DATE May 13, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bill Moyers discusses his experiences as a journalist
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Bill Moyers said earlier this year that he intends to step down as
host of the weekly PBS series "NOW with Bill Moyers." He'll remain on the
show through the presidential election. Moyers, who turns 70 next month, says
it's not that he's feeling old, but there are things that he wants to do that
are difficult to do while hosting a weekly show. One of those things is
writing a book about President Lyndon Johnson, under whom Moyers served as
special assistant and press secretary.
During Moyers' long career in broadcasting, he's won more than 30 Emmy Awards
as well as nine Peabodys. Moyers has a new book collecting his speeches and
commentaries called "Moyers On America: A Journalist and His Times."
We're living in very polarized times now, but when you were in your early
years as a journalist, the times were pretty polarized, too. I mean, like, in
the '60s when you were working, that was a very polarized period. There was
the people who supported and the people who opposed the war in Vietnam.
There was a big cultural divide in the United States. I'm wondering if you
feel like we're in a more polarized time than you can remember or if the
polarization feels very different than it did to you, say, in the '60s, when
the country was very divided then.
Mr. BILL MOYERS (Journalist): I don't think there's any golden period of
American history. America has been a polarized nation from the beginning,
Terry. One-third of the people in the colonies fought for the revolution,
one-third stood with the British crown, and one-third waited on the sidelines
to make money from whatever the outcome was to be. Look how polarized we were
in the Civil War, how slavery polarized us; how the McCarthy years, the Red
I think probably the period of the '40s was the most unified time in American
history that I know of or have read about because we had a common enemy in a
war we were fighting. But soon after that, there we went at each other again
over who lost China, who's a Communist, who's not a Communist. And then the
'60s hit us with their destabilizing, fragmentation, with everything tied
down seemed to be coming loose.
We are more polarized today, I think, in an ideological sense than we have
been at any time in my life. There were a lot of forces at work in the '60s.
Today, it's left vs. right or liberals vs. conservatives. And the vital
center, of which Arthur Schlesinger wrote about some 50 years ago, has
dissolved, disappeared. And that is troubling to me, but I don't think
it's worse than it was.
GROSS: I want to quote something that you wrote for a speech after President
Bush was elected.
Mr. MOYERS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And you were writing that the Eisenhower type of
Republican--conservative by temperament and moderate in the use of power--is
gone, replaced by zealous ideologues. And for the first time in memory of
anyone alive, the entire federal government--the Congress, the executive, the
judiciary--is united behind a right wing agenda. How has that opinion--the
Congress and the judiciary and the Bush administration, you know, being
represented by a log of ideologues--how does that opinion affect your approach
as a journalist in terms of what is fair and what is balanced in the
presentation of issues on a program?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, it was prescient truth, by the way. It created quite a
reaction when I said that for the first time in anyone's lifetime alive today
we have a common ideology that's governing the three branches of government
and it would lead to certain things: a redistribution of wealth, assaults on
the environment, the corporatization of government. And all of those
analyses proved to be true.
It is true that the Democratic Party once held hegemony over the government,
controlled the White House, controlled the Congress, controlled the
judiciary. That wasn't good either for the balance of power in this country,
but Democrats always included a lot of liberals, a lot of conservatives, and
a lot of people went with the play of the moment. This new ideological
governance that we have is uniform in its outlook. It's self-protective. It
has an echo chamber. So it is much harder to be a mainstream journalist
today than I think it has been in a long time.
GROSS: Well, do you feel an obligation to have on some of the people who you
think are zealots and ideologues?
Mr. MOYERS: You know, I'm an old-fashion liberal when it comes to being open
and being interested in other people's ideas. I really do think--and I know
this is old-fashion--that democracy is a conversation; that we should be
talking, debating, arguing about who we are and what we want, but that we
should listen to each other. And I did the very first interview in 1980 with
the leaders of the religious right: Paul Weyrich and John Lofton and Howard
Phillips. I put the senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch--I gave him his first
interview on television after he was elected. I believe in listening to other
people. So I have conservatives on. I led my show last week with Paul Gigot,
who is the editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, perhaps the
most powerful editorial page in America, not because I felt obliged to have a
conservative on but because that morning he had run an editorial, a very
powerful editorial, saying Donald Rumsfeld should not resign. I wanted to
talk to him about that. I believe in the mixture of voices and I do that
because that's a conviction with me, not because I feel obliged to do so.
