As the number two man at the Department of the Interior, J. Steven Griles is in charge of the nation’s natural resources. But some say that having Griles, a former powerful lobbyist for the energy industry, at Interior is like having a fox in the hen house. Recently, at the behest of members of the Senate, the Interior Department’s Inspector General launched an official investigation into the ethical questions raised about Griles. NOW examines Griles’ record at the Interior Department and scrutinizes the apparent conflicts of interest that has one environmental group documenting his every move.
Bill Moyers interviews Fred L. Smith, Jr., Founder and President of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public interest group dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government that is active in a wide range of economic and environmental public policy issues. They discuss Washington’s recent environmental policies and their long-term impact on the environment.
Bill Moyers interviews acclaimed playwright and creator of the 2002 Tony Award-winning METAMORPHOSES Mary Zimmerman. Zimmerman will discuss her adaptation for the theater of THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI.
Then, in an essay, Moyers responds to the news that President Bush had signed his tax cut bill.
WATCH THE ESSAY
You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
On the campaign trail in the year 2000, George W. Bush promised, among other things, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from domestic power plants. Then once he got into office, he broke that promise.
He also withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, he suspended clean-up regulations for mining companies, and he canceled the regulations on arsenic in drinking water.
What industry wanted, industry got from a President who, according to his former speechwriter David Frum, often refers to environmentalists as “green, green lima beans.”
Just this week, the Knight-Ridder newspapers reported that our national parks are in crisis, receiving only 15 cents for every dollar needed to repair long overdue maintenance problems.
And the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will temporarily stop designating land as critical habitat for threatened and endangered species because, they say, they’re running out of money.
Both the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife are overseen by the United States Department of the Interior.
And what’s happening at Interior is part of a pattern, a familiar story.
Follow the trail, and it leads through the revolving door to industry lawyers, lobbyists, and executives now holding key positions — foxes guarding the henhouse.
Here’s a report on one of them from producer Katie Pitra and our senior Washington correspondent, Roberta Baskin.
BASKIN: You’ve probably never heard of him. But you are looking at one of the most powerful public officials in Washington. And one of the most controversial.
GRILES: When the President asked me to be the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, I really didn’t understand what he had in mind.
BASKIN: His name is J. Steven Griles and regardless of what the President had in mind, the effect was to take someone who has deep corporate ties, move him through the revolving door, and put him in charge of America’s mineral resources and land holdings. Listed as number two in the department, Griles, in effect, is interior’s chief operating officer. He runs the place.
GRILES: We’re the implementers.
BASKIN: What he’s implementing worries environmental groups so much that one of them, Friends of the Earth, has assigned Kristen Sykes the job of Interior Department Watchdog, dedicated to tracking Griles.
SYKES: Steven Griles is just the poster child of the corporate influence on this administration.
BASKIN: Sykes and others are alarmed that the Interior Department has been steadily reversing one environmental safeguard after another, favoring business and industry, allowing them to exploit public resources for profit. For example, the Interior Department recently decided to eliminate wilderness protection eligibility for millions of acres of public lands. Immediately two and a half million acres in Utah, including Red Rock Canyon Lands, are now open to potential commercial development. The decision abandons three decades of Interior Department policy designed to protect public lands under consideration as wilderness areas.
Before his nomination to Interior, Griles was known as one of the energy industry’s most powerful lobbyists— a fact that made some members of Congress uneasy about his appointment to such a high ranking position in the federal government.
WYDEN: The record indicate that the J. Steven Griles of the past is going to be back in action after the Senate confirms him.
BASKIN: Prior to his confirmation as Deputy Secretary, Griles promised that if he got the job, he would take steps, quote, “to avoid any actual or apparent conflicts of interest” and quote “recuse myself for one year from my appointment—from any particular matter involving my former clients— unless the Department of the Interior determines that the interests of the government outweigh any appearance issue that may be present.”
That was good enough for the Senate. They confirmed him in July of 2001.
Concerned that an industry insider was now in charge of the nation’s natural resources, Sykes read and researched everything she could get her hands on about Griles. She also filed Freedom of Information Act requests, which eventually turned up Griles’ appointment calendars for the first 17 months he was on the job. It proved to be a revealing paper trail.
SYKES: This is over ten pages of energy meetings that he has had since he’s been at the Interior Department—
You don’t see meetings on what are we gonna do about our visitor centers that are crumbling in our national parks. You see meetings with Alaska officials about drilling in the arctic. You see meetings about oil and gas development in Wyoming. This is not an agency that is created just to implement the President’s energy plan. It’s to protect our lands for future generations.
BASKIN: Take just one area of concern to Sykes and other environmentalists. Industry wants to drill for methane gas in the coalbed landscape of Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The Department of Interior has approved the drilling of 77,000 methane wells and the laying of 30,000 miles of pipeline. The estimated impact on the environment includes not just wells and pipes, but also a trillion gallons of high-sodium water pumped out from underneath which would destroy the land for agriculture. It will be the largest natural gas project on federal land ever.
Griles favors the plan.
GRILES: One of the biggest resources discovered in the last 10 years in the West is coalbed natural gas. It’s quickly producible, drilling in coalbed doesn’t take that long, and much less capital. And it is a good resource that’s being brought to the market. We’re doing a number of things in the department to try to expedite drilling.
BASKIN: As a lobbyist for private industry, Griles was a major strategist pushing for this project. Once he entered government, says Sykes, Griles was helping to make it happen.
