The Last Word Essay: Rootless Fantasy, Empty Spectacle

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The Last Word is a filmed essay in which Bill Moyers takes aim at the presidential and vice presidential candidates on the eve of the 1988 election.



GEORGE BUSH, Sr: I seek the presidency to build a better America. It’s that simple and that big.

Woman 1: I’m really very sad and disappointed that in our country the electoral process has started to show itself so deficient that this is the best we can do.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: We’re going to win because we are the party that believes in the American dream.

PRIEST: Neither of the … candidates are really seriously addressing the issues that are simply a daily fact of life for us here every day.

GEORGE BUSH, Sr: I will keep America moving forward; always forward. For a better American for an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.

Man 1: … gear up for Thanksgiving a thousand turkeys — it would sound a hell of a lot better. Even a light you need to have a source of power.

Man 2: Only the most rabid partisans found anything to cheer in this campaign. Only people who live for or off politics feel a part of it. Tens of millions of other Americans have been left bewildered, saddened or insulted listening for an honest description of the world they live in. They do not recognize the world described by the candidates.

Man 3: They should ah at least ah explain a little better

Man 2: What they really going to do.

Man 3: What they really going to do … White House and what’s really going to help our — the poor people.

Man 2: How they going to solve these crises they talking about. Let us know what they really going to do. Before they get in.

Man 3: They will just avoid all the issues. It’s just rhetoric.

BILL MOYERS: About half the people in the Times Mirror poll said they are dissatisfied with the state of the nation. They were prepared for frank talk about the future.

Man 4: Because they don’t really say what they are going to do or what they are really backing.

Man 5: I didn’t hear it – it says nothing about the people on the street – you know

Man 6: I would like to hear them talk about exactly what they intend to do when each one becomes president. They are only skirting the issues.

BILL MOYERS: What people wanted was clarity and good sense. Straight talk. About the social and economic realities facing America. What they got was half baked, cliched abbreviated or just plain untruthful information. Conveyed in fleeting disconnected images.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: So what did you think? Did I look like I belonged up there on that team?

BILL MOYERS: They got some weak jokes.

DAN QUAYLE: Want to hear a sad story about the governor of Massachusetts? He lost his top naval advisor last week. The rubber duck drowned in his bathtub.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I think it will be the American people who decide, who belongs to the major leagues and who belongs to the bush league.

RONALD REGAN: I am not going to pick on an invalid.

GEORGE BUSH, Sr: They said do you think you can beat the Dukakises in horseshoes? He says, I don’t know but we sure got the height advantage.

BILL MOYERS: It was precooked humor, warmed over in a microwave of controlled spontaneity.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: If he keeps this up he is going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics.

GEORGE BUSH, Sr: This is the point to unleash our one-liners? [laughs] that answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor. Now, let me ah—

Man 7: These two candidates just facing and just talk about each other. They just ranking on each other. Like little kids in their own park.

BILL MOYERS: For even the rush to question there were stock answers.

PRESS MEMBER: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, I don’t Bernard, and I think you know that I have opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. But we have work to do to fight a real war and not a phony war against drugs. And that’s something that….

BILL MOYERS: It was all staged for the small screen of television. Reporters were props. Cameras were mirrors. The public a silent audience handed free passes watch ourselves being manipulated. A woman who saw this picture on TV in Russia said she would vote for George Bush because he knew how to clean fish. Could it be that Soviet fish mongers now wear ties to work?

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes the cynicism was transparent.

GEORGE BUSH, Sr: I’d hate to have to try to win the presidency by being so negative. I would hate to go around our great country by feeling negative.

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes it was relieved by unintended irony.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Mr. President, I intend to build on the work the President Reagan has begun that consistence and continuity are very important.

DAN QUAYLE: It’s sad for America to have somebody that doesn’t have the understanding or the qualifications of national security to be the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States.

BILL MOYERS: And sometimes cynicism itself produced the … as when the Republicans seized on the pledge of allegiance as the emblem of their values.

GEORGE BUSH, Sr: It’s the symbol of these United States of America and to the liberty for which it stands. One nation. Under god. Indivisible with liberty and justice for all. Thank you and god bless you.

BILL MOYERS: Did these people know that the pledge of allegiance was written by an American socialist 100 years ago? He helped to organize the Society of Christian Socialists, among their very un-Republican notions was the belief that the teachings of Jesus Christ would lead to the public ownership of industry.

DAN QUAYLE: George Bush and I proudly unapologetically embrace the values embodied in the Pledge of Allegiance.

BILL MOYERS: But in the politics of television with a memory no longer than a sound bite, it isn’t the past that’s remembered, it’s the party line. In the words of Tweedledee, if it was so, it might be; if it were so, it would be, but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic. Politicians now speak in the grammar of television.

GEORGE BUSH, Sr: No matter what the circumstances

BILL MOYERS: The vocabulary is the image. Truth changes by the frame. It’s what clever advertising says it is.


