BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
LARRY COHEN: What a democracy means is that the Americans people are entitled to get discussion, debate and eventually a vote on the critical questions of the day. But we haven't had that in decades in the U.S. Senate. Everything dies there, it doesn't get discussed and debated there as people used to believe. We need to bring back the debate in the U.S. Senate.
BILL MOYERS: And…
MARTÍN ESPADA: There are times when poets have to go to places that cannot be explained away as a matter of evidence and logic. That we have to be able to reach out and put our hands on the intangible, to touch it, to feel it, to see it.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Circle next Tuesday in red, the 22nd of January. That’s the day the United State Senate could decide whether to return from the dead by reforming the filibuster and allowing democracy to work.
Once upon a time the filibuster enabled a clique of Senators, or even just one, to stall progress by prolonged speaking, emphasis on speaking. You had to show up in person if you were a senator and hold the floor continuously by not shutting up until you dropped. That's what happened when Mr. Smith went to Washington:
H.V. KALTENBORN in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Half of official Washington is here to see democracy's finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form.
JEFFERSON SMITH in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Well, I’m not licked and I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylor’s and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me…
BILL MOYERS: No longer. The rules were changed in 1975, and these days, that one Senator or a clique of them can bring the entire Senate to its knees without being there in person or saying a word. While our founding fathers believed in checks and balances, they feared that kind of obstructionism. Alexander Hamilton, the handsome, conservative man on our ten dollar bill, argued against anything like it. The purpose would be, he wrote, “to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority."
That's just what the Republicans have been doing. Since 2007, when they lost the majority in the Senate, they’ve mounted or threatened to mount nearly 400 filibusters, blocking everything from equal pay for equal work and jobs bills to immigration reform and judicial appointments. As a result, there are more vacancies on the federal courts today than when President Obama first took office.
But hold on: When Democrats were in the minority in the Senate and threatening to filibuster against George W. Bush's judicial nominees, their leader Harry Reid had some kind things to say about the tactic:
HARRY REID: The filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government. Right now, the only check on President Bush is the Democrats ability to voice their concern in this body of the Senate. If Republicans rollback our rights in this Chamber, there will be no check on their power. The radical, right wing will be free to pursue any agenda they want.
BILL MOYERS: Now the shoe's on the other foot, and so I asked Larry Cohen to explain the double standard. He’s president of CWA, the Communications Workers of America, 700,000 workers in many industries, including media, telephone and data services, and health care.
But that's just his day job. Larry Cohen’s also a leader of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of progressive organizations as varied as the NAACP, Common Cause, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Jobs with Justice and the AFL-CIO. Along with an affiliated campaign called Fix the Senate Now, they’re campaigning hard to change the filibuster rules. Take a look at their ad:
FIX THE SENATE NOW ADVERTISEMENT: As climate change threatens the world we leave to our children, and good US jobs move overseas, time in the Senate ticks by. As women earn less than men for the same jobs, time in the Senate ticks by. It keeps ticking by with no results, because the system is broken. But we can fix it and make the Senate work for us again. If our Senators vote to end the silent filibuster and for common sense reforms.
BILL MOYERS: They have only hours to do so. Unless the Senate reforms the filibuster on Tuesday, the minority wrecking crew remains in charge for the next two years.
Larry Cohen, welcome.
LARRY COHEN: Great being with you.
BILL MOYERS: If the Democrats were back in the minority would you be making this fight to reform the filibuster that you're making now?
LARRY COHEN: Absolutely, because we believe that what a democracy means is that the Americans people are entitled to get discussion, debate and eventually a vote on the critical questions of the day. But we haven't had that in decades in the U.S. Senate. Things, everything dies there, it doesn't get discussed and debated there as people used to believe. We need to bring back the debate in the U.S. Senate.
BILL MOYERS: But if the Republicans became the majority again, they might deny you the very thing you want.
LARRY COHEN: That means Democrats who are in the minority would have to stand up, talk and fight back.
BILL MOYERS: Talk?
LARRY COHEN: Talk, really radical idea, talk, talk, talk, yes.
BILL MOYERS: And that's eliminated now in the Senate?
LARRY COHEN: There's no discussion of these issues unless you have 60 votes for the proposition. So--
BILL MOYERS: Because it takes 60 members of the Senate to vote to continue the discussion?
LARRY COHEN: It takes 60 just to put the bill on the floor right now.
BILL MOYERS: Isn't there a double standard, the party that's in the majority wants to reform the filibuster until it winds up in the minority?
LARRY COHEN: I think there's to some extent a double standard, but I think, you know, we, the people, need to stick on the path of we want the democracy no matter what, that playing defense in that way is limited. But more importantly the Senate Resolution Four which is what will be discussed in the caucus next Tuesday before it comes to the Senate floor would maintain, in fact it would strengthen the filibuster.