SYKES: He represented a number of coalbed methane companies in Wyoming and Montana and actively was involved in the coalbed methane project at the Interior Department and it’s kind of like he greased the skids and then made sure that things kept rolling when he was at the Interior Department.
BASKIN: What makes her believe that? Sykes’ investigation produced appointment records showing that in his first year — the year in which he promised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest — Griles was present at two meetings attended by former clients involved in the project.
The records don’t show what was discussed in these meetings. But consider this: last year, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management prepared an Environmental Impact Statement on the coalbed methane project. In a draft letter, the Environmental Protection Agency gave it its worst possible rating. That could have thrown a roadblock in front of the Powder River Basin drilling. Griles intervened and took the EPA to task. He wrote to the Deputy Administrator suggesting they work together instead of the EPA issuing a letter that quote: “will create, at best, misimpressions, and possibly impede the ability to move forward in a constructive manner.”
SYKES: So the fact that he was involved in this issue that had clients that he used to represent is a clear conflict of interest and is one of the greatest examples that we’ve seen that he has actually, in fact, violated his ethics agreement.
BASKIN: Interior’s lawyers decided otherwise. They looked at Griles’ letter to the EPA and concluded it did not violate ethics rules. They nonetheless reminded him, quote, “as we also discussed, you have prior association with several of the coalbed methane companies and we agreed that you would not participate in the Department’s decisions.”
Griles was then asked to sign another recusal.
HEARING: We got several questions here about your Deputy Secretary Steven Griles who has been charged by several environmental groups and Senator Lieberman with some conflict of interest problems.
BASKIN: Recently Gale Norton, Griles’ boss at Interior, was asked to respond to questions about apparent conflicts of interest involving her deputy. She defended him.
NORTON: Steve is a very conscientious and very hard working person. He has striven to meet the highest standards of ethics. We are working within our department to see that all of us do that.
BASKIN: This isn’t the first time Griles’ activities have raised questions about conflicts of interest. He was in charge of Lands and Mineral Management at Interior during the Reagan administration.
Back then Griles’ department produced some controversial decisions, including a reduction in coal royalties just prior to Griles leaving office to work as a coal industry executive and lobbyist. His department’s action cost taxpayers more than 33 million dollars before the first Bush administration reversed it.
Nevertheless, with the election of George W. Bush, Steven Griles was invited to leave his work as a corporate lobbyist and welcomed back through Washington’s revolving door.
ALBERSWERTH: Steve is a classic example of a person who has gone from government to business where he then lobbies the government and then back into government where he helps out the businesses that he used to lobby for and probably will go back and lobby for them with the government at some point in the future.
BASKIN: Dave Alberswerth, a former Interior Department official himself, is now with the Wilderness Society.
Don’t conservationists do the same thing?
ALBERSWERTH: They certainly do and I’m an example of that. The difference is that most conservation organizations are not interested in exploiting the natural resources of our public lands in order to make a profit. They are more interested in making sure those lands are conserved and the environment is protected for future generations.
BASKIN: Those trips through the revolving door are why some Senators tried to block Griles’ confirmation as Deputy Secretary.
WYDEN: I rise tonight to discuss my opposition to the nomination of J. Steven Griles as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Interior.
BASKIN: Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon was one of four Senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who voted not to confirm Griles.
WYDEN: I was worried that given his horrendous record before this appointment that we get more of the same when he came to the Bush administration and so I met with him on several occasions, and each time I asked him one question, and that is, “what would he do now to bring a more balanced approach to carrying out the duties of his office?” And he couldn’t give any examples. I was forced to conclude that really nothing had changed.
BASKIN: Griles’ opponents in the Senate note that when he was confirmed he agreed to close down his lobbying firm and sell his interest and client base in another lobbying firm — National Environmental Strategies — which could potentially benefit from Interior Department decisions. Griles sold it to his former business partner, Marc Himmelstein. Their agreement, disclosed to Interior’s ethics office, provides Griles with payments of $284,000 per year for four years. It’s all perfectly legal. Still, Kristen Sykes questions that arrangement.
SYKES: I would say that if you asked any person on the street and you said, “Here’s a top official at the Interior Department. He’s getting over a million dollars from his former lobby firm,” that they would be concerned about that.
BASKIN: As Sykes continued her search of Griles’ calendars for appointments he may have had with former clients, she turned up meetings with one listed here as NMA, which is the National Mining Association. At the time, the organization was lobbying to relax mountaintop mining standards. The Bush administration favors allowing mountaintop mining by the coal industry, a process which decapitates mountains and can dump millions of tons of rock and mineral waste into waterways and valleys.
SYKES: I would say it’s definitely an appearance of a conflict of interest if the National Mining Association and some West Virginia coal companies are actively trying to change the laws so that they can dump this waste into waterways and meanwhile Steven Griles is having meetings with them.
BASKIN: Kristen Sykes kept digging. When she compared Griles’ calendar to that of another Interior official, she turned up an interesting omission. The other calendar showed a private dinner including Griles and other top Interior officials. It was at the home of Griles’ former business partner, Mark Himmelstein, who’s still lobbying the department.
Griles’ calendar also shows the dinner, and includes the names of the interior department officials. But it says nothing about Himmelstein.
Did this show up on Griles’ calendar?
SYKES: Dinner with Cason, Watson, Burton, Clark and Jerret. But it doesn’t say Mark Himmelstein on there.