GROSS: You said you think that this is a difficult time to be a mainstream
reporter. Do you think the meaning of mainstream has changed and do you
think that there are certain points of view that earlier in your journalistic
career were considered extreme but are now considered mainstream?
Mr. MOYERS: Yes. I do, I think. Just take, for example, the fact that
government policy should reflect religious values is new; the fact that we
have faith-based initiatives which are taking federal dollars and putting
them behind religious organizations that do not have to follow general rules
and guidelines of government policy. Yeah, I think the intrusion of religion
as a force in the policies of government as opposed to being a moral agent
operating on politics from outside, like Martin Luther King bringing his
moral conscience to bear on the government in the civil rights movement, I
think that is new. That sense of government as the enemy is foreign to me,
'cause I was a child of the Depression, a child of the New Deal. And I
really believe in public action for the public good. I believe in public
resources that should not be privatized. All of that is radical to me. It's
foreign to me.
GROSS: Do you feel like you saw this coming, the shifting of what mainstream
Mr. MOYERS: I saw it coming because I experienced it in the campaign of
1960, when I was a young aide to Lyndon Johnson and we were walking across the
street from the Waldorf to the Baker Hotel in downtown Dallas, Texas, and
suddenly we were confronted with a mob of howling women, women in
red-white-and-blue uniforms with little hats on their head. Their faces were
wreathed in fury. Their eyes were brimming with fire. Their fists were
raised in the air. They were led by a right-wing congressman from Dallas
named Bruce Alger. These were housewives. And he had harnessed and loosed
them to surround Lyndon and Ladybird Johnson. And I happened to be there as
just a sort of aide. And it took us a long time to cross that street. The
women spat at Senator Johnson and spat on Mrs. Johnson. It was a--we were
We went up to the room in the hotel across the street and could not believe
what we had just experienced. Lyndon Johnson, shrewd politician that he was,
thought it was probably going to turn the election in Kennedy and Johnson's
favor, but Mrs. Johnson and I both sat for a moment and realized, what had
unleased this anger in these women? We hadn't experienced anything like that.
It was the first time I had seen what can happen when ideologues become
ferocious in their anathema toward the other person. And so I was aware of
that, the time to come, and then I saw it beginning to unfold with the rise
of the religious right in particular, because to be furious in religion,
Terry, is to be furiously irreligious. And I could see that happening, I
could see it infecting politics with that righteous indignation that
transforms politics from compromise into conquest.
GROSS: Are you comfortable giving opinions or, you know, small editorials on
Mr. MOYERS: I am very comfortable reaching conclusions based upon reporting
an evidence. I believe in connecting the dots, and I'm very comfortable doing
that. Opinion-mongering, no, I'm not comfortable with that. I'm really not.
My opinion is no better than anyone else's, but my informed judgment based
upon the reporting we've done, the investigations we have done, the analysis
we have done and the evidence, and I'm very comfortable being an analyst and
drawing conclusions based upon credible research, evidence, documentation and
GROSS: Now critics of Public Television say that it is part of the, quote,
"elite liberal media" and I'm wondering what you hear when you hear the words
elite and liberal paired with media.
Mr. MOYERS: Well, first, I want to know who's saying it and why they're
saying it. Is Rush Limbaugh saying that? Is it an adversary of Public
Broadcasting, somebody who wants to bring Public Broadcasting down? I don't
get that from the taxi drivers who brought me here today and said with relish
in his voice that his children watch Public Television. He watches Public
Television. He had NPR on. I don't get that. I get it from the enemies of
Public Television but I don't get it from the people who watch and listen to
us. To the contrary, I think that Public Television and Public Radio enjoys a
following out there of people who would not have information available to them
otherwise. I don't consider myself an elitist. I'm from Marshall, Texas. My
father had a fourth-grade education; my mother, an eighth-grade education.
I've been fortunate through the years to gain a position in life in which to
see a lot of things that I then feel obliged to report to my viewers. And the
fact of the matter is I think the great travesty happening in America right
now is the hollowing out of the middle class and the exploitation of the
working class. And I think it's easy for the opponents, the class warriors at
the top to dismiss that kind of reporting and that kind of journalism by
calling it elite popular opinion. I think that's bull frankly.
