Barry Goldwater says of Bill Movers, "Every time I see him, I get sick to my stomach and want to throw up." But the former senator is, yet again, either before or behind his times. Bill Moyers's standing as the conscience of America is one of the stipulated facts of our national life. The Texas Monthly says he is "the standard bearer of the best we see in ourselves." Jennifer Lawson, programming chief of PBS, says he is a "national treasure." Jackie Onassis calls him one of her heroes. Barbara Jordan takes it a step further: "I'd like to see him as president."
She is not alone. This spring and summer the word rippled through Democratic circles that Movers was willing to make Jordan's dream a reality. The rumor gained circulation in a column by The New York Times's Leslie Gelb on July 3: "He was not surprised when I asked him whether he should be thinking about running for president. 'I would. It would be fun,' Bill Movers said in his intense, soft-spoken way. But for the next two years, no, he has obligations." Moyers told me the same thing in a recent interview.
Articles suggesting a Moyers candidacy first surfaced in the mid-1970s, not long after his public-television basting of the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal. His demurrals were apparently sincere, but he flashed just enough thigh to inspire further attempts to recruit him for high office, including propositions from Jimmy Carter to become director of the CIA, secretary of education, and finally Carter's chief of staff. In 1988 a troupe of Democrats renewed the entreaties, and when they failed Paul Simon urged drafting him for vice president.
A Moyers candidacy is not as implausible as you might think. He is the pure, outsider candidate. The image he has created over the years is of a sojourner, unsullied by commerce, unstinting in his quest for the straight dope, steadfast in his dedication to a country that, in his phrase, "refuses to face the truth about itself." But he also has plenty of inside experience. As deputy director of the Peace Corps under John Kennedy and then as LBJ'S closest aide from 1964 to 1967, he is credited as one of the architects of the Great Society. In the Gulf war aftermath, when Democratic congressmen gathered in Virginia for their annual "issues conference," they called upon Movers to deliver the keynote address.
Moyers's speech proved medicinal--laden with the lofty phrases familiar to TV audiences. He spoke of "an ethic of cooperation," "the soul of America," "the party of the wounded," and "the conversation of democracy." "A renewal of community" followed "a new political compact," and so on. The congressmen especially appreciated Moyers's congratulating them--he surely was the first to do so--on their votes against the war in the Gulf,
The speech was notable for its curious play of pronouns. Throughout he referred to "you Democrats" and "your party." He even said, "I left partisanship behind when I left the White House in 1967 for journalism." But no one there seriously questioned Moyers's Democratic loyalty, which is intense and unremitting. But then, almost nobody does, because the subject never comes up. For this Moyers relies on a docile press and a gift for avoiding the stickier questions raised by a long and various career.
Except for turning aside suitors, Moyers's involvement in recent campaigns has been limited to his appearances on PBS. Lately he has been struck by the debilitating effect of negative campaign ads on "the conversation of democracy" around "the national campfire." He first addressed it in a show called "The 30-Second President," which featured an interview with Tony Schwartz, creator of the anti-Gold water "Daisy" commercial in 1964. The black-and-white footage, you'll remember, starred a little girl picking daisy petals until a nuclear explosion caught her attention for the last time. The commercial was progenitor to the negative campaign spots that Moyers believes have "trivialized" the conversation of democracy.
Moyers's real achievement in the broadcast, however, was to dwell on the commercial while disguising his own role in creating it. "I was in the thick" of the 1964 campaign, he admits, a "young fellow up from Texas" working in the White House. (Moyers had been working in Washington for four years by the time of the campaign.) One of his jobs, he tells us, was to act as "liaison" between the White House and the admen. Aliaison, of course, is someone caught in the middle. In case we didn't get the point, Movers says of Schwartz: "I never met him, by the way, until a year ago."
Like the critics who praised the show so lavishly, Movers neglects to mention (although other veterans of the '64 campaign are more than happy to) that it was he who insisted that the admen raise the nuclear issue against Goldwater and that indeed it was he who commissioned and approved the "attack" ads, including the Daisy spot. At hour's end Movers delivers the Olympian summing up, in which he confesses to an uncharacteristic ambivalence: "We have to look for alternatives — using TV but using it wisely."
This sly prevarication runs through some of Moyers's other work as well. He has, for example, used Republican scandals as occasions for sermons about betrayals of trust, government run amok, even as his own involvement in one of the seamier episodes of government malfeasance slips quietly down the memory hole, Johnson once called Movers "my vice president in charge of everything." By all accounts the tag was accurate. According to classified documents unearthed by the Church Committee on intelligence abuses in 1976, and others obtained by David Garrow for his The FBI and Martin Luther King (1981), while at the White House Moyers tracked the bureau's infamous campaign against King. The surveillance, begun under Kennedy, was broadened under Johnson. The rationale at the time, and the one Movers clings to on the few occasions he has discussed his involvement, was that King's association with supposed Communists endangered the civil rights movement.