It would actually say, "Filibuster, good, you’ll have to talk." Both sides will have to talk because the majority would have to talk as well. So what we're really talking about here is not eliminating rights to the minority. We're talking about getting the issues on the floor of the U.S. Senate starting next week.
BILL MOYERS: The 112th Congress just ground to a halt, absolutely nothing done, the worst record in recorded history. How did we get into this fix?
LARRY COHEN: Well, starting in the '70s it got worse and worse and worse. So it used to be the filibuster was rare, very, very rare. So in Lyndon Johnson's tenure as majority leader which ended when he was vice president in January of '61 there was one filibuster in his six years.
In Harry Reid's six years almost 400, that's the contrast. It's gradual. The right to filibuster has been there, you know, since the modern Senate was there. But it's the perversion of the senators that are willing to filibuster anything, any single thing. They bring this to bear.
BILL MOYERS: Describe that perversion.
LARRY COHEN: That perversion is everything from the almost 100 judicial vacancies that you talked about many examples of recess appointments in the Executive Branch. We just spent $3 billion on a presidential election and the executive, the president's appointees, most of them that he makes now are unlikely to ever get confirmed, unlikely to ever get debated, unlikely to ever get discussed and certainly unlikely to ever serve.
BILL MOYERS: Your ad talks about ending the silent filibuster.
LARRY COHEN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: What's behind that?
LARRY COHEN: Senate Resolution Four authored by Jeff Merkley from Oregon would say, would actually make it essential that people talk. It would encourage, this is what the American people want. It would encourage debate. It wouldn't push it away.
BILL MOYERS: What is your reform asking for, demanding next Tuesday?
LARRY COHEN: Yeah, four things. One, that the majority leader of the Senate can put a bill on the floor for discussion and debate. Right now he can't do that unless he has 60 votes to do it.
BILL MOYERS: Number two?
LARRY COHEN: He can't even proceed. Number two, nominations. The Executive Branch, the president, makes nominations. There needs to be a clear way for those nominations to get discussed in a short period of time, not 30 hours of Senate time which is more than a week. But in a short period of time they get discussed and they get a vote on nominations. Number three, a conference committee, the House passes one bill, the Senate passes another bill. What's supposed to happen is there's a conference committee and they sort it out and they bring the bill back and then it's adopted by both houses. And then the biggest issues is the talking filibuster, that's number four, that once the majority leader puts a bill on the floor which he would now be able to do, puts the bill on the floor, there has to be 41 senators present that object to prevent the bill from moving forward. If they do object, they then have to speak, they have to hold the floor. And yes, the minority can still stop a vote, but they will have to show up and they will have to speak out. Right now you don't even know who is filibustering. Not only do they not have to talk, they call their cloak room and they say, "I object."
BILL MOYERS: If they're bringing the Senate to its knees, you want them to do it visibly. You want to be able to look at them on C-SPAN and from the gallery and see who is holding the Senate up?
LARRY COHEN: Exactly, who's holding it up and what do they have to say and what does the debate sound like? That's what we want. We want a Senate that debates, not a Senate that hides.
BILL MOYERS: You've said in other places the Senate is broken. But is it more broken than it is held hostage?
LARRY COHEN: We would say broken because lots of energy goes into electing these senators individually and then the results are almost nothing. So that's why we would say broken. You could definitely say it's held hostage. But we would say broken because I think regardless of how the deck is, stacks up, Republicans, Independents and Democrats it should not function this way. I mean, we really do believe that. You know, we think our members and working people in this country and most Americans would say it's fair: People get elected, at some point the majority should rule. And that's the way it is in every other democracy in the world.
BILL MOYERS: But as we talk what's up with Harry Reid? He does seem to be backing away from the strong reform that you propose. I brought a story from talkingpointsmemo.com. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is voicing support for a set of changes to the current filibuster rules that would fall far short of the more sweeping proposals from people like Mr. Cohen. What's he, what's up?
LARRY COHEN: Well, I think part of what's up is he's got four or five Democrats, many of them senior, in his own party who don't want to see this. And they're in fact at this moment trying to make their own deal with people like John McCain for next to nothing from our point of view. You wouldn't see any of those four changes that we're pushing for. And I think he is reluctant unfortunately, to go ahead with the overwhelming majority of Democrats that he has. He's got 51 Democrats--
BILL MOYERS: Already?
LARRY COHEN: --who will support Senate Resolution Four. And we need the American people to call in to Senator Reid and say, "Let's take a stand. Let's bring democracy to the U.S. Senate."
BILL MOYERS: The polls suggest that the majority of Americans really want filibuster reform and want the talking filibuster back.
