As a lawsuit to overturn the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law headed to the Supreme Court, this 2003 episode of NOW with Bill Moyers presented once-confidential documents that provided a startling picture of the nation’s campaign fundraising system. When the McCain-Feingold bill became law in March 2002, some of the nation’s biggest political contributors feared the end of the large unregulated donations to the national Republican and Democratic parties known as soft money. Private e-mails and letters examined by NOW exposed party officials routinely discussing policy issues and offering access to elected officials to secure large contributions.
The effects of war and conflict ripple through a society for generations. And the children of war have trouble even talking about their experience. Next, NOW profiled avant-garde theater director Ping Chong as he rehearsed refugee children living in the Washington, DC, area for CHILDREN OF WAR, a multi-disciplinary theatre work based on the personal testimonies of a diverse group of young people who have experienced war and civil turmoil. Then Bill talked to Richard Rodgriguez, one of the country’s most intriguing and controversial writers on how the mixing of races and cultures has influenced his life, his work and American culture. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. As war seems more and more imminent, we want to stay at home tonight, we want to focus on some things that are not going away just because the media spotlight is trained on Baghdad.
We begin in Washington with some letters you were never supposed to see. Here’s my colleague Bryan Myers on reading between the lines, to understand how some people get to the front of the line.
MYERS: When it comes to Washington, Fred Wertheimer has seen it all. He’s been fighting half his adult life to reduce the power of money in politics — first as head of Common Cause, now as president of a reform group called Democracy 21. You would think nothing could surprise a guy like Wertheimer, but think again.
WERTHEIMER: These documents show the American people something they normally don’t see. They show the public the insides of how this game is played.
MYERS: Here’s what Wertheimer’s talking about — internal documents from the files of the Republican and Democratic parties. Some are personal letters, others e-mails. They come from deep inside the Washington world of money and influence.
WERTHEIMER: Everything that a citizen can imagine going on is going on.
MYERS: Most likely, we would never have seen these documents if Congress hadn’t passed the McCain/Feingold bill last March. One of the bill’s most fought over features was a ban on soft money — those large, unregulated donations both parties were collecting from wealthy contributors.
SENATOR FEINGOLD (FROM TAPE): …it really gives a person faith that the process can work…
MYERS: No sooner had the bill passed than its opponents went to court to have it declared unconstitutional. They claim it violates the right of big donors to freely participate in politics. That case is headed to the Supreme Court.
These documents became public in the first round of court battles — submitted as evidence of how money opens doors. Journalists like Steve Coll, Managing Editor of THE WASHINGTON POST, never doubted that, but even he finds the new documents revealing.
COLL: There’s clearly an expectation of gain, through legislation or political sponsorship, that the donors are expressing in some of the conversations that I’ve seen in those documents. And I regard that as a perversion and a corruption of the electoral system.
MYERS: It’s not that these documents prove bribery. That’s a legal term. The real story is how money greases the skids of lawmaking in our nation’s capital.
COLL: The center of the story is the routine granular way in which the process of contributing and soliciting contributions in order to compete successfully on the national stage, in politics, shapes legislation and law in this country.
MYERS: Let’s take a look at the Dow Chemical Company. Dow wants to make sure someone’s home when it needs to talk to a Congressmen about things like factory emissions, or Superfund costs, or liability for defective products. So Dow’s a big political contributor.
Does Dow get it’s money’s worth? Well, consider this. It’s a thank you note from Henry Barbour, then director of the Republican’s “Team 100,” a membership program for donors who give at least $100,000. Addressed to an official of Dow, Barbour offers thanks for, quote, “facilitating Dow’s generous contribution.” He goes on to say, “We can figure out when is a good time to bring your Dow leadership into town,” to meet, among others, Senator Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Can it be presumed that perhaps those meetings simply were meet and greets?
WERTHEIMER: Uh, I think you can presume that that’s what those meetings were not about. I mean, that’s not what large money is given for.
MYERS: And it’s not just the Republicans, Democrats do it too. You may remember President Clinton’s infamous “coffee” fundraisers, and those Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers. Well, what you won’t remember, because it was confidential at the time, is this 1994 memo. It’s faxed from the office of Democratic Party Chairman David Wilhelm to his Deputy Chief of Staff. She’s told to arrange a list of inducements to, quote, “reach our very aggressive goal of $40 million.” Among the perks being offered donors:
“White House visits and overnights stays,” “two seats on Air Force One,” and, “better coordination,” with donors, “on appointments to boards and commissions.”
Here again, Republican Henry Barbour, this time writing to a big donor named “Louis.” That “Louis” appears to be Louis Bacon, one of America’s biggest investors in foreign currencies. This note seems to be from early 1995. At the time, the government was deciding whether to prop up the value of the Mexican Peso. Bacon was interested in that deal.
Barbour, the fundraiser, tells Bacon, the donor, that the Chairman of the Republican Party, quote, “appreciated picking your brain on the Mexican Peso deal,” and, “he literally passed on what he heard that day to Dole and Gingrich.” Barbour ends by saying, “just holler whenever we can be of help.”
Just to be make sure no one is tone deaf when Louis Bacon hollers, another senior Republican fundraiser, reminds a staff member of Bacon’s status. He writes, “as you know, Mr. Bacon has been very generous to the RNC.” He then asks for help in establishing, quote, “a contact in Senator Dole’s office for Mr. Bacon.”