BASKIN: Why would that be?
SYKES: Well, maybe he was worried that he was violating his ethics agreement and didn’t want to get caught.
BASKIN: Sykes doesn’t know if Griles intentionally left Himmelstein off his calendar, nor does she know what was talked about that evening. But she does know that Himmelstein is a lobbyist for the Electric Power Research Institute. It represents utilities which would directly benefit from the Bush administration’s top environmental initiative. The initiative, environmentalists say, would delay tighter standards on mercury emissions, a major pollutant of the coal industry. So Griles’ former business partner has a stake in the plan.
GRILES: In the short term the President has asked Congress to pass what we call the Clear Skies initiative.
BASKIN: Griles, it turns out, sits on the President’s senior policy group for Clear Skies and has participated in at least 11 of its meetings on the issue. According to the WASHINGTON POST, at one of those meetings, former Griles’ client, Edison Electric Institute made its case for its interests on clear skies.
SYKES: I would say that because he, Steven Griles represented Edison Electric Institute on clean air issues and was discussing the Clear Skies Policy Initiative with them that that is clearly a conflict of interest and would violate his ethics agreement.
WYDEN: He does seem to be out campaigning for a proposal that doesn’t even lie within his agency’s jurisdiction. It’s a program that’s supposed to be administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, and yet he is out doing something that could well benefit his former clients.
BASKIN: And finally there’s Griles’ involvement in off-shore oil and gas drilling.
In 2001, the Bush administration decided not to pursue drilling off the coast of Florida. Chevron, a client of one of Griles’ old firms, was holding oil and gas leases to drill there. As compensation, the Interior Department paid Chevron 46 million dollars to buy back the leases. Griles participated in at least four meetings on that subject. But according to a department spokesman quote ‘made no final decisions’. More recently Griles has attended at least 10 meetings concerning oil and gas leases off the coast of California where a federal appeals court is delaying extending drilling leases.
Two of the leaseholders in California — Devon Energy and Aera Energy, partly owned by Shell — want $780 million in compensation. Devon and Shell are also former clients of Griles.
We repeatedly asked for an interview with Griles, and were turned down. We wanted to get his side of the story. So at a recent public event where the press was invited, we showed up, hoping Griles would talk with us. He would not. But the questions about conflicts of interest remain.
WYDEN: These are troubling issues that concern a number of us in the United States Senate and I hope that Mr. Griles will finally be forthcoming and answer them.
BASKIN: As for Kristen Sykes, she’ll continue tracking Steven Griles day to day. In the latest batch of calendars, something new caught her eye. As recently as late last year, Griles was receiving an “ethics briefing” inside the Department of Interior.
MOYERS: Under pressure from some members of Congress, the Interior Department’s own Inspector General is now investigating Mr. Griles’ behavior in these matters.
But will those findings make any difference in a department filled with so many people who came to government from — you guessed it — industry?
Look at the record: Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Griles’ boss, is a protegee of James Watt, the controversial Secretary of the Interior who resigned under fire in 1983.
James Watt was the founding President of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which defends mining, timber, and oil interests from environmental regulations. Its funding has come from wealthy conservatives and corporations such as Chevron, Texaco, Exxon, and U.S. Steel, among others.
Gale Norton was a senior attorney there before she came to Interior, and a lobbyist for NL Industries, the “L” stands for lead.
NL Industries has been a defendant in lawsuits involving 75 toxic waste sites. Two other officials at Interior came out of that same pro-corporate school.
Bennett William Raley, the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, was on the group’s board of litigation.
So was Rebecca Watson, who became Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management after spending most of her legal career defending the mining and logging industries.
The Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget is Patricia “Lynn” Scarlett, who made a name for herself opposing consumer right-to-know laws on toxic chemicals and restrictions on pesticides.
In this study, she argued that the profit motive actually leads to the reduction of pollution.
And then there’s Interior’s top legal advisor, solicitor William Myers III. He’s a former lawyer representing Kennecott Energy, one of the biggest coal mining companies in the world.
So when it comes to representing the interests of industry inside the department, J. Steven Griles has lots of company.
To be sure, you can grow dizzy just thinking about Interior’s revolving door.
MOYERS: We hear now from a champion of free enterprise and limited government. He doesn’t think much of any regulations especially those that affect the environment. I first met Fred Smith last year in Johannesburg, South Africa at the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development.
He’s founder and president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington devoted to market-based alternatives across the board and litigation for property rights and economic liberty. Welcome to NOW. Good to see you again.
SMITH: Good to be here.
MOYERS: You should be feeling very good. Your side has won. I mean, the President— you have the ear of the President and every level of the government. Your arguments are being heard. Corporate executives, lawyers, lobbyists as we saw in the first piece are really throughout the government, they’re running the show now. But you must be a very happy man.
SMITH: My expectations are much, much higher than that, Bill. I feel a little like the preacher who got people to recognize there is sin. But there’s still an awful lot of it in Washington, DC. We have taken… we’ve got a long way to go yet on government regulations, government expenditures are still dramatically out of scale. And the ability of the Republican administration and Congress to explain, to give a vision of what they’re trying to achieve still deserves a lot more work than it has today.
MOYERS: But you have the best hearing you’ve had in Washington.
SMITH: I have the best hearing we’ve had. And we certainly have more friends. In a way, Reagan was more ideological. But Bush has far more people in the team who listen and are attentive to. So it’s generally better, yes.
