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After Four Decades In TV News, Bill Moyers Retires
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Tonight, PBS airs the last episode of "The Bill Moyers Journal." Moyers said in
a recent blog post he's leaving simply because it's time to go. He's nearly 76,
he said, and there are things left to do that deadlines and the demands of a
weekly broadcast don't permit.
In the 1960s, Moyers was special assistant, then press secretary to President
Lyndon Johnson. Over his long career in broadcasting, he's won more than 30
Emmy Awards, as well as nine Peabodys.
Assessing Moyers' work in the L.A. Times recently, Neal Gabler wrote: There's
no shortage of loudmouths on television. There is, however, a very short supply
of soft-spoken moralists: exactly one. Moyers can speak truth to power
precisely because his motives are unimpeachable, his independence firmly
established, his respect for ideas and thought amply demonstrated.
Today, we'll hear from several FRESH AIR appearances by Bill Moyers, beginning
with Terry's 2004 interview, when Moyers announced he was stepping down as host
of "NOW with Bill Moyers." He'd just written a book collecting his speeches and
commentaries called "Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times."
TERRY GROSS, host:
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. BILL MOYERS (Journalist): Well, first I want to know who's saying it and
why they're saying it. Is Rush Limbaugh saying that? Is an adversary of public
broadcasting, someone 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 consider myself an elitist. I'm from Marshall, Texas. My father had a
fourth-grade education. My mother had an eighth-grade education. I've been
fortunate through the years to gain a position in life from 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 greatest 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, elite 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 a liberal. So is
that - do you see that as a problem, calling public media liberal?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, I think that one of - I think the right 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 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 and Colmes and Bill O'Reilly and
others cast aspersions on it.
GROSS: You were at the meeting in 1964 that led to the creation of public
broadcasting. You write about this a little bit in your new book, "Moyers on
America." And this is in 1964 at the Office of Education to discuss the
potential of educational TV, which became public broadcasting in 1967 after
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 it - we attended a meeting at
the Office of the Education, the commissioner of education, to talk about it
and to see what we could do about it.
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 merchandizing,
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.
And 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
GROSS: You allude 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 wouldn't stay long, 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 of '64,
the Voting Rights Act of '65, the Civil Rights Act of '66. And I loved 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 didn'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 there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOYERS: 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
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
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.
GROSS: You mean financial cost?
Mr. MOYERS: Yeah, the financial cost. Because he feared that if - he didn't
think 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 down, 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
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 the 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 people
to know when and where he was going to be making 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 tragic - on flawed premises, you're going to have
terrible things happen, and ultimately, you're going to come to grief.
DAVIES: Bill Moyers, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004, about six months before
the reelection of George W. Bush. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: After four decades in broadcasting, Bill Moyers is retiring from weekly
television. During the Johnson administration, Moyers worked on domestic policy
and legislation for LBJ, then served as his press secretary. We're listening
back to several conversations with Terry Gross. This one was recorded in 2004.
GROSS: 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 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 lock-step in keeping
information from the people at large and from their representatives in
Congress. Do you say that with some admiration, since...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOYERS: And 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 a 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 100 years to fulfill the victory at
Appomattox and to make those blood - that blood not shed in vain. Because we're
in denial and not being truthful about slavery has marred this country's entire
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 - if we 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 really - 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 character in Tom Stoppard's play says: People do terrible
things to each other, but it's worse in places where they're kept in the dark.
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 prisons, 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 John 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
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. And 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 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, spending for education, the spending for
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 a while the real cost. 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 any longer.
GROSS: 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 antiwar
movement and maybe over his head in Vietnam. Did he talk to you about that
Mr. MOYERS: No. I had been gone well over a year by then. 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 did 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 of
1964, he would walk 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 sought power. He'd been denied power when
he lost to Kennedy in 1960. And I just - 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 his purpose, and it was going to come at a - 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 how 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 now know what went into
his personal thinking.
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've never really had
power. I 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 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 like that. 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 - I mean, I
thought about politics. Other people have suggested elected office.
But I was offered the chief of staff job in the Carter years, 1978, the mid
part of his years. Bill Clinton offered me the - 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 down. 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. Politics and government were a diversion for me, an
unexpected, unintended consequence of circumstances and convergences in my
life. But 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.