GROSS: Well, what about the word liberal, you know, liberal media and that's
what a lot of conservative critics say about Public Broadcasting? I mean, you
give your opinions on your show--I mean, you are liberal, so do you see that
as a problem calling public media liberal?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, I think the rod has been allowed to steal values and read
their meaning into values. I think they have tainted words by besmirching
them. I mean, most people in polls say they want the same kinds of things
that I want for our country. Does that make them liberal? I think that the
most effective defamation that has occurred in America over the last 50 years
has been the right-wing's ability to make people wince when they hear the word
liberal, but liberal, if it means Social Security, I'm for it. If it means
public education, I'm for it. If it means protecting the environment, I'm for
it. If that makes me liberal, it makes me liberal, but I still think of
liberals as being open to the conversation of democracy and trying to be
inclusive in our embrace of America, and I think we've got to take that word
back and not run from it just because Rush Limbaugh and Hannity or in Colmes
and Bill O'Reilly and others cast desperations on it.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers. He has a new book collecting his speeches
called "Moyers On America: A Journalist and His Times." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers and he recently announced that he's going to
be leaving his weekly Public Television series "NOW with Bill Moyers" after
the election. In the meantime, he has a new book called "Moyers On America:
A Journalist and His Times," that collects some of his speech that he's given
over the years.
You were at the meeting in 1964 that led to the creation of Public
Broadcasting. You write a little bit about this in your new book "Moyers On
America," and this was in 1964 at the Office of Education to discuss the
potential of educational TV which became Public Broadcasting in 1967 after the
passage of the Public Broadcasting Act. What do you remember of the mission
as it was discussed in the proto-Public Broadcasting era back in 1964?
Mr. MOYERS: The Carnegie Commission put together a recommendation for what
became the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, and we attended a meeting at the
Office of the Education, the Commission of Education, to talk about it and to
see what we could do about it. One of the last things I did at the White
House before I left in January of 1967 was to hand that over to Douglas Cater
who was special assistant to the president for education, and it became, as I
say, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
The mission of Public Broadcasting was to create an alternative channel that
would be free not only of commercials but free of commercial values, a
broadcasting system that would serve the life of the mind, that would
encourage the imagination, that would sponsor the performing arts,
documentaries, travel. It was to be an alternative to the commercial
broadcasting at that time.
Now we only had three commercial networks at that time, ABC, CBS and NBC, but
they had made their peace with the little fantasies and lies of merchandising.
And the Carnegie Commission and subsequently Lyndon Johnson who signed that
act and members of Congress believed that there should be an independent
alternative network that served what the market would not serve. That was
essentially its purpose. There are things in this country that the market
will not provide: public education, public art, public schools, public
broadcasting, public toilets. I mean, there are things that are not
profitable but that still serve a value.
I think the most important thing that we can do is to continue to treat
Americans as citizens, not just consumers. If you look out and see an
audience of consumers, you want to sell them something. If you look out and
see an audience of citizens, you want to share something with them, and there
is a difference. And I think Public Broadcasting, Public Radio and Public
Television have to be locked to the commitment to seeing America as a society
of citizens, not as consumers, and somehow if we accept that as our basic
operative assumption, we'll find our way to serving that public in the years
GROSS: You elude to this in a couple of your speeches. You served as
President Johnson's press secretary for two years and you write in one of your
speeches you knew you couldn't stay long because you can't serve two masters.
What were the two masters you were thinking of?
Mr. MOYERS: The press and the president. I mean, my first two years in the
White House, I was working on legislation and policy--the Civil Rights Act of
'64, the Voting Rights Act of '63, the Civil Rights Act of '66--and I love
that--the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The task forces that put together
the basic plans for our legislative approach, I love that. President Johnson
went through one press secretary and then another, and then he asked me to
become his press secretary. I said I didn't want to do it. He asked me a
second time a few days later, I said again, `I don't want to do it.' Two
weeks later he called me in and said he wanted me to do it. I tried to say
no, but I couldn't and my arm is still hurting quite frankly from trying to
get out of that. But I flew home that afternoon to Dallas where my wife was
visiting her parents, and that evening, I remember saying to her as we retired
for the night, `Well, this is the beginning of the end because no man can
serve two masters.'
I wanted to report to the press what the president was doing within the limits
that I could and I wanted to interpret the press to the president. I really
felt my job was to be an honest broker, and yet that proved to be impossible
to do. You have to take your side in that job. You can't be both things to
both parties, and, you know, a president cannot allow the press to hustle his
priorities. At the same time, the press is there as a proxy for the public.