LARRY COHEN: Right, overwhelming majority, you know, two thirds at least and in fact on the other side, like, seven percent or eight percent or nine percent say, “oh yeah, they should be able to phone in from their fundraiser,” which is what they do, and say, "I object." And then you're in unanimous consent and now to get out of unanimous consent you need 60 votes to move forward. Very few Americans believe that's what they elected a senator to do.
BILL MOYERS: So a senator could be sitting somewhere off Capitol Hill raising money on the telephone which they all spend hours every week doing and there's a vote coming up or a bill being put forth, he can just call the cloak room, she can call the cloak room and say, "I filibuster"?
LARRY COHEN: I object.
BILL MOYERS: I object.
LARRY COHEN: It's not really a filibuster because the filibuster would mean you'd be talking. So all they got in this case they just say, "I object." There's no unanimous consent, so they can quickly shift the burden to the majority party or some coalition of 60. And if there's not 60 that bill or item does not proceed. It could be a nomination, it doesn't even have to be legislation.
BILL MOYERS: Pretend I'm Harry Reid. It's Monday afternoon after the inaugural speech. You're with him in his office in the capitol. Look him in the eye and tell him what you want him to do.
LARRY COHEN: You need to do what you said on the floor of the Senate last spring. We need real change. We don't get rid of the rights of the minority, but we need to make them talk. We need to get rid of the motion to proceed, we need to have a clear path on nominations and we need to be able to name conferees. Our country, our nation is hungry for change and debate and discussion. We need that discussion. Please Senator Reid, don't back off. Stick with the 51 senators who will be with you on that.
If Senator McConnell was the majority leader, the rules would be changed far more than what we're talking about on the 22nd or even back on January 3rd when they met for a few hours. They would be in lockstep and they would change the rules so their agenda got passed. What we have to worry about is why aren't the Democratic senators as a whole, many of them are amazing people, but as a whole ready to stand up for working Americans, working families in this country, for all Americans, and to stand up and talk and move this agenda forward.
BILL MOYERS: And why aren't they?
LARRY COHEN: I would say that they're conflicted about that kind of change even though they run on it when they campaign.
BILL MOYERS: There are some more responsive to corporate contributions than they are to your workers, right?
LARRY COHEN: Yeah, far more. Far more responsive.
BILL MOYERS: Democrats? Far more.
LARRY COHEN: Far, far, far, far more responsive, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: How do you change that?
LARRY COHEN: Primaries, we have to have people, you know, ready to run, that respond to the broad, you know, the state labor's in this country they're not going to come from labor, but come from the progressive community, the same kinds of groups that are working together on the democracy front, you know, candidates like an Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts who you don't have to think twice about or Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Tammy Baldwin. I mean, now I've only named a few, but you know, Merkley and Udall who are champions of this, people who despite the fundraising problem which is gigantic.
An open Senate seat can be $20 million. Well, where's $20 million going to come from? So this is why our Democracy Initiative is also on voting rights. We have the lowest registration in the world of any democracy, let alone then the turnout. And so, you know, we're on voting rights, money in politics and Senate rules. It's not just one thing. And we're going to need to build a real movement to bring about a 21st century democracy here.
BILL MOYERS: Your coalition is called the Democracy Initiative. Who's funding your efforts?
LARRY COHEN: At this point everybody sort of funds it together. I mean, those ads, we're funding a lot of those ads, but it's--
BILL MOYERS: We being labor?
LARRY COHEN: Yeah, CWA, more than our share because we believe that if we don't restore the democracy, the rest of the things that our members want aren't going to be there.
BILL MOYERS: Let me read you from a column by the conservative Washington journalist Matthew Continetti. Quote, "Someone needs to give the members of the Democracy Initiative a tap on the shoulder, a kick in the pants, a wonk-like nudge--anything to wake them from their fantasy of being weak and isolated and besieged, anything to alert them to the fact that it is they, not, 'the Scaifes, Exxons, Coors and Kochs of the world,' who actually run the country…"
LARRY COHEN: That sounds like things turned upside down to me. I don't know what he's talking about.
BILL MOYERS: He's saying that progressive groups really are setting the agenda now and that you have all this--
LARRY COHEN: None of our members feel that way, trust me, none. They feel like their standard of living is declining, their jobs are sent out anywhere in the world, their health care is declining, retirement security, social security, their pensions are destroyed. They don't feel like they're running the world.
BILL MOYERS: You've been talking about this for some time now, talking about building a political and economic democracy movement in effect to become in one sense the Tea Party of the left, that is to hold the Democrats accountable in the primaries for the core interests of their constituents. Even for labor to become more independent of the Democrats?
LARRY COHEN: Yeah, labor itself will never change this country. In a fundamental way labor has to work with the kinds of folks we talked about here, civil rights, greens, in a much more basic way than we have at least in the last 80 years. It can't just be a nice addition. It's got to be, like, core, we're in this together. It's our common agenda. We're going to fight foreclosures as much as we're going to fight for bargaining rights. We're going to fight climate change as much as we're going to fight to raise the standard of living. And it's going to take that kind of a labor movement and I think a lot of us are ready for that kind of a labor movement.
