, notably, railed against journalists for their reporting on the torture at Abu Ghraib, which he dismissed as a little sport for soldiers under stress. He told his audience: “This is no different from what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation… You ever heard of people [who] need to blow off some steam.” [Well, yes, I have: they usually wind up as talk show host.] The Limbaugh line became a drumbeat in the right-wing echo chamber from which many millions of American now get their news.  So I wasn’t surprised to read that nationwide survey by the Chicago Tribune in which half of the respondents said there should have been some kind of press restraint on reporting about the prison abuse and just as many said they “would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, especially if it is found unpatriotic.”

Imagine:  Free speech as sedition.

Tell your students: silence is sedition.

Those of you who saw Buying the War know that journalists and others who tried to challenge the administration’s fallacious evidence for invading Iraq found the patriot police on their tail.  Whatever Kool-Aid he’s brewing for The Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch could make a singular contribution to journalism simply by uncoupling Fox News from the Republican fog machine and giving it the mandate to report reality instead of attacking those who do.  For sure we’d get more real news – what Richard Reeves calls “the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.”

I know you must have some sleepless night over what’s happening to journalism. I do.  I know a vigorous struggle for the survival of professional journalistic values is playing out with particular intensity inside the walls of your universities.  The former Washington Post correspondent, Neil Henry, now teaching at Berkeley, writes about this in his new book, American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media.  I recommend it to you, as well as his essay from it in the May 25 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Neil Henry writes that those of you in education “are in a constant state of flux, fighting to stay current with evolving industry demands and technological innovation while also seeking to protect the primacy of traditional standards in a world where such values are either misguided or threatened.”

You’re on the frontlines of that struggle and know the issues well, so I won’t belabor the obvious.  But no day passes without a reminder of it. Last Sunday I picked up my copy of The New York Times at the corner newsstand.  The price had gone to $4 from $3.50, and yet there on the front page, below the fold, was a small box that read:

Starting Monday, The Times is reducing the width of its pages by an inch and a half, to the national newspaper 12-inch standard. The move cuts newsprint expenses and, in some printing press locations, makes special configurations unnecessary. Slight modifications in design preserve the look and texture of The Times, with all existing features and sections and somewhat fewer words per page.

There you have the sign of the times: More money, less news. The rest is commentary –the loss of advertising, the consumer migration to digital media, changing viewer habits.  Think 3-minute YouTube clips versus 30-minute TV shows versus long-form documentaries that have been my stock in trade, and the lengthy Wall Street Journal investigations that Rupert Murdoch has already said are rather trying.

I often hear in my head the late Saul Bellow’s prophesy during an interview I did with him two decades ago.  He said the day would come when “no one will be heard who does not speak in short bursts of truth.”  So I muse: Buying the War was a 90-minute documentary that took almost 15 months to produce.  Our exposé Trade Secrets took a year.   McClatchy’s, then Knight-Ridder’s, Landay and Strobel needed weeks to gather and then space to lay out the evidence that challenged the official view of reality leading up to the war.  For reporters time is the most valuable thing you invest; for all Wall Street, the only measure is money.

Coming down on the train, I read of the latest casualties from Wall Street’s assault on the newsroom. Starting last Thursday and continuing this week (according to an account by Kimi Yoshino in The Los Angeles Times), managers at the Orange County Register have been tapping staffers on the shoulders and asking them to leave.  The editor told them revenues are down 14% and profits 38%.  Yet it was only three years ago that the owner, the  privately-held Freedom Communications, Inc,  worked out a $1.3 billion buyout deal that saw more than half of the members of the founding family cash out their holdings.  Two private equity firms – Blackstone Group and Providence Equity Partners – purchased nearly 40% of the shares.  Now, typically, they are recouping their investment at the expense of employees.    Many are long-time reporters, including 50-year-old Michele Himmelberg, whose coverage of the National Football League helped women reporters gain access to locker rooms and won equal-access policies for all journalists.  She had been working at the paper for nearly 24 years covering major news events and, in her words, “telling the stories of people who have shaped our community.”  Michele Himmelberg could be speaking for thousands of journalists when she says: “News is a consumer product that will continue to be in demand. The question is, with the methods of delivery changing, how do the people who tell these stories earn a living?”

The question goes beyond newspapers.  I heard this week from a talented freelance reporter in his 30s who made the media beat a specialty.  He has an offer outside the craft he has practiced since he was 15 and will probably take it. He told me “the problem in journalism isn’t that there are no jobs; my students [he is an adjunct professor in a graduate journalism program] inevitably end up with great starter jobs.  Most news organizations seem to prefer hiring freshly-minted J-school grads and having them learn the beat anew.  But that’s where everything’s stuck: at the starter level.  As a freelancer in broadcasting, I don’t have the profile in print to land big magazine assignments, the only kind that pay well.  I’m at the top of NPR’s freelance scales, but NPR pays freelancers dismally – I make less than $1000 for a piece that takes four solid days to report and produce, which isn’t nearly enough for a homeowner who’s paying his own health premiums.”

You can ask The Writers’ Guild about that.  My friend and colleague Michael Winship sent me the study the Guild has just published that describes how media conglomerates are destroying broadcast news with the same tactics other companies are using against their workers.  They’re cutting staff resources and replacing full-time news writers with part-timers and temps.  CBS alone has cut the number of full-time news staff by about 60% since 1980; the budget for the CBS Evening News, where I succeeded Eric Sevareid as senior news analyst, was cut almost in half from 1991 to 2000.  In 1989, CBS network television news employed 28 researchers; ten years later, none.  Half the guild members reported that at least several times a week, they use no more than a single Web site to check the accuracy of stories.  Michael Winship says that some are working “off-the-clock” to ensure that the facts are properly checked.  When the guild asked its members: “Do you think your news outlet spends enough time and energy making sure that your audience has enough information to make sound judgments on issues relevant to public life?”  72% said “Not enough” or “Not nearly enough.”