As the campaign against King progressed, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover routinely forwarded to the White House summaries of the King wiretaps, which were placed not only in King's home and office but also in his hotel rooms around the country. The summaries covered not only King's dealings with associates but also his sexual activities. After receiving one such summary, Moyers instructed the FBI to disseminate it widely throughout the executive branch, to Dean Rusk. Robert McNamara, Carl Rowan, and many others. Moyers was also aware at the time of Hoover's efforts to leak the King material to the press.
Moyers's interest in King was not limited to the "Communist" scare. King was allied with a group even more worrisome to the Johnson White House: dissident Democrats. At the Democratic convention in Atlantic City in 1964, King assisted civil rights associates in a credential challenge to the all-white Mississippi delegation. The White House, fearing trouble for the fall campaign, instructed the FBI to intensify surveillance of the dissenters during the convention. As a result a wiretap was installed in King's Atlantic City hotel room. One bureau memo reported happily that "we have been able to keep the White House and others very currently informed concerning King and these important matters." The agent in charge of the bugging, Cartha "Deke" DeLoach, kept in telephone contact with Moyers and his fellow Johnson aide, Walter Jenkins, throughout the convention, and the two aides successfully countered the King group's maneuvers, allowing the good old boys to take their seats on the convention floor.
Moyers later wrote a note thanking DeLoach for his help, DeLoach replied: "Thank you for your very thoughtful and generous note concerning our operation in Atlantic City… . I'm certainly glad that we were able to come through with vital tidbits from time to time which were of assistance to you and Walter. You know you have only to call on us when a similar situation arises."
It soon did. Not long before the election. Jenkins was arrested in a bathroom stall at the YMCA on a charge of "disorderly conduct." Johnson, convinced that Jenkins was somehow set up by Goldwater's campaign operatives, ordered Movers to gather information on the sexual histories of Goldwater's staff. Movers called DeLoach, who reported back that he had been unable to find anything of political use. Ten years later Moyers won an Emmy for two PBS shows on Watergate, both noteworthy for his fiery indignation over Richard Nixon's abuse of government power for political ends. The outrage was displayed again in the two ninety-minute PBS shows he has produced on the Iran-contra affair.
Of his experience in the White House, Movers says, "I've never exonerated the past. But I've never let myself be imprisoned by the past, either. I worked in Washington in those years, but I'm not a journalist practicing in those years — I'm a journalist now. I can't let myself as a Journalist be slaved by (he indiscretions of those years, anymore than [former Nixon aide] Bill Safire can." The difference, of course, is that when SaFire worked in the White House, he was. as it were, the buggee.
These days Movers is increasingly distracted from the affairs of state by the lure of spiritualism and pop psychology. Moyers's greatest discovery in this area was Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence and a veteran of the New Age circuit of self-realization workshops. Among Campbell's groupies was the movie producer George Lucas, and it was on Lucas's California ranch that Movers and Campbell filmed much of the six-hour-long special "The Power of Myth with Bill Movers."
The show was a stunning success by the fragile standards of PBS. Viewership, according to PBS. topped 30 million. The series' companion volume was on the best-seller lists for seventy-four weeks. Throughout the show:, Campbell discourses on the great spiritual traditions, and many lesser ones too. Borrowing from Jung the notion of archetypes, Campbell argued that all religious myths were at bottom the same story of the quest for self-transcendence. Odysseus, Jesus, the Bodhidharma, Moses, the young aborigine on a walkabout: all, according to Campbell, were doing essentially the same thing. Campbell's "teaching" shares an additional benefit with other forms of pop monism. Ethics are, as he puts it, "out-of-date." Movers has pointed out that for Campbell the one "unpardonable sin" was "not being alert," a quasi-religious message at once risk-free and undemanding, and so vague as to fit almost anywhere:
CAMPBELL: To see through the fragments of time to the full
power of original being--that is the function of art.
MOYERS: Beamy is an expression of that rapture of
CAMPBELL: Every moment should be such an experience.
MOYERS: And what we are going to become tomorrow is
not important as compared lo this experience.
CAMPBELL: This is the great moment, Bill.
Campbell is also a historian. Here is his account of America's founding: "When you add one and seven and seven and six, you get twenty-one, which is the age of reason, is it not? It was in 1776 that the thirteen states declared independence. Thirteen is the number of getting out of the field of the bounds of twelve into the transcendent ... . These men were very conscious of the number thirteen as the number of resurrection and rebirth and new lift', and they played it up."
Undeterred by Campbell's death in 1987, Moyers has continued his public quest in more recent shows about the "men's movement" and other offspring of Campbell's work. In particular Moyers has featured Sam Keen, another academic turned workshop maestro, and Robert Bly, a plump poet from Minnesota who accompanies men's seminars with an untuned lyre. In these shows--"A Gathering of Men," "Your Mythic Journey," "Where the Soul Lives"--Moyers's camera lingers on the pale men and women who crowd the workshops, sitting cross-legged and shoeless on the floor. Most complain of a profound inarticulateness, an inability to express their feelings, but they do so with startling volubility. Catch phrases recur--"rage," "grief," "the male mother," "the warrior within," the "hairy man"--without much indication as to what they might mean. "Rage," Bly says, is "rooted in the industrial revolution" and is "a door between male and female."