GROSS: Now you served as press secretary to the president during the
escalation of the war in Vietnam. What were some of the things that you and
President Johnson most did not want the press to find out about?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, the president didn't want to disclose what might be the
full cost of the war, the same thing that George W. Bush is going through
GROSS: When you talk about cost, you mean financial cost?
Mr. MOYERS: Yeah, the financial cost, because he feared that if--he didn't
think that this would last very long, by the way. He thought that if he
escalated the troops and made a real show of force that Ho Chi Minh would
back, the leader of North Vietnam--I remember when the president gave a
speech at Johns Hopkins University and proposed a vast Mekong delta system for
North Vietnam if, in fact, it would come to the peace table. He said to some
of us at the White House later that night, `You know, George Meany wouldn't
turn that down,' that is the president offered a bargaining chip and George
Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO would accept that. He thought Ho Chi Minh
would accept it. He did not understand, we did not understand the depths of
Ho Chi Minh's commitment to unification of Vietnam, but the president thought
this would be over before too long and that he didn't want to put a price tag
on it because if he anticipated it going a long time, the conservatives would
use that to cut back the spending on the domestic programming that was so
important to him. He also didn't want the people to know when and where he
was going to be making his moves either militarily or diplomatically. That's
understandable. It's why presidents shouldn't go to war unless it's a war of
necessity, not a war of choice because you can't fight a war in a democratic
way without undermining the success of the war. And if you don't fight it in
a democratic way, you undermine democracy itself.
So, I mean, George W. Bush has made the same tragic miscalculation that
Lyndon Johnson made in Vietnam. Iraq is not Vietnam. Iraq is a desert
country. Vietnam was a jungle. Iraq is an urban society. Vietnam was not.
But the rhetoric is the same. The optimism is the same. The belief that we
can with military force achieve democratic ends is the same as it was in
Vietnam and that's why if you start a war on flawed premises, you're going to
have terrible things happen, and ultimately you're going to come to grief.
GROSS: Bill Moyers will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
"Moyers On America" collects his speeches and commentaries.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, how do we describe what went on in Abu Ghraib prison. Is
it abuse, mistreatment, torture? Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers why it's
hard to find the right word. Also we continue our conversation with
journalist Bill Moyers.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bill Moyers. He has a
new book collecting his speech and commentaries called "Moyers on America: A
Journalist and His Times." He plans to leave his weekly PBS program, "NOW with
Bill Moyers," after the presidential election. He turns 70 next month and
says there are many things he wants to do that his series leaves no time for.
He hopes to write a book about Lyndon Johnson. Moyers worked on domestic
policy and legislation for LBJ and then served as President Johnson's press
secretary from 1965 to '67.
When you were press secretary during this period of the escalating war in
Vietnam and President Johnson did not want the press and the public to know
what the full financial cost of the war was going to be, how did you try to
prevent it from getting out?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, I--when I became press secretary, my father, who had a
fourth grade education, a very honorable and humble man, sent me a telegram in
which he said, `Tell the truth if you can, but if you can't tell the truth,
don't tell a lie.' And I tried never to tell a lie. I would more often than
not say, you know, I can't answer that right now. I'll get back to you on
that when I can. My job was to try to be responsive enough to satisfy the
appetite to know but not so responsive as to give away the whole thing.
GROSS: You write about the Bush administration, never has there been an
administration so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping
information from the people at large and from their representatives in
Congress. Do you say that with some admiration, since you're saying...
Mr. MOYERS: Some jealousy.
GROSS: You're saying this as a former press secretary.
Mr. MOYERS: Some jealousy. You know, two things inform my mature life when
it comes to the passion I feel about journalism and openness. One was growing
up a Southerner. I grew up in the Deep South that had suffered, as had the
nation, from 250 years of denial about slavery. The South drove the
free-thinking preachers from the pulpit, the free-thinking editors from the
newsrooms and the free-thinking teachers from the classrooms. We paid, the
nation paid, a terrible bloody price in the Civil War. Then the South went
into denial again, the nation went into denial again about the fact that what
happened at Appomattox, which ended the war, had not been realized in peace.
It took us another hundred years to fulfill the victory at Appomattox and to
make those blood--that blood not shed in vane. Because we're in denial and
not being truthful about slavery has marred this country's entire history.
