Richard Heffner speaks with one of his favorite journalists, Bill Moyers.
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GUEST: Bill Moyers
AIR DATE: 07/16/2011
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And this is the second of a set of programs with a man one must enormously respect for his constant forthrightness in speaking out about what ails our country and our times … for a man who truly speaks truth to power.
And as I noted last time, Bill Moyers is still a youngster at the top of his form, which, to be sure, for me preeminently means as an American “Public Intellectual” and as very much an old-time, long-time preacher and teacher, if you will.
Indeed, I prefer to identify my friend just that way, rather than as the print journalist, ordained Baptist minister, early Peace Corps executive, Presidential Press Secretary, newspaper publisher, commercial and public broadcaster, and splendid prose writer he has been over the years since he was born in Oklahoma, raised and schooled in Texas.
Most of all, my guest is a superb conversationalist — with whom I at times disagree — but whose skills on and off the air I admire … admittedly to the point of envy … and whose wonderfully readable book just published by The New Press and drawn from his most recent Public Broadcasting venture is Bill Moyers Journal – The Conversation Continues.
Now, we’ll deal with this splendid volume again in a moment, but first I want to draw my guest into the discussion of a theme on which we may only seem to disagree. Bill, you were here a decade ago and more … and after I exchanged my usual business about my guest being an optimist and I’m always the pessimist, you said something that built upon my asking you whether we could then move on to the subject of LBJ. You were his Press Secretary, you were his Chief Assistant … and after I asked you about optimism and said I was a pessimist … this is the way the program went.
MOYERS: I do. I believe that. This is a traditional American view. Whitman … I think it was Whitman … yes, Whitman said, “Be radical, be radical, be not too damned radical”. And by being radical he simply means try to keep the record straight, try to keep the record straight. I think in time if you do keep the record straight, you, you … somebody acts on it.
I come from a part of the country that suffered miserably, as did the whole country because we, we killed the truth … we drove the truthsayers out of the pulpits, drove the truthsayers out of the editorial offices, drove the truthsayers out of the classrooms who tried to tell the truth about slavery. And as a consequence of that the South living in its official view of reality, living in its closed world of, of justification of slavery went to war with the rest of the nation and we’re still suffering from that failure of politics, failure of journalism, failure of the church and failure of education to deal with the truth about slavery.
I was part of an administration, the Johnson Administration, I was Press Secretary for the last two years of my stay there, that closed the wagons around ourselves in response to Vietnam. The truth didn’t get in very easily and finally, when it didn’t get in we all sort of shared the same view of the world. The same view of Vietnam and as a consequence of that a terrible thing happened … an Administration failed. Lyndon Johnson died a tragic President and the country, and the Vietnamese went through a horrible thing. Why? Because the contrarian voices, the alternative view of reality never really penetrated to the consciousness of the decision-makers.
In no small part, it isn’t some high moral principle that drives me to want to believe that setting the record straight is the best thing a journalist can do, it is simply the practical reality of what happens when a society, a culture, an organization, a mind, a school, a community, a wagon train, a family just lives by its own law, and lives by its own reality, not aware that there are many realities out there that have to be accommodated and addressed and acted upon if we’re going to have a healthy, human society. So it’s a very practical consequence of a Civil War that almost destroyed the nation, and of a Vietnam War that destroyed an Administration and rivet, rivet … and, and tore the country apart that makes me think … you have to be hopeful about this, you have to keep agitating for this, you have to be radical, be radical although in my own case, not too damn radical.
HEFFNER: Bill, I’ve never heard a more eloquent statement and you mention the magic words, just as we come to the end of the program, I haven’t gotten the sign yet, I don’t know whether we have seconds or a minute left, or what. Would you be willing to talk here some day about the Johnson Administration?
MOYERS: Sure. I mean I haven’t, I haven’t talked a great deal about the Johnson Administration because I was young when I left there and I wanted to go on with my life. I was … the day I left I received a telegram from a very powerful publisher in New York wanting me to write a book about the Johnson years. And I said “First of all, I don’t want to be the thief of his confidence. Second, I want to get on with my life, I don’t want to life forever in this short period of my life in Washington. I’ve got work to do. I was 33 when I left. And I … there are other things I wanted. So I haven’t dwelled in the past. I’m 66 now and at the end of my broadcast career, not the beginning of it and I’ve got some time to think and reflect and I am giving some serious thought to writing a modest account of the Johnson years, the LBJ years. I don’t know for sure what I think about it. I haven’t made up my mind or about him. I loved Lyndon Johnson, I was a young man in his orbit and I really loved the man. I knew what it was like having a father that you know is an alcoholic or a father whom you know is deeply flawed, but you still love him. And I knew Lyndon Johnson was a deeply flawed man and yet there was something about him that could rise to an occasion, that could do the right thing when the chips were down that, that, that increased both my awe and my affection for him. So I’m trying to think through, 40 years later, if I can trust my memory and rely on my judgment what I think and when I get a little closer to … when I get a little closer to knowing what I think about him, I’ll be glad to come back.
