‘Changing Channels: The Latest FCC Battle,’ Bioethics and the 9-11 Commission

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Will Congress stop big media from getting even bigger? In light of a 400-2 vote in the House to overturn part of the FCC’s ruling to further deregulate the media industry, NOW went to Capitol Hill to take the pulse of lawmakers on what was turning into a stunning political event. Then, a look at some of the most hotly debated topics of the early 2000s, including stem cell research, gene therapy, and cloning. Bill Moyers talks to Leon Kass, a scientist, physician and scholar wrestling with contemporary ethical issues.

The findings of the congressional investigation into the 9/11 attacks are out, and NOW interviews former Sen. Max Cleland about what his own organization, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, has to say about what led up to 9/11. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.


SESNO: Welcome to NOW. Bill Moyers is away this week. I’m Frank Sesno.

Just when it appears the voice of the American people has been out-shouted by those with big bankrolls, there’s a burst of outrage that actually makes a difference.

The stage for all this was set on June 2, when the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow further deregulation of big media. Its decision would give unprecedented power over what we read, see, and hear to a handful of big, multinational companies.

But the FCC was overwhelmed with phone calls and e-mails, more than 90% in opposition, so many their email system crashed. Congress was deluged, too.

So feeling the heat, members of the Senate and House of Representatives determined that the FCC vote in June was not the will of the people, not by a long shot. They took action.

NOW’s Senior Washington Correspondent Roberta Baskin is covering this developing story. The producer is Katie Pitra.

BASKIN: As Congress races to its summer recess, it’s barreling forward to upset the Federal Communications Commission’s new rule changes. The most controversial one would raise the TV ownership limit to 45%, allowing big media companies to buy up even more local TV stations.

It’s a change that’s alienating even pro-business Republicans like Representative Frank Wolf.

WOLF: But boy, I’ll tell you, it just rang my bell. I didn’t get elected here to be a plotted plant. And I don’t really care what the White House thinks about some of these issues; for my conscience is what I will report to when I reach the end of my days, not to anybody downtown.

BASKIN: For the past month, both houses of Congress have been trying to undo a process of administration-backed deregulation that began two years ago.

As recently as May, media moguls appeared on the hill, their pleas for less oversight getting a respectful hearing before friendly legislators.

MCCAIN: By the way, we are in agreement that the change in the FCC rules will trigger a wave of consolidations. Is there any disagreement?

MURDOCH: Might I interrupt? I certainly have no plans for anything other than what I have before you today.

BASKIN: What’s changed all that is an outpouring of public opinion that Congress couldn’t ignore. The mail at the FCC offices alone is running more than 9 to 1 against the proposed deregulation. And that, along with an unlikely array of special interests — everything from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization for Women — have all combined in opposition.

It made for genuine drama in the House as a bipartisan group of 170 cosponsors signed on to a bill that would roll back the FCC rule. They were facing down the powerful chairman of energy and commerce, Billy Tauzin, who supported the FCC rule change.

And his tactics created some awkward moments for his fellow Republicans who wanted to follow the will of the voters, like Representative Richard Burr, of North Carolina.

BURR: I think we ought to err on the side of looking out for the American people, and not necessarily for the corporations who have the most to gain.

BASKIN: And yet the Republican leadership in the House is so strongly supporting the FCC rule. What kind of pressure is that putting on you?

BURR: Well, clearly, it makes for a challenge. I have hurdles that are thrown in front of me. And I’ve agreed to try to work through a regular order of process as it relates to the bill. Which means that when my own chairman is against me, it’s pretty hard to get that legislation up in front of the committee to get to the floor.

BASKIN: Congressmen Tauzin succeeded in blocking any action from his committee.

So the battle shifted to the Appropriations Committee where Wisconsin’s David Obey along with his outnumbered Democrats is usually on the short end of almost every big committee vote. But this time, he was able to call in reinforcements— Republicans.

Obey’s plan: use the Appropriations Committee’s control of money to stop the new FCC rule by refusing to pay for its implementation.

OBEY: It’s simply a question of whether you think we ought to do what we can to protect local standards, do what we can to protect community values, do what we can to protect diversity in this country. And I think in the interest of democracy and in the interest of those community standards, we need to do that.

BASKIN: So Obey proposed a special amendment to a spending bill asking Democrats and Republicans alike to back it.

It would be an uphill fight. The forces in favor of big media were gathering. Just hours before the vote on Obey’s amendment, 70 general managers from television stations owned by the four networks met for breakfast on Capitol Hill. They had been recruited by their parent companies to come to Washington and lobby Congress to support the FCC.

Curiously, with all these commercial TV executives in one room, only our camera was there to record it.

And out in the halls, the Republican Congressmen were being pressured to support the FCC rule change, especially from their own leadership.

WAMP: I was heading for an elevator that Chairman Billy Tauzin was getting on. I sneaked around a corner and went down three flights of stairs to avoid the elevator ride with Chairman Tauzin because he would have had me boxed into that elevator and I was able to stand my ground and vote my conscience without face-to-face having the kind of pressure that he would have exerted.