Then I did serve in the Johnson administration. I was in my late-20s. I had
more energy than wisdom. And we drew the wagons around us. We didn't listen
with enough openness to people who were defying official reality. We believed
our intelligence. We believed our optimistic assessments. I believe Lyndon
Johnson really believed that he could accomplish his goals there if he had
enough time and enough luck. But we paid a terrible price, and the country
paid a terrible price because we were wrong.
And that's why--I saw a play--maybe you saw it--a few years ago, Tom
Stoppard's play "Night and Day," in which a news photographer in there says--a
news photographer, a character in Tony Stoppard's play says, `People do
terrible things to each other, but it's worse in places where they're kept in
the dark.' And I really do think that we need more openness, not more secrecy.
This administration is incredibly successful at managing the flow of news, up
until the point at which the facts on the ground--the prison, Fallujah, the
casualties mounting--become impossible to ignore. Right down the line, most
of what's happening in government, Terry, we don't know about. The Freedom of
Information Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed. He didn't want to sign it. We
had to drag him kicking and screaming to that signature, but once he signed
it, he claimed it. This administration's been so effective at frustrating the
efforts of journalists, historians, scholars and ordinary people to get at the
Freedom of Information Act. We are living in a closed society today.
GROSS: Let me quote something else from one of the speeches in your new book,
"Moyers on Moyers." And, again, this is referring back to the period when you
were press secretary for President Johnson. You write, "Iraq is not Vietnam,
but war is war. Like the White House today, we didn't talk very much about
what the war would cost. In the beginning, we weren't sure, and we didn't
really want to know too soon anyway. We were afraid of what telling Congress
and the public the true cost of the war would do to the rest of the
budget--the money for education, poverty, medicine. In time, however, we had
to figure it out and come clean."
When and how did you come clean?
Mr. MOYERS: It was in the budget--I believe it was the budget process of
1967, when it became impossible to continue to spend on Vietnam and spend for
the domestic priorities that were important to the president. And Kermit
Gordon, the head of the Budget Bureau at that time, said, `You're going to
have to pay for this one way or the other, either through deficit spending or
through taxes.' And that was when it hit the wall. That was when the
president realized he could no longer hold out trying to put a price tag on
the war. Even then, he tried to.
I left soon after that. I remember going over to the Defense Department,
crossing the Potomac, going to see Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Now
I said, `Mr. President, my responsibility is the domestic side of this, and,
look, here are what the costs are going to be. Your responsibility is the
Pentagon, the Defense Department. Here are the costs you've sent over. They
don't add up. They add up to far more expenditures than we have revenues
coming in. We need to ask for a tax increase.'
And Mr. McNamara, the secretary of Defense, said, `We can't do that, Bill.'
He said, `If we go up to the Congress and ask for a tax increase to pay for
the war in Vietnam and to pay for domestic spending, then the conservatives in
Congress will cut off the spending for poverty, the spending for education,
the spending for Head Start. And if we aren't careful, then the liberals will
vote against what we need in Vietnam.'
So he and the president worked out a budgeting system that continued to defer
for awhile the real costs, but in time the deficit rose, inflation spiraled
out of control, and the country was feeling the pain of that financial
straightjacket. And that was when reality set in and you couldn't hope or
hide it anymore.
GROSS: Let me quote again from one of your speeches collected in "Moyers on
America." And this is referring to Vietnam. "The dead were coming back in
such numbers that LBJ grew morose and sometimes took to bed with the covers
pulled over his eyes, as if he could avoid the ghosts of young men marching
around in his head."
Were those ghosts marching around your bed, too?
Mr. MOYERS: I was never at peace with the war, even when I believed that the
people who were arguing for it believed in it. Do ghosts march in my head?
No. Sadness reigns and melancholy at the lives that were lost that didn't
need to be lost. That whole experienced convinced me that war should be in
self-defense and by necessity, not by choice. But the president was
melancholy. He had a depressive streak in his nature anyway, and he took the
keen responsibility of suffering psychologically and emotionally for all those
lives, all those people.
You know, when his two sons-in-law went to Vietnam, he would go with Lucy, his
youngest daughter, to the little Catholic Church he belonged to, 2:00 in the
morning, she would go with him up there for him to seek some kind of solace.
He was a torn man because of this. He was a true cold warrior. Remember, he
was in the Senate in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, and he did
believe that in the doctrine of Munich, that if you didn't draw the line
against an aggressor at a certain place, then you'd have to fight that
aggressor later on.