Another example: telecommunications company Global Crossing, now bankrupt and under investigation for accounting fraud, also had friends in high places. Before its fall, Global Crossing became the giant it was through a series of takeovers and mergers that often needed approval from government regulators.
In this letter, dated April of 2000, the Chairman of the Republican Finance Committee writes to the Chairman of Global Crossing. “I was delighted to hear the good news about the merger,” he says. But he doesn’t stop there. “As you recall…you agreed to upgrade your team 100 membership to the regent program ($250,000) when the merger was approved. I am taking the liberty of enclosing an invoice.” We don’t know if that money bought Global Crossing any favors. We do know the dictionary defines an invoice as a list of charges for services performed.
WERTHEIMER: There’s never been a need for donors to specifically ask for votes on a particular matter or for recipients to say, if you give me the money, I’ll vote this way. It’s simply not necessary. You can have general discussions. You don’t even have to say anything because the recipient of a $500,000 contribution understands that the donor has interests.
MYERS: One of the organizations seeking to overturn the McCain/Feingold law is the Republican National Committee. Bobby Birchfield is their attorney. We requested interviews with some of the donors named in these documents, as well as several current & former party leaders. Birchfield is the only one who would speak with us.
BIRCHFIELD: In this case, the Republican National Committee and its co-plaintiffs have produced half a million pages of documents. The reformers have seized upon a handful of those documents, taken them out of context, and tried to tell the story that you’ve just suggested that they’re telling.
MYERS: Birchfield’s argument is simple: nobody’s ever been able to demonstrate that any specific legislation was passed, or defeated, or a specific regulatory favor granted, either as a result of these meetings or donations.
BIRCHFIELD: We’ve responded to each and every one of these allegations in the lawsuit. We’ve investigated the documents, in many instances we’ve gone back and talked to the authors and the recipients of these documents, an in the court record we have responded to all of these allegations. And there’s been no rejoinder.
MYERS: Here’s another chance to make up your own mind. Over the last four years, the big drug companies have given over $24 million dollars in soft money to the political parties. Were they just being good citizens? In this letter from April 1999, Jim Nicholson, the Chairman of the Republican Party, writes to the Chairman of Bristol Myers Squibb. At the time, the drug companies were fighting the proposed Medicare prescription drug benefit, fearing it would cost them money. You may even remember the ad they ran, featuring a character named Flo.
FLO (COMMERCIAL): “I don’t want big government in my medicine cabinet…”
MYERS: In his letter, Chairman Nicholson talks about, quote, “forming a pharmaceutical coalition in Washington.” He goes on to say, “we must keep the lines of communication open if we want to continue passing legislation that will benefit your industry.” He also asks Bristol-Myers for a donation of $250,000.
A subsequent document reveals that Republican Party leaders did, in fact, meet with the pharmaceutical coalition. A briefing note prepared for those party leaders instructs them to address the drug industry’s “vehement opposition” to the Medicare prescription plan, and to, quote, “let them know how crucial it is we have their financial support this election cycle.”
MYERS: “We must keep the lines of communication open to continue passing legislation beneficial to your industry.” A lot of people would point to that and say on its face that’s indicating a certain level of horse trading.
BIRCHFIELD: Well, keep in mind what this document is, and what it isn’t. The first document is addressed to…is from the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. He’s not a federal office holder. The second document says…has a variety of attendees. I don’t see any federal office holders on here.
BUMPERS: Anybody who thinks that a $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee doesn’t get you some influence has — you know, they’re taking some kind of pill.
MYERS: Democrat Dale Bumpers served as Senator from Arkansas for 24 years. He says it’s beyond dispute that donations to the party end up influencing politicians — members of Congress know who’s giving and they know what they want.
BUMPERS: You don’t stand in the back of the cloak room and say, ‘I’m going vote for this because I want General Electric to support me in the next election.’ That’s not the way, that’s not the way it works. You don’t have to draw a picture for a candidate, for example, or an incumbent to tell him who’s giving the money and how important this vote is to him.
MYERS: And how do they know what’s important to donors? Because members of Congress are knee deep in the process. They’re often recruited by the party to make fundraising calls for soft money.
BUMPERS: They can go to the headquarters of the Republican Party, the headquarters of the Democratic Party and, as they say, man the phones and start dialing for dollars. And it’s not at all uncommon for a little ‘poop sheet’ — they’ll give them a little bio or, you know, he gave so much money last time. And we think he is worth this for that. And he’s interested in this or that or the other. That’s not uncommon at all.
MYERS: These are what are known as “call sheets” — what Senator Bumpers calls “poop sheets.” This batch is from 1995 and was prepared for, among others, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd. The intended targets: several oil companies — including Texaco and British Petroleum. Dodd and his counterparts are instructed to remind these companies, that, quote, “the President helped out the oil industry by supporting them on drilling issues in the Gulf of Mexico.” What did President Clinton do? He signed a law that relieved oil companies from paying government fees on some of the oil they pumped out of the Gulf.
MYERS: But here’s where it gets even more interesting. These call sheets are dated November 10th, November 13th, and November 14th of 1995. Yet President Clinton didn’t sign that legislation into law until November 28th. In other words, the Democrats are suggesting Texaco and the others give money in response to a bill that’s still awaiting the President’s signature.
KOLB: That is outrageous.