DAVIES: Bill Moyers, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. We'll hear from two
other Moyers interviews in the second half of the show. The last episode of his
series, "Bill Moyers Journal," airs tonight on PBS.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Tonight PBS airs the last episode of the "Bill Moyers Journal." We're listening
to excerpts of Moyers' appearances on FRESH AIR. In 1996, Terry spoke to Moyers
after he'd completed his PBS series and companion book "Genesis: A Living
Conversation," which featured writers, theologians and artists discussing the
"Book of Genesis." The series was inspired by a Bible seminar in New York at
the Jewish Theological Seminary. Terry asked Moyers about some remarks from
Rabbi Burton Visotsky.
GROSS: You're discuss something that Rabbi Visotsky said, you say he explains
to newcomers that the communal study of the Bible can continue to provide us
with a means for clarifying our ideas about the world around us and for linking
them historically to a longstanding tradition. I like that way of putting it.
Add to that for me. Tell me why you think it's important to talk about biblical
interpretation on television.
Mr. MOYERS: Well, so much of the talk about religion over the last 20 years has
been dominated by a politicized and polemical form of discussion. Sometimes
I've thought that religion has just been reduced to another interest group,
like the National Rifle Association or the National Association of
Manufacturers or the AARP. And sometimes that talk has also reduced Moses and
Jesus to lobbyists with Guccis on prowling the corridors of Congress advocating
a tax break.
Well, I know there's a lot of religious discussion going on in this country
that has nothing to do with politics. In fact, religion has been giving God a
bad name and I just thought it would be a good idea if I could recreate on
television what I heard there in Burt Visotsky's seminar room.
GROSS: Do things in your life ever send you to the Bible?
Mr. MOYERS: I never go to the Bible for proof text. What we used to say and in
seminary was the proof of the issue, that if you were having an argument with
somebody you just open the Bible and say here, see it says this. I told you so.
I never use it that way. I was fortunate to grow up in a Baptist Church that
was emphasized thinking for yourself. What we called the priesthood of the
believer, that you had to read the Bible and wrestle with its meanings and then
bringing to bear the best teaching and the best scholarship to decide for
yourself what it means.
So I've never been to the Bible as a life raft, as a lifejacket, as a pill to
pop when I'm feeling down or when I'm uncertain. It's the fact that it's so
woven into my whole life and that I read these stories as mirrors in a way. The
people in "Genesis" rage at one another. They rage at God. They struggle with
temptation. They're jealous, they're grief-stricken, they're patient, they're
conniving, they're loving, they're hateful. These stories speak to us today
because they're so starkly human.
GROSS: You preached for a few years I think before entering politics and then
Mr. MOYERS: I wouldn't call it that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOYERS: I wouldn't call it that.
GROSS: You wouldn't call it your years, you wouldn't all it preaching. Which?
Mr. MOYERS: I wouldn't call it preaching. Oh I was pretty â I think one of the
reasons I didn't pursue that is that I just â it never came out quite right. I
never felt comfortable doing it. I actually intended to teach, Terry. I wanted
to â I had signed up when I finished seminary to do my PhD at the university in
American civilization and I wanted to look at religion as a phenomenon in
American life. That's what I intended to do. But in seminary, yes, I went out
to small churches on Sundays and inflicted my amateurish wisdom on very patient
and loving congregations of mostly farmers and their spouses.
GROSS: Well, I'm wondering if anybody ever came up to you and asked you for
advice about what the Bible had to say about their predicament.
Mr. MOYERS: Well, I had a very scary experience that was a turning point also
in my life. I was pasturing at a student ministry. I'd go out with my wife and
I would go out on weekends, and I was in this small church. There were two
sisters there, two spinster sisters. They must've been in their late 60s. And
they lived with their brother on a farm not far from this church. And they were
there every â this was only every other week I would go out. They were there.
And one Sunday they asked if they could see me after church. I must've been 20.
