BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
MARTY KAPLAN: The truth is that we can make a difference. But because we have been taught that we will be ineffective and fail, it seems like the gesture of a rube to be hopeful.
BILL MOYERS: And…
GARY MAY: To simply-- blanketly say, "We need the Voting Rights Act anymore.” Is out of touch with what is happening in the country.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Time again to talk with MARTY KAPLAN. Loyal members of Moyers and Company know him as one of the keenest and most sensible observers of politics, the press, and culture. He runs the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, an independent promontory from which he lets his mind range wherever his insatiable curiosity takes him. Most recently, Brazil.
For several weeks, the largest country in Latin America has been shaken by a massive citizen uprising protesting political corruption, economic injustice, poor health care, inadequate schools, lousy mass transit, a crumbling infrastructure, and, get this, billions blown on sports. That’s right, vast numbers of citizens in this soccer crazy nation are outraged that their government is spending billions of dollars to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. This, in the land of Pelé.
They're even up in arms over the $74 million deal signed by the young soccer star Neymar da Silva. Crowds have been shouting, "Brazil, wake up. A teacher is worth more than Neymar!" Being no one’s fool, Neymar has sided with the protesters and written on Facebook that their mobilization inspires him on the playing field.
Surveying this tumult, MARTY KAPLAN recently expressed wonder at this people's uprising and challenged us, his fellow Americans, "Let's Be Brazil." That's when I called and ask him to join me on the show. By the way, his work has just won two awards from the Los Angeles Press Club, including best columnist.
MARTY KAPLAN, welcome.
MARTY KAPLAN: Thanks very much.
BILL MOYERS: And congratulations on those awards.
MARTY KAPLAN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: You recently confessed to “outrage envy.” What's that about?
MARTY KAPLAN: It's my feeling that what happened in Brazil, which is so encouraging about citizens taking their destiny in their own hands, is not happening here. We have unemployment and hunger and crumbling infrastructure and a tax system out of whack and a corrupt political system. Why are we not also taking to the streets is the question. And I want us to.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote "If you’re not outraged…you're not paying attention." So are we not paying attention?
MARTY KAPLAN: We are paying attention to the wrong things. We are paying attention to infotainment, which is being spoon-fed to us and sadly, frankly, we are enabling because we love the stuff.
BILL MOYERS: "The infotainment narrative of life in America," you call.
MARTY KAPLAN: Yes. The tragedy of journalism now is that it is demand driven. And when you ask people what they want, we're like one of those rats that have a lever to push and cocaine comes out. And once that happens one time, they'll stay there till they die, until more of the drug appears. We can't help loving lurid stories and suspense and the kind of sex and violence which the news is now made up of.
BILL MOYERS: But you go on beyond the infotainment story. You say, "Our spirits have been sickened by the toxins baked into our political system." Powerful sentence. "Our spirits have been sickened by the toxins baked into our political system."
MARTY KAPLAN: The control of our democracy by money is shocking and deserves the same kind of response to corruption that it got in Brazil. And instead, we have become used to it. We don't see a way around it. There are voices, there are people like Larry Lessig that are trying to change the campaign finance system, the way media plays into that. But they are voices in the wilderness.
And we, the public, have wised up and decided either not to pay attention at all, or the media have decided not to force us to pay attention. And if we do pay attention, you can't live with the knowledge that our democracy is now so corrupt that it is unchangeable.
BILL MOYERS: So, if it is true as you say, that, “Our tax code is the least progressive in the industrial world,” that we've witnessed “The most massive transfer of wealth in history,” which is “Destroying our middle class,” that “Tuition is increasingly unaffordable, and retirement increasingly unavailable,” that “The banks that sold trillions of dollars of Americans' worth have not only gone unpunished; they're still at it,” why are we not at the barricades?
MARTY KAPLAN: I suspect among your viewers, there were people who are outraged and want to be at the barricades. The problem is that we have been taught to be helpless and jaded rather than to feel that we are empowered and can make a difference--
BILL MOYERS: Taught by whom? By those of us who report the news of bad things happening?
MARTY KAPLAN: Well, the stuff that is being reported on the news tends not to be the kind of stuff that we need to know about in order to be outraged. Climate change is one of the great tests of journalism.