BASKIN: Meanwhile, inside the committee room, some Republicans did take the side of the FCC.

KOLBE: Mr. Chairman, it just seems to me that this is not the time and not the place for us in the Appropriations Committee to be doing this kind of authorizing legislation.

BASKIN: And committee chairman Bill Young of Florida warned members that the entire appropriations bill faced a veto from the President.

YOUNG: White House has indicated a veto would be recommended if the amendment survived the entire legislative process.

BASKIN: But in the end, the committee voted to block the FCC rule. It was surprisingly lopsided: 40 to 25. Obey’s amendment was put into next year’s spending bill, thanks to its bipartisan support from eleven committee Republicans.

WAMP: At the risk of the people back in East Tennessee hearing that I sided with David Obey this week let me say, let me say that he is right. Members of Congress, should know first hand how powerful the influence of the television is in driving public opinion, in controlling the thought process of America. It’s the most powerful medium in my lifetime, even with the advent of the Internet. It’s undeniable.

BASKIN: This week the spending bill along with Obey’s amendment was debated on the house floor—

BOUCHER: The Federal Communications Commission, in my view, got the balance right.

MARKEY: It is the worst decision ever made.

BASKIN: It passed easily, 400 to 21, the FCC’s supporters choosing to avoid a public fight over an unpopular position, vowing instead to gut the bill once it gets into conference with the Senate in September. But on the Senate side, the FCC rollback has strong support.

LOTT: Republicans can be wrong, just like Democrats can be wrong. And I think in this case they made a mistake.

BASKIN: They made a mistake in underestimating the growing realization that this is not just about business as usual, it’s about the first amendment. That was made clear at a hearing just a few weeks ago, when Senator John McCain‘s Commerce Committee highlighted the perils of concentrated media ownership. At issue? Radio, freedom of speech and country music.

The Dixie Chicks made headlines last March when, on the brink of war with Iraq, lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience she was ashamed to be from the same state as the President. Her comments reverberated on this side of the Atlantic and caused a Dixie Chicks backlash.

Enter Cumulus Media. After the Dixie Chicks spoke out, the radio company ordered them banned from its 42 country music stations and demanded a public apology. A Cumulus station in Louisiana even helped organize a rally to smash the group’s CDs.

Cumulus Media’s CEO Lewis Dickey soon found himself sitting before Commerce Chairman McCain who, despite his strong support for the war effort, was outraged by the corporate display of censorship.

MCCAIN: Did you or did you not order from corporate headquarters that the program managers not play the Dixie Chicks’ music?

DICKEY: After a groundswell of response from our program directors—

MCCAIN: Why didn’t you leave that up to the stations themselves if you’re just a confederation of stations?

DICKEY: Well, sir, we did at the end of the day. We left it up to their decision—

MCCAIN: Oh, at the end of the day. But at the beginning, you ordered that the Dixie Chicks’ music not be played.

DICKEY: Just to give you an example of how volatile this was—

MCCAIN: Did you make the decision or not?

DICKEY: Yes, we did make the decision based on their response.

MCCAIN: That’s— what about— suppose, Mr. Dickey, that I or any member of the United States Senate said or did something that your program managers found incredibly offensive. Would you then make the decision that our name, that my name not be mentioned on your news programs because it was such a hue and cry?

DICKEY: No, sir, we wouldn’t. That’s—

MCCAIN: You wouldn’t do that?

DICKEY: No, that’s a—

MCCAIN: Then why would you do that to a group of entertainers?

BASKIN: And then, McCain zeroed in on what many see as the real danger of media consolidation.

MCCAIN: If the program managers themselves had made the decision it’s one thing. But when it comes down from corporate headquarters then that, in my view, is an incredible, incredible act. And I was more offended or as offended as anyone was by the statement of the Dixie Chicks. But to restrain their trade, restrain their trade because they exercised their right of free speech to me is remarkable. It is remarkable. And it’s an argument, it’s a strong argument about what media concentration has the possibility of doing it.

BASKIN: Dickey got a scolding from Democrats as well—

BOXER: In this country every single day there’s a hue and cry over something because this is America and there’s a hue and cry everyday. That’s what this country is about. A hue and a cry. It’s a beautiful sound of freedom. And of all the places that shouldn’t be crushing it, it’s the radio business for God’s sakes.

BASKIN: Between the rising rhetoric and the public outcry, the effort to overturn the FCC rule has gathered a remarkable momentum in Congress.

It is a stunning setback for President Bush. If the bill gets to the President’s desk for his signature, he’ll have to consider an action he’s never taken before—a veto.

ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW. A philosopher takes on the bible.

KASS: It gives you stories which, if you ponder them, take you to the deepest layers of our humanity.

SESNO: Ever since 9/11, there have been lingering questions as to how it could have happened.

Where were the holes in American intelligence and security, the failures that allowed the terrorists of Al Qaeda to fly right through our safeguards? Yesterday, after months of review and delay — some say intentional — the government released the official report of last year’s joint Congressional investigation.