Yeah, I was not quite 21. I was a - my second half of my sophomore year at the
university. And they said to me that â they admitted to me â they confessed to
me that in the Protestant church, but this was a confession that they'd been
having incestuous relations with their brother and they needed help. They were
deeply guilt-stricken. They were deeply disturbed by this and they needed help.
And what did I have to tell them? Well, I remember mumbling and fumbling
something and saying, you know, let me think about it and I'll cone back to see
I went immediately to that afternoon â the next afternoon when I went back
home, I went to a marvelous man who was a great a generous soul, minister,
broad in his faith and learned in his wisdom and talked to him. He said Moyers,
you've got no business trying to bring the Bible to bear on them. Thank God you
didn't do that. I want you to go out to the university and see, and he gave me
the name of a leading psychiatrist, a psychologist who taught at the university
school of - department of psychology.
I went out to see him and this man said well, I'll be glad to try to help them.
It's a very serious issue. You tell them to call me and try to get them to come
see me. Bring them if they'll come with you. So the next time I went out I went
by to see them and talked to them and I could tell that if the Bible couldn't
help them, if I couldn't help them, then they didn't think psychology and
psychiatry could help them. Now, this was back in the '50s when that generation
of folk didn't have much use for the new psychological insights of the secular
world. And they never followed through.
And that was a â I realized at that moment that I wasn't equipped to help those
people who hungered for some answer that I couldn't give them, for some help
that I couldn't give them. So that was an occasion in which it wasn't easy to
open the Bible and find something that would give them encouragement.
DAVIES: Bill Moyers and Terry Gross recorded in 1996. They spoke again in 2007
when Moyers had returned to television to host, "Bill Moyers Journal," and had
completed the documentary "Buying the War," on the role of the press and the
lead-up to the Iraq War.
GROSS: Now a lot of your documentary "Buying the War" focuses on the Washington
press corps and how you think they bought the war. And "Buying the War" is the
title of the documentary. And, you know, an example that you give is, and this
is a kind of process example. You talk about the day that Judith Miller and
Michael Gordon had a front page story in The New York Times saying that Saddam
Hussein was on this worldwide search for materials to build a nuclear weapon
and that they'd gotten their hands on aluminum tubes which could be used to
build a nuclear weapon. And that same morning, as The New York Times story
appeared on the front page, what happened?
Mr. MOYERS: Vice President Cheney went on "Meet the Press," and when pressed by
Tim Russert about the story on the front page of The New York Times, Cheney,
who had not â who had refused to talk about issues of national security â
intelligence like this said well, you know, we have it confirmed by the story
in The New York Times this morning. Now that story was a leak from the
administration. So you had in essence, the leaker being asked by a mainstream
journalist to confirm his own leak.
It wasn't identified as Cheney's leak although, I have no doubt that it came
from Cheney's office, and we learned a lot in the Libby trial about that sort
of thing. So it was a sort of, you know, it's a cliche to say it now but it was
a perfect storm or a perfect triangle. The government leaks an intelligence
report. It's a wrong intelligence â it's a false intelligence report but they
leak it. The New York Times prints it and the talk shows on Sunday confirm it
by actually having the leakers on to say well, The New York Times says it, it
must be so.
Some people in my broadcast say this was the consummate moment when it was
clear to them that there was a collusion or at least an embrace of the
administration and the mainstream media, particularly the Sunday â the
broadcast networks on going to war.
GROSS: Why do you think that the Washington press corps bought the information?
Mr. MOYERS: First let me say there were exceptions, and our documentary reports
on what the then Knight Ridder bureau, led by John Walcott, a trusty veteran of
many years of covering Washington and two of his star reporters, Struble and
Landay. I mean they were on this story from the very beginning. This story that
the intelligence was being cooked, that there were real questions about whether
or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein
did not have any ties to 9/11 through al-Qaida. They were on to the story. But
because they don't have an outlet in Washington or an outlet in New York where
the news capitals of America, they were ignored by the mainstream press.
But back to your question as to why it happened. Well, first of all, there was
the emotional response to 9/11 in which many journalists like Dan Rather on
"The David Letterman Show" were deeply affected by the sneak attacks that cost
so many thousands of American lives. And they're judgment of â their skepticism
was suspended in that time of trauma.