COMMENTATOR: The more you learned about George Bush –

BILL MOYERS: Take the issue of family – everyone knows families are under stress

COMMENTATOR: President of the United States


BILL MOYERS: One in two marriages end in divorce. Some 25 percent of our families are headed by single parents. Two out of three mothers are working women and a fourth of them are married to men who make less than 20 thousand dollars a year. These families we did not see in the fall campaign. This campaign was not about people, it was about values.

Woman 2: It had been moved and seconded that we insert the word traditional before “family” in the third line of the second paragraph on page one.

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: You are going to see my wife of 43 years, family values –

Woman 3: The future belongs to our children.

DAN QUAYLE: Marilyn and our children — they are and always will be my total life.

BILL MOYERS: But some children seemed to feel devalued in serving the cause of family values.

SON of BUSH Sr.: – whose character

BILL MOYERS: While others hardly took on the roles once reserved for professional politicians.

SON of BUSH Sr.: – patriotism, Colorado proudly casts 36 votes for my father, the next president of the United States of America, George Bush.

SON of JESSE JACKSON: -brings you a man who fights against the odds. Who was born against the odds. My father is an odds buster. The next president of the United States our dad, Jesse Jackson.

BILL MOYERS: At times the Democratic convention looked like a day care center, Democrats were picking up family values so fast Ronald Reagan accused them of political larceny.

RONALD REAGAN: – heard them openly say they are going to steal our words and slogans. Words like community, family values –

Woman 4: The American dream begins with the American family.

ANN RICHARDS: And I have one nearly perfect granddaughter named Lilly.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: And my dreams for America are about Ann Richards’ granddaughter Lilly and about the baby that’s going to be born to our son John and his wife Lisa, in January.

BILL MOYERS: At the Republican convention Bush fired back with a whole arsenal of kids and grandkids. He later admitted he had himself committed a little political larceny.

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: We watched that and we said “Hey we got to unleash the Bush kids.” and so you saw ten grandchildren there jumpin’ all over their grandfather at the convention…

BILL MOYERS: Nothing about the families seemed beyond manipulation even private grief.

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: Let me answer your question. And I hope it doesn’t get too personal or maudlin. … and I lost a child. You know that. We lost a daughter, Robin.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Kitty and I had almost the same kind of experience that the Bushes had. We lost a baby.

BILL MOYERS: If democracy is a running conversation and we become what we talk about, then that exchange reveals what has happened to us in a television age when politicians are more intimate than our friends. Personal piety has replaced public philosophy, analysis is washed away by sentiment and argument is overwhelmed by ….

COMMERCIAL ANN: … during her seven years on this earth, this little girl has known virtually nothing but peace and economic growth.

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: This is my mission and I will complete it.

COMMERCIAL ANN: Imagine the place where children go out to play without fear of drugs or drug dealers, is that too much to expect? Dukakis Benson – the best America is yet to come.

BILL MOYERS: What counts is not the sense of something but its sound.

BILL MOYERS: In 1988 there is a difference and it grew clearer with every promise.

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: I will modernize and preserve our technological edge and that includes strategic defense. I will give more kids a headstart. I want a drug-free America – must reduce the harm done by acid rain.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I am going to fight for healthy environment for all of our citizens; but I am going to fight to open up that door of college opportunity to restore occupational health and safety to the workplace in this country. I will want to provide basic health insurance for every working family in America. And it’s about time.

BILL MOYERS: But who is going to pay the bill? The promises of each candidate add up to billions and billions of dollars at a time when the US is swimming in a sea of red ink.

Man 8: Well, there’s been a lot of promises being made, but nobody’s keeping. You know we doubt it very much if anyone of them is going to keep ‘em. For the simple reason all the promises they are making are very costly. And somebody’s got to pay for it.

BILL MOYERS: The candidates did not say where the money would come from.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I asked Mr. Bush, to explain how he would bring down those massive federal deficits that they’ve given us for the past eight years without raiding the Social Security trust fund. And what did he say? Not one word.

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will and the Congress will push me to raise taxes and I’ll say, No, and they will push and I’ll say No, and they will push again and I’ll say to them “Read my lips.”

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: No new taxes.

BILL MOYERS: But the largest debt in American history is reality. The government is living on borrowed money, of every $100 you pay in taxes, $24 go just to pay interest on that national debt.

Woman 1: I am concerned about it as a parent. I have five children; I have four grandchildren and I wonder what’s going to happen to them.

BILL MOYERS: Reality is one hundred and fifty billion dollars to defend the wealthy societies of Europe and Asia, our chief creditors and competitors. Reality is smog, acid rain, sulfur dioxide, and nuclear waste. That hole in the ozone layer; that’s reality those poisoned seas are a reality, too. Reality is over 20 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. Reality is well over a tenth of our students who drop out before graduating from high school. America’s plumbing is reality; our bridges are crumbling, our waste treatment systems are antiquated. Our airports congested and outdated. It will take 16 billion dollars just to modernize the air traffic control system – who will pay. Reality is a growing list of major projects awaiting decisions and leadership. 25 billion dollars for a manned space station. 6 billion dollars for the superconducting supercollider. 3 billion to map the human genetic code. Reality is a Medicare and Medicaid budget that already claims about one tenth of federal spending even as poor people find good health care further from their reach. Reality is a divided America, two Americas separate and unequal. This is reality, too.