There was "The New York Times" headline about the first time that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million. Which "The Times" said that carbon dioxide had reached a level not seen in “millions of years.”
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
MARTY KAPLAN: My jaw fell. You would think that that would cause a worldwide stir. And instead, it was a one-day story, onto the next thing.
BILL MOYERS: As you know, President Obama recently made a major speech in which he announced a new plan to tackle climate change. All three cable networks turned to the president's speech, but then they cut away from it well before it was intended to end. Fox News cut away saying the remarks could be streamed online, and then they turned to a guest critical of the president.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The planet is warming, and human activity is contributing to it.
MEGYN KELLY on Fox News: But that is not the full story. We’re going to stream the remainder of the President’s remarks live on foxnews.com and in the meantime we’ll be, we’re joined now with some reaction. Chris Horner is the senior fellow and the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the author of the book, "Red Hot Lies."
BILL MOYERS: Fox's host, Megyn Kelly wondered aloud about whether the country even needed to tackle the problem. And CNN's Wolf Blitzer cut in soon after--
WOLF BLITZER on CNN Newsroom: Alright, so the president making a major, major address on climate change. I want to bring in Jim Acosta, and the president has got some important news he’s about to release--
BILL MOYERS: --and then Wolf continued to talk over the president's remarks. What do you make of that?
MARTY KAPLAN: The meta message is more interesting to journalism than the message itself. People--
BILL MOYERS: Meta message?
MARTY KAPLAN: The meta message is, here's grist for combat between different factions. How is it going to play out? Rather than the message, which is, here's what's happening to our climate, here's what we have to do to prevent it. That stuff risks being boring. But combat is never boring. What they don't know how to do is to talk about, well, what are our options here, America? How do we mitigate the effects of climate change?
Instead, they're refighting all these old battles. And that kind of combat is what they can do. The Sunday talk shows did something else, which is to completely ignore it. I mean, they probably had John McCain and Lindsey Graham on for the 27th time each, instead of dealing with what was the most important speech about climate change ever given by a sitting president.
BILL MOYERS: And ThinkProgress, the progressive website published an info-graphic, which pointed out that, as you say, Sunday's news shows ignored Obama's climate plan, late-night comedy shows picked up the slack. "The Daily Show" gave three minutes and 29 seconds to the president, "The Late Show" gave one minute, 33 seconds, "The Tonight Show" gave one minute and two seconds. "Meet the Press?" Zero seconds. Fox News? Zero seconds. ABC "This Week"? Zero seconds. "Face the Nation?" Zero seconds. "State of the Union" on CNN, zero seconds.
MARTY KAPLAN: Yeah, but I bet they kept us informed about the phony IRS scandal. They have stuff which they think pushes the buttons that makes people emotional and angry. And they just find climate change as snooze. They find guns a snooze. Look at what happened with Sandy Hook. Look at what happened with Hurricane Sandy and climate change. We are capable of turning away because we get bored with one thing and need the next.
BILL MOYERS: At the time of the Sandy Hook shootings, you wrote about the learned helplessness that seemed to permeate that situation. Talk about that a moment.
MARTY KAPLAN: We have had the unfortunate experience of being outraged, being Brazilians, trying to get something done, and watching as the dysfunctional system that we are forced to live under destroys momentum and creates stasis, or adds power to the already powerful, rather than enabling reform. We have, for example, on Capitol Hill, a system which is built on the need to create ads, narratives, phony reality about members who are running for office.
And they need to finance that because our television stations make a killing on that. Especially in the swing states. And so the only way they can finance it is by doing quid pro quo deals with special interests. So when the Newtown tragedy happened, my instinct was, yes, I know Obama's going to make a great speech and the polls are going to be 99 percent, but it's going to be business as usual. Our hearts will be broken, because the system is simply unresponsive and incapable of reform.
You watch that happen enough times, and you decide, why bother? You have to be someone who just fell off the turnip truck to think that popular outrage can make a difference. The truth is that we can make a difference. We can change the way campaigns are financed. We can change the electoral college. You name it, we can do things. But because we have been taught that we will be ineffective and fail, it seems like the gesture of a rube to be hopeful.