It's also the sin of being inside. The sin of in, I call it. I mean we learned
in the Vietnam War that - early in the Vietnam War that if the president said
there was a threat then the reporters and the editors tended to believe there
was a threat, that they didn't ask for the actual evidence. It was the
reporting of David Halberstam and Morley Safer and Peter Arnett out in Vietnam
that very quickly in Vietnam undermined the official view of reality by
reporting facts on the ground. We didn't have that kind of reporting in the
buildup to the Iraqi War. There were fewer American reporters there. They
couldn't get to the stories that would counter the official view of reality
that was being passed out gratis in Washington.
Then you also have, Terry, this powerful ideological partisan press - talk
radio, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, the bloggers by this time - whose mission is to
advance the political aims of the Republican Party. This press is part of a
political movement so that anyone who reports information, news that seems to
contradict their principal political leaders, they come down hard on them.
So you had the willingness of the mainstream press to go along with the
administration because they see themselves as the extension of authority and
power and they're in the game, and you have this relentless beating up of any
dissident mainstream journalist who deviate from the official view of reality
by a political press whose main interest is in advancing the administration's
arguments and case.
GROSS: Because your new documentary examines the coverage of TV and newspapers
in the lead-up to the war, I'm wondering if you think that there's a kind of
false way of measuring fairness that might sound like fairness but you think
maybe isn't really as accurate as it seems or, you know, in terms of actually
Mr. MOYERS: Splitting the difference between two opinions does not get you to
the truth. It gets you to another opinion. I believe that we journalists are
obligated to get people as close as possible to the verifiable truth no matter
GROSS: Well, you're talking about having like the guy from the left and the guy
from the right and just saying well, the truth is somewhere in between.
Mr. MOYERS: Yeah. The Republican senator or the Democratic senator saying okay
you decide what the truth is. I believe we journalists are obligated to get
people close to the verifiable truth and that what I - the conclusions I reach,
the analysis I make are substantiated by the evidence I've collected. That's
what I mean by credibility and that's what I mean by judgment. We make a
judgment based upon the information. Our judgment has to be compared to the
credibility of the information.
Let me just say one thing about "Buying the War." People say to me, people have
asked me why is it important. It happened four years ago. Well, this war is
still going on. If your fire department in your neighborhood is in collusion
with the arsonist you want to know about it to avoid the fire next time. If the
dog doesn't bark, you want to know if the dog is licking the boots of the
DAVIES: Bill Moyers speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 2007. The last
episode of "Bill Moyers Journal" airs on PBS tonight. You can find several
complete interviews with Bill Moyers, including the full conversation he had
with Terry Gross about death and dying on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, David Bianculli on a new CD/DVD of 1960s musical satirist Tom
This is FRESH AIR.
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Tom Lehrer: '60s Satirist Still Strikes A Chord
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Musical political satirist Tom Lehrer, whose topical songs in the 1960s
included "Pollution" and "The Vatican Rag" is the subject of a new multimedia
release from Shout Factory. It's a two-disc set. One's an audio CD including
greatest hits and a few rare treats. The other is a DVD made up of very rare
footage never before seen of Lehrer in concert.
TV critic David Bianculli, a lifetime Lehrer fan, has this review.
(Soundbite of song, "We Will All Go Together When We Go")
Mr. TOM LEHRER (Musician, Political Satirist): (Singing) Oh we will all burn
together when we burn. There'll be no need to stand and wait your turn. When
it's time for the fallout and Saint Peter calls us all out, we'll just drop our
agendas and adjourn. You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas. Go
directly, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dolla's.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVID BIANCULLI: Even at the height of his fame in the mid-1960s, Tom Lehrer
was a fairly elusive guy. He wrote songs for the American version of âThat Was
the Week That Was,â a sharp, topical TV variety show, but he didn't sing them
himself, or appear on camera. He had hit albums - live recordings of his comedy
songs - but didn't do the variety-show circuit on TV, or have any of his own
primetime specials. And then, after a few brilliant years churning out songs
about World War III, New Math and National Brotherhood Week, he seemed to
What he really did was return to academia, where he continued to teach
mathematics and political science at such institutions as Harvard, MIT and the
University of California until his retirement in 2001. And except for dabbling
in writing a few songs over the decades, for the PBS âElectric Companyâ series
and elsewhere, that's about it for Tom Lehrer as a shy but shining pop-culture
Until, that is, this new release from Shout Factory, called âThe Tom Lehrer
Collection,â which adds both audio and video to the canon.