He also believed in the credibility of his inheritance, that Eisenhower and
Kennedy had said Vietnam was important and that it had happened on his watch,
that he had to put meaning behind that evaluation. But the human cost of that
became unbearable to him and a source of constant sadness and despair.
GROSS: If you could briefly tell us--I don't know if you saw "The Fog of
War," the documentary about Robert McNamara, but...
Mr. MOYERS: I did see it.
GROSS: ...I'd be really interested in, you know, a short version of your
review of that film.
Mr. MOYERS: I didn't understand it. I thought it was more the work of the
documentarian than it was a revelation about Robert McNamara. It confused me.
There are two kinds of documentaries, and I've done hundreds over the years.
One documentary is made, one documentary is found. You go out with your
cameras and you insert yourself into a process and you try to capture the
essence of it and come back and diligently edit it to reflect the essence of
what you found. When you make a documentary, you go out with an idea in mind
and you find the elements and compose it to fit that idea.
Errol Morris had something in mind that he wanted to say about Robert
McNamara. I did see in the documentary the same McNamara I knew many years
ago, a man divided, a man troubled, a man still searching to reconcile what
happened in Vietnam with his own values and to try to identify what was his
own place in it. But I was left confused and ambiguous when the documentary
was over, and whatever its message was, I couldn't identify. And I didn't
think it succeeded at that level.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers. He has a new book collecting his speeches,
called "Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers. He has a new book collecting his speeches
called "Moyers on America."
I want to ask you one more question about President Johnson. Johnson decided
not to run again, I think because he felt so defeated by the anti-war movement
and maybe over his head in Vietnam. Did he talk to you about that decision?
Mr. MOYERS: No. I had been gone well over a year before that. I left in
January of 1967; he made that decision and announced it in March of 1968. I
remember my wife and I were watching the speech, and I did not know up until
the last minute what it was about, and I didn't not know--I thought Lyndon
Johnson would never voluntarily give up power. But I do know that he would
talk often, even when I was there--soon after the election in 1964 he would
talk about the fact that he didn't think he'd live out his time. His father
died an early death, and he thought that he was risking his heart and risking
his health by being in the office.
At the same time, he loved power. He'd sought power. He'd been denied power
when he lost to Kennedy in 1960. And he just relished power, until, as I say,
it became clear to him that the use of power in Vietnam was not going to
achieve its purpose and it was coming at a cost that he found unbearable. And
I believe that he left because of that. I believe he left because he wasn't
sure that he knew out to get us out of Vietnam and that he hoped maybe
somebody else would.
But I was not there at that time, so I do not know what went into his personal
GROSS: You mentioned that Johnson loved power. Do you think of yourself as
loving power, and do you think of yourself as having spoken with or reported
on many people or worked with many people who do love power?
Mr. MOYERS: I don't love power. I don't dislike it, but, I mean, I've never
really had power. I've had reflected power, reflected authority. I love
government and I love making things happen. The three best years of my life
was when I helped organize the Peace Corps with Sargent Shriver. I just wrote
the foreword to the biography of Shriver. Those three years when we were
making things happen, when we were releasing the idealism of Americans abroad,
when we believed that we could have a beneficial and positive influence in the
world, I loved that. I loved the first two years of the Johnson White House
when we were passing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil
Rights Act of '66 and all of those. I liked that. I really believe, as I
said--I'm a liberal. I believe in public action for the public good, and I
But to have power for power's sake never has appealed to me. That's why I
think I've never wanted to go into--you know, I've thought about politics.
Other people have suggested elected office. But I was offered the chief of
staff's job in the Carter years, 1978, the mid part of his years. Bill
Clinton asked me to come and be his chief of staff; I turned that down. Jimmy
Carter asked me to become the first secretary of Education; I turned that
I turned those down because, having left government, I found in journalism the
satisfaction of a work that I didn't want to leave. I really love journalism
and I believe journalism plays an important part in--it has a different kind
of power. It's the power of shedding light on what's happening and to help
people inform their decisions. And I've loved that for 32 years. I liked it
when I went to work--I went--my first job in journalism at the age of 16 was
on the little newspaper in Marshall, Texas. I just delighted in covering my
Politics and government were a diversion for me, an unexpected, unintended
consequence of circumstances and convergences in my life. That as soon as I
could, I left and went back to journalism, and I've been doing it ever since
1967. And I can't imagine having lived another life.
GROSS: Do you watch the media that--of all different points of view, the
mainstream media, the editorial media, the media on the right, the media on
the left? There's, you know, lots of Web sites I'd include in there, too.