MOYERS: When Steve Forbes was running for President he said that if he was elected he would name you to be the last head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
SMITH: Thank God he didn’t get elected President. I would not want that job, I’ll tell you.
MOYERS: So what did he mean when he said the last head?
SMITH: What he meant, I think, is that the Environmental Protection Administration is the last dominant progressive era institution. It’s one which has had absolutely no thought of alternative ways of advancing the protection of our planet, something we all agree with.
Unlike other parts of government that actually have some degree of private property and so forth, EPA’s view is that environmental problems occur because of the market’s failure. And therefore politics has to do it all. And typically Washington politics has to do it all.
MOYERS: Well, you and I have a difference on that because some of what the EPA does is designed to stop people from doing bad things. And people do bad things.
SMITH: They do bad things. But property rights, remember, we don’t have to worry very much about our neighbor throwing his trash in our backyard or our neighbor doing bad things to our dogs and our cats and so on. Once people have ownership rights, once we link nature with mankind by the institutions that give us a real reason and an ability to protect things, we find that decentralization works quite well.
The tragedy is that we’ve left many of what we call environmental resources, wildlife, groundwater, fisheries, out in the cold. They’re protected, if protected at all by political institutions, and political institutions are not always the best way to protect things we care about.
MOYERS: But neither are corporations. Corporations are run by people like political institutions are.
SMITH: But corporations are. But individuals own corporations. But individuals also own property. John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “Our homes and our yards are beautiful. Our streets and our parks are a mess.” And then he went on to suggest nationalizing our homes and our yards. But the free market side says are there ways of making more of our planet someone’s backyard, more of the wildlife someone’s garden, someone’s pet. So we can begin to link man and nature.
MOYERS: You were once an analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency—
SMITH: I was.
MOYERS: I’ve been told — I do not know if this is true, it may be apocryphal — that in the last few years there you actually tried to close the agency down?
SMITH: Well, I was too lowly for that. I became quite skeptical of the EPA. The EPA was going from the air and water programs to a solid waste program, to a garbage program. And they were eventually just taking the same legislation and just crossing out air and putting in solid waste. And I said, “This isn’t going to work. America’s too diverse, too non-homogeneous a place to have a cookie cutter approach to something as complicated as solid waste.”
MOYERS: But do you honestly believe that dismantling the help in the environmental protections in this country would make us a better society?
SMITH: I don’t want to dismantle them. I want to strengthen them. The argument— we have the better food system in America because we’ve never had the socialist food production system that the Soviet Union did. In America, we try to provide environmental quality the way the Soviet Union tried to provide food. It fed people but it fed them inadequately with a very disturbing diet.
MOYERS: But I agree with you about the food. But we also wouldn’t have— we would have unsafe food if we didn’t have government regulations. The meat industry and other sources, right?
SMITH: This is a progressive area of beliefs.
MOYERS: Here’s where I come from. I’ve reported on the chemical industry’s cover-up of vinyl chloride. Keeping workers from knowing the dangers to which they’ve been exposed.
I mean, we all knew about the lead industry. Then the lead industry tried to silence the scientists who were warning about what lead was doing to children. Monsanto knew about PCB contamination in human bodies. Corporations will put profits above the community unless someone holds them accountable.
SMITH: And the way we do that is create the institutions, the meaningful liability rules, property right rules, that do not allow companies to dump their waste on the properties of others. That do not allow them to create harms to others.
But again I think there’s a lack of faith in the decentralized institutions of our free society. Too often the media, companies, you know, groups, programs like your own, blow the whistle. Then rather than recognizing that the disclosure itself brings about the solution, you often, not always — I don’t wanna pre-judge — but you often say we need a law.
But often the law wouldn’t have questioned the mistakes you did. It wasn’t this entrepreneurial. It didn’t have investigative journalists. Often, I think we don’t understand that the strength of a free society is the blowing of the whistle, alerting people to something that was going on wrong, and then stop. We’ve solved the problem then.
MOYERS: But see, I think what you need is a watchdog. And I think that—
SMITH: And you are.
MOYERS: …when there’s no watchdog… But, no. I can report about the conflicts of interest in the Interior Eepartment. But I can’t do anything about it.
SMITH: You do do something about it. You’re pr—
MOYERS: Journalism’s not enough.
SMITH: Television may not be enough, but—
MOYERS: I could report a burglar’s breaking into your apartment or your house. But I can’t go and arrest that—
SMITH: No, you can’t.
MOYERS: —person. You need to the police to do that.
SMITH: No, but if you could point out that the police are failing to do that job and they could be— and there will be reform of the police department in that situation. I think you underestimate the value of letting people know.
America’s a decent nation. We’re very decent and action people. We’re not a passive society. We let people know, shareholders know, that their companies are running the risk of downstream liability. That you let customers know that they may be in fact eating dangerous foods. You’ve a— you don’t need much—
MOYERS: I think you’ve been living in Washington too long. You don’t see the effects downstream of what happens when a mining company continues to strip the top off the mountains and let the water cascade down into the hollow.
SMITH: But that goes back to the progressive era. The progressive era we’re thinking now is very sensitized to environmental values.