MYERS: Charles Kolb was a senior White House official in the first Bush administration. He’s now president of the Committee for Economic Development, a prestigious group of business leaders. They support the McCain/Feingold law because of stories like the one you just heard.
Why wouldn’t a large organization with a lot of financial wherewithal, like a company, be more than happy exercise its power?
KOLB: Well, some do. But we had a number of trustees, business leaders on our board, who felt that the whole soft money system, as it had evolved, had gotten out of control.
MYERS: Kolb says those business leaders — representing some of the biggest companies in America, like Boeing, Exxon Mobil, and Prudential Insurance — have come to regard the soft money system as nothing but a shake down.
KOLB: We’re competing in the political arena, in terms of how much or how little money we’ve given. How much access we buy, or don’t buy, or how much retribution we avoid or don’t avoid.
MYERS: Kolb says that point was driven home three years ago when his organization issued a report calling for an end to soft money. At that time, Senator Mitch McConnell was Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — a party organization that raises money and spreads it around to candidates running for the Senate. Soft money has no bigger defender in Washington than Senator McConnell. Provoked by the efforts of Kolb’s group, Senator McConnell lashed out.
KOLB: We found out that Senator McConnell had written letters to a number of our trustees. It was on National Republican Senate Campaign Committee letterhead, and it began by saying how could you, of all people, let your name be on this CED report. It was really sort of a juvenile way to address a CEO.
MYERS: To the business leaders who make up Kolb’s group, McConnell writes, “I am certain that the CED has invoked your name in error.”
Two months later, McConnell sent another letter to some of the companies. “If you disagree with the radical campaign finance agenda of the Committee for Economic Development and resent its abuse of your company’s reputation, I would think that public withdrawal from this organization would be a reasonable response.” In a final touch, Senator McConnell suggests that the business leaders resign from the CED.
KOLB: I would point to that letter as exhibit A of what’s wrong with the system. Because there is only one way to read that type of message. The only way to read that is, the Senator signaling, if you keep playing with those guys, then I may not play with you.
MYERS: But Senator McConnell can cajole as well as threaten. Here’s another letter. This one wasn’t sent to Kolb’s group, but to somebody else. McConnell writes, “a special group of Americans are experiencing one of the greatest rewards programs ever.” He offers special access to Senate leaders for those who become, “a life member of the inner circle.” He adds, “there is no question that life membership will bring you closer and closer to them with each subsequent meeting.”
Senator McConnell is now Senate Majority Whip, the number two man in the U.S. Senate — a position where there are plenty of opportunities to reward your friends and punish your enemies. Not only has he filed his own lawsuit seeking to overturn the McCain/Feingold law, in fact, he’s listed as the lead plaintiff in the case headed to the Supreme Court. We requested an interview with him; he refused.
MOYERS: A postscript to Bryan Myers’ story: In the first year Mitch McConnell chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, 1997, the committee raised record sums of money.
The top soft money donors included Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, the Tobacco Institute, Bear Stearns, MCI, Atlantic Richfield, a whole host of companies wanting something from the government.
And those documents from the pharmaceutical industry that Bryan Myers showed us? Well, they could just as well be dated today.
The WALL STREET JOURNAL reports that drug companies shelled out more than $50 million to help Republicans win control of Congress last November.
One of the industry’s big priorities was to stop an effort to provide less-costly drugs to poor countries.
The JOURNAL tells us that a few days after the election, two dozen Republican lawmakers came to industry’s rescue.
The White House went along, and shortly thereafter, the United States government, alone among the 144 members of the World Trade Organization, blocked help even for countries facing certain epidemics.
It was a big victory for big money.
In all the arguments we’re hearing for and against war these days, it’s easy to overlook the voices of children. The children of war have trouble even talking about their experience, although the effects of war ripple through a society for generations. Here’s our story from producer Brad Lichtenstein.
CHONG: So this is your big night tonight.
CAST: Yeah. (LAUGHTER)
CHONG: My name is Ping Chong. I’ve been making theatre for over 30 years.
PING TO CAST: What did I say if you get nervous?
PING TO CAST: Breathe how?
PING TO CAST: Deep.
CHONG: For the last decade I’ve been taking real people’s life experiences and bringing them to the stage.
PING TO CAST: Remember when you’re talking to talk to everybody as much as you can. And I think that’s about all.
CHONG: This past December in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I worked with children survivors of war to create an oral history performance in which they tell their own stories.
ZALZAL-SANDERSON: Have a good one everybody. And wait for Vivian.
CHONG: Many of these children have never spoken publicly about their experiences.
FATU: We hear screaming in the market, everybody runs.
YARVIN: Do you want short sleeve or long sleeve.
FATU: That is what the boy killer asks.
AWA: If you say long sleeve they chop off your entire arm. If you say short sleeve they chop off your arm by the elbow.
FATU: People run past me screaming with no arms.
CHONG: This project, Children of War, just by making this project– and for those who will see it they will have to ask themselves what are the consequences of war.
FATU: I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I am afraid.
CAST: 1988, 1990, 1991.
DEREEN: Just as we reach the mountains helicopter begin bombing the city. If I had not left Sulaymani that day I would not be here now.
ABDUL: My father is very unhappy. He lost his job, his house and his country.
CHONG: It is an artistic work but it’s also social work for me as well.
PING TO ABDUL: Hey Abdul. How you doing? Good to see you.
CHONG: The first thing I did in making this piece was to interview each child.