Small wonder MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezknski recently tried to burn a script on air in frustration over being asked to lead the day’s news with a story about Paris Hilton rather than one about Bush’s strategy in Iraq.

For an old-timer like me – who’s had his run and is on his last lap – this is all very sad.  For young journalists it’s all very confusing.  That’s exactly what 25 year old Steven Barrie-Anthony wrote in a recent blog on The Huffington Post (for which he wasn’t paid.)  Anthony had worked for a spell at The Los Angeles Times before winning a scholarship for further study, and now he’s wrestling with a multi-media future.

Here’s what he writes:

It’s a terribly confusing time to be a young journalist, but you won’t hear many of us complaining out loud.  Jobs are too precious, corporate owners too fickle….The subtext to any conversation about journalism, these days, is the effect of the internet on newspapers and society in general.  There’s a little question that the Web will prove deadly to major newspapers unless we figure out how to make real money from online content.  Among journalists and media watchers, there’s a tendency to either bemoan this development as the end of days, or to worship the ambiguous phoenix emerging from theses ashes.  The Net is either a democratizing force that will transcend fractious boundaries and borders and move us toward Buddhist-style interconnection, or a barrage of contagious subjectivity masquerading as objectivity and undermining the very concept of truth. 

As young journalists, we straddle an interesting divide: we understand well and often trumpet the virtues of traditional journalism, and yet we sheepishly get much of our news online or via The Daily Show.  We have MySpace accounts, write blogs and read them, and have come to view Google as an extension of the brain.  At this very moment I’m ignoring the advice of a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist friend, who maintains that writing for The Huffington Post without getting paid is a bad use of time and energy.  My inky side understands the problem with journalists working gratis – it devalues the trade – while another part of me thirsts for the immediacy, the intimacy that this venue provides….

This is clearly the worst of times. 

On the other hand, I find myself delighted by all the chaos and ferment.  This point could be argued that the inventions of the quill and scroll, the printing press, the typewriter, the mimeograph, the ballpoint pen, the personal computer, are in sum only half the equation in a large transformation to a written and shared conception of self and world.  Now that the Internet has completed the circuit, given everybody access to an audience, the point could be argued that society has been so dramatically altered that traditional journalism has been rendered largely moot. 

Could this be, I dare say it, the best of times?

At almost three times his age I would no doubt strike that 25-year-old as a codger, but in fact I appreciate the tug he’s experiencing.   I’ll make a confession to you.  I start my day with Josh Marshall and end it with Jon Stewart – and both of them were on my first broadcast this year.  Josh Marshall because his talkingpointsmemo.com drove the story of the firings of the federal prosecutors; without the muscle and money of the mainstream press Josh relies instead on a small under-funded network of journalists whose single-mindedness is a thing to behold and imitate.   Jon Stewart, because Mark Twain is alive and well on Comedy Central holding the powers-that-be accountable to intelligence and wit.

Whether it’s the best of times or the worst, I can’t say. But I remember from my seminary studies that as Adam and Eve were on their way out of the Garden he reportedly said to her:  “My Dear, we live in a time of transition.”

So in the few minutes left I want to challenge this association to lead the way in making sure journalists can do the best of things in the worst of times.   We need to call on our field, our craft, our allies, sympathizers and the public at large to address what is at stake in this new world order – because the market will not deliver to democracy the news we need to survive.

The odds are formidable.  While I was at CBS back in the 1980s, I saw firsthand the deleterious impact of Reagan-era deregulation – when television, according to the FCC chairman at the time Mark Fowler, was just another appliance, a “toaster with pictures.”  Accompanying that first major wave of deregulation were changes in the ownership of the then-three major broadcast networks.  We know that as a result of those takeovers, electronic journalism took a serious hit, with investigative reporting and serious long-form documentary programming eliminated and overseas bureaus closed.  There have been more recent developments – from broadcast television to newspaper cross-ownership to broadband communications.  You heard Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein talk about that this afternoon.  By the way, no finer public servants more consistently do battle for the public and the fate of journalism than those two.  Talk about odds!  The commission is daily besieged for favors on behalf of the corporations that largely control our media and telecommunications systems.  These industries spend even more than the oil and gas lobby to influence the government.  It’s hard to fight their money as they maneuver to shape public policy.  As a result we have fewer owners of the key media outlets – a trend now extending into new media as well.  In addition to Murdoch’s acquisition of MySpace, we have Google buying the country’s most important digital video distribution service, YouTube.  Google is also in the process of further expanding its advertising power with the purchase of Doubleclick, another leading online advertising battle.  Viacom, Time Warner, Microsoft, Yahoo and others have been collectively spending hundreds of millions to strengthen their position in the new world of broadband interactive media.  In fact, there has been breathtaking – and largely unreported – spending to acquire or merge with companies in the media and telecommunications field. In 2006, there were $72 billion worth of mergers of acquisition in the entertainment and media sector alone, along with an array of corporate alliances involving media, technology and distribution companies.  In the first half of this year, $33.4 billion worth of mergers and acquisitions have taken place in the marketing and advertising field, according to Advertising Age.  The key to the media future, it seems, is controlling and utilizing consumer data for targeted audiences. So much of how the media will service us in the digital era is being influenced by the needs of interactive marketing – to track us wherever we are and to create ever evolving digital profiles of our interests so that they can send us personalized and powerful interactive messages designed to get us to behave in ways they wish.  Today it’s buying an automobile; soon it will be a candidate for public office.

You will be interested in is what Advertising Age had to say about Murdoch’s recent coup:

A News Corp-owned Wall Street Journal begs a question: in a world where the attention of consumers and hence advertisers is divided among video games, American Idol, and the like, can a business built solely to deliver news—especially long, serious articles about complicated topics – remain independent and successful?….the nation’s leading purveyor of business information, still an agenda-setter for the planet’s biggest economy, becomes a cog in a vertically integrated, multinational creator and distributor of entertainment, a machine engineered to pump out synergies such as The Simpsons movie or, more scarily, that aborted O.J. Simpson extravaganza, rather than Pulitzers….sure, Mr. Murdoch will pump capital into the paper, allowing it to build out its international operation, but some are predicting that one effect of that bulking up could be to further his business goals, especially in China.  And Journal reportage, now a means to the purist end of watch-dogging the business community, will be called upon also to add more grist to that massive multimedia content mill, in the form of the Fox business network—which is already being positioned as more pro-business than CNBC, absurd as that sounds. 

