'The time is now,' Bill Moyers urges a fight for democracy

Legendary journalist and broadcaster Bill Moyers spoke to a packed house in Baker Hall of the Zoellner Arts Center and provided a unique perspective born out of an extraordinary career that often placed him at the epicenter of the political process. The former press secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson has had a front row seat to the turmoil that characterized politics over the past six decades. As a result, he’s drawn some dire conclusions about the waning strength of the American democratic process.

Moyers was introduced by Political Science Professor Ted Morgan, who invited him to speak at Lehigh and co-organized this year’s Tresolini Lecture with Political Science Professor Rick Matthews. Morgan cited Moyers’ numerous awards for lifetime achievement – including an Emmy, a Peabody and a George Polk Career Award  – and reviewed highlights of a career began during his undergraduate years when Moyers was a summer intern in the office of then-Senator and later President Johnson.

It was as deputy director of the Peace Corps, which was founded during the Kennedy administration in 1961, that Moyers first visited Lehigh to recruit bright, well-rounded young men to serve around the world.

“Sixty years plays tricks with your memory,” Moyers said, “but I remember being here, and I remember the first volunteer who came from Lehigh.”

He also recalled the inspiring sense of optimism of those early years, when, Moyers said, “There was in the air a pervasive expectation of a better life…of a bountiful destiny we would fulfill in our lifetime.”

Sadly, he said, “It wasn’t to be. We didn’t pull it off.”

That promise has been gradually replaced by a “pervasive and persistent sense that we’ve lost control of our destiny.”

Moyers said the fate of the country is falling victim to unprincipled politicians, a conservative and activist Supreme Court that is elevating the role of corporations while diminishing the role of citizens, the continuing transfer of wealth from the middle class to the top one percent, a corporate-controlled media that intentionally misinforms and distracts, and a dumbed-down culture that celebrates mindless amusements of celebrities.

As a result, he said, “the dynamics of plutocracy are firmly intact,” and the audacity of hope has been replaced by the “paucity of hope.” The Gilded Age “has returned with a vengeance in your time and mine.”

The resulting vast inequity is not the result of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’  he said, referring to the term coined by the mid-18th century economist to represent the phenomenon that guides free markets and capitalism through competition for decreasing resources.

The inequity has come about through “policy decisions made by flesh and blood human beings, sitting in concrete and steel buildings, deciding on how to divide the spoils.”

Corporations, obscenely wealthy individuals and their political allies have achieved a near monopoly, he said, “aided and abetted by a corporate media whose aim it has been to depoliticize democracy to keep us entertained so that that we won’t wake up and rise up to protest this threat.

“So I come back to Lehigh, 60 years later, and apologize to this generation,” he said. “We’re sorry. We’re sorry for the mess we created, for the wars, for the debts, the debts for your educations, the toxins in our environment, for global warming….and for the great, crippling greed at our front door. We apologize for this winner-take-all juggernaut.”

A glimmer of hope

While cautioning that his optimism may not be warranted, Moyers says he still harbors hope for the country, and for mankind. His optimism is inspired, in part, by the work of award-winning author Rebecca Solnit, who wrote A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.

By surveying the aftermath of disasters that included earthquakes, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Solnit found that humankind typically responds to disaster and tragedy through spontaneous altruism, kindness and consideration or, in his words, “the better angels of our nature sitting on one of your shoulders.” That reaction reveals, said Moyers, “the sense of community and purpose otherwise absent from our lives.

“It doesn’t take disasters to bring out these qualities,” he said. “What Solnit found was the spirit that sustains life is closer to home and stronger than market forces and selfishness. It is, in her words, ‘a shadow system of kindness.’ ”

Inch by inch, he said, inroads are being made on many fronts: in soup kitchens, classrooms, neighborhoods and shelters. And while Moyers sees great peril for the future of our democracy – “It is disappearing in a fog of avarice and greed” – he does suggest that “many of us, together, stand a chance.”

Organize, agitate, resist, and fight back for justice, he said. “The time is here. The time is now.”

He closed his hour-long talk by citing the spiritual truth captured in the fading inscription over the west door of Holy Trinity Church in Staunton Harold, a parish in England, which represents the legacy of Sir Richard Shirley, who built the church in 1653. The inscription read: When all things sacred…were demolished or profaned….his singular praise is to have done the best things in the worst of times. And hoped them in the most calamitous.

Early in his speech, Moyers praised the work of Professor Morgan, whose research focuses on media culture, propaganda and the 1960s, and who authored What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.

“Lehigh shouldn’t really allow anyone to graduate without reading this book,” Moyers said. “And to all the seniors here tonight, take this one to assisted living with you. This will help you understand what your grandchildren are up against and how they must rekindle the flame of democracy that is flickering, almost to extinction today.”

Moyers said that Morgan’s book harkens back to a time “when all of us took it upon ourselves to take action.” He said that Morgan inspires his students to think of themselves as “moral agents, who just might change the world.”

That message, he said, “is music to my old ears.”

A conversation with students

Earlier in the day, Moyers met for about an hour with 13 Lehigh students and took their questions on topics ranging from the movie Selma to Presidents Johnson and Barack Obama. What did Moyers think of the movie? What advice would Johnson give to Obama today? What strategies did Moyers use as a journalist?

Most moving, perhaps, was when Moyers first gave students a recap of his life, telling them that they were “kindred spirits” in that, at age 19, he wanted to be a political journalist and set out to find his career path. He briefly chronicled his life, including his close relationship to Johnson and his front-row seat to history: the McCarthy hearings, the Kennedy assassination, the establishment of the Peace Corps, the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I understand where you are because I was there once,” he told the students. “I didn’t know at the time how my path was going to unfold. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, didn’t know how to get to be one.

“Loved politics, didn’t know how to get to be in it…But I have a lot in common with you in terms of your aspirations, not in terms of our times, because I don’t understand your world any more than you can understand mine.” The students laughed. “But I’m very grateful that we can sit at this table and cross several generations and talk about our mutual interests,” he said.

To what extent do you think the opposition to Obama is because of his race? one student asked. Though it can’t be proven, Moyers said, he believes there’s a great deal of racism directed against the first African-American president by a dwindling population of whites who have been reluctant to yield their place after half a century.

What advice would Johnson give Obama? Though difficult to say because the times and the men are so different, Moyers said, Johnson might tell Obama “don’t be quite so cerebral, press the flesh a little more than you do,” meaning that he should spend more time wooing members of Congress, and to have more informal press conferences.

What did Moyers think of the movie Selma’s portrayal of Johnson? “I loved the movie,” he said, encouraging that people see it. He said the movie deals honestly with how people’s courage on the streets was met by the right political response in Washington. But, he said, the movie got a few things wrong, including that Johnson was opposed to the march in Selma.

On Johnson, he said, “He could be a villain. He was a sinner not a saint, very human and very flawed, but he was capable of doing the right thing at the right time, and that’s what happened in both ’64 and ’65.
When Moyers conducts an interview, are there certain strategies that he uses?  Another student asked.

“I always prepare, over prepare,” said Moyers. “I always read as much as I can…I usually will spend 20 to 25 hours getting ready for an hour interview.”

By Linda Harbrecht

and Mary Ellen Alu


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