COURTNEY: Hi, I’m Courtney.
CHONG: Then I composed a script based on their interviews.
Abdul and his family escaped war in Afghanistan in 2001.
PING TO ABDUL: You said that you — the first time that you remember war in Afghanistan was when the TV station was bombed, right.
PING TO ABDUL: It was a bomb or was there a bomb and guns?
ABDUL: Bomb and guns, everything.
PING TO ABDUL: Bomb and guns. And what did you feel when you saw that?
ABDUL: I was scared.
I didn’t talk about this to anybody. But when I talked to Ping like when something you talk about it comes outside and you feel free a little bit. If you talk about every time you feel free.
CHONG: I empathize because I know what displacement is. My parents were immigrants too who didn’t speak English and never spoke English.
My father who’s the person who came to this country, and that’s why I’m here, had — no one handed him anything. You know, I mean, his life was never easy. Him trying — having to support 21 people during his life to, you know, just being humiliated left and right for being poor.
I grew up in Chinatown so that’s like entirely a world unto itself. When I went to high school I was the only Chinese kid in a school of 500. Being an artist, one, you’re automatically an outsider in this society. And certainly being of an immigrant background that’s also true. So there’s a real kind of empathy and connection for me to this project.
I mean, are there — do your friends ask you questions about where you come from? Or do they say that’s — you know, you behave — you have — you come from a different culture and that you behave differently at all?
DEREEN: Yeah, kind of, they do.
CHONG: What do they say?
DEREEN: Because mostly I stay quiet in class and American kids are all kind of active all the time.
CHONG: In 1991 Dereen’s father, a Kurdish freedom fighter, was assassinated on the doorstep of their home. Five years later Dereen came to American where he is now in high school.
DEREEN: Everyday when we go to school we show a happy face to school. Deep down there’s a lot of sadness that we carry around. And we have to share it one day, one day at a time or one day we just have to share it all.
CHONG: When I did this project it was not — it was not purposely an anti-war piece. It was simply a piece to give voice to these children who’ve been through these experiences.
PING CHONG TO CAST: More energy.
YARVIN: Eighteen ninety-four.
YARVIN: Eighty ninety-four.
YARVIN: Eighteen ninety-four.
CHONG: Okay. If you stop in the middle of a sentence start again and make sure that the sentence is smooth and you finish the sentence without stopping and starting. You understand what I’m saying everybody. Okay.
We had to rehearse a lot more than I usually do just so that I could be sure that they could handle the language.
YARVIN: The same blue green and white bus stop of my brother.
CHONG: Bus stop. Don’t swallow the word.
YARVIN: Bus stop.
CHONG: You understand what I’m… and that they could really start to feel the rhythm of the show.
So if anybody takes too long then somebody else should say the date. You want to cover for each other when that happens.
YARVIN: I was sleeping. I wasn’t sleeping but I—
CHONG: Yeah, I understand.
YARVIN: —wasn’t here.
CHONG: Okay. In 1994, Yarvin left her home in El Salvador.
YARVIN: In 1992.
FEMALE VOICE: El Salvador.
YARVIN: The beatings continue. I tried to run away with my brother and sister. But where can three small children go? When we— when we— I’m sorry.
CHONG: Whenever we went through a rehearsal there’d be a counselor in the room because they were worried about whether the children would suddenly become emotional about what they were telling.
FARINAZ: I think of being robbed of this kindness because of fear and oppression.
CHONG: As a young woman Farinaz was persecuted for opposing the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime.
FEMALE VOICE: 1981.
FEMALE VOICE: 1981.
FARINAZ: For four days and nights I am interrogated and tortured.
YARVIN: If you tell us the name of the people in the movement we will let you go.
FARINAZ: My grandfather’s spirit stands beside me.
DEREEN: Farinaz, you have to have a heart. Focus with your heart and you will know what is right and what is wrong.
FARINAZ: I refuse to join the other side.
YARVIN: Farinaz Amirsehi you are sentenced to ten years in prison.
FARINAZ: My mother doesn’t know if I’m dead or alive.
CHONG: The risk is whether they are able to handle the emotions that might come out. But they want to tell their stories. That’s central to what this project is that people want to tell these stories. They want to get it into the open. And that is in some ways a form of exercising these horrendous experiences.
ZALZAL-SANDERSON: How does it feel hearing everybody else and hearing other people’s stories?
YARVIN: Sometimes it— I think it’s helpful because you actually learn that you’re not alone. And that there has been somebody else who suffered. And that know how much pain you suffered. How much you have inside of you. And, you know.
CHONG: I think that making art it can be a healing tool. I think for myself I know that it has certainly helped me in my life.
The way I make my art I do all kinds of different kinds of things. But this particular project for me is very much about healing.
ZALZAL-SANDERSON: Well, thank you guys for all of your courage to do this. And I hope that it gets easier for you. As Yarvin said it’s always— what happened is always gonna be a part of you. But I hope after time that—
CHONG: It’s also— it’s a part of you but it’s past.
ZALZAL-SANDERSON: That— exactly.
CHONG: And that’s the important thing for you to remember.
ZALZAL-SANDERSON: That it’s left in the past.
CHONG: It’s not part of your life now. It’s the past.
ZALZAL-SANDERSON: So you can go on living your life.
CHONG: Everybody has painful things in their lives but it shouldn’t be the thing that controls your present, your future, you know.