HEFFNER: You’re here now. And yet, Bill, I, I … you and I have had a running exchange … you talk about being open to our audience and not hiding any agreement or disagreement from them.
About talking about Johnson and I know you’ve been reluctant and yet you say to me … or said to me, “I don’t want to come on your program if I have put a lid on what you’re going to ask me. It’s not right for there to be some prior agreement between host and guest”. And I thought that to be nonsense.
HEFFNER: I’ve thought that to be contrary to good sense and that there isn’t any reason why you can’t say what you said on that program … you don’t’ choose, yet, to talk. And for me to accept that and move on.
My objective, and I don’t think it was a different … from these conversations that continue in this wonderful new book, Bill Moyers Journal … not … it wasn’t your objective to put people on the spot, you wanted people to say what they were going to say to say to you what you wanted your audience to hear. No?
MOYERS: And the question?
HEFFNER: The question is … why do you feel that it isn’t appropriate for me to know that you won’t talk about a certain area of common interest and to abide by that … to respect your judgment.
MOYERS: When you called me I had just done … to do this conversation … I had just … and we started to market the book (laugh) … as they say … started to promote the book and I’d gone on three consecutive broadcasts, much shorter than this … but they referred to the book and then they wanted to talk about Lyndon Johnson.
And that was fifty years ago. I understand their curiosity, but that’s not where I was and that’s not where I am.
And, and I thought it was unjust to the people in this book, whose wisdom needs to be retrieved … it was … it is retrieved between hard covers and needs to be read by people and, and … an injustice to the participants in my book … and to the audience because … you heard me say eleven years ago I don’t know what I think. And maybe I’ll give some thought to it.
But you know what I did after that … I came back … I retired and then came back. And to journalism.
And I retired again … and I came back to journalism. You know what that says to me? The present is much more compelling to me than the past.
And I did spend some time, Dick, going through some of my records, looking at what I had kept … not a great deal … but what I kept, and I decided that … first of all, it wasn’t that interesting to me.
Most of what needs to be said about Lyndon Johnson has been said. Robert Caro’s books have informed me because I was only with LBJ for four years.
I was … I’m no authority on Lyndon Johnson (laugh). Bob has done the history. Bob Caro has done the history. I’m a journalist.
The past wasn’t that interesting to me. I mean there’s nothing … to me … more enthralling than being able to participate, as a journalist, in what’s happening in our society. And to share it.
You know I said, it’s almost a cliché with me, that, that journalism has been a continuing course in adult education … for me … my education. And that I’ve had a classroom to share with the audience that cares to watch.
And that’s far more intriguing to me than trying to figure out what I think about Lyndon Johnson. And I haven’t had too many fresh thoughts about him in the eleven years since you did that interview … that conversation with me. And it’s just not as important … to me as I find talking to these people and sharing their wisdom, insights, ideas with as many people as I can reach who want to watch as do.
HEFFNER: But these people … one of the people says to you … not saying, not saying this has ever happened … says to you, “Moyers, delighted to talk with you, I’ve watched you all these years, I think you’re terrific … there’s one area though that I’m not going to talk about. I, I haven’t made up my mind and I’m not interested in it.” And he repeats everything you just said. Would you not want him on the program, or her on the program …
MOYERS: Would …
HEFFNER: … and respect the judgment of that person?
MOYERS: First of all, when I did say to you a few weeks ago I didn’t want to talk about Lyndon Johnson, I repented … right? I communicated to you that I … that was a mistake and that I, I shouldn’t put any hold on …
HEFFNER: But what was a mistake? Not putting a hold?
MOYERS: The mistake was to say there’s something I won’t talk about. If we had held to that bargain … you would, of course, being … and I’m serious about this … an honorable man … have told the audience, that Bill said he won’t talk about Lyndon Johnson.
HEFFNER: I don’t know. That, that’s like having the, the empty chair there when someone who knows you’re out to get them or that you’re gonna get them … doesn’t come on the program … that happened to me once.
HEFFNER: With Carmine DeSapio …
HEFFNER: … and Ed Koch and they both promised to come on the program and Carmine DeSapio didn’t appear and we had an empty chair there. I wouldn’t do that again for all the money in the world.