Among the findings, the failure of intelligence and law enforcement agencies — the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency — to act upon and share critical information, especially about two of the Pentagon hijackers who met up in San Diego with a man from Saudi Arabia who may have been an agent for the Saudi government.

Substantial portions of the report remain secret, including most of a 28-page section on Saudi government connections to Islamic extremists.

The congressional investigation is now over, but there’s another, even broader, independent investigation underway.

In the months after 9/11, President Bush was reluctant to appoint an independent commission to investigate, citing national security concerns and the belief that it would divert attention from the war on terrorism.

BUSH: We don’t want to give away sources and uses and methodology of intelligence gathering.

SESNO: But families of the victims pressed for an independent investigation. They wanted answers and accountability.

FETCHET: All those that died on September 11, they deserve answers to how and why they were senselessly murdered in their own country.

SESNO: Eight months ago, President Bush signed legislation creating the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, known as the 9/11 Commission, it’s headed by former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, a Republican.

The vice chair is a Democrat, former Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana.

The commission is bipartisan, with five members from each party.

It has a staff of 60 and a $14 million budget, and it’s examining everything from terrorist watch lists that didn’t work to whether the government’s actions since 9/11 have really made the country safer.

But there’s a problem.

Apparently, there are those in government who still aren’t happy that the commission exists, and that has led to accusations that agencies have been blocking the release of information to the commission.

SCHUMER: The bottom line is the best thing we can do to prevent future terrorist attacks is learn from the mistakes that were made in the past. That’s why news of stonewalling by federal agencies is very, very disturbing.

SESNO: All of which has the commission’s chairman, Republican Tom Kean, worried.

KEAN: The time is slipping by. Every day lost complicates our work. Extensive and prompt cooperation from the United States government is absolutely essential.

SESNO: The report of the 9/11 Commission is due in May. With me today is one of the members of the 9/11 Commission, former Georgia Senator Max Cleland. His background gives him a unique perspective. As a young man, he enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam, where he was seriously injured by a hand grenade.

Recovering from those wounds, Cleland committed himself to politics and public service. He started as a Democratic member of the Georgia State Senate. At the age of 34, President Jimmy Carter turned to Cleland to run the Veterans Administration. Cleland was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996, establishing his expertise not only in veterans’ and health issues, but in bio-terrorism and homeland security.

He lost a bitter battle for reelection last year, and now teaches at Washington’s American University in addition to serving on the 9/11 Commission. Welcome to NOW.

CLELAND: Thank you.

SESNO: Good to see you. The joint report that you’re going to build upon is very important nonetheless, and it documents a series of mixed signals between the various agencies and departments, the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency. As you read that report, thinking of the independent commission that you’re a part of, what raised your eyebrows?

CLELAND: Well, several things. First of all, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to me that three or four disparate elements of our government in the so-called intelligence community couldn’t even share that intelligence and couldn’t even communicate that to one another when each one had a bite of the elephant, but they couldn’t put the picture of the elephant together.

What you find is the intelligence community is so many disparate agencies, over a dozen in six cabinet level departments combined.

You have a community, but they’re not communicating. And therein lies the problem. What people have missed about the joint inquiry report is the number one recommendation. Let’s get a National Director of Intelligence. One person to report to the President, and the Congress, and connect the dots. That’s the real missing element that we’ve had for about 30 or 40 years.

SESNO: Coming back to this report for just a minute, I spoke with someone at CIA who said after reviewing this report that there’s a lot of stuff in there. But really, nothing new. Did you see anything new in it?

CLELAND: Absolutely.

SESNO: What?

CLELAND: Absolutely. I did not know that there was an FBI informant in San Diego that was living with two of the hijackers, and that the FBI headquarters in Washington didn’t even tell him that they should have been basically being looked at because the CIA didn’t tell the FBI.

And the NSA didn’t pass it on to the CIA or the FBI. They were picking up intelligence as early as 1994 about a potential attack in this country using aircraft. What we have here is a devastating indictment of the intelligence community.

SESNO: So, your commission builds on the joint Congressional—


SESNO: —inquiry.

CLELAND: Now, let’s talk about that.

SESNO: So, where do you go that they didn’t?

CLELAND: Let’s talk about that here. This commission was formed about mid-December, the 9/11 Commission. We were supposed to use the joint inquiry report as a launching pad to get into this issue of not only fixing the intelligence community, but moving beyond, and getting into what is the Al Qaeda all about? What is this terrorist global network that we’re fighting? A new kind of war and all that.

Well, the independent, bi-partisan commission, hello, didn’t even get the stuff ’til a few weeks ago.

I’m saying that’s deliberate. I am saying that the delay in relating this information to the American public out of a hearing— series of hearings, that several members of Congress knew eight or ten months ago, including Bob Graham and others, that was deliberately slow walked— the 9/11 Commission was deliberately slow walked, because the Administration’s policy was, and its priority was, we’re gonna take Saddam Hussein out.