SMITH: But the early progressive era, we’re talking 1890’s, 1940’s, was dam every river, channel every stream. Build—
MOYERS: Well, there’s a balance. You have to—
SMITH: No, that wasn’t a balance. We basically said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead with economic growth.” And we ran over those individuals in the early part of the 20th century who cared about the environment. The market— property rights were protecting property. And those were overridden by progressive era views that economic growth was much more important than protecting Aunt Mary’s view of the ecology.
MOYERS: Can we expect corporations to be our moral watchdog?
SMITH: No, I don’t think we can. I think individuals are our moral watchdog. But I think corporations in a rule of law where they’re held liable for not dumping their trash in other people’s property.
MOYERS: You’re from Louisiana?
SMITH: I’m from Louisiana.
MOYERS: Louisiana, right across the border from where I grew up. Louisiana has the worst air quality in America. And that’s because, with all due respect, the corporations in Louisiana have bought off the government. And both corporations and political power serve the interest of profits. Not the interests of citizens who want to breathe fresh air.
SMITH: But that to me makes my point, not your point. In Louisiana, we relied far too much on politics. Well, you know the line about Louisiana. “Our state does not tolerate corruption. It insists upon it.”
It’s a state that essentially has done far too much to allow special interests to dictate all parts of its policy. Louisiana would be a much stronger state if it had stronger property rights.
MOYERS: You don’t have a democracy where citizens are treated equally. You know that.
SMITH: We’re both in favor of reform in Louisiana. You’re not gonna get a fight with me on that.
MOYERS: You know I enjoy talking to you. But let me ask you this.
MOYERS: A question. How can we take you seriously when we know that the competitive enterprises is funded by these corporations — by ExxonMobil, by chemical companies, by tobacco companies. By corporations that have an interest in getting you to say what you say?
SMITH: Because how do we take seriously National Public Radio or public television or newspapers. All of those are supported by advertisements that have economic interests in seeing that their messages get out.
We basically— corporations are part of our support. Foundations and individuals. Other parts. But we accept support from individuals who are willing to tolerate our independence, just like the National Public Radio is willing to accept support from groups who are willing to tolerate their editorial independence.
We dance with these people. We’re not married with these people. And we’ve taken positions that have lost us corporate support and undoubtedly will in the future.
MOYERS: Why should we trust corporations to do the right thing for us as citizens? Their job is to make profits. Their job is to advance their interest. And the record is, that’s what they’re about. How can citizens trust corporations to look out for the common wealth?
SMITH: They have to ensure that the institutions of law and legality discipline— we have competitive marketplaces. So companies that act in an errant way are disciplined by the market. We have to ensure that the rule of law requires them to respect the properties of others.
The way you create a moral world is to create institutions that discipline their moral behavior. You don’t do it by assuming we’re all going to be Mother Theresas. We’re not.
MOYERS: But you don’t think political institutions can do that too?
SMITH: I think political institutions, as you indicated earlier in the case of Louisiana, are far too corruptible. We’ve seen case after case—
MOYERS: Corporations are not, Fred?
SMITH: No, no. But corporations can’t be disciplined—
SMITH: —by politics.
MOYERS: Mining companies in West Virginia?
SMITH: Corporations can be disciplined by the competitive forces of other corporations and the rule of law. That works.
MOYERS: Didn’t happen in West Virginia when the mining companies were— or strip mining was—
SMITH: Well, no competition there. West Virginia is a little like Louisiana.
MOYERS: Well, there’s always an exception.
SMITH: Well, no—but…
MOYERS: West Virginia here, Louisiana there.
SMITH: —but in America we have a society where our corporations have acted vastly more responsibly than, for example, the economic institutes that are under total political control in the former Soviet Union. The world is a world of imperfections and frustrations. You ask whether I was happy about the Bush administration? I won’t be happy about a Reagan three administration.
I want to see a world which is free. Where property rights are expanded. And where the rule of law disciplines people, corporations and individuals to respect other people’s property rights.
MOYERS: Fred Smith. President of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
SMITH: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it very very much.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW: who should pay for turning paradise into a playground for profit?
HIASSEN: They’re getting a huge amount of help from Florida taxpayers not even aware of it. And that’s why the panhandle is such an apt name for this area, because that’s what St. Joe is panhandling off the taxpayer and they don’t want you to know that.
ANNOUNCER: And a special report from Israel: American dollars in the West Bank. Next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.
What’s the best way to manage the environment? Join the debate. Check the status of pending environmental legislation. Read the notebooks of the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. Connect to now at pbs.org.
MOYERS: The surprise bestseller of the year is a thriller called THE DA VINCI CODE. It’s a mystery that hinges on secret messages hidden in the art of Leonardo da Vinci.
Like me, you probably were first exposed to Leonardo in grade school, to his drawings in particular. He imagined that we could fly, just one of the thousands of ideas that flowed from his fertile and prolific Renaissance mind.
Now, Leonardo is the subject of a play, THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI, created by dramatist and director Mary Zimmerman. It comes to New York next week.
You may remember that she was here on NOW when she won a Tony award for her play METAMORPHOSES.
ZIMMERMAN: Thank you very much.
MOYERS: I saw METAMORPHOSES three times since you were here. And each time I was amazed that you could bring the obscure poems of a long-dead poet, Ovid, to life on the stage today.
ZIMMERMAN: Well, that’s all a testament to Ovid and to the power of the stories themselves. People say to me all the time, “How can you make these old texts so vivid and so immediate?” The fact is that they’re around and they have lived so long is testament to their continuing immediacy. Things that become irrelevant die. So the bad, old stories are dead. We don’t know them. So the ODYSSEY, all these other stories are around because they remain consistently contemporary.