BILL MOYERS: But this takes us back to the Brazilians. Because as you know, the Brazilians were protesting, millions of them were protesting against the $31, $33 billion they're going be spending on the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. They were carrying signs about that 21-year-old soccer star who's just signed a deal for $74 million. And they were saying, a good teacher is worth more than this soccer star. Now somehow, their learned helplessness was overwhelmed, or overcome, or penetrated by some other consciousness.
MARTY KAPLAN: Well, but I think the key difference is that their democracy is new. They still believe in holding it accountable. They want to have a system that works. And as long as their promise is out there of making a difference, they want to hold the politicians' feet to the fire. In our case, we have an old democracy, which has ossified.
The narrative should be, the system is broken, let’s fix it. The founders were not Moses or God and what they put in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, was not written in stone. It is meant to deal with things they could never imagine.
They could not imagine swing states and the amount of money you have to spend and what you have to do with special interests in order to get elected. There is a pathology in our system that we, as a country, refuse to acknowledge because it's a way of saying that we're not heaven's blessed child. We are humans.
BILL MOYERS: What intrigued me was that the Brazilians first sparked over an increase in the bus fare in São Paulo, and then it just spread. The bus fare. Yet when recently the Metropolitan Transit Authority here in New York raised the transit fare, it just, that wasn't even a ripple on the surface.
MARTY KAPLAN: Because the class that produces news has the kind of incomes that can absorb those kinds of changes. The news industry is now part of the privileged elite. They are not the scrappy adversaries that one would hope they would be fighting for the little guy. They are the man. And if public transportation costs a little more, the studio's going to send a car for them anyway. The problem is that corporate self-interest plays itself out in the content of news.
BILL MOYERS: As you know, there's a debate going on over journalism in America. The Pew Research Center recently wrote bleakly about the future of journalism.
The other side of it, Marty, is that some people are saying these are the “glory days” of journalism, because there's so much information out there online, if you have access. And you yourself recently wrote, and I’m quoting, “the best journalism in the world, from plenty of sources, is available online, often for no cents a day, and we can access it in video and audio as well, and from anywhere at any time.” So where do you come down?
MARTY KAPLAN: And as long as you are a critical thinker. As long as you could sort the stuff that's reliable from the crud. As long as you understand that people who propagate information have interests. And so you could understand that, you know, this incredibly popular website is also the mouthpiece for this party. To be able to do that requires exposure to enough quality journalism so that you learn to tell the difference between the stuff that's being hawked in the bazaar that is intriguing and probably only partly accurate, between that and stuff which, where the facts are verified. We have had instance after instance in the last several months of stories in which it's the pressure to be first, to say something before anyone else has completely overridden the pressure to check is it accurate and valid.
And this is happening to the prestige outlets. They are not taking the time, because they have this bizarre notion that being first in the world of journalism, when microseconds count, it's like being a micro trader on Wall Street, that you're going to make or lose zillions by having those bragging rights. And in fact, the next day, they buy full-page ads in "The New York Times" saying, we were first to get this. They don't buy an ad when they say, we were first and wrong.
BILL MOYERS: Come back to cable for a moment. Because as you know, the three major cable outlets, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN have been giving a lot of attention to the Trayvon Martin story--
NEWS ANCHOR #1: Yesterday, huge day in the George Zimmerman trial--
NEWS ANCHOR #2: Coming up, a crucial day in the George Zimmerman trial--
NEWS ANCHOR #3: George Zimmerman trial is eating up a lot of time on cable television--
NEWS ANCHOR #4: The trial that has got America entranced--
NEWS ANCHOR #5: We are watching with great interest--
NEWS ANCHOR #6: The jury is not yet seated. As soon as this trial begins in earnest we will take you there--
BILL MOYERS: It's a good story, by the way. Would they be doing this if people weren't watching?
MARTY KAPLAN: No. They are both creating and responding to demand. But what they're not doing is exercising journalism. What they're doing is they're part of the entertainment industry. They're providing content. Journalism, in principle, is set apart because it has a notion of what's important, not just interesting. And in a dream world, journalists would make important stuff interesting. That they would use the same kind of techniques they use in covering the Trayvon Martin case to make stuff like climate change just as compelling.
BILL MOYERS: You've been following the debate between Glenn Greenwald who broke the Edward Snowden story and NBC’s David Gregory, who asked, well, let's listen to what David Gregory asked Glenn Greenwald on "Meet the Press."
DAVID GREGORY on Meet the Press: To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?