SESNO: Senator, do you have any documentation or any proof to back up this very serious charge of yours that this was deliberate besides your own—

CLELAND: Well, first of all—

SESNO: —hunch or gut?

CLELAND: —it’s obvious.

SESNO: No, no, but beyond— but beyond being obvious, let me press—

CLELAND: First of all the war in Iraq—

SESNO: —you on this—

CLELAND: Yeah, okay.

SESNO: —because this is a very serious charge you’re making. If you’re saying that this was deliberate what I’m asking is has anybody said anything to you, from inside the Administration to support that? Have you seen any document, any memorandum that substantiates your charge?

CLELAND: Well, just look at it. Okay? This executive summary of the intelligence inquiry— the joint intelligence inquiry, the executive summary, was available December 10th. Why did it take nine months to go over what ought to be held out of that?

Now, I’m saying that that was slow walked. I am also saying why did it take eight months to get this 9/11 Commission really cranked up and going, and the first step was to use the Intelligence Committee report as the jumping off point? Why did all of this take so long?

Because the real priority of the White House was not the 9/11 Commission — they fought it. And it was just, and it really was their interest was to delay the revelation of this report.

One of the reasons they didn’t want it is they didn’t want all this stuff out there.

SESNO: The White House says, and I’ve spoken to them, that they didn’t slow walk it, that there was a lot of very sensitive information involved, both in disseminating the information to begin with, and then determining how much should be released.

At the news conference where the report was discussed, Congressman Porter Goss, who’s head of the House Intelligence Committee, had the following to say on the subject of the sensitivity of this information. Take a look.

GOSS: There are people who are watching this press conference who are going to read this book, who are going to analyze what information we have put out, and what we haven’t put out. And the last thing we want to do in any way is create an opportunity for a terrorist to take advantage of us because of something we put in in our good intentions to have our public know what exactly happened.

SESNO: Does he not have a point? That not just friends of the American public, but America’s enemies are reading these reports and watching all of this?

CLELAND: America’s enemies have been— have declared war on this country. But who declared war on the country? It was Osama bin Laden, and his terrorist cadre. And Islamic fanatics. That’s what 9/11 was all about. It was not about Saddam Hussein. Who has the worst or, the greatest— who is the greatest threat in the world today to us, in terms of weapons of mass destruction? It’s not Saddam Hussein. It’s North Korea. So, why are we making this big deal? We should’ve found Osama bin Laden. We should’ve destroyed his network around the world. That was gonna take time.

It wasn’t gonna make headlines. You can’t do that war in three weeks, and say “major combat’s over.”

What you’re really up against here is Islamic fundamental terrorism that is infiltrating now not only back into Afghanistan, but into Iraq as well.

And that’s what we’re really up against. That’s what the 9/11 Commission was designed to explore. And we’re just getting into that.

SESNO: So what, specifically, are the key questions in your view that the 9/11 Commission has to ask and answer by next May?

CLELAND: Step number one, where in the world is Osama bin Laden?

Step number two, what is the Al Qaeda? Why did they do this? Why did they shift their target from the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, and the leadership in Egypt, why did they shift their target to America? They shifted their target, we know that.

And years ago, Osama bin Laden declared open war on the United States, why? Because we support the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, we support the leadership in Egypt. And that tees off a whole lot of folks out there.

SESNO: Step number three. FINANCIAL TIMES today reporting on the Congressional report. Report raises new questions on Saudi role in 9/11 attacks.

CLELAND: Absolutely.

SESNO: How far into that will your commission, a) be able to go, and b) actually be able to share with the public?

CLELAND: All right. We’re— first thing, if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck.

You can read between the lines and see that there were foreign governments that were much more involved in the 9/11 attack than just supporting Islamic fundamentalist teachings and schools. Now, that has been redacted. A whole 28 page section.

SESNO: And will you have access to all the documentation, including the redacted portion—

CLELAND: We darn well better.

SESNO: —of those committee reports?

CLELAND: Because— but look at what’s happening. The Administration, the White House, has put several blocks in the road. One, they run all the information to the 9/11 Commission through a political coordinator in Ashcroft’s Justice Department. Duh. Why that?

Secondly, they want to put minders — that’s people who sit in the room when we have an interview with people in NSA, FBI, CIA, Department of— in DIA — in the Pentagon, and Immigration and Naturalization Services. They want to put minders in there. That’s to shut down information. That’s not to reveal information.

SESNO: On the connection, if there is one, between the Saudi government and any funding or support for the 9/11 terrorists. Will you have access to the information that was redacted? Have you already had access to that?

CLELAND: We got it now.

SESNO: And how much—

CLELAND: It’s— but we’ve got it late—

SESNO: And how much of what you—

CLELAND: We got it eight months late.

SESNO: But how of what you find and pursue in addition to that will your commission make public, and be able to make public?

CLELAND: I hope all of it.

SESNO: But you have no assurance of that.

CLELAND: America— well, we better.

SESNO: You are clearly passionate and exercised about this, and you have compared Iraq to Vietnam.

CLELAND: Absolutely.

SESNO: You have used the q-word, “quagmire.”