Mr. MOYERS: I do. I spend too much time soaking it up and absorbing it and
following it, whether it's the Web sites on the right or the magazines on the
right. I mean, I read 15 to 20 magazines every week across the spectrum, from
Mother Jones to National Review. I've been reading National Review for 35
years. I get transcripts of Rush Limbaugh every day at my office. Rush
Limbaugh and Michael Savage and other--the primary sources of right-wing
radio. I read The Nation, I read In These Times, I read the American
Prospect. Yes, I probably take in too much information.
GROSS: So every day, you read a transcript of Rush Limbaugh's previous
Mr. MOYERS: I make sure every week--I may not read it every day. I get
every day's transcript.
GROSS: Why do you want to read it?
Mr. MOYERS: Because I want to know what his audience is being told. I want
to know what his audience--what's being said to them about politics, the
environment. I mean, I do think you need to know--understand the milieu in
which you're operating in. When my viewers come, I want to know what might
have been playing on their mind and what they've been told elsewhere.
But it's not just Limbaugh. I mean, Limbaugh, because he's the darling of
talk radio, but there are a lot of others that I listen to. And I'm an
inveterate scanner of the Internet. I think the Internet, the blogging, is
the closest we've come in a long time to the history of the American media in
the beginning, the American press. You know, in the 1820s, the 1830s, all you
needed to be a journalist was to buy a press. That's why they called them
`ink-stained wretches,' because they operated their own hand presses. And for
a little bit of money, you know, like Tom Paine and others, you could have
your own press.
The first newspapers in America, Public Occurrences, Both Foreign and
Domestic, published in 1619 in Boston by a man named Benjamin Harris, said his
purpose was to end the spirit of lying in the land. The government, the
colonial government, closed him down after one issue. Why? Because they said
he didn't have an official license. Well, that's what the Revolution was all
about, and after the Revolution, independent journalists, printers they called
themselves, sprung up all over the country. I think--they were partisan, by
the way. They took sides vociferously, attacked the other's politicians. But
it was a healthy period of bombast in America in which people could sort out
I think the bloggers and then the Web sites come close to that spirit of
cacophony, to that democratic expression that we had in the early part of this
GROSS: Well, Bill Moyers, we are just out of time. I want to thank you very
much for talking with us. And I wish you good luck in your life after you
leave your broadcast following the November elections. Good luck with the
remainder of the shows, and good luck afterwards. Thank you so much for being
Mr. MOYERS: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure and a joy to be in the
same universe with you, the universe of public broadcasting. And I will have
more time now to listen to FRESH AIR than I have had in the past few years.
But I've caught you often enough to deeply appreciate what you do.
GROSS: Bill Moyers is the host of the public television series "NOW with Bill
Moyers," which he will leave after the presidential election. He has a new
book called "Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times."
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how to describe what happened at
the Abu Ghraib prison. Mistreatment? Abuse? Torture?
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Finding the right word to describe what happened inside
Abu Ghraib prison
TERRY GROSS, host:
We've all seen the same photos showing what went on in the Abu Ghraib prison,
but we're using different words to describe it: mistreatment, abuse,
atrocities, torture. It's even been compared to a hazing. Our linguist,
Geoff Nunberg, has these thoughts on why we're struggling to find the right
words for what we've been seeing.
In a way, the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison speak for themselves, but it's
hard to assign a moral significance to the acts unless we can attach a name to
them. The French and Italian papers have been describing the affair under the
running head: the torture scandal. And that's the word that's being used by
the British papers on both the left and the right. The Red Cross report that
was disclosed on Monday heads that description only slightly when it described
the treatment of detainees as `tantamount to torture.'
The word `torture' has appeared in the American press, too. When The New
Yorker ran a photo of a naked prisoner being threatened by dogs, it captioned
it, `torture of Iraqi prisoners.' And a few columnists called the events
`atrocities,' which is somehow a lot stronger than saying that they're
atrocious. But most Americans have been more circumspect than that. When
Secretary Rumsfeld was asked about the charges of torture at his news
briefing, he said, `I'm not going to address the torture word.' And most
American newspapers and news broadcasts have been sticking with generic terms
like `abuse' and `mistreatment.'