GLENN GREENWALD on Meet the Press: I think it's pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themself a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea I've aided and abetted him in any way.
The scandal that arose in Washington before our stories began was about the fact that the Obama administration is trying to criminalize investigative journalism by going through the emails and phone records of AP reporters, accusing a Fox News journalist of the theory you just embraced, being a co-conspirator with felonies, in felonies for working with sources.
If you want to embrace that theory, it means every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information is a criminal. And it's precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States. It's why "The New Yorker's" Jane Mayer said investigative reporting has come to a "standstill," her word, as a result of the theories that you just referenced.
DAVID GREGORY on Meet the Press: Well, the question of who's a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you're doing. And of course anybody who's watching this understands I was asking a question, that question has been raised by lawmakers as well. I'm not embracing anything. But, obviously I take your point.
MARTY KAPLAN: The assumption of the question is that there is some dictionary somewhere that says what journalism is. The truth is that journalism, like a number of other things, is socially constructed. We enter into a contract through history and based on class and evidence of what journalism is or is not. Things get ruled in or ruled out all the time.
And the reasons they're ruled in or out is not because some school of journalism, some professor, says, well, here's the yardstick and it is or it isn't. The way in which things get ruled in or not is practice. What actually happens? So if David Gregory can ask a question and justify it by say, some in Congress are asking that question, that rules out nothing.
Some in Congress are morons. And those people will say anything. And as long as you can have the ability to do the "some say" game and call yourself a journalist and be in a mainstream marquee platform, then you are tugging at what the definition of journalism is. And I think it's entirely appropriate for Glenn Greenwald or anyone else to tug right back and say, no. What you have done changes the terms of the debate. Here's where I stand. And let's fight it out. Let's not let the imprimatur of some corporate trademark say that this defines what journalism is.
BILL MOYERS: So when Glenn Greenwald says, "Top officials are lying to our faces about government spying," is that journalism or is it prosecution? Is he a journalist or is he an activist?
MARTY KAPLAN: I think there is a credible case that journalism is activism. That if you, as a journalist covered climate change by saying, well, some say this and some say that, you're not being a journalist. You're being a tool of the people who want to intimidate journalism from covering evidence and the truth. So when Glenn Greenwald says that lying is going on, I don't think you can rule that out because of the activist nature of journalism. It either is true or not true. Let's settle it on those merits, not on the question of, does he have the credential to be able to do that?
BILL MOYERS: It does seem to me that the First Amendment guarantees us the right to draw a conclusion on the evidence, from the evidence that we have gathered.
MARTY KAPLAN: Yeah, and unfortunately, the, especially the right has learned to game the system and to say, no, no, journalism is not that. Journalism is, “We report, you decide." The phony slogan of Fox News. So giving people alleged evidence and letting them draw alleged conclusions is in the interest of people who want to throw sand in your face and work the ref so that they are softened up and afraid to say, here is the conclusion.
BILL MOYERS: So your point about the Trayvon Martin trial, about Paula Deen, whom we haven't even discussed about what you call the race, crime, and porn axis in tabloid news, cable news, your point is that it distracts us from and drives out attention to the problems that will take us down if we don't tackle them?
MARTY KAPLAN: Watch the birdie over here, not the corruption over there. That's what circuses are about, is to distract us and make us happy while we're being distracted. The challenge is not only to give us the information that we should be paying attention to and to do it in a way which keeps our attention, the challenge is also what do we as citizens do with that. And I think there is an aspect of journalism which is afraid of taking that extra step and empowering citizens or covering the citizens who have empowered themselves to try to make a difference.
BILL MOYERS: So when we do that, Marty, we run into what you wrote about recently, “Informed Citizen Disorder,” ICD. Now for the benefit of my viewers who haven't read this, tell me what you mean by “Informed Citizen Disorder.”
MARTY KAPLAN: Ever since I was in junior high school, I was taught that to be a good citizen meant you needed to know what was going on in your country and in your world. You should read the paper, you should pay attention to the news, that's part of your responsibility of being an American.
And the problem, especially in recent years, is the more informed I am, the more despondent I am, because day after day, there is news which drives me crazy and I want to see the public rise up in outrage and say, no, you can't do that, banks. You can't do that, corporations. You can't do that polluters, you have to stop and pay attention to the laws, or we're going to change the laws.