CLELAND: It is a quagmire.

SESNO: Why? Why?

CLELAND: Because. There’s so many similarities here. You have an assessment, which even Wolfowitz now realizes we underestimated the enemy. That was Dean Rusk’s view a few years into Vietnam.

You get the big land force in there. You know. You don’t cure the problem. And you’re exposed. And then the guerrilla warfare comes after you. That’s Vietnam. That’s the quagmire we’re in in Iraq. There is no exit strategy. Why? Because we want to do a pre-emptive war. We want to do it all alone.

SESNO: The administration would say the exit strategy is to build a fledgling democracy in Iraq—

CLELAND: Lots of luck.

SESNO: That then—

CLELAND: They’re fighting 5000 years.

SESNO: —provides— that provides a beacon for the region.

CLELAND: Lots of luck. I mean, more power to `em. You can’t force or impose democracy with 150,000 troops. We tried to do it in South Vietnam. There was an election there, and all this kind of stuff. But it never worked.

SESNO: I want to ask you about one final thing here, and that is the Commission itself, which is supposed to be independent. And your take on Iraq. You had a bruising, bitter political contest. Is this sour grapes for you?

CLELAND: No. No. I tell you what makes me mad. Is when I see the names of those youngsters that are being killed out there every day. I say, “God help us.” I’ve been there. I’ve seen this movie before.

It was 35 years ago. I was one of those young 21-year-old, 22, 23-year-old guys. Young Lieutenant, hard charger, volunteer. First Air Cavalry Division. Airborne, all this kind of stuff. Hoo-wah, hoo-wah, hoo-wah.

And we got great young soldiers. And I’ve been at Bethesda and Walter Reade, and I’ve seen their legs blown off. And I’ve seen their eyes gone. And that’s what bothers me.

SESNO: Very briefly, then, what do you think should be done now?

CLELAND: First of all, you got to go back and get the UN in there. we’ve got to go back to the very people we dissed. And we got to say to Russia and Germany and France and the UN and the Security Council, “We’re in deep trouble. Help us out.”

We got to make a UN protectorate, and that’s gonna take a long time.

SESNO: Max Cleland, thanks.

CLELAND: Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS: it’s $3,000 out of your pocket every year.

SPINNEY: If you look at the weapons that we’re buying they’re not for the war on terrorism.

Our decisions basically are to spend other people’s money and ultimately to spill other people’s blood.

ANNOUNCER: Is the Pentagon putting us in harm’s way? That’s next week on NOW.

And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS online at pbs.org. The continuing fight over media deregulation, a progress report. Learn more about the 9/11 commission and its ongoing investigation. Get updates, the latest news on stories recently reported on NOW. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.

SESNO: There’s a birthday to celebrate today.

Louise Brown is 25 years old. What makes her birthday so special is that Louise Brown was the first human being born as a result of in vitro fertilization. She’s the “Eve” of test tube babies.

Since Louise Brown’s birth, the frontier of medical research has been pushed forward in ways that defy the imagination and often provoke controversy along the way.

Take stem cell research, for example. Last week, the prestigious NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE announced it will make an extra effort to publish embryonic stem cell research, which supporters say can lead to revolutionary treatments of disease.

But political and social opposition to stem cell research has been intense and it centers on the human embryos destroyed in the process.

Two years ago, President Bush announced he would allow government funding of stem cell work, but only with cells derived from embryos already destroyed for other medical reasons.

Leon Kass is very much a part of the stem cell controversy.

He serves as chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, which helped craft President Bush’s position on stem cell research.

Dr. Kass earned his MD from the University of Chicago and his doctorate in biochemistry from Harvard. He is also a writer and philosopher. His latest book, THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM, is a study of the book of Genesis.

Bill Moyers spoke with Leon Kass a few days ago.

MOYERS: Why would a scientist, a physician, a scholar always wrestling with contemporary ethical issues, spend 20 years on a book about the Bible?

KASS: It’s quite a wonder to me, too, Bill. I began life as a child of the Enlightenment, raised in a secular home, Yiddish speaking, socialist. Believed in the indefinite progress of humankind in all respects. And wasn’t bar mitzvahed. Never was in the synagogue.

Thought religion was really largely a matter of superstition and a thing of the past. And two things, I guess, happened. One was when our own children were born it dawned on me that the moral teachings of my home were, in fact, parasitic on traditional Jewish thought and morals. The prophets without the law. And it seemed to me incumbent on my wife and me to try to give our children something of a knowledge of the heritage which we ourselves didn’t receive.

But more importantly, in my own teaching, I discovered that the Bible was a book that could more than hold its own with the great works of philosophy and literature that I had been teaching to undergraduates. And, quite by accident, really, I sort of stumbled upon this book in my teaching. And it got a hold of me.

MOYERS: Well, does this suggest that what you were looking for for your children when you introduced them to these stories — which you had neglected for the first part of your life — were you trying to impart something to them? Did you feel there was a vacuum in their lives?

KASS: I’ve learned through teaching, Bill, that this is a common situation, especially amongst the children of privilege.