BILL MOYERS: Last year, 2012, labor took a series of defeats right on the chin in Wisconsin and Michigan and other places. And I think you wrote recently that 88 percent of the workers in this country do not have collective bargaining rights and the 12 percent who do are constantly fighting a defensive battle. How do you change that? Is labor dying?
LARRY COHEN: I think the way we change that is that part of the agenda, the economic justice part, but the democracy part goes with it, but on the economic justice front, part of it is to get the partners which they are now, the greens, the civil rights, the students, the others, to say we're never going to restore a decent economy here if working people have no rights.
If people can't bargain with their employers, there's no place in the world where people who can't bargain raise their wages. In fact they get wage cuts on a continuing basis. And so I think that our strategy is to link core issues together so that it's not just quote, "Labor," or particularly organized labor, as you said 12 percent, and that includes the public sector. Private sector's under seven percent.
It's not just labor talking about worker's rights. It's all of us who have a vision of economic justice, let's do something about economic inequality. Let's figure out how to stimulate the demand side of the economy because you need rising wages to have rising demand to get the economy going again. I think it's that kind of an agenda. And you know, in our view, what we talk to our members about, I was at a meeting in California of young new stewards on Saturday, is this is seven to ten years.
And, you know, I've been doing this my whole life. And I may not be there at the end of that period, but I am sure, absolutely certain that without that kind of a basic movement in this country, democracy and economic justice, not just the traditional union agenda, we don't have a chance. But on the other hand with that kind of an agenda I absolutely believe we can change this country as President Obama talked about in 2008, you know, the change you can believe in, the change you'll work for.
BILL MOYERS: What's President Obama done for labor in these last four years?
LARRY COHEN: Well, I think he's tried to do quite a bit. I think in his heart he definitely supports, you know, working families. You know, part of the outcome piece, is what gets through the U.S. Congress. So he definitely supported health care bill much more like Speaker Pelosi's than what we ended up getting through the Senate Finance Committee onto the Senate floor and eventually adopted a year later.
He definitely supported workers’ rights legislation, he definitely supported much more aggressive moves to stop the foreclosures, he definitely supported climate change. So part of this is really, you know, we would love to see more active White House support for these democracy initiatives so that the change that I'm sure he still believes in had some reality to it instead of just, you know, on the back bench somewhere.
BILL MOYERS: Did he fight hard enough? I don't want to put you on the spot… yeah, I want to put you on the spot.
LARRY COHEN: That’s okay, you can put me on the spot.
BILL MOYERS: I wonder why labor keeps rolling over for the Democrats and for the president.
LARRY COHEN: Yeah, well, we're trying not to roll over by the way particularly on this as you well know because the Democrats are solely responsible next Tuesday on the Senate rules, has nothing to do with the Republicans. They're solely responsible.
BILL MOYERS: They're, you're saying the Democrats can win this without the Republicans?
LARRY COHEN: Yeah, they won't get any Republican support for this--
BILL MOYERS: But they've got the--
LARRY COHEN: --this is solely up to the Democrats.
BILL MOYERS: So they've got the votes. How many votes do they have?
LARRY COHEN: They have the 51 to do Senate Resolution Four. They just have to go and do it.
BILL MOYERS: Next Tuesday?
LARRY COHEN: Next Tuesday. They can absolutely do it if they choose to. On the other hand if they go with a rationale that says, "We want to have bipartisan support for this. We want to do it the old way," where technically they would have two thirds support to change the rules, then guess what? We're going see next to nothing change and two more years will go by and none of these bills will ever get discussed or debated all over again and we'll pretend to have a democracy that we don't have.
But yeah, I mean, back to your question about rolling, you know, we like to roll the union on rather than roll over. We would say that Democrats need to stand up across this country for this democracy in a way where we're willing to fight on the issues of the democracy. Senate rules is the easiest one of those, because next Tuesday 51 elected Democrats can change it. But we also have to take on these much harder fights. What happened to voting rights? Why are only 70 percent of Americans registered? Why was it a $6 billion election? We've got to take on the democracy issues.
BILL MOYERS: So if three or four of the 51 Democrats who could win for you next Tuesday desert you, betray you, abandon you, what will you do?
LARRY COHEN: Well, we only need 51, so four can go actually five can go because Vice President Biden has said he supports these things. We'll see. So you if you had 50 plus him, there you have the new rules for the next Congress.
BILL MOYERS: But if you lose next Tuesday you have as you've already said based upon the past almost no chance of anything happening in Congress.