That every time that doesn't happen, and I keep learning each day the same thing, something bad happened and nothing was done about it, that's the news. The more that that's the case, the sadder one is when you consume all that news. So it, the, all the incentives are perverse. The way to be happy, to avoid this despondency is to be oblivious to it all, to live in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."
BILL MOYERS: So, given all that we've talked about and all you're writing about, where do you come out? Are you an optimist or a pessimist about what's happening to us?
MARTY KAPLAN: I have children. I have to be an optimist. The globe has children. We have to be optimists. There is no choice. What is the alternative? If you are a pessimist, well, the most you can do, I suppose, is medicate yourself with the latest blockbuster and some sugar, salt, and fat that's being marketed to you. The only responsible thing that you can do is say that individuals can make a difference and I will try, we will try, to make that.
BILL MOYERS: Don't they have to do it collectively. I mean, right now in North Carolina, there's a growing demonstration against the coup by the right wing that's been taken. But don't we have to do that collectively as they did in Brazil?
MARTY KAPLAN: Well, yes, we do. But moral Monday’s in North Carolina is a great example. What happened in Wisconsin was a great example. When people see one another, they join one another. If the TV is covering these demonstrations, it draws other people into it. The internet has been, in principle, a way in which people can gauge the growth of a community of discontent.
It is not as important so far as actually physically getting off your duff and going into the street. And I'm under no illusion that I can ignite some national wave of protest. But as more and more cities become more and more unhappy with what their corrupt government is doing, maybe a critical mass builds.
BILL MOYERS: MARTY KAPLAN, thank you again for joining me.
MARTY KAPLAN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Bless you, Marty. But do we have to take our cue from Brazil? We’ve seen collective action work before to make this a better country. Some of us have even been around long enough to remember the fight for voting rights 50 years ago. We remember the protests by courageous men and women who put their lives on the line, and the political skills of President Lyndon Johnson and the Congress that passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I worked for LBJ and I was there when not long after peaceful protesters in Selma, Alabama, had been ruthlessly beaten by white thugs in official uniforms. The President went before a joint session of Congress and turned the anthem of the civil rights movement into a hymn of freedom for all:
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
BILL MOYERS: The Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 77 to 19. Yes, 77 to 19. But even so, many conservatives opposed it then, and have tried ever since to nullify it. Late last month, they succeeded. The Supreme Court’s five conservative justices declared the key provision of the Act outdated. Nine states with a pattern of denying minorities the right to vote, most of them former members of the Confederacy, no longer have to get federal approval to change their voting procedures in any way. Several of those states immediately set out to implement restrictive new voting laws that before the ruling would have been found discriminatory.
By coincidence, the very weekend before the Supreme Court’s decision disemboweled that historic legislation, I had finished reading a masterful new account of the events leading up to its passage. This is it: “Bending Toward Justice; The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.” You will not find in one volume a more compelling story of the heroic men and women who struggled for the right to vote, or a more cinematic rendering of the political battle to enact the law, or a more succinct telling of the long campaign to subvert it. The author is with me now. GARY MAY is a professor of history at the University of Delaware and winner of the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians. Welcome.
GARY MAY: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: What were you thinking as the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act?
GARY MAY: I thought first of the people you mentioned, the people who have been forgotten by history who for decades had been risking everything, their homes, their jobs, and their lives and
I thought, "Here are these five men, men of privilege, men who'd served as US attorneys judges-- Thomas, an administrator. How could they possibly understand the world of those men and women who fought and died for the Voting Rights Act. They don't seem to understand it at all. They think it's all past.
BILL MOYERS: By coincidence I had just recently seen C.T. Vivian, he was one of Martin Luther King's top aides leading those demonstrators trying to vote in Selma--
GARY MAY: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: --when the infamous Sheriff Jim Clark wouldn't let them pass. Here is the scene.
C.T. VIVIAN: You are breaking the injunction by not allowing these people to come inside this courthouse and wait—
This courthouse does not belong to Sheriff Clark. This courthouse belongs to the people of Dallas County. And these are the people of Dallas County. And they have come to register. And you know this within your own heart, Sheriff Clark. You are not as evil a man as you act. You know in your heart what is right.