They have opportunities, they have knowledge, they have power, they have prosperity undreamed of by your parents and mine. And yet, they’ve come to discover that there’s something missing in their lives, that they’re are no longer so infatuated with science and technology. And they don’t believe that that holds, somehow, the key to life’s mysteries.

The bloom has gone off the rose of many of the idealistic professions. But in personal life they have a kind of spiritual hunger and longing. And many of them, to my amazement, are really interested in the ultimate questions.

And the classes that I’ve had on Genesis, Bill, have been the best classes I’ve ever taught. I don’t lecture. I mean we sit and read these stories, and they take to them like thirsty men and women to water.

MOYERS: Is there a theme to the wisdom you take out of or read into this book?

KASS: Yeah. No you see, I don’t think Genesis hands you pearls of wisdom in that sense.

MOYERS: Like Psalms or the Song of Solomon?

KASS: No, no. And not like the law. I mean it gives you stories which, if you ponder them, take you to the deepest layers of our humanity, show you the elements, psychic and social, of human life, in all their moral ambiguity.

And you’re given a kind of panorama of human alternatives to ponder, so that what you have, I think, when you finish this story, is a deepening understanding of why human life is so bittersweet, and what the enduring human problems are. And also, some beginning glimpse of how one might go about addressing them.

MOYERS: How much history do you think lies behind the Bible? I mean there is no archaeological evidence, no archaeological evidence ever been found that Abraham, Jacob, Joshua even existed.

KASS: Well, certainly there’s no archaeological evidence for anything in Genesis. And, I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter. But it doesn’t matter decisively, I don’t think.

It certainly doesn’t matter whether there was or was not a Garden of Eden in a historical sense. The truth of that story, as far as I can tell, is that Adam and Eve, in my reading, are not so much the historically first man and woman as they are the paradigmatic man and woman, as a picture of what primordial, uninstructed male and female human being would be like.

Cain and Abel are the paradigmatic brothers in the absence of some latter day teaching about how brothers ought to behave. The city of Babel is, I mean there was a Babylonian city. And, the Bible is, I think, in polemic against the existing traditions.

But, I don’t think that there was a historical city in which they really did try to reach to the Heavens. But there is some deep universal truth about the aspiration of a universal city that that story reveals.

So that I don’t care at all myself. And I don’t think the deep truth of the beginning part of Genesis depends upon what’s there. Now I have to say the question of creation is different. I mean it really does, I think, finally matter.

MOYERS: There’s an old story about a professor of biology, one of your kind, teaching evolution. A student raises his hand and says, “What difference does it matter, Professor, if my ancestors were apes?” And the professor said, “Makes a big difference to your grandparents.”

So my question, makes a big difference to the people of Israel whether Abraham, Joshua, Isaac, Jacob existed.

KASS: Oh, I think it does. And I don’t want to… I was speaking mostly about the pre-Abrahamic chapters. I do think it makes a difference.

But, and I do think that the event that makes a decisive difference, it seems to me, is less Abraham, Isaac and Jacob than the giving of the law of Sinai. I mean that is the covenant making, the decisive covenant and people making event for which what comes before is antecedent in preparation.

But, there was somebody who started this. There was somebody who started this. There was somebody…we don’t know how many other people got called who didn’t answer.

MOYERS: Got called?

KASS: Got called as Abraham was called at a certain point.

MOYERS: I understand that, but when you use the word “call,” when, you know, Abraham hears God’s call, this is not the language of a philosopher or a scholar. This is the language of religious revelation.

KASS: That’s absolutely right. And, I don’t want to fudge that. Although I’ll fudge it for a moment. The opening of THE ILIAD is “Sing, muse, the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilles.” And the poet whether he’s serious or not, suggests that he opens his mouth and the muse sings through him.

You don’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to believe that we are in touch with powers of inspiration that summon us. There are powers that speak through us. My own view is that I’m responsible for my errors. But if I speak the voice of truth, it’s not me.

MOYERS: You have been beaten up by your critics who want to paint you as a dangerous right-wing radical. I’m quoting directly from some of the articles. One of those conservatives in the emerging Republican theocracy who substitutes faith for thought. I mean, it’s even been suggested that you are a, God forbid, no pun intended, closet Christian. I mean, what do you think of the Leon Kass painted in the imagination of your critics?

KASS: I don’t recognize it. I mean, I’m in the line of fire of battles that have nothing to do with me. And public life is very uncivil. And if you are thoughtful about things for which other people are dogmatic you become their enemy.

I believe in science. I believe in technology. I believe in medicine. The lif of countless people have been improved really through the gift of science and technology. And I wouldn’t want to see this reversed or arrested. On the other hand, it does seem to me the pursuit of certain kinds of powers to transform our nature and to conquer every aspect of our nature is, it seems to me, in danger of causing us to lose our humanity rather than fulfill it.

MOYERS: To transform our nature? Is that your concern about gene manipulation?