LARRY COHEN: And we need to reset, we will know who's who even though they won't publicize that, but we will know who's who. And we need to look at primaries, we need to look at saying, "Guess what? We're not going to get involved at all, none of the progressives. So if you have a Republican takeover in that seat that's the way it goes. We will fight it out in the primaries. We can't roll over,” to use your words, strong words I might add. We have to show that we can make a difference.
BILL MOYERS: Are they inaccurate words?
LARRY COHEN: No, I feel that way sometimes--
BILL MOYERS: Time and again corporate breaks get in because Democrats wanted them in. Time and again legislation favorable to labor doesn't get in because corporate Democrats won't move it along.
LARRY COHEN: That's right. And we don't call it out and we don't call it out because people say, "Well, this is always worse." Well, at a certain point we have to say, "Yeah, we know how that works." That's why we'll work inside the Democratic Party, not outside. We will work inside.
And as you said where does the Tea Party success come from? Not a new idea. It comes from working and running and fighting inside. We have to do the same thing. And we need the equivalent of a progressive caucus as we have in the house fighting to define progressive values and being willing to stand up and fight back even in public ways, especially when you see something as bad as these Senate rules.
BILL MOYERS: Larry Cohen, thank you very much for being with me.
LARRY COHEN: My pleasure, and my honor. Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: On this inaugural weekend of Barack Obama’s second term, I’ve asked the poet Martín Espada to share with us a moment of revelation that he experienced four years ago, just a few days after Obama was elected as our first African-American president. You need to know that Martín Espada grew up in the tough, ethnically diverse neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn for you out-of-towners. But when his family moved and became the only Puerto Ricans in a Long Island suburb, he encountered racism head-on. He went to law school and became an advocate for tenants’ rights in Boston where he began to scratch poems on yellow legal pads while waiting in courthouses for cases to be called.
You can’t read any of his l6 books of poems, translations, and essays, including, most recently, "The Trouble Ball," without discovering a man who understands life as struggle. A writer for whom the past is a living, breathing muse whispering over his shoulder, as he scribbles, the names of ancestors who once pulled the oars to get us through troubled waters. So it was, four years ago, in the wake of Obama’s victory, that the muse guided Martín Espada here to the graveside of the great 19th century abolitionist, the former slave, Frederick Douglass. And from that moment came this poem:
MARTÍN ESPADA: Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York November 7, 2008
This is the longitude and latitude of the impossible; this is the epicenter of the unthinkable; this is the crossroads of the unimaginable: the tomb of Frederick Douglass, three days after the election.
This is a world spinning away from the gravity of centuries, where the grave of a fugitive slave has become an altar. This is the tomb of a man born as chattel, who taught himself to read in secret, scraping the letters in his name with chalk on wood; now on the anvil-flat stone a campaign button fills the O in Douglass. The button says: Obama. This is the tomb of a man in chains, who left his fingerprints on the slavebreaker’s throat so the whip would never carve his back again; now a labor union T-shirt drapes itself across the stone, offered up by a nurse, a janitor, a bus driver. A sticker on the sleeve says: I Voted Today. This is the tomb of a man who rolled his call to arms off the press, peering through spectacles at the abolitionist headline; now a newspaper spreads above his dates of birth and death. The headline says: Obama Wins.
This is the stillness at the heart of the storm that began in the body of the first slave, dragged aboard the first ship to America.Yellow leaves descend in waves, and the newspaper flutters on the tomb, like the sails Douglass saw in the bay, like the eyes of a slave closing to watch himself escape with the tide. Believers in spirits would see the pages trembling on the stone and say: look how the slave boy teaches himself to read. I say a prayer, the first in years: that here we bury what we call the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, now and forever. Amen.
BILL MOYERS: How did you come to write that poem?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, I happened to be in Rochester, New York doing a reading at a local community college right after the election of Barack Obama. And I discovered to my surprise that Frederick Douglass was buried there. And so I said, "Take me to Frederick Douglass.” And so I went, with one other person and I discovered the tomb in the condition in which it’s described in the poem.
BILL MOYERS: What did you know about Frederick Douglass that warranted you to go there in the first place?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Frederick Douglass was for me the quintessential American, maybe the greatest American. He was both liberated and liberator. He liberated himself. He went on to liberate others.
BILL MOYERS: Slaves who were still in bondage.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Exactly. And wrote some of the greatest autobiographies…
BILL MOYERS: Oh, amazing.
MARTÍN ESPADA: That this country has ever seen. And so for me this was a matter of pilgrimage, a matter of some urgency. He was a dreamer indeed. And realized his dream. And what is more classically American than that?
BILL MOYERS: You called him somewhere, "The most complete person of the 19th century, the most complete American of the 19th century."
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes. Here we have a human condition, slavery, which had been there, present, for thousands of years and had been unquestioned for the most part for thousands of years.