And in a society where capitalism and corporations have more power than any other aggregation of human beings, the watchdog role of the business press, becomes as essential as the watchdogs to Washington.  Where, then, does journalism stand as the future of our media world is being determined by such investment and the rapid development of business models to better target us primarily as consumers instead of citizens? Ironically, many of these new media concerns offer their users access to news and information that comes from traditional news outlets.  A new study by the Center for Media Research this week listed the “top global news destinations” on the Web, which included Yahoo and Google, along with CNN, Tribune, Gannett, ABC news, Fox, and The New York Times.  We know the source for much of the news online – and that’s the day-to-day reporting that largely occurs in the nation’s daily newspapers and wire services.  Who is going to pay for those reporters?

Reporting is so essential to the food chain of democracy, we can’t just throw up our hands and say that newspapers and professional journalism have to accept a fate where they become more marginalized – or made irrelevant from changes in attitudes and behaviors about media, especially from young people.  There’s no question we have already entered a new age – one that many of you are familiar with and are engaged in helping develop responsibly.  Even an old codger like me knows that the majority of America’s connected young people now regularly log on to social networks and have incorporated their cell phones deeply into their DNA;   I have grandchildren who don’t let me forget.  The emergence of so-called user-generated media is a positive sign that the next generation sees itself as creators of content – perhaps even as citizen or professional journalists, members of networks similar to the one Josh Marshall has created for talkingpointsmemo.com.

But if in the future journalism remains a vital profession, secure in its mission to report on reality without fear or favor, we need a serious, widespread, sustained public campaign for the press in democracy.  You can be in the vanguard to engage the field in its mission – and to help educate and inform the public about the consequences and choices regarding the fate of journalism.

My friend Jeff Chester, who runs the public interest group Digital Democracy, dug up and sent me a copy of your code of ethics.  You say it plainly: “free expression should be nurtured and protected at all levels. …AEJMC members should work to improve the understanding of free expression intellectually, historically, and legally…to serve as the voice and support of free expression on their campuses and in their communities….to conduct constructive evaluation of the professional marketplace…act as media critics…[and] provide a voice in discussions of media accountability.”

It’s time for a public debate to help light up this crossroad, one that will fully take us from the old media world even more fully into the new digital.

We can’t look to the conglomerates to tell us what’s really going on.  Except on the business page, the news media has been largely silent about the deregulation and media mergers I previously discussed.  During the debate on the deregulatory 1996 Telecommunications Act, which included a massive giveaway of public property – the airwaves – to the TV networks and other broadcasters, television virtually ignored the story.  It was newspapers without any broadcast interests that took a stand editorially against the giveaway – versus the many papers that were either silent or supported the beltway deal to better promote their corporate agendas.

So we need to go to the public to affirm foursquare that journalism matters.  Whatever our failings, we must remind the country of the crucial role investigative reporting plays; how news bureaus abroad are a form of  “national security”  that can be relied on to tell us what our government won’t.  That as America grows more diverse, it’s essential to have reporters, editors, producers and writers who abundantly reflect those new voices and concerns.  That the independent, truth seeking, damn-the-torpedoes-and-full-speed- ahead attitude of journalists is crucial to fulfilling America’s promise as a more equitable and democratic society.

I know.  I know.  We’re up against the odds.   Ed Wassermann of Washington and Lee writes of the “the palpable sense of decline, of rot, of a loss of spine, determination, gutlessness” that pervades the field today.  David Simon goes further.  The former Baltimore Sun reporter covered urban life so brilliantly his work inspired books and TV series such as Homicide and The Wire.  Now he expresses increasing cynicism “about the ability of daily journalism to affect any kind of meaningful change.”  And he concludes: “One of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little.”


But Hrant Dink thought journalism matters.  He had edited the only Armenian newspaper in turkey.  “I want to write and ask how we can change this historical conflict into peace,” he told the Committee to Protect Journalists.  Dink was the target of death threats from nationalists who saw his work as an act of treachery.  And on January 19th of this year, Hrant Dink was shot and killed outside his newspaper’s offices.  Because journalism matters.

Sahar Hussein Ali al-Haydari thought journalism matters.  Targeted twice for abduction last year, she had recovered after surgery following an assassin’s attempt on her life.  Later in the year a gunman killed her fiancé.   Al Haydari was investigating a suicide attack on a police station when she, too, was shot to death.  Not knowing she was dead, a source called to give her more information for the story.  One of the gunmen actually answered her phone, saying to the caller: “She went to Hell.”  Because journalism matters.

Luis Carlos Barbon Filho thought journalism matters.  He was 37, a reporter for ten years, who drew attention in 2003 with an investigation into a child prostitution ring for his daily paper Realidade.   His work resulted in the arrests and conviction of four businessmen, five local politicians, and a waiter – only the waiter is still in jail.  After he was forced to shut down his paper because of financial problems, two masked assailants shot him twice at close range, leaving his wife a widow and his two children fatherless. Because journalism matters.

It mattered to Miguel Perez Julca, the popular Peruvian radio commentator.  His radio program – El Informativo del PuebloBulletin of the People – uncovered allegations of government corruption connected to local crime.  For weeks he received death threats on his cell phone.  Then, on March 17, two hooded gunmen shot and killed Miguel Perez Julca in front of his wife and children.  Because journalism matters.

Chauncey Bailey believes journalism matters.  The editor of the Oakland Post was murdered a week ago on the streets of his city.  The 19-year-old suspect told police he ambushed and killed Bailey for writing negative stories about a local bakery that may have been responsible for more questionable activities than baking bread.  1,500 people turned out this week for his funeral, believing that journalism matters.