KASS: Gene therapy for the treatment of genetic disease is, it seems to me, just a new form, a highly sophisticated form of medicine and should be welcomed. But should we acquire the power to begin to alter our genetic makeup, to become something other at what we are, then we are in uncharted territory. Medicine is guided by some notion of the norm, of the norm of health. But the new technological powers can take us beyond the norms of health to really begin to work on the limitations that nature has imposed upon us.

MOYERS: If one your children came and said, “Dad, I want to reproduce a perfect little Leon Kass and we have the means to do it now.”

KASS: I would say it’s perverse.


KASS: Why? Because the gift of new life is, first of all, a mystery. It is a fresh and new beginning. And the genetic independence that our children have of us, that they are the fruit of the lottery of sexual union, that kind of genetic independence is a biological announcement of the independence that they will wrest from us and from which we have to rear them.

And it is also a sign that they are supposed to live a never before enacted life. That it’s also one of the reasons why I am opposed really to the indefinite prolongation of life. The culture that seeks indefinite prolongation of its own life beyond the fourscore of a full life is a culture that is increasingly hostile to renewal and to children. Whereas, what we want really is the renewal of human possibility with fresh eyes, without cynicism, without fatigue and with the precious novelty that the chance of sexuality provides us.

MOYERS: So do you make a distinction between reproductive cloning and cloning for the research and treatment of disease?

KASS: Well, those are distinguishable things. But I’m opposed to both, Bill. And I’m opposed to both partly because I don’t think we can hold the line between the second and the first. I think if you perfect the technology of cloning for research, you clone little embryos, you grow them up to seven days, you’re gonna perfect this technology and it’s gonna be very, very hard to prevent some people from actually implanting them in uteruses and allowing the clone babies to be born.

MOYERS: But I think all of it, I have kin and friends whose suffering, I’m told, I’m just a layman on this, could ultimately be alleviated. Parkinson’s and others from stem cell research.

KASS: Yeah, the stem cell research question and the cloning research are separate.

MOYERS: Two different issues. Right.

KASS: You want to talk about the stem question? We can.


KASS: Look, stem cell research is a very exciting new area of research. It’s too early to know how much of its promise will be delivered. And there’s been a lot of hype, one has to say, which sadly exploits the hopes now of suffering people.

We should be patient. And we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be gulled by excessive promises. Second, we should be in favor of the now liberalized policy that allows research to go on with these existing stem cell lines. There are vastly more lines now in use…

MOYERS: And a line is?

KASS: These are embryos that are left over in the in vitro fertilization clinics. They grow up to five or six days when they’re 100 or so cells. Inside are cells which are pluripotent. They can become all the tissues of the body.

By destroying the embryo you can harvest these cells. And because they can grow indefinitely in culture, they are a line of cells just like a line of ancestors. They are now a line that keeps you propagating.

MOYERS: From Adam to Noah.

KASS: From Adam to Noah. And what you can do with these cells is you can instruct them by chemical means to become nerve cells or heart cells or kidney cells or liver cells. And the hope is that you can eventually put those into a sick person’s body to regrow the nerve cells that are missing in Parkinson’s Disease or the heart muscle cells that have been damaged after a heart attack.

Right now, those cell lines… there are quite a number of cell lines that have been derived from embryos. The embryos are already destroyed. The lines are now no longer embryos but just cell cultures. And we now have ongoing vigorous research in this country funded by the federal government on a significant number of those lines.

MOYERS: And you support that?

KASS: And I support that.

MOYERS: What you don’t support is…Yeah, and the President supports it. What you don’t support is?

KASS: What I don’t support, at least for the time being, is the further destruction of new embryos at least with federal funds.

MOYERS: Because?

KASS: Because this really is a, I think, a major step to… This research, by the way, is now free to go on at whatever pace in the private sector.

MOYERS: You’re letting science go.

KASS: Science goes. The question is whether the people’s representatives on an issue of such deeply divided moral sentiment ought to pronounce by way of official judgment we approve of the destruction of nascent life for the sake of research. It’s a boundary to be crossed. I’m not… I have a lot of trouble with this.

I mean, it’s not absolutely open and shut. But I want everybody to understand we cannot afford to be cavalier about human suffering. But we also can’t afford to be casual about what we do with nascent human life. And we don’t wanna become a society in which nascent human life, what you and I once were in our earliest stages is regarded as a mere natural resource.

MOYERS: You mean down when we were mere cells?

KASS: When we were…

MOYERS: Or a cell?

KASS: We were a very special kind of cell, Bill.

MOYERS: Potentially.

KASS: No, no. We were… when you… look, when R.G. Edwards created the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, 1978, he said, and he sort of stumbled over the truth. He said, “She was beautiful then and she is beautiful now.” And by “then” he meant when she was a zygote, when she was a fertilized egg which he had fertilized.

There’s a continuity there. I don’t know whether an early embryo is one of us. I don’t tend to believe it but it’s an awesome and mysterious being. And you and I were once no bigger than that.