But what’s the matter with my understanding that if it is the case … that Moyers … for the reasons you have just offered … doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t chose to talk about …
MOYERS: There’s nothing wrong with our agreeing not to talk about any subject … but when we do, it seems to me, you would want to, as I know you would … inform the audience … “Bill says he doesn’t want to talk about the Johnson White House.” That’s … then the audience would not … then the audience is free … is freed of any suspicion that you’ve entered into some kind of collusion to their disadvantage.
HEFFNER: Oh, come on, now, Bill.
MOYERS: But what … if the show goes off … why didn’t he ask about Lyndon Johnson?
HEFFNER: Sure. Why not because he’s a dummy or for some other reason.
MOYERS: I’m willing to talk about Lyndon Johnson, I think it’s a boring subject …
HEFFNER: You do?
MOYERS: … quite, quite … I think it’s an ancient subject. Yes.
HEFFNER: How ancient is Vietnam? Today?
MOYERS: Well, the scars are no … ancient. I mean we are all living with the scars of World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea … I just saw a marvelous documentary the other night … a small piece of action in Korea that … trying to take a hill … no, those scars stay with us.
HEFFNER: I wasn’t talking about the old scars, Bill … I’m talking about the new ones.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
HEFFNER: I’m talking about Iraq and Afghanistan and the possibility …
MOYERS: Well …
HEFFNER: … of other involvements.
MOYERS: … what combines the Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush and Barack Obama and any President who has used power since then is that, look … we, we haven’t won any wars.
HEFFNER: You’ve noticed.
MOYERS: Yeah, I’ve noticed that. And, and, and military power is great for defense … we have to … the Preamble of the Constitution … to defend …the common defense … but it’s not a good pro-active … it’s, it’s an in … it’s a counterproductive … proactive use of power. Lyndon Johnson learned that. George W. Bush learned that. Barack Obama is learning that … that, that … we learning in Libya … you know, what … in Afghanistan … we have this assumption that our projection of force can change reality.
It doesn’t change reality and it’s, it’s, it’s … the march, as Barbara Tuchman said, to folly to think that our military … our understanding of the world is such that we can apply a torch somewhere and change habits of centuries and mores of people with deep roots in history and … it hasn’t worked.
Didn’t work in Vietnam … didn’t work … Iraq … well the neo-Conservatives say, “Iraq, look at Iraq today”, so … it’s, it’s, it’s a safer society.
MOYERS: Oh you know, if you’ve been there, if you know what’s going on there … in Afghanistan we’ll leave … if we ever leave, it will go right back to what Genghis Khan founded.
Andrew Bacevich the great historian at Boston University was a Vietnam veteran, graduate of West Point talks about the, the, the, the high cost of empire. And we have one … I mean just the other day Obama was in Poland announcing an air unit that he’s going to put in Warsaw so that we can symbolize our paternity with the Poles. Ugh, that’s part of empire, you know. And no empire has ever thrived long enough to gain the advantages over what they lost by being an empire.
And we are an unintended empire. But we are an empire and that is … you can’t have empire and democracy … just as you can’t have oligarchy and democracy, they don’t go together.
HEFFNER: Then the relevance of Lyndon Johnson to today is very great and you seem to say that that’s past.
MOYERS: No, I … when most people say they want to talk about Johnson … they want to talk about his personality foibles, they want to talk about the, the man’s character or they want to talk, you know … they want to talk about the FBI and Martin Luther King. All of which has been covered and, and that’s what I say … I mean … that is open … I don’t think there are any secrets about Lyndon Johnson now.
And my opinion of him hasn’t changed. He was thirteen of the most fascinating and contradictory people I knew. He could be magnanimous one moment and churlish the next.
He was the best dancer in the White House since George Washington, but he could also step on a lot of toes. Every woman wanted to dance with, but a lot of men ran from him because he could really step on their toes.
He could soar to the moment as she did with Civil Rights … ’64, ’65, ’66. He could also be very petty and vengeful. He was a complicated feature. That’s Bob Caro’s … Bob Caro’s books show that. I’ve said that.
There’s not much new to say. And there are no secrets between Lyndon Johnson and me.
HEFFNER: So why does Bob Caro want so much to sit down and talk with Bill Moyers?
MOYERS: I suppose it gives him a first … a witness to history that he would find useful in his … in, in, in his work. I don’t know. But Bob Caro did call me. The only time I’ve talked to Bob … he called one day and he wanted to … he said “I don’t want to talk about LBJ. I want to talk about the environment of a certain meeting at the, at the Johnson ranch.” And I said “That’s fine, I’ll do what I can.”
And I told him what I thought about that environment that took place when LBJ had this particular meeting. I went overnight and checked … I was wrong on every point …and I had to call him the next day.
I said, “Bob, I have to take that back. I’ve checked what I can of the record online … you can go to the LBJ library. I was wrong, I was wrong.”