Tell your students it matters.  Tell it over and again.  So that no matter the medium or the technology or the odds, some of them will go out to do their damndest to make sure it does.  What more can we ask?

‘The Happy Warrior’, June 23, 1998

I have a hard time imaging my life without the impact of Hubert Humphrey. He was the friend who toasted me on my 30th birthday and the mentor who nurtured my political sentiments.  Some of you will remember that it was Senator Humphrey who first proposed that young Americans be offered the chance to serve their country abroad in peace and not just in war.  Newly arrived in Washington, I read his speeches on the subject and liberally borrowed from them for the speech I helped to write for Senator Lyndon B. Johnson during the campaign of 1960 when, at the University of Nebraska, he proposed “a youth corps.”  Two weeks later, on the eve of the election, Senator John F. Kennedy called for the creation of the Peace Corps.  This speech, too, owed its spiritual lineage to Hubert Humphrey.After the 1960 election I finagled my way on to the Peace Corps Task Force, where I worked with Senator Humphrey on the legislation that turned the idea from rhetoric to reality.  President Kennedy then nominated me to be the Peace Corps’ Deputy Director.  The nomination ran into trouble on the Senate floor when Senator Frank Lausche announced that “a 28-year-old boy recently out of college” was being given too much responsibility, too fast, at a salary far too high for someone so green behind the ears.  Now, Senator Lausche was probably right about that (although I had informed him during the committee hearings that I was not a mere 28, I was 28 and a half!), but it didn’t matter; he was no match for Hubert Humphrey, who rushed to the floor of the Senate not only to defend me but to champion the cause of youth in public service:I know this man well,” Senator Humphrey said of me.  “I have spent countless hours with him on the Peace Corps legislation.  He was in my office hour after hour working out the details of the legislation.  He was at the Foreign Relations Committee Room during the period of the hearings on the legislation and the markup on the legislation.  If I know any one member of this Government, I know Bill Moyers. (Some of you who knew Hubert H. Humphrey knew there should have been a fourth “H” in his name – for hyperbole.  But the hyperbole felt good to those on whom it was showered).And then, Hubert Humphrey took off, his words rocketing across the Senate chamber: Did not Pitt, the younger, as a rather young man, prove his competence as Prime Minister of Great Britain?  He did not have to be 50, 60, or 65.  He was in his twenties.  I invite the attention of my colleagues to the fact that most of the great heroes of the Revolutionary War period…were in their twenties and early thirties…that many great men in history, from Alexander to Napoleon, achieved greatness when they were in their twenties … that the average age of the signers of our Declaration of Independence was 36.  I do not wish to use any invidious comparisons, but have seen people who have lived a long time who have not learned a great deal, and I have seen people who have lived only a short time who have learned a very great deal.  I think we should judge persons, not by the calendar, but by their caliber, by the mind and heart and proven capacity…My good friend from Ohio[Senator Laushe] said that when this nomination comes to the floor of the Senate he will be here to speak against [it]… Just as surely, I say the Senator from Minnesota will be here to speak in favor of [it].”

He was, and he did.  And I have been indebted to him ever since.  I wish he knew my grandchildren are growing up in his state, and I wish he could see who is here tonight to commemorate one of the great acts of courage in politics, when the young mayor of Minneapolis turned the course of American history.

 It was July of 1948 – three weeks after the Republicans triumphantly nominated Thomas E. Dewey and began measuring the White House for new drapes.  The dispirited Democrats met in Philadelphia resigned to renominating their accidental president, Harry Truman.  Truman had surprised many Americans earlier that year when he had demanded Congress pass a strong civil rights package, but now he and his advisers had changed their tune.  A strong civil rights plank in the party platform, they were convinced, would antagonize the South and destroy Truman’s chances for re-election.  The specter of a bitter fight dividing the convention was all the more frightening to the Democrats since for the first time television cameras were making their debut on the convention floor and the deliberations would be carried to the country.  So the party leaders decided to back away from a strong civil rights stand and offer instead an innocuous plank not likely to offend the South.

The mayor of Minneapolis disagreed.  Hubert Humphrey was 37.  After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota he and his young wife Muriel Buck had gone to Louisiana for Humphrey to earn his master’s degree.  What they saw there of the “deplorable daily indignities” visited upon Southern blacks was significantly responsible for his long commitment to the politics of equal opportunity.  He came back to Minneapolis to run for mayor, lost, ran a second time, and won.  Under his leadership the city council established the country’s first enforceable Municipal Fair Employment Practices Commission.  He sent 600 volunteers walking door to door, to factories and businesses, schools and churches, to expose discrimination previously ignored.  Their report, said Mayor Humphrey, was “a mirror that might getMinneapolisto look at itself.”  He saw to it that doors opened to blacks, Jews, and Indians.  He suspended a policeman for calling a traffic violator “a dirty Jew” and even established a human relations course for police officers at the University of Minnesota.  What Hubert Humphrey preached about civil rights, he practiced.  And what he practiced, he preached.

He arrived at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia fifty years ago with convictions born of experience.   As a charismatic spokesman for the liberal wing of the party he was named to the platform committee, and when after a ferocious debate that very committee voted down a strong civil rights plank in favor of the weaker one supported by the White House, Humphrey agonized over what to do.  Should he defy the party and carry the fight to a showdown on the convention floor?  The old bulls of his own party said no.  “Who does this pip-squeak think he is?” asked one powerful Democrat.  President Truman referred to him as one of those “crackpots” who couldn’t possibly understand what would happen if the south left the party.  It was a thorny dilemma.*  If Humphrey forced the convention to amend the platform in favor of a stronger civil rights plank, the delegates might refuse, not only setting back the fledgling civil rights movement but making a laughing stock of Hubert Humphrey and spoiling his own race for the Senate later that same year.  On the other hand, if he took the fight to the floor and won, the southern delegates might walk out and cost Harry Truman the Presidency.