MOYERS: Isn’t it possible that religion clouds our thinking about bioethical issues? I mean, I know people who do not throw a distinction between natural and unnatural behavior. Who don’t hold, quote, “naturally occurring plants, animals and chemicals,” in such a sacred position.

And they say that the issue here is not ethical but survival of the human race. And that if biotechnology, genetically modified food can ensure the survival of the human race, that that’s more essential than the religious contemplation of what it means.

KASS: I don’t think one should accept the either/or that the question implies. The human race has to survive. And we should make use of all the means at our disposal. The survival of the human race doesn’t, however, require the indefinite survival of you and me and all of our kin to Methuselah’s age and beyond.

In fact, what we want is not just health and survival but the preservation of that for the sake of which we want to survive. Which is the possibility of nobility and decency and love and friendship and science and art and all of those things that disappear in a culture of the brave new world.

MOYERS: What do you think we human beings most need to be fulfilled?

KASS: I would say probably three things: Deep love and friendship at least once and, God willing, for a while. Second, some kind of meaningful work that brings out the best of what one has to offer. And third, and the third really is a way of combining the other two, to put oneself in the service of something higher than oneself.

MOYERS: The book is THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM: READING GENESIS. Thank you, Leon Kass for joining us on NOW.

KASS: Bill, thanks very much.

SESNO: Finally, tonight, we want to report on new developments in a story NOW covered just two weeks ago — the proposed nomination of conservative Alabama attorney general William H. Pryor, Jr., to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination 10 to 9, along strict party lines. The deciding vote in favor of Pryor came from moderate Republican Arlen Spector.

Spector, who supports abortion rights, had earlier questioned Pryor on his outspoken opposition to abortion.

SPECTOR: What assurances can you give to the many who are raising the question as to whether, when you characterized it as an abomination and slaughter, that you can follow the decision of the United States Supreme Court, which you consider an abomination and having led to slaughter?

PRYOR: I would invite anyone to look at my record as attorney general where I’ve done just that.

SESNO: Spector faces a tough primary battle next year against a conservative opponent, and says he hasn’t made up his mind how he’ll vote when the full Senate considers the nomination.

Pryor’s nomination was approved despite new information about Pryor raising money from corporations that he, as Alabama attorney general, might have to investigate or prosecute. Here’s what we said in our story:

MOYERS: Pryor was also challenged about an organization known as RAGA — the Republican Attorneys General Association. The group raises money for candidates running for state attorney general, but until the campaign finance reforms of last year, it could hide which corporations gave to which candidates by channeling the funds through the Republican National Committee. Pryor helped found RAGA in 1999 and was its treasurer.

FEINGOLD: Do you think it’s appropriate for attorneys general to solicit funds or receive funds from corporations whom they may later have to investigate?

PRYOR: Well, I wasn’t receiving, in that instance, a direct contribution, of course, from a corporation. I was receiving it from the Republican National State Elections Committee.

The system that we have in America of elections requires candidates to raise funds to wage campaigns. I have done that, and I have disclosed every donation that my campaign has ever received.

SESNO: But the WASHINGTON POST reported that documents sent to the committee after that hearing revealed Pryor had sought donations for RAGA from tobacco, banking and telecommunications interests, all doing business in the state of Alabama. In this week’s hearing, Senator Chuck Schumer urged his colleagues to delay the vote.

SCHUMER: No one has given me one substantive reason why we have to vote on this nomination today, why we have to fill this vacancy next week rather than two weeks from now or a month from now. It would seem to me getting the truth and finding out what’s going on wherever it leads us is more important than simply saying we have to vote today.

SESNO: Judiciary Committee chair Senator Orrin Hatch refused to delay the vote. He said the Democrats’ opposition was based on Pryor’s religion. Pryor is a practicing Roman Catholic.

HATCH: It’s no secret that Gen. Pryor is a pro-life Catholic. He’s a traditional pro-life Catholic. He has been vocal about his religious and his pro-life beliefs. I hope that we haven’t reached a point where traditional pro-life Catholics or Baptists or Muslims or Mormons or anything else, anybody else, cannot serve on the federal bench because they have strongly held religious beliefs.

SESNO: Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has been Bill Pryor’s most vocal supporter.

SESSIONS: Let me tell you, the doctrine that abortion is not justified for rape and incest is Catholic doctrine. It is a position of the pope and it’s a position of the Catholic Church in unity. So are we saying that if you believe in that principle you can’t be a federal judge? Is that what we are saying? And are we not saying then, “Good Catholics need not apply?”

SESNO: Those remarks in the Judiciary Committee may be a preview for this fall’s debate in the full Senate. In fact, the battle has already begun. On Sunday, newspaper ads in two states showed a courthouse with the sign, “Catholics need not apply.” The same message went out on a radio ad.

Those print and radio ads were sending a very specific, very targeted political message. They ran in Maine and Rhode Island, home states to three moderate Republican senators: Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee. All three are considered swing votes when the full Senate takes up Bill Pryor’s nomination.

That’s it for NOW. Bill Moyers will be back next week. I’m Frank Sesno. Good night.

This transcript was entered on April 13, 2015.

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