What you're really trying to do is intimidate these people by making them stand in the rain, keep them from registering to vote. And this, this is the kind of violation of the Constitution, the violation of the court order, the violation of decent citizenship.
You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now, and you can keep the club in your hand. But you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States, we have the right to do it.
SHERIFF JIM CLARK: I'm looking down the line and seeing all the people who have been in jail for felonies. That's what I'm looking at—
C.T. VIVIAN: Precisely right. And if they, and if they're not to vote, you'll be able to find that out. But you're not until they're -- until they're on the register. And many of those have the felony action because Sheriff Clark made them a felony action, not because they were rightfully […] You don't have to beat us.
SHERIFF JIM CLARK: So get out of here.
C.T. VIVIAN: You don't have to beat us. Arrest us.
GARY MAY: That was an extraordinarily important moment. A few nights later, Reverend Vivian was asked to preach at a church in Marion, Alabama, not too far from Selma. And he did that. And the parishioners were going to march on the jail afterwards where one of their colleagues had been unfairly imprisoned.
Reverend Vivian left. He didn't join that march. And what happened was that the parishioners came outside. The demonstrators came outside to face almost a mob of Alabama police, local police. Jim Clark was there as well.
And in the melee that followed, a young civil rights leader named Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by an Alabama state trooper while he was trying to protect his mother and grandfather from a beating. And it's thought that Clark and the others were there to get Vivian for that encounter that they had.
And of course, the Marion people were so distraught over Jimmie Lee Jackson's death that one of them said, "Let's take his coffin and to George Wallace in Montgomery and put it on the capitol steps." And from that came the idea of this march from Selma to Montgomery. And so there was a debate in King's circle. Should they go forward they might encounter again what had been encountered in Marion. And King's advisors were divided. Some said, "Yes, let's go forward." King himself was uncertain.
BILL MOYERS: As you know and write about, President Johnson didn't want that march to happen either. Now, of course, he changed his mind later. And when Lyndon Johnson changed his mind, he came out the cross of a charging bear and a crafty fox. But at the moment, he was doing what he could to prevent that march from happening.
GARY MAY: Uh-huh. Which is another irony, isn't it? Because here is the event that almost never took place. And the event that Lyndon Johnson wanted stopped, the event that Martin Luther King initially had opposed. And, of course, it turns everything around.
BILL MOYERS: And as you know, it came to be called “Bloody Sunday.”
GARY MAY: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: Here is that scene.
MALE POLICEMAN: It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march. I will say it again. You are to disperse. You are ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue. Advance towards the groups. See that they disperse.
GARY MAY: It was so terrible. One person, we heard a person calling for a doctor. Someone called for an ambulance to Sheriff Clark. And Sheriff Clark replied, "Let the buzzards eat them." And what was so extraordinary was that it was captured on film. And that proved to be absolutely critical. Journalists, print journalists and photographers were there. They got their cameraman. They got the film back to New York very quickly. And ABC was the first to break the news by interrupting the movie of the week, which again, in an amazing coincidence was Judgment at Nuremburg, the 1961 film about the Nazi war trials.
And people were stunned. They just watched the footage. There was no narration. And they--was this America? I mean, they couldn't believe it. They dropped everything to join King's campaign. Others besieged Lyndon Johnson in the White House, sat in, a group of them in the White House.
BILL MOYERS: What do these unanticipated, unexpected, unintended consequences of the convergence of such forces, what do they tell you about history, how it gets made?
GARY MAY: That it's primarily an accident. You know, sometimes, we see this story as one of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson. They get together and we have the Voting Rights Act. But, of course, it's a much larger story. And it's a perfect example of the value of collective change to bring about progress in this country, people getting together and being committed and willing to risk their very lives to bring something when the country desperately needs it.
BILL MOYERS: But it's clear to me that if there hadn't been this steady witness and martyrdom of these young men and women in the South, and a progressive President, the result wouldn't have been the same. If you'd not had the pressure from below and if you'd had a conservative President, history wouldn't have come the way it has come to us.
GARY MAY: Yes. And once Johnson decided that bill was going to go to the Congress that he was going to give that great address. He felt liberated.