And here was Douglass, imagining the unimaginable, the unthinkable, the impossible. Not only would he liberate himself as he did by escaping, but he would then turn around and liberate others. He would raise the consciousness of the world as he did when he went to Great Britain, he went to Ireland.
Frederick Douglass was brought to Ireland by the temperance movement to speak against slavery. And he spoke in Cork, and people are still talking about it.
BILL MOYERS: What were you feeling there?
MARTÍN ESPADA: I was trying to catch lightning in a bottle. I was trying to capture the collective feeling that we shared when we all made history upon the election of the first African-American president. That sense of euphoria, that sense that we had changed the world. That we had made history. Because if we're going to make history, again, we're going to have to recapture that feeling.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have that feeling this inauguration?
MARTÍN ESPADA: I still have the same feelings that are expressed in the poem. The poem is independent of the performance of Barack Obama in the White House. It's independent of forces and circumstances that I could not possibly foresee or predict when I wrote the poem. The poem is about transcendence of the historical moment. It was triggered by a very specific historical moment. But it seeks to transcend the historical moment, because this is very much about breaking away from take-it-for-granted realities.
BILL MOYERS: Take-it-for-granted reality?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Which is?
MARTÍN ESPADA: That the world is as we see it and it always will be. And poets have been saying this for centuries. Poets have been trying to get across this message in one form or another. William Blake, the great English poet wrote in one of his proverbs "What is now proved was once only imagined."
BILL MOYERS: And of course, they thought of him as a madman, you know that.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: William Blake.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely
BILL MOYERS: What do you take that to mean?
MARTÍN ESPADA: I take it to mean that all we have to do is look at history to see that things change. And we cannot possibly imagine at the moment of our existence how they will change. We have to have a certain kind of faith. It's paradoxical. But I do believe that even though much of what we do politically is based on what we call facts and what we call evidence, there also has to be an element of faith, whether that faith is in a divine being or not. I don't share that particular kind of faith. But I do have a faith in history.
BILL MOYERS: Faith in history?
MARTÍN ESPADA: History. And when we look at the tomb of Frederick Douglass as an altar, decorated as it was that day, we can see the symbolism being played out of that faith in history. This is the tomb of a man who was a slave. He could not vote, he could not belong to a labor union, and forget about the abolition of slavery. That was a taken-for-granted reality in the world into which Frederick Douglass was born in 1818. And look what happened. And now there is an African American president. And that is I'm not making a crude comparison between the abolition of slavery and election of an African American president. I am saying that this is a measure of change. It is a measure of progress. And for those of us who are perversely comforted by the idea that change never happens, I would point to this.
BILL MOYERS: You talk in the poem about this tomb in Rochester being the longitude and latitude. Talk a little bit about that.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, I felt that I was standing at the very physical place where history was breaking through the ground. I refer in another poem, walking through the world, soaking up the ghosts through the soles of my feet. And I felt at that moment that this is what was happening. And, you know, it wasn't even an earthquake, it wasn't like that.
It was the polar opposite of that sensation. It was an unearthly quiet. And I could hear nothing but those leaves falling from the trees with the gentlest breeze. And I had the strange sensation, "Why don't we see 10,000 people here? Why aren't we all here gathered at the tomb of Frederick Douglass to say 'yes' and to say 'thank you?'"
And it was me, and the person who brought me there at the longitude and latitude, right? And standing before the grave of this slave who changed history, and made the history of the present day possible. Without Douglass, there is no Obama.
BILL MOYERS: Without Lincoln, there is no Obama. So it's not only a matter, is it, of faith in history, it's a matter of faith in people who have the imagination and the audacity to make history.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely. And certainly Frederick Douglass understood his role in terms of acting as an advocate during Lincoln's administration. He was obviously putting some pressure on the White House. At the same time, he was issuing a call to arms to his own community to rise up because he understood that history ultimately comes from below. It is it's, you know, it is part of he's enveloping Lincoln in a movement. There's a movement that surrounds Lincoln and the other abolitionists to move all of this forward and make it a reality.
BILL MOYERS: There weren't 10,000 people with you there at the tomb, but the poem suggests someone else had been there and left this newspaper?
MARTÍN ESPADA: There were other people who had come before me and had left various objects. I don't know who they were. Someone had left a newspaper. Perhaps aware, perhaps not that Douglass himself had been a journalist, that Douglass himself had been an editor. That Douglass himself would have appreciated a newspaper left at his tomb. Someone else had left a labor union T-shirt. And I found that particularly extraordinary.
BILL MOYERS: What did it say?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, it was, it was from the service workers union. And it was that sticker on the sleeve that said, "I voted today." Remember those were being passed out?
BILL MOYERS: The S.E.I.U.?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
MARTÍN ESPADA: And that's when I began to envision, "Who has left this behind? Someone who's a member of this union. Who were they communicating with? Was it Douglass they were tempting to say to him, 'Look what happened a few days ago.' Were they communicating with me, knowing that someone else would come across these objects?" I don't know.