 He wrote in his memoir: “In retrospect, the decision should have been easy. The plank was morally right and politically right. … [But] clearly, it would have grave repercussions on our lives: it could make me an outcast to many people; and it could even end my chances for a life of public service.  I didn’t want to split the party; I didn’t want to ruin my career, to go from mayor to `pipsqueak’ to oblivion.  But I did want to make the case for a clear-cut commitment to a strong civil rights program.”

Years later he recalled the dilemma in a conversation with an old friend, who said to him, “That sounds like the politics of a nunnery – you’d rather have been right than been president.” “Not at all,” Humphrey shot back. “I’d rather be right and be president.”  Which might explain in part, said the friend, why he never was.

Here’s exactly what the plank said: “We call upon Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental rights: 1) the right of full and equal political participation; 2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; 3) the right of security of person; and 4) the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.”

It sounds like so little now.  All people, no matter what their skin color, he was saying, had the same right to vote, to work, to live safe from harm, to serve their country.  But it’s hard to remember now, half a century later, how radical those 50 words really were.  In 1948 the South was still a different country.  Below the Mason and Dixon line – or, as some blacks called it, the Smith and Wesson line – segregation of the races was rigorously upheld by law and custom, vigorously protected by violence if necessary.  To most whites, this system was their “traditional way of life,” and they defended it with a holy fervor.  To most black, “tradition” meant terror, oppression, humiliation, and, sometimes, death.

Revisit with me what life was like for black Americans in the late nineteen-forties, when Hubert Humphrey was facing the choice between dishonoring his conscience and becoming a pipsqueak.  Every day, all over Americabut particularly in the South, black people were living lives of quiet desperation.  The evidence was everywhere.

 You see it in the numbers, the raw measurements of the quality of life for black people.  Flip open the Census Bureau’s volumes of historical statistics and look under any category for 1948 or thereabouts.  Health, for instance.  Black people died on average six or seven years earlier than whites.  Nearly twice as many black babies as white babies died in their first year.  And more than three times as many black mothers as white mothers died in childbirth.

Or take education.  Young white adults had completed a median of just over twelve years of school, while blacks their age had not gotten much past eighth grade.  Among black people seventy-five or older – those who had been born during or just after slavery times – fewer than half of them had even finished fourth grade.

Recall the standard of living.  The median family income for whites was $3310, for blacks just half that.  Sixty percent of white agricultural workers were full owners of their farms and about a quarter were tenants, while for blacks, the numbers were almost exactly opposite: only a quarter of blacks owned their own farms, and 70% were tenants.

You see the ethos of the time in popular culture, full of ‘cartoony’ creatures like Stepin Fetchit, Amos `n’ Andy, and Buckwheat, but you could look till your eyes ached for a single strong, admirable, human black character in a mainstream book or movie.  There’s a scene in one of the most beloved movies ever made, Casablanca, in which Bogart’s lost love, the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, walks into Rick’s Cafe and says to Claude Rains, “The boy who’s playing the piano – somewhere I’ve seen him…”  She’s referring, of course, to Dooley Wilson, who at nearly fifty was almost twice Bergman’s age, but in those days, to white eyes, it was okay to call a black man a “boy”.

You see it in a slim book written by Ray Sprigle, an adventurous reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  With a shaven head and a deep Florida  suntan he traveled through the south in 1948 posing as a black man to see what life was really like on the other side of the color line.  Throughout his trip his black hosts told him horrific stories of indignities, humiliations, lynchings, and murders.  While nothing untoward happened to Sprigle himself, it was because, as he put it, “I gave nobody a chance.  That was part of my briefing: ‘Don’t jostle a white man. Don’t, if you value your safety, brush a white woman on the sidewalk.’ So I saw to it that I never got in the way of one of the master race.  I almost wore out my cap, dragging it off my shaven skull whenever I addressed a white man.  I `sirred’ everybody, right and left, black, white and in between.  I took no chances.  I was more than careful to be a `good nigger’.”

You see it in the work of even such thoughtful observers as Willie Morris, who in his memoir of growing up in Mississippi during the ’40s recalls his complicated and mysterious relationship with the black people of his town, a relationship that warped and scarred both black and white.  As a small child, he says, he had learned the special vocabulary of racism:  that “‘keeping house like a nigger’ was to keep it dirty and unswept.  ‘Behaving like a nigger’ was to stay out at all hours and to have several wives or husbands.  A ‘nigger street’ was unpaved and littered with garbage.” He writes of casual cruelties like the time he hid in the bushes until a tiny black child waked by, then leaped out to kick and cuff the child.  “My heart was beating furiously, in terror and a curious pleasure,” Morris wrote.  “For a while I was happy with this act, and my head was strangely light and giddy.  Then later, the more I thought about it coldly, I could hardly bear my secret shame.”  In the small town where I grew up inEast Texas, there were high school kids – classmates of mine – who made a sport out of ‘nigger-knocking.’  Driving along a country road they would extend a broom handle out of the rear window at just the right moment and angle to deliver a stunning blow to an unsuspecting black pedestrian.  Then the would go celebrate over a few beers.  While I never participated, it was my secret shame that I never tried to stop them.

 There was a study in 1946 by the Social Science Institute at Fisk University, the black college inNashville, about white attitudes toward black people. In interview after interview, average citizens throughout the south never talked of overt violence or flaming hatred – but their detached and imperturbable calm was in some ways even more grotesque than physical violence.  Listen to their voices:

A woman teacher in  Kentucky: “We have no problem of equality because they are in their native environment.  If we permitted them to be equal they wouldn’t respect us.  We never have any riots because their interests are looked after by the white people.”

A housewife in North Carolina: “They are as lovable as anyone in a lower order of life could be … I had to go see an old sick woman yesterday.  We feel toward them like we do about our pets.  I have no horror of a black man.  Why, some of them are the nicest old black niggers.  They are better than a barrel of monkeys for amusement.”

A businessman in North Carolina: “I have a feeling of aversion toward a rat or snake.  They are harmless but I don’t like them.  I feel the same toward a nigger.  I wouldn’t kill one but there it is.”