MOYERS: But here you’re asking us to connect to the notebooks—
MOYERS: —of a man, an illegitimate son of a Florentine landlord who was born 40 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. What makes you think a modern audience can connect to Leonardo da Vinci on the stage?
ZIMMERMAN: Everyone loves Leonardo da Vinci. And particularly I think children. He’s a figure of such inventiveness, such vitality, such endless curiosity. You know, I think about Leonardo, like when all of us are young and we’re children, we ask questions like, “Why is the grass green? And why is the sky blue? And why is the water in the lake blue but when it comes out of the faucet it’s clear?” And then eventually we just go, “Mm, I don’t know. I don’t— I can’t— I don’t know.”
We just get habituated to it. The world becomes habitual to us. I think for Leonardo in this really unique way, the world never became a habit to him. It never bored him. Nothing about it didn’t interest him. He never stopped asking those questions and being provoked to questions by the world, by the natural world.
MOYERS: Why do children connect to him?
ZIMMERMAN: I think for one thing, he was a bit of a child prodigy himself. He was already making little monsters by putting wings on lizards and things like that when he was a schoolboy. And making little inventions when he was young. He just is a startling figure of vitality and range. And he feels like he’s ahead of everyone all the time.
MOYERS: I’m no Leonardo scholar, of course. But I do remember that he had this need to write down everything in a literary form.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. The thing about the writing in the notebooks and the play is entirely comprised only of language from the notebooks. So it’s not a narrative. No one comes in and says, you know, “Leonardo, when you finish the painting…” It’s more like just a glimpse into his mind through this writing most of which was never intended for publication.
Not even intended really to be read by anyone else. The play is as if you were reading the notebooks all day and then you feel asleep and had a dream. And these fragmentary parts of his life and his work sort of come up. Those notebooks, because they’re unconscious, unself-conscious are such a clear window into a human being’s mind. So on any given page in the notebooks will be a mathematical formula or some discourse on the tides, a sketch of an angel and his shopping list, literally.
MOYERS: Yeah, but–
ZIMMERMAN: And we include all those things.
MOYERS: Beautiful face of an angel…
MOYERS: …next to a shopping list.
MOYERS: How do you explain that?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, because he’s like all of us. We’re all scatterbrains. He just went further with everything than we do. He was just interested in everything. He did have trouble completing things. I mean, that’s a truism about him because he would get distracted. But he was on a mission I think to describe the world to himself by two different narratives: the scientific narrative — you know, the engineering, mathematical narrative, how things work. And then also through the representational pictoral way of representing. And he never got to the end of that project.
And he knew that he never could. That he could not create life. In his beautiful writing on how to make a flying machine he writes forever and ever, “You should do this and you should do that. And a bird is an instrument working according to certain formulas. And if you do those formulas you should be able to fly.”
And it goes on and on. And then at the very end it says, “The only thing lacking in your instrument for flying will be the life of the bird itself.” And there’s such melancholy in that. And the same time a kind of sweetness because the world provides us with more than we can know and more than we can create.
MOYERS: The wings of birds held a great fascination for him.
MOYERS: They were important, were they not?
MOYERS: —to his own psychological…
ZIMMERMAN: Well, the notebooks have very few personal recordings in them. They’re not diaries of activities everyday. But there are two notable exceptions to that. And one of them is a very famous little passage in which he says, he uses the word “kite” which is a type of small falcon so I’ll use that word.
He says, “Writing about the kite seems to be my destiny since it seems to me that when I was in my cradle a kite flew in to me and opened my mouth with its beak and struck me several times with its tail inside my mouth.” And, you know, Freud wrote an entire book about that. And then many people have written entire books about Freud’s book. And many people have many things to say about that. You know—
MOYERS: But Freud projected it into some kind of Oedipal complex, didn’t he?
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, very bad Oedipal complex and having to do with castration and all kinds of things. Molestation as a child and all kinds of things. I think after spending all of this time with this image, I have come to the belief that it just happened. That it isn’t a fantasy.
And even if it just his own narrative of himself it’s an incredibly astute narrative of himself done in a sort of image. And by that I mean that I think— I like to believe that it is a moment of divine enunciation.
ZIMMERMAN: Enunciation of genius. And at the same time simultaneous implantation of genius. That the bird went to his mouth. And whether that actually happened or not he seems to be saying about himself through this dream or fantasy or story about himself the one, you know, one of two that he records, that he was touched in some way.
MOYERS: Kissed by God, someone would say.
ZIMMERMAN: Kissed. That something touched him. And it had little wings, you know? It’s an angelic little figure to me.
MOYERS: He was possessed with this spiritual force—
MOYERS: —that generated in him an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. A huge thirst for knowledge that he sought through all different means both the pictoral, the representative and the discursive and the written. The descriptive, the mathematical. All these different paradigms for explaining the world to yourself, he tried all of them. He used all of them.
MOYERS: He wrote a treatise about painting. He wrote a treatise about architecture. He wrote a treatise about the human anatomy.
MOYERS: He wrote a treatise about mechanics. I mean, we are talking about someone who was a genius.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, he was. It’s almost very hard to get your mind around him because you think of all the science he did and all the observation he did. And then when you think of classical, old-timey paintings like paintings that you see in the museum, you don’t see it as looking different from Leonardo.