Man 8: I see it every day, everywhere. People are – families – I see families on the streets. If they can’t do something for that, with the tax money that we giving them, there’s something’s gone wrong here. That’s what I feel.

Man 1: They need homes, they need jobs, they will find their even in a doctor’s – if they have the jobs.

Man 5: And nobody’s actually facing what’s going on in this country. That people cannot afford housing. People who wants jobs can’t afford to live –

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes reality intruded on the campaign.


GEORGE BUSH, SR.: Jobs for the working man and woman of this country-

Angry Man 1: Get outta here

Angry Man 2: We want …

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: … million new jobs

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: Good jobs, some aren’t as good but most of them are better

Angry Man 3: Ask him if we are any better off than we were ten years ago. We ain’t.

Angry Man 4: He doesn’t speak my language at all.

BILL MOYERS: That Oregon voter brought the campaign back to earth for one revealing moment. It was revealing for reminding us just how contrived and controlled politics has become. The events –

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: I am not questioning his patriotism; I’m questioning his judgment.

BILL MOYERS: The rhetoric

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I don’t question Mr. Bush’s patriotism, but I do question his judgment.

BILL MOYERS: And the ads.

COMMERCIAL ANN: Every day more and more Americans are leaving home to work –

BILL MOYERS: The language of advertising has become the language of politics.

COMMERCIAL ANN: – for almost 16 million Americans [music]

COMMERCIAL ANN: Imagine a place where families don’t have to stretch two pay checks.

BILL MOYERS: It aims at our emotions. How we feel instead of what we think.

COMMERCIAL ANN: Is that too much to expect?

COMMERCIAL ANN: It’s morning again in America.

BILL MOYERS: Images that abhor complexity. Images favor what’s pleasant, easy, simple.

COMMERCIAL ANN: Interest rate –

BILL MOYERS: The line between the real and the imagined grows dimmer and dimmer until we begin that the phony is real.

B&J ANN: Bartles and James presents a great moment in Bartles and James history….

BILL MOYERS: There are Bartles and James; they don’t exist. The company sponsoring these ads is the biggest wine company in America. Never mind many Americans believe Bartles and James do exist and even sent money to help them pay their bills.

B&J ANN: We will sell no berry that is ordinary.

BILL MOYERS: The makers of this commercial also make commercials for politicians. What happens to reality?

COMMERCIAL ANN: … Reagan, rebuilding the American dream.

BILL MOYERS: We may have rounded a corner in our national life from which there will be no return. Ronald Reagan rode to his last convention as president this summer behind Alice in Wonderland. It was a fitting finale for the old trooper. He has been the picture perfect president for this new age, having learned about life at the movies, he has made politics over in his image.

BILL MOYERS: This would be his legacy.

RONALD REAGAN: Go out there and win one for the gipper.

BILL MOYERS: The gipper had been George Gipp, a Notre Dame football player whose exploits were depicted in a 1940 movie.

COACH: I will give you the ball, you just run with it.


COACH: You don’t have to worry about that. Hold it.

BILL MOYERS: The brilliant player died young.

REAGAN AS GIPP: Someday when the team’s up against it, ask them to go in there with all they got. Win just one for the gipper.

BILL MOYERS: The coach years later used the gipper last words to inspire the team in a crucial game against Army.

REAGAN AS GIPP: Tell them to go out there with all they go. And win just one for the gipper.

FOOTBALL PLAYER: Well, what are we waiting for? [yelling]

BILL MOYERS: It was a story that Ronald Reagan never forgot. The trouble is that the real George Gipp was nothing like the movie. He was lazy and undependable. And the death bed scene? It never happened. Coach Rockne made it up long after George Gipp had died. What happens when politics becomes a fiction?

RONALD REAGAN: Facts are stupid thing.

GEORGE BUSH, SR.: I will never apologize for the United States of America – ever, I don’t care what the facts are.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I believe that America is one nation, one people, one community.

RONALD REAGAN: If I listen to him long enough I would be convinced that we are in an economic downturn and that people are homeless and that people are going without food and medical attention and that we gotta to do something about the unemployed.

BILL MOYERS: What happens when the campaigns for our hearts and minds are transformed into rootless fantasy and empty spectacle. We lose touch with reality. Our leaders dwell in a world where the bills never come due. America never loses its competitive edge or its standard of living and crimes and drugs are not increasing. A world without suffering or reckoning.

For some time now the attack on reason and objectivity has approached the intensity of the crusade. Those of us in politics and the media have encouraged it. And so is this campaign. Language is all we have to describe reality. When it becomes inaccurate and deceptive it poisons our comprehension. Even in victory a president who wins this way discovers he’s undermined his ability to lead. A cynical people no longer trust enough to follow. It’s been said that a republic can die of too many lies. If so, the road will surely be marked by the triviality and mediocrity of language. Democracy is a conversation but it lives on honest words, honestly spoken.

This transcript was entered on May 26, 2015.

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