ZALZAL-SANDERSON: Okay, dinner. Rehearsal tomorrow will be in here again.
FARINAZ: These children, the children we have no names for, the children who cannot tell their stories are—
CHONG: The six people on stage are having a communion with the audience. And a communion with a group of people is a very powerful act. You know, we in the theatre, do it all the time, we don’t think about it. But for someone who’s– who doesn’t do it all time it’s a very powerful thing.
DEREEN: I heard gunshots. Lights on my father’s face, bullets are whizzing all directions. My father falls, my mother screams. In the darkness my mother asks:
FEMALE VOICE: Delshad, Delshad, did they shoot you? Have you been wounded?
FEMALE VOICE: Yes.
DEREEN: I escape from my mother’s arm and run to him. He is bleeding badly. My father struggled to get up, he wants to tell us he loves us. Then he falls again. My father dies. I don’t have a chance to tell him that I love him. I’m five years old.
CHONG: I want the audience to take away the experience of what it means to be a refuge, to be displaced.
FATU: Maybe this time people will understand what I’ve been through. Maybe this time they will believe me.
CHONG: These kids have survived.
I know this performance helped ease the pain of war for these children. But I also know the journey to healing is a long one.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW: is today’s mass media putting democracy at risk?
MCCHESNEY: Media, the press system, is really the oxygen of a free society.
ANNOUNCER: NOW dissects the state of journalism in America. Next week on NOW.
connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org. Tell us your solutions for campaign finance reform. Meet Ping Chong’s children of war. Learn more about news you might have missed. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: You will recognize my next guest from his many eloquent essays on the NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER. I first interviewed Richard Rodriguez for my series WORLD OF IDEAS 12 years ago.
RODRIGUEZ: The idea that I’m a piece of glass on a mosaic that that’s an appropriate metaphor, that somehow it’s static, denies the basic fluid experience of our lives. It doesn’t feel that way to me. The soul is not this ice cube. It’s not this piece of glass. The soul is rather water…
MOYERS: He has emerged as an intriguing interpreter of the American experience, and of his own life.
Born in California, Rodriguez knew 50 words of English when he started school, and wound up his graduate studies years later, gobbling up books in the reading room of the British Museum.
His own first book, HUNGER OF MEMORY, launched his career as an autobiographical essayist.
His second, DAYS OF OBLIGATION: AN ARGUMENT WITH MY MEXICAN FATHER, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction.
And now he is out with BROWN: THE LAST DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, about the changing face of our country, and how Hispanics are changing it. Richard Rodriguez joins me now.
RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: How has America changed in the dozen years since last we talked?
RODRIGUEZ: I think the mixture of races and cultures now has even grown more obvious and more profound. There is no one who is not participating in it in the United States now. In Atlanta, Georgia, I meet a young girl who says, “Do you know what I am?” I said, “No, what are you?” She says, “I’m Korean-African.” I said, “Oh, that’s nice.”
She tells me what all brown children will tell me in some version. She says, “My Korean grandmother thinks I’m too African. My African grandmother says I’m too Korean. So, I’m in the middle. I’m alone,” she says. And then she says, “And that’s only half of it.”
And I say, “What’s the other half?” She says, “I’m a Baptist-Buddhist.” She’s not willing anymore to give up one of her identities. You know, in America there was a lot of white/black marriage in this country. But children had to choose one parent. Now, there are children who are calling themselves both.
And they’re not only doing that by virtue of blood but by virtue of religion. That is, in some sense, a revolution that’s happening in this country. And no theologian is addressing it. This mixing of religious traditions.
MOYERS: So, what is brown?
RODRIGUEZ: Brown is the color of our mixture. It’s the color, ultimately, of our American identity. It is the color we have resisted. It is, not blue, the most erotic color in our imagination.
MOYERS: You say brown is the color produced by careless desire.
RODRIGUEZ: Yes, careless desire and curiosity, too. The child who wants to know what’s on the other side of town. The— remember, there’s always, in so many stories that people tell me about their childhood, that moment of wanting to know what those people were eating over there.
I remember when I told you this story, I think 12 years ago, when we first talked that when my best friend, a good Irish kid named Tom Keeting, used to come over and pick me up for Cub Scouts on Monday nights, my mother, like other immigrant mothers, would run to the kitchen, would put lids on everything.
So, she was embarrassed by our ethnicity by the— by how Mexican our food was every night. And now, some day between that moment and today, Americans started eating Mexican food. And suddenly, there is this interest in other people’s food.
Now we are eating the miscegenated food. We go to restaurants where it’s Vietnamese and Italian on the same plate. And we are swallowing it. Suddenly, you are eating mole at a restaurant in New York and mispronouncing it, pronouncing it correctly, understanding it or not understanding it. And…
MOYERS: I could even tell the difference between good mole and bad mole.
RODRIGUEZ: That’s because you’re a Texan. And you Texans — can I just say something about Texas? The…
MOYERS: Welcome. Be my guest.
RODRIGUEZ: Tex-Mex is so much better than Cal-Mex. Because Texas in this long adversarial relationship that you described between the Texan and the Mexican, nonetheless, because you — we were on each other’s mind, there gets created this fiery food that is both Texan and Mexican. And it tastes wonderful because it is the outcome of an enormous struggle. In California, the Mexican border is a vacuous border. Baja California barely exists in the imagination of most Californians. Cal-Mex tastes like Taco Bell. It doesn’t have any spice, any flavor. You Texans are two centuries ahead of us in the kitchen.