BILL MOYERS: I was standing off to the right below the president on the floor of the House. And I could look right into the eyes of senators and representatives as clearly as I can look and as closely as I can look into your eyes. I mean, they have never heard a President of the United States say that anywhere. And to say it on the dais on the rostrum there in the House Chamber before the assembled Congress, I mean, at first they could not believe what they had heard.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name, or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of state law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin […] No law that we now have on the books and I have helped to put three of them there, can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.
BILL MOYERS: That speech was written by my colleague, gifted young man – 33 at the time, I believe –Richard Goodwin. Goodwin and Johnson created a magnificent moment then.
GARY MAY: And as almost an accident also the first draft of that speech had gone to another Johnson aide. And Johnson said, you gave it to a public relations guy? I wanted Goodwin to do this. I wanted a Jew to write this speech. Someone who had experienced anti-Semitism. And while Goodwin was working on the speech, Johnson telephoned him and said, "You remember the story about how I was a teacher at that Mexican American school?"
And of course Goodwin had heard it a thousand times. And Johnson's like, "I want that in the speech."
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn't speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes […] I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.
BILL MOYERS: You say that the Voting Rights Act never would have existed without the help of two generations of courageous Republican legislators. I agree with that because I worked with many of them when I was a young man on working on policy for President Johnson. One of them was Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the wizard of ooze as you remind us.
GARY MAY: They had a very interesting relationship. You know, very often, Dirksen would attack the President on the floor of the Senate in the morning. And in the afternoon, they'd be drinking bourbon and branch water together.
The Voting Rights Act was literally written in Everett Dirksen's office with the Attorney General, the acting Attorney General, Katzenbach there. And some called the Bill Dirksenbach.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I remember that.
GARY MAY: And Johnson, of course, was quite content to give the credit for some of this to Everett Dirksen because he feared that the Southerners might mount a filibuster as they had with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a long filibuster. And in order to get the votes to invoke cloture, which would stop the filibuster, he needed Republican votes.
BILL MOYERS: The President sent me in 1964 to see to see Dirksen. He sent a lot of people up to see Dirksen. And I was 30 years old. And he was 68--67, 68. We talked about cloture very briefly. And then I said, "Thank you." And I got up to leave. And I got to the door.
And he said in that deep voice of his, "Mr. Moyers, what about that great American I recommended to the President who belongs by destiny on the Interstate Commerce Commission?" I said "I didn't know you'd done that." He said, "You just check it out. He's a great American." And he got on the Interstate Commerce Commission. I have to tell you that. I mean, that's the way they both understood politics.
GARY MAY: Yes. Unfortunately, we don't have that today.
BILL MOYERS: So Justice Roberts, when he write- his opinion on the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act says, "We don't need it anymore." He said, "The country has changed. This is the age of Obama. We've got our first black President." And Justice Roberts even mentioned Bloody Sunday in Selma and the murder of those three young people: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
And Roberts wrote, "Today, both of those towns,” Selma and Philadelphia, Mississippi, “are governed by African American mayors. Problems remain in those states," the justice said, "but there is no denying that due to the Voting Rights Act, our nation has made great strides." We have made great strides. What's your reaction?
GARY MAY: We certainly have made great strides. But all we have to do is look at the voter suppression movement that arose, from many of the covered states incidentally, in 2011 and—
BILL MOYERS: States—
GARY MAY: --2012.
BILL MOYERS: --states covered by the Voting Rights Act?
GARY MAY: Correct. Voter IDs that are very difficult for many African Americans, and whites as well, who are elderly and don’t have those documents. It costs money to acquire these necessary documents. It’s really a kind of poll tax now. Voter IDs make it more difficult for people to vote. Preventing voting on Sunday, which was so important to the African American community. They'd go to church. They'd go to the polls. It's taking your soul to the polls. And all of those indicate a continuing need for the Voting Rights Act.
BILL MOYERS: What did the Supreme Court decision actually do?
GARY MAY: By striking down section four, which contains the formula that allows section five to cover certain states in the South and actually nine states – and parts of six other states, requiring them, before changing any voting practice, to submit those changes to a federal court in Washington, DC or the Justice Department to receive what is called pre-clearance.
BILL MOYERS: And the reason the Voting Rights Act singled out those states is because for decades, the voting rights of black people have been denied by one technique after another, as President Johnson said in his speech.