Because after Leonardo, painting changed. And what we think of as classical painting is from Leonardo. If you look at his contemporaries, like a face of an angel from his contemporaries and then his face of an angel, it’s such a forward leap. People in his day didn’t believe his paintings were paintings.
They thought that you were looking through mirrors into a window and people were posing because they were so real. They were molded and had light and shadow and dimension and color and shade. And dynamics in the way the body was posed. This life in the body that was so new. And so there’s all of that.
MOYERS: I’ve got to ask, in fact, what is your own take on the smile on the face of his Mona Lisa?
ZIMMERMAN: You know, I like the smile of the Mona Lisa. And I think she’s beautiful. I think that that painting has accrued stories, has accumulated stories and accumulated projection. And the fact is that the longer that you look at something, the more you meet it halfway.
It’s giving you something and you’re giving it something. And that painting has now been given so much that she can’t help but hold it and reflect it back. What I’m trying to say is that I love that painting. I think it’s a beautiful painting. I don’t have a sort of magical feeling about it the way some other people do.
MOYERS: Nor do I. But my favorite of his — he only left 17 paintings as I remember—
MOYERS: My favorite is The Last Supper. And it’s my favorite because all the apostles there are looking, you know, agitated. They don’t quite know what’s going on. Here’s Jesus looking very serene, very composed, almost out of the action. And then on the other side there’s Judas who, like Jesus, is isolated and lonely because he does know what is going on. And the way he isolates those two protagonists.
ZIMMERMAN: He’s a very dramatic painter. I mean, they are in action. And he has long passages that we do in the play about how the hands and arms must in all their action display the intention of the mind that moves them. And he talks about how the gestures in painting should be appropriate.
And that your paintings should have gesture just like an orator who’s wishing to persuade someone of something must gesture. Otherwise he will seem dead. And he says paintings without gesture are twice dead. Dead because not alive and dead in lack of gesture. And he’s someone who really could put his theory into practice.
MOYERS: I know also that the theme of da Vinci was knowing how to see. He felt the human eye was the most acute, the most sensitive organ in the human being.
ZIMMERMAN: He also felt that it was the window to the soul. And he has a beautiful passage where he talks about how the soul and we instinctively feel that that sense is the most important. Because when anything threatens us, he says, we don’t immediately cover our heart or our ears or our mouth or our nose. We cover our eyes.
And not only do we cover them, we turn away sharply. We close our eyes. He really had it in for the eye.
MOYERS: Yeah, looking at something for a long time was the way you come to know it and to love it.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes. Great love springs from great knowledge. And if you little know a thing you can love it only little or not at all.
MOYERS: Intense attention.
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, intense attention which is a form of love.
MOYERS: You remember that line in Willy Loman in DEATH OF A SALESMAN where Willy Loman’s wife says of her despairing husband, “Attention must be paid.”
ZIMMERMAN: Yes, “must be paid.” Yes, that’s right. She does. Well, attention is love. Love is attention. They’re the same things. And Leonardo’s project to me is nothing more or less than a celebration of the world and its vastness and its riches and its depths which is unfathomable. But he never stops trying. And that’s why he’s such an attractive character. In fact, the only kind of whining or complaining he does in his notebook is about lack of time. And he sometimes says, “I’ve wasted my hours. I don’t have enough time.”
MOYERS: He died younger than I am now. I mean, that hits you— his language, so different—
MOYERS: —from the language of television, of commercials, of movies, of films which are so swiftly moving and built upon the sensory perception of a moment and then it’s gone.
ZIMMERMAN: Right. Things are moving too fast for me even now. Like MTV’s moving too fast. Like there’s just— each shot’s a few frames too short for me almost to perceive it. But he stared at something until that something cracked open and revealed itself to him.
There’s a transaction involved in that kind of looking which is the same kind of transaction that happens in the theater. Because you have a fixed gaze, a fixed point of view in your theater seat. Very different from the movies or television.
And theater cracks open what’s happening. You sustain your attention long enough that a transaction happens between you and the stage across the footlights. Which is similar to the mystery being revealed when you look at something long enough. It’s a different form of stimulation than something happening all the time coming at you all the time.
MOYERS: Now, with television, with this medium, the stimulus comes from that motion of the changing images.
MOYERS: In the theater, the stimulus comes from—
ZIMMERMAN: Emotion happening inside yourself. Of you being moved.
MOYERS: But that—
ZIMMERMAN: Literally moved.
MOYERS: Can an audience so accustomed to MTV, to television commercials, to fast-moving football games, instant repeats and replays. Can an audience — you think an audience can sit still for what? Hour and a—
ZIMMERMAN: Hour 15 minutes or 20 is all my play is. But there’s something, it shocks me that theater does survive. But it’s obviously doing something very profound that television and movies aren’t. And what the theater’s always about is transcendence.
Because you have to grant a kind of grace to what you’re seeing as being real when you know it’s not real. When there’s all kinds of artificiality that you’re surrounded by which the movies and television are very good at erasing and making things seem natural. The theater you know you’re in a black box. And yet you’re being transported to the vasty fields of France.
And the whole love of the theater, the pleasure of the theater is the tension between what you know is there intellectually and what you’re allowing yourself to believe. And that allowing yourself to believe is a form of intimacy which everyone is sharing in an unspoken way.