That is what brown is. Alone, I am nothing. I am nothing. But when the two of us meet, when you become my best friend in Sacramento, when I go into your house, and I suddenly realize that you are not foreign to me, when I begin to borrow your language and your humor, when your mother invites me to dinner, and I begin to eat your food, when I begin to walk like you down the street, which is what Americans do, we all walk like each other, then I become brown.
MOYERS: As you talk, I think that the story that’s been front page news the last few days, that Hispanics have now become the largest minority in America. That they are out-distancing ahead of Blacks. What’s the significance of that?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, what the significance of it is that no Hispanic politicians have noted just how outrageous a statement that is. For about 15 years, the census bureau has been prompting this possibility that we are replacing, that’s the word the census bureau uses, replacing African-Americans. That is an outrage to me.
The notion that I replace African-Americans, when I cannot imagine my childhood without the example of African-Americans in my life. I cannot imagine my writing life without the example of James Baldwin. I can’t think of my childhood without the black and white television on which I watched the Negro civil rights movement snake its way through the southern towns.
We shall overcome. And how the determination of a group of people not to live lives bent but to stand upright, changed my sense of what it means to be an American. I do not replace African-Americans.
MOYERS: But growing up in Texas, Richard, I remember that Hispanics and Blacks regarded each other uneasily.
MOYERS: And I’ve wondered if that’s because of race, or because America has always pitted the people at the bottom against each other.
RODRIGUEZ: I think it’s both. And I do have a race. I am Mestizo. And that fact…
MOYERS: Mestizo means?
RODRIGUEZ: A combination of the Indian and the Spaniard.
RODRIGUEZ: I have relatives who are very light skinned. I have relatives who look very Indian. I would guess in a small Texas town in the 1950’s, those of us who were very dark skinned would have been treated slightly differently than those of us in my own family, who are very light skinned.
MOYERS: What do Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans have in common, except language?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, they have in common, the idea that they have something in common. But beyond that, I’m not sure they have very much in common. And many of us don’t speak Spanish.
Many of us who are two and three generations in this country speak what I call American, not English, but American. That is a language combined with a very brown tongue, in which there is German, in which there is Yiddish, in which there is lots of Spanish words, obviously. But what we have in common is the notion of cultura. That our culture matters, much more than our race. So that…
MOYERS: Culture more than race? So…
RODRIGUEZ: Oh, well, it’s not that Latin America is not racist. Latin America is in some ways more fiercely racist than the United States. I would never be on Mexican television. There’s no way I…
RODRIGUEZ: Well, look at this face. This is an Indian face I have. I was born in the 16th century, from some collision of Spain and the New World.
My mother was — my great, great, great, great grandmother was an Indian. My great, great grandfather was a hairy Spaniard. From that meeting, this violent collision of cultures, I was born.
MOYERS: So, l…
RODRIGUEZ: But Mexico looks at this face, and they see the Indian. You cannot even say the word Indio in Mexico.
MOYERS: Face, not color? Features?
RODRIGUEZ: Oh yes, face and color.
RODRIGUEZ: And… too.
MOYERS: I see your color in Mexico.
RODRIGUEZ: But not on television. You’re — Mexican television is like Swedish television. It’s an exercise in peroxide. It’s not real.
MOYERS: What is their favorite? What are they after? White?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, they are after white. But they are also afraid of white.
Now the brilliance of the United States in some sense is that it allows us to change our culture. America is all about changing your culture. Culture gaps are the heart of what…
MOYERS: Even though you can’t change your class, you can change your culture?
RODRIGUEZ: Even though you can’t change your race in America, you can change your culture. In Latin America, on the other hand, people are always changing their races. Everybody’s getting married. In Brazil, there are over 300 versions of race.
If Poppy is this and Mommy is this, then the kid is this. We have a whole language in Latin America for mixture, for brown. But in Latin America there is notion of culture, which cannot be changed.
MOYERS: Culture meaning? Give me a definition of culture.
RODRIGUEZ: Meaning music, religion…
RODRIGUEZ: Food, language…
RODRIGUEZ: So, when I write HUNGER OF MEMORY, my first book, and I argue for the necessity of American English, for young immigrant children from Latin America, I argue against bilingual education. The accusation that is made to me by my critics is that I’m — that I have betrayed my culture.
That’s a very serious accusation. I write my second book DAYS OF OBLIGATION, as a way of saying, “What is my culture, Latin America?” The closest I can find is this line that connects me to Spanish Catholicism. This notion of the tragic, that Unomuno calls… the sense of the tragic that I feel in my life, so different from the gaudy optimism of the United States, where people barely die in this country. Everybody’s passing away. In Mexico, people really die. And death is at much more of the center of the culture.
In the — on a Mexican crucifix, Christ is always hanging on the cross. It’s always Good Friday. On the American Protestant crucifix, I remember my first Protestant church, the first thing I see is that it was Easter. Christ had gotten off the crucifix and walked away. I wanted to be optimistic like that.
But always there was this sense of the tragic coming into my life, the Latin sense.
MOYERS: What does brown mean for affirmative action?