In fact, some people on the right have balked even at those words. In an
opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times last Sunday, Midge Decter referred to
the treatment of detainees as `a nasty hazing.' And Rush Limbaugh described
it as no different than what happens at a Skull & Bones initiation. `I'm
talking about people having a good time,' he said. `You ever hear of
emotional release? You ever heard of the need to blow off some steam?' And
here in San Francisco, I heard a pair of shock jocks the other day describing
the prison as `Abu Grab-Ass' and talking about the treatment in a way that
made it sound like "Animal House 3: Bluto in Baghdad."
Strictly speaking, what took place in the prison probably does fit the Geneva
Conventions' definition of torture, which is pretty broad. It covers the
infliction of physical or mental pain or suffering for any number of reasons.
But people's choice of words here doesn't have a lot to do with what President
Bush calls legalisms. The American media have other reasons for describing
the events differently from the Europeans. They may want to extenuate the
abuses or at least avoid the criticisms they might get if they use what
Rumsfeld called `the torture word.' But it's also because torture and
torturer don't seem quite the right words for what's going on in those photos.
Torture may be familiar in the modern world, but it's also remote. The only
torturers we see up close are the ones in the movies. It suggests an
aestheticized ritual, the Bach playing in the background during the torture
scenes in "Battle of Algiers."
And the word `torture' brings to mind a cosmopolitan, usually foreign figure
whose cruelty is ironically counterpoised by a polished, even effete
manner--Laurence Olivier in "Marathon Man"; Gert Frobe in "Goldfinger"; or the
Mohammed Khan character in "Lives of a Bengal Lancer," telling Gary Cooper,
`We have ways of making men talk.' Or you think of Vincent Price in almost
anything. Not foreign exactly, but a stringent, urbane and talking like
somebody who's lived most of his life abroad.
There are no middle-class, middle-American torturers in our gallery, much less
torturers with the pudding countenances of those GI's who were working at
McDonald's just a year ago. And the humiliations they were inflicting didn't
have much in common with the rituals of pain and submission that the word
`torture' brings to mind. They went down another road, even if it fell off
just as sharply. That's what creates the sense of incongruity we feel when we
see these photos, I think. The actions may have been far from Delta House
high jinx, but you wouldn't know it from the clowning poses the GI's were
In an odd way, in fact, Decter and Limbaugh have got it right despite
themselves, not that there's any defense for describing this as hazing--that's
a deeply dishonest word for what went on. The prisoners weren't in a position
to resign from the club, and they weren't about to be given membership pins
when pledge week was over. You may as well say that the LA police were hazing
Rodney King. But if the word `hazing' was chosen to palliate the offenses, it
also makes them seem more familiar. Hazing's the sort of thing that any
adolescent with a normal libido might be capable of, and worse if the
As a Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo showed in a famous experiment more
than 30 years ago, it doesn't take a lot to transform a group of healthy,
intelligent male college students into sadistic prison guards, provided
somebody in authority gives them the nod.
It's striking that we don't really have a good word for this sort of thing.
Not that it isn't right to call it abuse or mistreatment, but those are vague
words that blur the moral distinctions we're trying to capture. And we may
yet find out that the behavior extended to the sorts of fingernail-pulling
barbarities that not even Rumsfeld would have any qualms about describing as
But while words like `torture' and `atrocity' are well-suited to convey the
alien inhumanity of the decapitation video that surfaced this week, they don't
really help us to grasp the disturbing familiarity of the faces in the
pictures from Abu Ghraib, the kind of cruelty that isn't inhuman but all too.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and author of the new book "Going
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with the 1979 hit "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." John Whitehead was
shot to death on Tuesday. He sang on the record and co-wrote the song with
Gene McFadden. Whitehead and McFadden also co-wrote the songs "Back Stabbers"
and "For the Love of Money."
(Soundbite of "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now")
Chorus: (Singing) Ain't no stopping us now. We're on the move. Ain't no
stopping us now. We've got the groove.
Mr. JOHN WHITEHEAD: (Singing) There's been so many things that's held us
down, but now it looks like things are finally coming around. I know we've
got a long, long way to go, and where we'll end up, I don't know. But we
won't let nothing hold us back. We're putting ourselves together, we're
polishing up our act. Yeah. If you've ever been held down before, I know
you'll refuse to be held down anymore. Yeah.
Chorus: (Singing) Don't you let nothing, nothing...
Mr. WHITEHEAD: (Singing) Stand in your way.
Chorus: (Singing) I want you all to listen, listen.
Mr. WHITEHEAD: (Singing) To every word I say, every word I say...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.