Or a mechanic in  Georgia: “During the war I was stationed at a northern naval yard.  The southern Negro was given the same privileges as white men.  He was not used to it, and it ruined a good Negro.  In the south he is treated as a nigger and is at home here.  He knows this treatment is the best for him. … We have a good group around here.  It’s years and years since we’ve had a lynching.  It’s not necessary to lynch them.  The sheriffs in this county take more care of the darky than the white man.”

By now these words are making you twist and cringe in your seats.  I have trouble forcing them out of my mouth.  But these words were the coin of the realm in 1948.  After more than two centuries of slavery and nearly another of Jim Crow segregation, black people were still struggling to realize their most basic rights as human beings, let alone as citizens.  The framers of the Constitution made their notorious decision in 1787 that for census purposes each black American – nearly all of whom were, of course, slaves – would count as three-fifths of a person.  In the minds of many white Southerners in 1948, that fraction still seemed about right. Yet something was beginning to change.  The steadfast but quiet resistance long practiced by many southern blacks was now being strengthened by a new development: thousands of black veterans were coming home from Europe and the Pacific.

 These men had fought for their country. Some had even fought for the right to fight for their country, not just to dig ditches and drive trucks and peel potatoes for their country.  They had served in a segregated army that had accepted their labor and their sacrifice without accepting their humanity.  Some of them had come home heroes, others had come home embittered, and many had also come home determined that things would be different now. They had earned the respect of their fellow Americans and it was time they got it.  That meant starting at the ballot box – a tool both practical and symbolic in the struggle to ensure their status as full citizens.

All over the South, where for decades blacks had been systematically harassed, intimidated, or overtaxed to keep them from voting, intense registration drives for the 1946 campaigns swelled the rolls with first-time black voters.  And the white supremacists were fighting back.  Sometimes it was brute and random violence: in  Mississippi a group of black veterans was dumped off a truck and beaten up.  In Georgia two black men, one a veteran, were out driving with their wives when they were ambushed and shot by a mob of whites.  The mob then shot the women, too, because they had witnessed the crime.  In South Carolina, a black veteran returning home by bus after fifteen months in the South Pacific angered the driver with some minor act that struck the white man as uppity.  At the next stop the soldier was taken off the bus by the local chief of police and beaten so badly he went blind.  Permanently.  Under pressure from the NAACP, something unusual happened: the chief was put on trial.  Then normalcy returned.  The chief was acquitted, to the cheers of the courtroom.

But the demagogues also made deliberate efforts to stop the black vote by whatever means necessary.  In  Georgia, Gene Talmadge ran for governor and won, on a frankly, even joyfully racist platform.  “If I get a Negro vote it will be an accident,” he declared, and his machine figured out ways to challenge and purge the rolls of most of them.  The brave black voters who went to the polls anyway often paid dearly for their rights; one, another veteran, the only black to vote in Taylor County, was shot and killed as he sat on his porch three days after the primary and a sign posted on a nearby black church boasted, “The first nigger to vote will never vote again.”

In Mississippi, the racist Theodore Bilbo was re-elected to the Senate with the help of a campaign of threats and violence that kept most black people home on Election Day.  “The way to keep the nigger from the polls is to see him the night before,” Bilbo was fond of saying.  But this time black voters fought back and filed a complaint with the Senate.  Nearly two hundred black Mississippians trekked to Jackson– and its segregated courtroom – to testify about the myriad pressures, both subtle and brutal, that had kept them from voting.  Their eloquent testimony failed to convince the honorable members.  Bilbo was exonerated by the majority of the committee members – despite (or perhaps because of) having used the word “nigger” seventy-nine times during his own testimony.  It was a toxic word, a poisonous and deadly word.  And it was still prevalent as a term of derision in the early 1960′s.  In August 1964, following the death of his father, the writer James Baldwin said on television: “My father is dead:  And he had a terrible life.  Because, at the bottom of his heart, he believed what people said of him.  He believed he was a nigger.”

 When Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota stood up at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia and urged the delegates to support his civil rights plank, he could have had no doubt how ferociously most southern delegates would oppose his words – and how desperately all southern citizens, white and black, really needed to hear them.  It was a short speech and it took less than ten minutes to deliver – doubtless some kind of record for the man whose own wife reportedly once told him, “Hubert, you don’t have to be interminable to be immortal.”

Most of the time he couldn’t help being interminable.  Someone said that when God passed out the glands, Hubert took two helpings.  He set records for the number of subjects he could approach simultaneously with an open mouth.  One day, at a press conference in California, his first three answers to questions lasted, respectively, 14, 18, and 16 minutes.  No one dared ask him a fourth question for fear of missing dinner!

But in Philadelphia in 1948, Hubert Humphrey spoke briefly.  And these not interminable words became immortal because they were right.  He had agonized, he had weighed the odds as any politician must – he was a politician, and this was a time when the way to get ahead was not to go back on your party.  But now he was listening to his conscience, not his party, and he was appealing to the best, instead of the basest, instincts of his country, and his words rolled through the convention hall like “a swelling wave.”

There are those who say to you – we are rushing this issue of civil rights.  I say we are 172 years late.  There are those who say – this issue of civil rights is an infringement on states rights.  The time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

We know what happened when he finished.  A mighty roar went up from the crowd.  Delegates stood and whooped and shouted and whistled; a forty-piece band played in the aisles, and the tumult subsided only when Chairman Sam Rayburn ordered the lights dimmed throughout the hall.  The platform committee was then overruled and Humphrey’s plank voted in by a wide margin, and all of Mississippi’s delegate and half of Alabama’s stalked out in protest.  The renegades later formed the Dixiecrat party on a platform calling for “the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race,” and nominated Strom Thurmond for their candidate.  “There’s not enough troops in the Army to break down segregation and admit the Negro into our homes, our eating places, our swimming pools, and our theaters,” Thurmond declared on the campaign trail, and a majority of the voters in South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana agreed with him.