RODRIGUEZ: Brown means this difference between, say, the blond Cuban and the Black Puerto Rican, and the brown Guata— Mexican in Los Angeles, this makes our racial variety so embarrassing for those of us who claim that Hispanics are a discriminated group. My first book, HUNGER OF MEMORY is the story of a scholarship boy. I wrote that book against politicians who were describing me ethnically or racially in those years, who were describing me as a minority. At a point in which I had become middle class, and I was telling them the politicians in this first book, that you know, I’m not a minority. There are people who are minorities, including a lot of white kids who live in Appalachia, who are truly minorities.
MOYERS: You resented that didn’t you?
RODRIGUEZ: Oh yes, the way the liberal agenda has written out the white poor in this country for the last 30 years is an outrage.
MOYERS: Yes, there’s this troubled me…
RODRIGUEZ: And the way it has allowed those of us who are middle class, to advance on the backs of the poor, by playing with that word minority, which is used as a numerical label. I am in this room with you, a minority. But I’m not culturally a minority.
We belong to the same world. But the assumption is that by advancing me, that I change the condition of those people in this country who are culturally minorities. That is, those people who are outside, who do not speak this public language. Those Mexicans who work in east L.A., my tie with them is very vague indeed.
But the notion that I’m a numeric minority allows me to advance on the basis of their exclusion.
But I will never forget I will never forget that that class barrier separates me. And I will never let you or anyone in America call me a minority because that trivializes their situation.
MOYERS: I have struggled with this because I was in the Johnson administration when we ushered affirmative action in because we understood that after 250 years of slavery and repression we had to try to help some people get into the race who had never been allowed to run.
MOYERS: And yet at the same time, it became painful to recognize that the real losers in this were white working-class boys.
RODRIGUEZ: Yes, you know, there are so many things about Lyndon Johnson that I admire. I read…
MOYERS: And Richard Nixon. I find your view of Nixon sympathetic and compelling.
RODRIGUEZ: Yes. I call him the Dark Father of Hispanicity. But I have a long relationship with Richard Nixon. And it is appropriate that I am his son in that cultural sense.
MOYERS: Why are you his son?
RODRIGUEZ: He named me. He named me Hispanic. And as long as I carry that name I am beholden to Nixon. I think maybe because he was a Californian. Maybe because he wanted to undercut the Black civil rights movement, which had moved from the south, where it had been Protestant and stoic. It had moved to the north and become secular and angry.
Maybe Richard Nixon wanted to undercut that movement as young activists changed from being Negroes to being Blacks: I am Black. Maybe Richard Nixon wanted to say, “Well, you’re not the only show in town.” Richard Nixon re-imagines America. He gives us our five categories, which are the five categories of affirmative action.
MOYERS: They are?
RODRIGUEZ: White, Black, American-Indian/Eskimo, Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic. Hispanic is…
MOYERS: So, that’s the moment you became a Hispanic?
RODRIGUEZ: Until then, I was a Mexican-American. The conversation we haven’t had yet, Bill, is whether those categories mean anything in this country. I see people — my UPS man who literally is brown.
I don’t know what race he is. He might be Samoan. He might be Filipino. He might be African or he might be some combination of them. The notion of being black as the notion of being white is becoming more and more difficult.
I have a friend in Portland, Oregon. She looks a little bit like Lucille Ball. She married a Chinese. Every year, she has Chinese Gringo kids. I don’t know — there’s no category to describe what she is. So, every year she would check in the Richard Nixon categories that they were white and they were Asian. And one year the school administration said, “You can’t be both.”
And she said, “But they are both.” And the woman said, “Listen, Gertrude,” she said, “you know, it’s Tuesday morning. I have so much to do. Choose one.” And then my friend said, “Well, which one should we choose?” And she said, “Well, we can use more Asians,” she said.
So, one year, one of the sons became Asian and the other son was white. And then they’d reverse it. It is becoming like that. Whereas if you are black in America, you are black, even when you are not black. Even if you are mulatto, even as an actress in Hollywood who wins an Academy Award, who sits next to her white mother in the audience, gets up and receives an Academy Award, and all the cut-throats in Hollywood congratulate themselves for giving an Oscar this year to a black actress.
And her skin is lighter than mine. Even in 2002, which is when she won her Academy Award, it is still too difficult to say, “I am brown in Los Angeles, I am brown in Beverly Hills,” where everything is possible.
MOYERS: You’re talking about Halle Berry.
RODRIGUEZ: Yes. I’m talking about Halle Berry.
MOYERS: And what does that say to you?
RODRIGUEZ: It says that America really hasn’t found a language to talk about our mixture. You know? Our secretary of state, Colin Powell says on page nine of his autobiography, “Yes, I’m African.” he says. “But I’m also Caribbean Indian.” The Indian-African marriage in the Americas is one of the most interesting marriages that took place.
Widespread, so that there is not today a single African-American friend of mine that does not say somewhere in the course of our friendship, “I’m part Indian.” There’s no word to describe the children who are African-Indian in this country.
MOYERS: We don’t have the right language.
RODRIGUEZ: No, we don’t have the right language. Colin Powell says he’s also Anglo-Saxon. And he’s also Scots-Irish. Nowhere in America do we have a history, an erotic history that tells us about the mixing of these people.
About how we come to be as a people. Literally how we come to be. Instead, we have these categories: white, black, and now this new, ludicrous category that Richard Nixon invented for me, Hispanic. In 1972, I became Hispanic.
MOYERS: So in the end, it is class that wins?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, it will be class except at some level, all of us play parts in each others’ lives. And I say, you know I’ve been not so much an admirer of the illegal immigrant but an awed witness to their journey. The poor are in movement all over the world.