Before we get to the new stuff, it's worth pointing out just how fresh the old
stuff still seems. Accompanying himself on piano, Lehrer tackles subjects that
at the time were hot off the presses. And he does it with rhymes that are so
twisted and clever, they bring to mind Stephen Sondheim. If you think that's a
stretch, think again. One of the video treats in this collection, from 1998,
captures Tom Lehrer's first public performance in 25 years, and it's a
performance introduced by Stephen Sondheim. Turns out the two of them not only
respect each other's rhyming schemes but went to summer camp together as kids.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of these old concert recordings is listening
to how the audience often explodes with joy - sometimes in reaction to a rhyme,
sometimes to the music, and sometimes because of the sheer audacity of the
subject matter. Lehrer hit all three out of the park with 1965's "The Vatican
Rag." It's his irreverent example of how the Catholic Church could spread its
message in a more secular age by adopting more popular musical forms.
(Soundbite of song, "The Vatican Ragâ)
Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) First you get down on your knees, fiddle with your
rosaries. Bow your head with great respect, and genuflect, genuflect,
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) Do whatever steps you want, if you have cleared them with
the pontiff. Everybody say his own Kyrie eleison. Doin' the Vatican Rag.
BIANCULLI: The biggest video treasure in âThe Tom Lehrer Collectionâ, after
showing up unauthorized in pieces on YouTube, is a complete Tom Lehrer concert
from 1967, when he performed his act on Norwegian TV. The tiny audience here is
so quiet, it's almost like a studio recording. But Lehrer is in great form. And
on one song, about an infamous German rocket scientist who defected to the
U.S., Lehrer even got the Oslo crowd to laugh a little.
(Soundbite of song, "Wernher von Braun")
Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun. A man
whose allegiance is ruled by expedience. Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown.
Nazi Schmazi, says Wernher von Braun. Don't say that he's hypocritical. Say
rather that he's apolitical. Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun. Some
have harsh words for this man of renown, but some think our attitude should be
one of gratitude. Like the widows and cripples in old London town who owe their
large pensions to Wernher von Braun. You too may be a big hero, once you've
learned to count backwards to zero. In German oder English I know how to count
down, und I'm learning Chinese, says Wernher von Braun.
(Soundbite of applause)
BIANCULLI: In the liner notes, Lehrer explains why an American TV special
wasn't used for this new DVD release. The answer is simply, he says, that I was
never invited to do one. So Tom Lehrer fans â and I'm certainly one of them -
should be grateful for any chance to see him in action. For us, it's almost as
much fun as poisoning pigeons in the park.
(Soundbite of song, âPoisoning Pigeons in the Parkâ)
Mr. LEHRER: (Singing) All the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon when
we're poisoning pigeons in the park. Every Sunday you'll see my sweetheart and
me as we poison the pigeons in the park. When they see us coming, the birdies
all try and hide. But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide. The
sun's shining bright, everything seems all right when we're poisoning pigeons
in the park.
DAVIES: David Bianculli writes for tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film
at Rowan University. He reviewed âThe Tom Lehrer Collectionâ from Shout
You can watch Tom Lehrer perform on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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'Please Give': A Fine-Tuned Study Of Envy And Guilt
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Director Nicole Holofcener is best known for her 2001 comedy "Lovely and
Amazing," which explored the self-images of three very different daughters of
an eccentric mother. Her newest comedy is "Please Give," which stars Rebecca
Hall, Oliver Platt and Catherine Keener, whoâs been in all four of her
Critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Nicole Holofcenerâs âPlease Giveâ jumps around in a way that's
loose and offbeat and funny. It seems almost rude to describe it as having a
theme. It has no big speeches, no conventional climax, and two female
protagonists who meet only glancingly. The only hint of a message is that
title, which no one says onscreen, and which might, like all of Holofcener's
titles, seem maddeningly unspecific - âWalking and Talking," "Lovely and
Amazing," "Friends With Money.â But the casualness is deceptive.