MOYERS: Is there a drawing that drew you in? Is there a particular drawing that became one of your favorites out of his notebooks?
ZIMMERMAN: You know, I love so many of them so much. There’s old men’s faces that I love. There’s also the fetus in the womb. There’s something very provocative about that. But it also reminds me of the image of Leonardo leaning into a cave and in the end perhaps going into that cave. The womb-like feel of it for me. The return to our origin which he speaks about and speaks about in our play.
He says that, “Those of us who long for the next week and the next year and we think things are too slow in coming and we can’t wait for time to pass don’t realize that we’re longing for our own destruction.” But then he says, “Yet we shouldn’t be sad about this because this longing for our own destruction is the part of us inside ourselves that belongs to the Earth. And it wants to get back to the Earth. And so we’re leaning in towards that all our lives.” Which I think is really beautiful.
MOYERS: Do you find in him a union between science and the soul?
ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. I mean, he knew that his painting had everything to do with how things work in the world. And how things work in the world had everything to do with making his painting better. Knowing that those two things would help.
And he also says really pretty things about, you know, we can’t know the mind of God. But we shouldn’t despair because there’s so many marvelous things that we can devote our attention to figuring out how they work. And, you know, he wasn’t looking for the unifying field theory.
He wasn’t looking for the big string theory. He was very, very content to look at how a leaf turns over to the sun. Look at how colors change when they’re next to each other. Look at the expressions on people’s faces in bad weather and how they look more beautiful in bad weather than in good weather. I mean, he’s in a, I think, a very celebratory action his whole life.
MOYERS: What little I have read of the Notebooks suggests that he came to the conclusion that creation was the result of a prime mover, of a primo motiro, as he called it.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, yeah.
MOYERS: Do you think that is so? And do you think that?
ZIMMERMAN: I do think that scientists — the very best first-rate ones to me and the ones that capture the public imagination the most — always end up back at God. Like the closer in they go, the deeper and more complex everything seems. And the more awe-inspiring it is. Like figuring out the mechanics of a plant doesn’t make you think the plant is banal. It makes you think the plant’s miraculous.
MOYERS: To me the great mystery is genius. What makes a genius? Do you come to any conclusions?
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, a little bird flies through the window. I mean, you know, it’s an odd word. And I think it’s— isn’t it related to genie? I mean, there’s a kind of working miracles or… Leonardo says in his notebooks, “I wish to work miracles.” At one point he says that. There’s a drive toward creativity and towards changing how we see the world. It’s a sort of a magician.
MOYERS: And where did it come from? This curiosity? This drive?
ZIMMERMAN: You know, I’m content that it just is. I mean, I’m just really content that there was a Leonardo as there was a Shakespeare. Equally difficult—
ZIMMERMAN: Mozart. You know? And do you ask yourself sometimes like did Leonardo know he was Leonardo? Did he know he was Leonardo da Vinci? Did Shakespeare know that he was Shakespeare? And I feel in both cases probably yes. They kind of knew.
MOYERS: I will be there on opening night. What do you hope I take away?
ZIMMERMAN: I hope you take away an alertness and an awakeness and a— to the world. And a sense of like, “I wanna pay attention to things.” And I hope that you go outside and you see the people on the streets in the bad weather looking cranky and you think that they look beautiful because Leonardo thought they looked best in bad weather. He thought the light was best.
MOYERS: The play is THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI. The playwright is Mary Zimmerman.
ZIMMERMAN: Well, the writer is really Leonardo. I’m just the director.
MOYERS: Thank you very much.
ZIMMERMAN: Thank you.
MOYERS: We close tonight with some items in the news.
You no doubt saw this — Mr. Bush signing his tax cut. A big day for the President.
But in fact, it’s the richest Americans — the top one percent — who get the lion’s share of the tax cuts. People like Secretary of the Treasury John Snow, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, multimillionaires all. Mr. Cheney actually cast the deciding tie-breaker vote in favor of the tax cut in the Senate. As this headline in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL says, some people could wind up paying virtually no tax at all.
Where’s that money coming from to make the rich richer? Some of it’s coming from the working poor. Remember that $400 per child tax credit that was in the tax bill?
We have now learned that at the very last minute in secret, behind closed doors, the Republican leaders in Congress pulled a bait-and-switch. They eliminated from the bill that $400 child credit for families who make just above the minimum wage. They will use that money to pay for the cut on dividend taxes. Eleven million children in families with incomes roughly between ten thousand and twenty six thousand dollars a year will not be getting the check that was supposed to be in the mail this summer. Eleven million children punished for being poor, even as the rich are rewarded for being rich.
Nothing was said about cutting out the working poor from this tax credit as Mr. Bush signed his tax bill. Nor was anything said when the President closed the door to his office and quietly put his signature on another bill, this one raising the debt ceiling to its highest level in history. No sooner had this happened than it was revealed, by the FINANCIAL TIMES, a British newspaper by the way, that the White House withheld a Treasury Department study showing that America faces chronic deficits totalling over $44 trillion dollars. They kept it in secret lest it throw the fear of God into Congress and the financial markets and cost them the tax cut for the rich.
This was enough to send us over to the debt clock just a few blocks from our offices in midtown New York. Standing there you can watch the country’s future slip deeper and deeper into a black hole of red ink. At midday today the national debt was over 6 trillion dollars and climbing. It makes you wonder…exactly why are these rich guys smiling?
That’s it for NOW. Thanks for watching. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.