And they are forcing us to change the way we see the world. They are forcing on us a notion that we, as Americans, exist within the Americas. Because suddenly on the roof of my apartment there are these Guatemalan Indians singing in this high-fluted Indian voice this Spanish Colonial language that was forced down their throat. And they are singing under my skylight. And they are reminding me that Guatemala is not so far away.
MOYERS: But the facts, the data show that inequality is great and growing. And that the Guatemalans singing on the rooftop across from your apartment has very little chance of the upward mobility that…
RODRIGUEZ: Exactly. Exactly. What…
MOYERS: …he comes…
RODRIGUEZ: Join me then in my criticism of affirmative action this movement that essentially has created a black and brown bourgeoisie in the name of the poor. But we— what Richard Nixon’s five category never gave us, what Lyndon Johnson perhaps would have wanted if he had thought out the implications of affirmative action. And that is the education of the poor. Above all, the poor. Start social revolution from the bottom and go up. Don’t start it at the top and go — and expect the bourgeoisie to improve the condition of those at the bottom. You know, California right now has the highest — except for Hawaii — has the highest rate of interracial marriages. But they also have the largest number of per capita of gated communities in the country. This is happening simultaneously. We are marrying each other. We are violating borders. And we are also pulling back.
MOYERS: You know, Richard, when I read BROWN, I realized the bitterness, maybe the anger that I had detected in your first book and in our first interview is gone.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. Well, Brown gives me a way of dealing with my own contradictions. There’s so many things within me that are — that come from so many different sources. The fact that I’m homosexual but I’m also a Catholic. The fact that I hold my relationship with the English language so dearly that this language that I’m using now I love.
I love English literature. But I also see myself connected to the Spanish Empire. That I can embrace all those things makes me brown. And it allows me to accept the fact that I am a contradiction to myself.
MOYERS: We’re out of time. Thank you, Richard Rodriguez. BROWN: THE LAST DISCOVERY OF AMERICA.
RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Bill.
MOYERS: So much has been happening in the world, it’s easy to miss some of the more telling stories. So we’ll close tonight with some items from the news that I keep in an old-fashioned clip file right on top of my desk. Be forewarned: It’s all on the record; we’re not making any of this up.
The new publication THE WEEK reports that, quote: “Afghanistan’s chief justice shut down television channels he deemed un-Islamic, and said he wanted to end the country’s brief experiment with co-education as well.”
Here at home, THE NEW YORK TIMES informed us, quote: “The Bush administration plans to allow religious groups for the first time to use federal housing money to help build centers where religious worship is held.”
We spotted this story in THE DENVER POST, quote: “The bodies of U.S. soldiers killed by chemical or biological weapons in Iraq or future wars may be bulldozed into mass graves and burned to save the lives of surviving troops.”
This headline was in the THE LOS ANGELES TIMES: “U.S. Weighs Tactical Nuclear Strike On Iraq.”
And just to make it official, this one from THE WASHINGTON TIMES: “Bush signs paper allowing nuclear response.”
And in case terrorists explode a dirty bomb here at home: “The FDA wants an anti-radiation drug.” WIRED NEWS reports the government is looking for a way to treat radiation exposure.
On the environmental front, Knight Ridder newspapers reported that President Bush has made over 50 major changes in policy without attracting much attention by: “issuing executive orders that don’t require Congressional approval, rewriting highly technical environmental regulations and muzzling dissent within the administration.”
From the British magazine, the ECOLOGIST: “Chemical and biological weapons buried on abandoned and converted defense sites across the U.S. have contaminated an area larger than Florida.”
Meanwhile, according to THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, civil and criminal penalties for breaking federal environmental laws have dropped significantly since President Bush took office.
And from THE NEW YORK TIMES, quote: “The administration is moving to help industries keep using a pesticide that is to be banned under an international agreement to restore the earth’s protective ozone layer.”
Among the pesticide users to be exempted are golf course operators.
On the economic front, THE NATIONAL JOURNAL tells of dozens of Fortune 500 executives prowling Capitol Hill urging support of the President’s plan to cut their dividend taxes…while governors are pulling their hair out because ending the dividend tax would raise state budget deficits by another 4 to 5 billion dollars a year.
Writing in THE WASHINGTON POST, columnist Robert Samuelson reminded his readers that the benefits of the tax cut would go, quote, “heavily to the rich” – to the eight percent of the population that makes over one hundred thousand dollars a year.
Nonetheless, Karl Rove, the President’s political mastermind, called reporters together to announce that Mr. Bush is a populist whose call for the elimination of taxes on stock dividends was aimed at “the little guy.”
The dictionary defines populism as “a political philosophy directed to the needs of the common people and advocating a more equitable distribution of wealth and power.”
Finally, from THE NEW YORK TIMES again: “One week after President Bush proposed billions in tax breaks for fretful stock owners, he revived a plan to wring an additional 10 hours of work each week from women with small children who are managing to hold a job under the federal welfare reform program.”
As I say, it’s all on the record. We’re not making it up. All our sources are listed on our web site at pbs.org. We’ve also posted there a short biography of the late Will Rogers, the shrewdest and funniest sage of his time. As Will Rogers said, “All I know is what I read in the papers.”
That’s it for NOW. Thanks for watching. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 20, 2015.