 But Harry Truman didn’t lose.  The Minneapolis Star got it right the morning after the convention when it said Humphrey’s speech “had lifted the Truman campaign out of the rut of just another political drive to a crusade.”  Harry Truman won – and the southern walkout to protest civil rights actually ended up helping the civil rights agenda.  If a Democrat could go on to win the presidency anyway, even without the solid South behind him, then the segregationist stranglehold on the party was clearly weaker than advertised, and even the most timid politician could see that supporting civil rights might not be a political death sentence after all.  Not bad work for the mayor from Minneapolis.  The late Murray Kempton once wrote that “a political convention is just not a place from which you can come away with any trace of faith in human nature.”  This one was different, because Hubert Humphrey kept the faith.  There were other forces at work of course.  Just this week the Star Tribune said that it would be misleading to suggest the democratic ship turned on a few eloquent phrases from a young upstart, or that the party had experienced a moral epiphany.  Politics is rarely that simple or intentions that noble.  There were other forces at work – the need of America during the Cold War to put its best face forward, the need for Democrats to consolidate their hold on the northern industrial states, thje witness of those returning black veterans.  But it would be equally wrong to underestimate what Hubert Humphrey did.  An idea whose time has come can pass like the wind on the sea, rippling the surface without disturbing the depths, if there is no voice to incarnate and proclaim it.  In a democracy a moral movement must have its political moment to crystallize and enter the bloodstream of the nation, so there can be no turning back.  This was such a moment, and Humphrey embodied it.

But 1948 wasn’t the end of the struggle.  It turned out to be just the beginning.  Sixteen years later, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson, another accidental president, staked his reputation on getting a comprehensive Civil Rights bill passed into law.   And Hubert Humphrey, now Senator Humphrey, was the man assigned the gargantuan challenge of shepherding the bill through Congress in the face of a resolute southern filibuster.  Once again I was privileged to work with him.  By now I had become President Johnson’s policy assistant, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was our chief imperative.

By then the face of the segregated South had changed – somewhat.  The landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education had given legal aid and comfort to the long moral crusade to open the public schools to all races, while courageous activists were putting their own bodies on the line in determined efforts to desegregate the buses, the lunch counters, the beaches, the rest rooms, the swimming pools, and the universities of the South.

 But all the court decisions and sit-ins in the world had not changed the determination of the diehard segregationists to defend their vision of the South “by any means necessary,” and the few federal laws on the books were too weak to stop them.  A lot of this story, while awful, is familiar; we may think we have a pretty good idea what was at stake when Hubert Humphrey made his second great stand for civil rights.  We’ve seen the photographs and the television images;  we know about the ugly mobs taunting the quiet black teenagers outside the schools and inside the Woolworth, we know about the beatings and attack dogs and fire hoses, we know about the murders.  During Freedom Summer – the very same summer the Senate completed work on the civil rights bill – Mississippi endured 35 shootings, the bombing or burning of 65 homes and churches, the arrest of one thousand activists and the beating of eighty, and the killing of three volunteers with the active connivance of the Neshoba County sheriff’s department, their bodies bulldozed into an earthen dam.

But we don’t know as much about another, more silent tactic of white resistance that was just as oppressive, and in some ways maybe even more effective than the violence.  I mean the spying, the smearing, the sabotage, the subversion, all carried out at the time by order of the highest officials in states across the south.

We were reminded of the twisted depths of official segregation just this spring, when after decades of court battles Mississippiwas ordered to open the secret files of the State Sovereignty Commission.  This was an official government agency, bountifully funded with taxpayer money, lavished with almost unlimited police and investigative powers, and charged with upholding the separation of the races.  Most of the southern states had similar agencies, but Mississippi had a well-deserved reputation as the worst of the bad.

I have read some of those Sovereignty Commission files.  And I understand how a longtime activist in Jackson could recently tell a reporter: “These files betray the absolute paranoia and craziness of the government in those times.  This was a police state.”

The Commission devoted astonishing amounts of effort, time and money to snooping into the private lives of any citizens who supported civil rights, who might be supporting civil rights, or whom they suspected of stepping over the color line in any way.  It tracked down rumors that this northern volunteer had VD and that one was gay.  Its staff combed through letters to the editor in local and national newspapers, and wrote indignant personal replies to anyone who held a contrary opinion.  It sent agents to a Joan Baez concert at a black college to count how many white people came, and posted people at NAACP meetings to write down the license numbers of every car in the parking lot.  It stole lists of names from Freedom Summer activists and asked the House Un-American Activities Committee to check on them.  It went through the trash at the Freedom Houses and paid undercover informants to report on leadership squabbles and whether the white women were fornicating with the black men.

The most incriminating documents were purged long ago, but buried deep in those files is still ample evidence of violence and brutality.  I am haunted by the case of a black veteran named Clyde Kennard.  When he insisted on applying to the local college, one for whites only, he was framed on trumped-up charges of stealing chicken feed and sent to Parchman, the infamous prison farm, for seven years.  While there he developed colon cancer and for months was denied treatment.  Eventually, after prominent activists brought public pressure to bear on the governor, Kennard was released, but it was too late.  In July 1963, a year before the passage of the Civil Rights bill, Clyde Kennard died following surgery.  He was 36 years old.

 Reading these files you are struck not only by the brutality but the banality of the evil.  You find in them the story of a divorced mother of two who was investigated after the Commission heard a rumor that her third child was fathered by a black man.  An agent arrived to interview witnesses, confront the man, and look at the child.  “I had a weak feeling in the pit of my stomach,” he reported; he and the sheriff “were not qualified to say it was a part Negro child, but we could say it was not 100 percent Caucasian.”  After that visit, the woman’s two older boys were removed from her custody.

You can read in these files about how a local legislator reported to the Commission that a married white woman had given birth to a baby girl with “a mulatto complexion, dark hair that has a tendency to ‘kink’, dark hands, and light palms.” A doctor and an investigator were immediately dispatched to examine the child, then shelled out $62 for blood tests to determine its paternity.  The tests came back inconclusive but a couple of months later shots were fired at night into the family’s home and a threatening letter signed by then KKK, referring to “your wife and Negro child,” showed up on their doorstep.  They moved out immediately.