BILL MOYERS: You're not going mystical on us, are you?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Maybe. I hope not. Yes. Definitely.
BILL MOYERS: What do you take that question to mean?
MARTÍN ESPADA: I take that question to mean that there are times when poets have to go to places that cannot be explained away as a matter of evidence and logic. That we have to be able to reach out and put our hands on the intangible, to touch it, to feel it to see it.
BILL MOYERS: Martín, where do you think this language of the impossible, the unimaginable comes from?
MARTÍN ESPADA: For me, it comes from poetry. And it comes from the tradition, the poetic tradition to which I belong. It comes from Walt Whitman. It comes from Pablo Neruda. And it comes from some of my contemporaries as well.
BILL MOYERS: And what is it? What is happening in that poetry?
MARTÍN ESPADA: What is happening in that poetry is we are breaking through the boundaries of what we accept as a given every single day. And we see something else as possible. It is an act of the imagination. And too rarely people see the connection between the imagination and the political. There is such a thing as the political imagination.
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
MARTÍN ESPADA: You know, and oftentimes those of us who speak in the language of the impossible or the unthinkable, the unimaginable, are called idealists or dreamers or mad, hello William Blake. But we're also pragmatists. We also understand the real world. We also understand the need for visions of a better world because the alternative is despair. And despair is dangerous.
BILL MOYERS: Anybody who talks the way you talk in politics would be dismissed as utopian.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Marginalized. And as sometimes poets are.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Right?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you suppose that is? Is it because more practical people simply can't see the dot on the horizon that you see?
MARTÍN ESPADA: We associate utopia with science fiction, showing those visions gone wrong. We associate utopia with how we perceive communism especially Soviet communism.
Because utopia has been so discredited, so dragged through the mud politically, especially during the years of the Cold War that anyone who speaks in that language is dismissed in one form or another.
BILL MOYERS: Would you call Frederick Douglass utopian? Barack Obama utopian?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, Frederick Douglass, I imagine was like the other abolitionists, regarded as dabbling in dreams.
MARTÍN ESPADA: And would have been dismissed as a dreamer, or worse, a fraud. Because when his first autobiography came out, when The Narrative came out, many people questioned whether he had written it himself. It was impossible that a slave could have written these words. It must have been one of his abolitionist friends, one of his white abolitionist friends. It must have been Garrison, et cetera. Well, it turns out that indeed, Douglass wrote those words.
BILL MOYERS: Do you feel the same way four years later about that moment in Rochester?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes. Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Do you feel the same way about Obama?
MARTÍN ESPADA: I did not have very high expectations for Obama. He is a politician. He is a pragmatist. He does what he has to do. I have my own criticisms of Obama, having to do with Guantanamo especially.
The drones, there are other issues I could cite. But fair is fair. He also gave us a Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. And I say that with some pride. I'm Puerto Rican. I also say that in the knowledge that Puerto Ricans are almost entirely excluded from the public conversation in this country, almost completely. And so that is not merely a symbolic gesture. There is something substantial there.
And let's not forget, as long as we're talking about the last four years, the almost fanatical degree of obstructionism perpetrated by the Republican Party as this president attempted to negotiate and negotiate and negotiate and over again, he was rebuffed by this zealotry that has taken over the Republican party. This is not the Republican Party of Frederick Douglass anymore.
BILL MOYERS: No. Or Lincoln.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Or Lincoln, for that matter.
BILL MOYERS: Your concern for the concrete realities of struggle and of people who are poor, of the working folks in both Puerto Rico and this country, you know, brings me back to the political reality of the performance of the president. Are working people better off because of this first African American president? Are the poor people you used to represent better off? The Latino farmhands breathing pesticides all those kids trying to learn in overcrowded classes with overworked teachers. Has that election four years ago made a difference to them?
MARTÍN ESPADA: I will say this that in terms of economics, in terms of everyday realities, I cannot say with any certainty, that people are better off now than they were four years ago. I will say this, that the poem I wrote, which you just heard, is about a vision of something different, something better, the unthinkable, the impossible, the unimaginable. Without the vision, and I think this is something that goes beyond the poet, without the vision, comes despair. With despair comes self-loathing. With self-loathing comes self-destruction, drug abuse, domestic violence, other forms of crime.
The essence of gang warfare, according to Luis Rodriguez and others who have worked with gangs, is the destruction of the mirror image. You cannot lash out at the one who is truly causing you pain and grief. So you lash out at those who are closest to you and those who look just like you. Having a vision of another world is a barrier to that. Frederick Douglass did much more than lobby for the election of Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglass was tireless. Frederick Douglass was working as a journalist, he was lecturing, he was agitating, he was knocking on the door of the White House whether the White House wanted him to come in or not.