âPlease Giveâ is a fine-tuned study of envy at what others have and guilt over
having what others don't, and of how the two feelings can coexist. Catherine
Keener, who has starred in all Holofcener's films, is Kate, who, along with her
husband, Alex, played by Oliver Platt, runs a Manhattan furniture store with an
inventory purchased from children of old people who've died, children who often
have no clue what their parents' stuff is worth. Kate and Alex are so
successful at taking advantage of others' ignorance that they've bought the
apartment next door and plan to break through once its 91-year-old tenant,
played by Ann Guilbert, passes away.
But Kate increasingly can't live with the idea she's an exploiter. She's
ashamed when the old woman's granddaughter, Rebecca - the film's second
protagonist, played by Rebecca Hall - responds curtly to her pleasantries. She
Googles places to volunteer. She presses food and money on people in the
street. Her altruism has a hysterical component. She has a teenage daughter,
Abby, played by Sarah Steele, with body issues and bad skin, who longs for that
one article of clothing - a $200 pair of jeans - that she thinks will change
her life. But after refusing to give Abby the money, Kate tries to press a big
bill into the hands of a homeless man.
(Soundbite of movie, âPlease Giveâ)
Ms. CATHERINE KEENER (Actor): (as Kate) Hi.
Ms. SARAH STEELE (Actor): (as Abby) No way.
Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Abby.
Ms. STEELE: (as Abby) You donât give me $20.
Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Abby, give this man that money right now and weâll
discuss this later.
Ms. STEELE: (as Abby) No.
Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Give it. This is insane. I buy you everything you need.
Ms. STEELE: (as Abby) I'm keeping this $20.
Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Abby. Abby, I don't have another 20.
Ms. STEELE: (as Abby) So give him the five.
Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Give him the 20.
Ms. STEELE: (as Abby) So him the five.
Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Give him the 20.
Ms. STEELE: (as Abby) No.
Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) I'm sorry, I'm ashamed. I'm sorry.
EDELSTEIN: In Catherine Keener, Holofcener has the perfect alter-ego: warm and
appealingly bedraggled. Partly because she's so good at projecting plain,
sensible intelligence, her freak-outs seem more grounded than most actors. They
evoke those moments we have when the fog clears and we suddenly see the gap
between what we do and who we think we are.
Rebecca Hall has comic stature too. She's a tall actress who projects a
charming gawkiness. You'd hardly know from her perfect American accent she's
from British theater royalty. Her character Rebecca is a radiology technician
who does mammograms. In fact, the movie opens with a montage of breasts - big,
small, floppy - settling on an X-ray plate. Rebecca is pale and raw, socially
stunted. She's the opposite of her sister Mary, played by Amanda Peet, who
sports an orangey salon tan and is all reckless impulse. Rebecca looks at
women's insides while Mary, who gives facials, stays on the surface, and
together they embody what Holofcener sees as the overwhelming sources of female
anxiety: the breasts, what Rebecca calls the tubes of potential danger, full of
hormones; and the beauty mask by which women are judged.
Holofcener's dialogue is a mixture of abrasiveness and apology, of harsh satire
and a kind of compassionate pullback. Her fondness for her characters softens
but never sentimentalizes them, which is why Oliver Platt's Alex can be a fount
of self-indulgence, yet so likable - and even, with that delicate cleft chin on
that giant head, romantic. The bluntest, meanest character, Rebecca and Mary's
grandmother, is too vivid to dislike. Ann Guilbert played Millie on the old
Dick Van Dyke show, and she still has great brash timing. She also gives you
glimpses of the huge spirit trapped in that small, failing body, and frightened
of death. âPlease Giveâ pushes past ridicule and comes out the other side, to
empathy - to a place where $200 jeans can be a symbol of love, where our only
hope is to give and keep giving.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
Thereâs several video clips from âPlease Giveâ available on our website,
freshair.npr.org, where you can also find a complete archive of David
Edelstein's reviews and you can download podcasts of the show. You can join us
on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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.