And you talk about the difference between a journalist and a historian …when the journalist is wrong, there’s time to correct it. When a historian is wrong, the record, as I said is skewed.
And I don’t trust my memory to be really intimate in my … any revelations about that era. That was half a century ago.
HEFFNER: Two things. One, I think you’re absolutely wrong about when the journalist is wrong, it isn’t that significant because he can change the record.
I don’t think the New York Times changing it’s website … what has appeared on the front page of The Times before … makes all that much difference. No … I, I don’t agree with … but more important …
MOYERS: It won’t be the first time you and I have had a gentleman’s …
HEFFNER: Right. Right.
MOYERS: … disagreement.
HEFFNER: But more important, this business about memory … that interests me. You really … this bothers you a lot. Does it?
MOYERS: Yes, it does. Of course it does. If I had not checked, Bob … Bob’s a great fact checker … Bob’s account of that meeting would be discolored by having talked to someone who was present, but who’s recollection is very faulty. And that would have been unfair to Bob, unfair to the participants in that meeting and unfair to the reader, above all.
MOYERS: Well …
HEFFNER: Our grandchildren. Why then don’t you … why then don’t you do your oral history … which is going to involve you in doing all the digging into your papers, all of the researching … all of the checking your memories.
MOYERS: Again, Dick, it’s because the world today is far more interesting to me than my recollections of a, of a disappeared world. It really is … I don’t … that sounds like a cliché (laugh) … it sounds like a routine, but the fact of the matter is … the fact of the matter is … watching and reporting and analyzing what is happening to our society … means more to me and is more fun than recollecting the past.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but your fun aside … we don’t care about your fun … you know that …
MOYERS: I do know.
HEFFNER: … you’re more concerned about the world than you are about your fun, I know that to be a fact.
The question of the importance of your accurate recollection of the past … I, I find it passing strange that you, who I think is probably the best read man I’ve ever met …
HEFFNER: That you pretend … forgive me … pretend to discount history and what you could contribute.
MOYERS: I, I, I’m not pretending.
HEFFNER: I …
MOYERS: … there’s no pretense in my discounting.
HEFFNER: You’re just wrong then.
MOYERS: If Bob Caro were not doing what he has done … if, if Robert Dallek with … if there’s a historian, whose … Woods who’s … you know, senior moment … who’s done a remarkable biography … one volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Doris Kearns accounted the psychological play in Lyndon Johnson’s mind … no … compared to what they have done … the memory I would bring to bear is minor and inconsequential. And that is not pretense. That is not pretense.
If I had done it when, you know, when Doubleday asked me … the day I resigned from the White House … sent that telegram, offered me a quarter of a million dollars then, which in 1966 was quite a bit of money … (laugh) … if I’d done it then, as Arthur Schlesinger did … A 1000 Days …
MOYERS: … right after Kennedy’s death … there would have been some value in that … that would have been the temporary memory of somebody who had just left … just left the battlefield and could look back and see the bodies … could see the failed strategy … all of that. But now, no.
And there’s something else. Lyndon Johnson got paranoid when books about Kennedy kept … started coming out. And he said, “I don’t ever want that to happen”. And he asked Abe Fortas, his counsel who later became Justice of the Supreme Court, to get everyone of us on the White House staff to sign an agreement we would never write a book about him.
When Abe came to my office and said, “Here’s the form.”. I said, “I’m not going to sign it, Abe.” He said, “Why?” And I said, “Because it implies that Lyndon Johnson thinks I’m here to write a book. He doesn’t. But it implies that when he looks at me and we talk and we spend three or four hours together in the bedroom at night, while he’s going to sleep and doing the night reading or when I’m in the office early in the morning, that he … in the back of his mind there’s a suspicion that I might write a book.
No. That is a breach of our faith in each other. And I’m not going to sign it. And so I’m going to start packing to leave. Never heard about that again.
It would be unbecoming to me … of me … now to write a book that he understood I would never write. And I don’t want to be the their of his confidence.
I don’t want to go back on the deep relationship that the two of us had. He as a much older man, I as a much younger man. And do what he didn’t … what I didn’t need to be asked … or legally required not to do. Abe Fortas got it. LBJ got it. He always had second thoughts about his darker moments. He always … he always took things back.
And that is why there was no agreement, which would have been an act of dishonor to ask us to sign the agreement.
HEFFNER: Bill, I’m getting that cut signal again. Would you stay a while longer and do another program? And …
MOYERS: I have commitments, I really … I must go. I’ll come back some time. But I do have commitments that I must take care of today.
HEFFNER: Can I repeat that you’ll come back?
MOYERS: (Laugh) Yeah, I’ll come back.
HEFFNER: Bill Moyers thanks so much for joining me again.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.