He did not see social change as beginning and ending with the election of Abraham Lincoln. So why should we see social change as beginning or ending with the election of Barack Obama? Howard Zinn, my beloved friend who died three years ago, January…
BILL MOYERS: Historian, agitator.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Historian, writer, lecturer, activist, agitator endorsed Obama in 2008 very cautiously saying, "He will have to be enveloped in a social movement, "We have to push him in the right direction." And the question I ask is did we? Did we do enough? Or did we put our weapons down and did we then sit back and wait for something to happen? Again, forgetting that the change that we want comes from below. It comes from a movement. It comes from putting pressure on those that have power to do the right thing. So when people tell me one way or another that what I represent is a utopian vision, I say, bring more poetry into those schools that are failing. Bring more poetry to the prisons where our young people in the Latino community and beyond are being locked up in record numbers. Bring more poetry into the hospitals. Bring more poetry into all the places where poetry is not supposed to go. And bring it in with the understanding of what it can do.
And then little by little, things will happen. I cannot measure the effect of this poem or any poem on the world. The poems can't be quantified in that way. They can't be boxed or labeled or sold in that way. Thank God for it. But, I do believe that poetry can save us.
BILL MOYERS: You make it clear in your writings and in your poetry that it's one thing to envision change as a poet and another to work for change as a politician, or as you were a lawyer for the poor. You say it takes both kinds to move history.
MARTÍN ESPADA: I believe, yes, absolutely. We think of social change as a kind of mosaic or a quilt and many parts contributed to that mosaic or quilt and understanding also the social is not linear, that it doesn't simply move in a straight line. There's progress and then we fall back, progress then we fall back. It zigs, it zags, there are figures of eight.
I would also say this, that the notion that the visionary and the pragmatist are two different people is a false notion. And we're setting up a false dichotomy. I spent years as a legal services lawyer. And I was surrounded by other legal services lawyers. And guess what? They were all visionaries too. They believed that justice was possible. And we were surrounded by a notoriously unjust system. And we could not have thrown ourselves into that system day after day, into that machinery without believing that we could change it.
BILL MOYERS: Did you?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes. I think by our very presence, we changed it. And sometimes those changes are changes that happen years later. And that is something else, another element of social change. Who knows how the election of Barack Obama will affect the world in 50 years or 100 years. Who knows how the poetry will change the world in 50 years or 100 years. It is ultimately an act of faith. You throw the poem into the atmosphere, we breathe it in, and we go on.
BILL MOYERS: So what's next? What's next that is presently unthinkable, unimaginable, and impossible?
MARTÍN ESPADA: War. And I don't say that in terms of the complete and utter abolition of war. I say that in terms of changing the military mentality which still infects this culture and the body politic. I think about the fact that as we debate budgets yet again, and I'll say parenthetically, I am here as a poet, not an economist. If there's a fiscal cliff, then I am a fiscal lemming, okay?
But there must be a way that we change that mindset. You know, as we scramble around trying to find dollars for basic human needs, let's start looking at the military and let's start looking at waging war in a different way so that we begin moving in the opposite direction. And maybe it takes a hundred years. But it can be done.
BILL MOYERS: So with this discussion as our new context, would you read Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass.
MARTÍN ESPADA: This is the longitude and latitude of the impossible; this is the epicenter of the unthinkable; this is the crossroads of the unimaginable: the tomb of Frederick Douglass, three days after the election.
This is a world spinning away from the gravity of centuries, where the grave of a fugitive slave has become an altar. This is the tomb of a man born as chattel, who taught himself to read in secret, scraping the letters in his name with chalk on wood; now on the anvil-flat stone a campaign button fills the O in Douglass. The button says: Obama.
This is the tomb of a man in chains, who left his fingerprints on the slavebreaker’s throat so the whip would never carve his back again; now a labor union T-shirt drapes itself across the stone, offered up by a nurse, a janitor, a bus driver. A sticker on the sleeve says: I Voted Today. This is the tomb of a man who rolled his call to arms off the press, peering through spectacles at the abolitionist headline; now a newspaper spreads above his dates of birth and death. The headline says: Obama Wins.
This is the stillness at the heart of the storm that began in the body of the first slave, dragged aboard the first ship to America. Yellow leaves descend in waves, and the newspaper flutters on the tomb, like the sails Douglass saw in the bay, like the eyes of a slave closing to watch himself escape with the tide. Believers in spirits would see the pages trembling on the stone and say: look how the slave boy teaches himself to read. I say a prayer, the first in years: that here we bury what we call the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, now and forever. Amen.
BILL MOYERS: The book is "The Trouble Ball," the poet is Martín Espada. Martín, thank you for being with me.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for this week. I have some further thoughts on our website about the filibuster and how it cripples government and democracy. That’s at BillMoyers.com. See you there and see you here next time.