And within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Attorney General of Texas announced that they were going to resurrect their Voting ID bill which had been disallowed last year. And there is an outfit Louis Menand mentions in the “New Yorker” magazine. There is a white group in Beaumont, Texas, just waiting for this Supreme Court decision because they want to overthrow the black majority that runs the school board. So you’re saying, I think you’re saying, a lot of mischief can be done now that would have been disqualified by the voting rights provision.
GARY MAY: Absolutely. You know, Chief Justice Warren, when the court first ruled on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act in 1966, said that the bill had been designed to eliminate the most egregious of difficulties. But it was also written to cover subtle devices. And here, I think, is an example of subtle and quite harmful devices. We’re still very polarized racially. Sometimes, it’s wrong just to focus on the fact that we have so many African Americans in office including a President. In the oral arguments Chief Justice Roberts said, you know, well, you’re saying that Alabama is more prejudiced than Massachusetts. And the evidence indicates that yes – it still is.
BILL MOYERS: The majority on the court struck down the provision that requires the states to get federal approval before making changes. Is there a historical record to suggest that this decision in no small part was motivated by a political goal?
GARY MAY: It’s hard to say. To be fair, should we accept that maybe those five justices have their own set of political principles and we just don’t agree with them? You know, as a historian you want to be fair. But it seems to me that they are on the wrong side of history, that there was so much evidence to indicate continuing difficulties that to simply, blanketly say, "We need the Voting Rights Act anymore.
You know, we're in a post-racial society now. We have a black President." It is so out of touch with what is happening in the country.
BILL MOYERS: Pardon me for suggesting that John Roberts sometimes seems less concerned with the law and the Constitution than with a political agenda. Is that unfair?
GARY MAY: No, it’s not unfair. In fact, when he was a young member of the civil rights division under Ronald Reagan he was at that point working very hard when the Voting Rights Act came up for reauthorization in 1982 to gut it at that point. So in many ways the court’s recent decision is the fulfillment of Judge Roberts’ dream.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, there’s a memo Roberts wrote back then in which he said the Voting Rights Act would quote, "Provide a basis for the most intrusive interference imaginable by federal courts into state and local processes." In other words, "Uncle Sam, you're meddling too much. Let's get your hands off of state processes." It’s certainly consistent with Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of you know, “Government is not the solution. It’s the problem.” So if we just remove government from regulating corporations and banks and everything will be fine. So that was the civil rights version of Reaganism. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, quote, "Hubris,” pride, “is a fit word for today's demolition of the Voting Rights Act." Was it hubris?
GARY MAY: It's politics. And I think it's also ideological hubris. Because if you go back to the critical documents that supposedly protect the right to vote, you know, the 15th amendment passed in 1870, declares that people could not be prohibited from voting because of race, color, and condition of previous servitude and added the Congress shall enforce this amendment with appropriate legislation. The first of the line 1965 Voting Rights Act says, this is a bill to enforce the 15th amendment. So this was a power given to the Congress, not to the courts.
BILL MOYERS: The Roberts Court in effect said to Congress, you can rewrite these standards, you can rewrite the Voting Rights Act. And it’s your obligation to do so. Any chance that this Congress would do that?
GARY MAY: It seems almost impossible because the Republican party has become the party of the South. And in a strange way, has taken on the appearance of the old white southern segregationist Democrats.
BILL MOYERS: Now you have analysts, and others saying the court's recent decision is going to actually help the Democrats in the voting booth and that it's actually going to be a spur to the energies of the Democratic party in the coming elections. Do you see any possibility of that?
GARY MAY: I don't know because I remember-- what was the decisive moment that turned this whole thing around, that led to the creation of the Voting Rights Act? It was the tragedy of Bloody Sunday. I am concerned about the future. I think the court's decision does give a green light to all sorts of things, not simply the mischievous devices to suppress the vote. But imagine the Supreme Court of the United States giving its endorsement of-- creating difficulties for voting. I mean, it's extraordinary. And what comes of that? I don't know.
BILL MOYERS: You've written a book that could change this country again, if every citizen read it. Congratulations.
GARY MAY: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: On “Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.” And thank you, GARY MAY, for being with me.
GARY MAY: Thank you so much.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, we’ve brought together legal scholars and journalists to ask them what the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision means for democracy.
And you can view online the new documentary on the economic struggle of “Two American Families,” produced for the PBS series “Frontline.”
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.