-It was crazy – and it was official.  This was the rampant and unchecked abuse of state power turned against citizens of the United States of America.  And this was the southern background music to Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights bill, which called for the integration of public accommodations, authorized the attorney general to sue school districts and other segregated facilities, outlawed discrimination in employment, and further protected voting rights.  When Hubert Humphrey accepted the assignment as floor manager for this bill, he knew how crucial as well as how difficult it would be to gather enough votes to end the southern filibuster.  He also knew his own career was again on the line, as LBJ was using the assignment to test Humphrey’s worth as potentially his vice presidential candidate.

The filibuster began on March 9 and went on, it seemed, forever.  But Humphrey was prepared and organized.  A couple of times during those long months of debate I slipped into the gallery of the Senate to watch him lead the fight.  The same deep fire of justice that burned in him at the 1948 convention, burned within him still.  He was utterly determined.  He held regular strategy meetings.  He issued a daily newsletter.  He enlisted one colleague to focus on each title of the bill.  He schmoozed and bargained with and coaxed and charmed the key men whose support he needed.  He persuaded the Republican Leader, Everett Dirksen, to retreat from at least 40 amendments that would have gutted the bill.  He orchestrated the support of religious organizations (until it seemed the corridors and galleries of Congress were overflowing with ministers, priests, and rabbis).  “The secret of passing the bill,” he said, “is the prayer groups.”  But the open secret was Hubert Humphrey.  As Robert Mann reminds us in The Walls of Jericho, his good humor and boundless optimism prevented the debates from dissolving into personal recrimination.  Once again he kept the faith.  As he told his longtime supporters at the ADA after more than two months of frustration and delay, “Not too many Americans walked with us in 1948, but year after year the marching throng has grown.  In the next few weeks the strongest civil rights bill ever enacted in our history will become the law of the land.  It is not saying too much, I believe, to say that it will amount to a second Emancipation Proclamation.  As it is enforced, it will free our Negro fellow-citizens of the shackles that have bound them for generations.  As it is enforced, it will free us, of the white majority, of shackles of our own – for no man can be fully free while his fellow man lies in chains.”

 As we saw, his skills and commitment paid off.  Seventy-five days later, on June 10, the Senate finally voted for cloture with four votes to spare.  ACaliforniasenator, ravaged with cancer, was wheeled in to vote and could manage to vote yes only by pointing to his eye.  After cloture ended the filibuster, the bill passed by a wide margin.  On July 2 President Johnson signed it.

During all that time Hubert Humphrey broke only once – on the afternoon of June 17, two days before the historic vote.   Summoned from the Senate floor to take an urgent call from Muriel, he learned their son Robert had been diagnosed with a malignant growth in this throat and must have immediate surgery.  There in his office, Hubert Humphrey wept.  As his son struggled for his life and the father’s greatest legislative triumph was in sight, Hubert Humphrey realized how intermingled are the triumphs and tragedies of life.

We talked about this the last time I saw him. It was early in the summer of 1976. He came to our home onLong Islandwhere I interviewed him for public television.  We talked about many things:  about his father who set such high standards for the boy he named Hubert Horatio; about his granddaughter Cindy (a little pixie, he called her); about waking up on the morning after he had lost to Richard Nixon by fewer than 511,000 votes out of 63 million cast; about the tyrannies of working for Lyndon Johnson (Said Humphrey of Johnson: “He often reminded me of my father-in-law and the way he used to treat chilblains.  Grandpa Buck would get some chilblains and he said the best way to treat them was put your feet first in cold water, then in hot water.  And sometimes [with LBJ] I’d feel myself in hot water, then I’d be over in cold water. I’d be the household hero for a week and then I’d be in the dog house.”)

We talked about the necessity of compromise and the obligation to stand firm against the odds, and the difficulty of making the distinction.  We talked about the life-threatening illness he had himself recently endured and what kept him going through the vicissitudes of life.  Growing up out here on the great northern plains had made a difference, he told me:

I used to think as a boy that in the Milky Way each star was a little place, a sort of light for somebody who had died…I used to go pick up the milk – we didn’t have milk delivery in those days – I’d go over to Dreyer’s Dairy and pick up a gallon of milk – I can remember those cold, wintery nights and blue sky, and I’d look up and see that Milky Way and I’d think every time anybody died they got a star up there.  And all the big stars were for the big people.  You know, like Caesar or Lincoln.  It was a childhood fantasy.  But it was a comforting thing.

He was called “The Happy Warrior” because he loved politics and because of his natural ebullience and resiliency.  I asked him: “Some people say you’re too happy and that this is not a happy world.”  He replied: “Well, maybe I can make it a little more happy…I realize and sense the realities of the world in which we live.  I’m not at all happy about what I see in the nuclear arms race…and the machinations of the Soviets or the Chinese…the misery that’s in our cities.  I’m aware of all that.  But I do not believe that people will respond to do better if they are constantly approached by a negative attitude.  People have to believe that they can do better.  They’ve got to know that there’s somebody that’s with them that wants to help and work with them, and somebody that hasn’t tossed in the towel.  I don’t believe in defeat, Bill.”

He lost some elections in his long career, but Hubert Humphrey was never defeated.  More than any man I know in politics, he gave me to believe that in time, justice comes, not because it is inherent in the universe but because somewhere, at some place, someone will make a stand, and do the right thing, and turn the course of events.

So the next time you look up at the Milky Way, look past the big stars, beyond the brilliant lights so conspicuous they can’t be missed – the Caesars and the Lincolns – and look instead for the constant star, a sure and steady light that burns from a deep core of energy and remember the boy from the northern plains for whom it shines.

* My own recollections were rekindled by three books I highly recommend: Carl Solberg’s biography of Humphrey; Robert Mann’s The Walls of Jericho and Hubert Humphrey’s own memoir, The Education of a Public Man. I am indebted to them and to my editorial associate, Andie Tucher, for their contributions to this speech.