This descent into pop spiritualism is particularly unfortunate given the quality of some of Moyers's earlier work. A few shows from the mid-1980s--a memoir of his hometown, "Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas," and his study of urban pathologies, "The Vanishing Family," for example--display a gift for observation beyond the reach of all but the finest documentarians. Moyers insists his more recent broadcasts merely continue his reportorial calling. "That's just one of the beats I cover as a journalist," he told me. "I'm aware that the life of the spirit and the quest for self-transformation is a big story, and the press is ignoring it." But he brings to the subject none of the skepticism he applied, say, to the rise of evangelical Christianity, a much more widespread movement he basted in several shows in the late '70s and '80s. The comparison with Moyers's leaning toward Campbell and asking, "How do I slay the dragon within me?" is depressingly acute.
The kicker is that all this indulgence is made possible through a generous grant from the public. Moyers rejoined public broadcasting in 1986 after leaving CBS News, where he had earned $20,000 a week. He quit, he said, because "if you're going to have impact in this medium, you need regularity and frequency." CBS could provide neither. Since forming his own production company, Public Affairs Television, Inc., in 1986, Moyers has produced 136 hours of television.
As an institution, public television carries the nimbus of self-sacrifice; it appears as a sweatshop of altruistic craftsmen laboring pro bono publico. And indeed the salaries of public TV employees are capped, like those of other civil servants. Independent producers, however, face no such constraints. How much money Moyers has made as a private businessman by availing himself of public broadcasting is a mystery. The flow of funds within the hermetic world of public TV is one of its tightest secrets. (Though government-funded, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.) Moyers himself says only, "I've been lucky. I've always made a nice living."
Moyers draws the bulk of his funding from two sources: mostly left-leaning tax-exempt foundations and corporate sponsors. Since tax-exempt foundations are forbidden by law from supporting for-profit enterprises, the money is given to a middleman--in Moyers's case, usually WNET "in support of" particular programming. The middleman then contracts with the production company to produce the shows. (For Moyers, the costs apparently include not only his own salary but his wife Judith's, president of PAT (usually listed as "executive producer" or "series consultant" on his shows), and on at least one show his son Cope's ("researcher"). In other businesses this circuitous routing of funds would be called money-laundering. Within the cloisters of PBS, it's business as usual--and, of course, perfectly legal.
The amounts donated are considerable. In 1989, for example, WNET received $2.5 million from the MacArthur Foundation and $850,000 from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation for Moyers's television shows, according to IRS records. CPB kicked in another $1.25 million the same year. In 1988, IRS records show, PAT was authorized to receive another $3 million from the Florence and John Schumann Foundation in New Jersey, which annually doles out about $3.5 million. At the time of that grant, the Schumann Foundation was headed by William Mullins, an old friend of Moyers's from Peace Corps days. When Mullins died in 1990, the foundation named a new president--Bill Moyers. The same year, it awarded an extra $300,000 to Moyers's landlord, WNET, "towards production costs of the series, 'Environment: Your Own Backyard.'" The WNET grant was the second-largest the foundation awarded that year, almost 10 percent of the total handed out.
Moyers's way with corporations is equally impressive. "We can leverage the funds very well," he told me. "You get a dollar from MacArthur, say, and you go to a corporation for a matching grant. You get another dollar there and then you go to public television and ask for money based on that. I've raised four dollars for every one I've raised from public television." Paine Webber, Chevron, Weyerhauser, General Motors, and Johnson and Johnson are among those corporations that have donated large sums to PAT, although each refuses to release even general Figures. This year's corporate sponsor is the insurance company Mutual of America, which likewise declines to say how large its grant was.
Television tie-ins--books and tapes adapted from broadcast shows--can bring in still more money, and here too Moyers has been a leader. The practice of profiting from these "after-sales" is controversial even within the public broadcasting establishment. One independent producer critical of "tie-ins," Larry Adelman, has written that "the program itself [becomes] an ideal commercial for the cassette (and book, record, and other program tie-ins). And unlike thirty-second [commercials], it's guaranteed to be watched ('previewed') by those already interested in the product." Movers demurs: "There's some money in those sales. Not a lot."
As the Los Angeles-based watchdog group COMINT, has documented, the Campbell series has sold a whopping 200,000 cassettes through PBS Video, which pays a royalty of at least 30 percent (Movers splits royalties with his two co-producers). "A Gathering of Men" has sold at least 48,000 units, at a price of $39.95. The cheaper "Amazing Grace," another Moyers show, has sold 48,000. The books also do well. Seven Locks Press sold more than 40,000 copies of a spin-off from "The Secret Government," one of Moyers's Iran-contra shows, with Moyers again sharing royalties with his co-producer. More than 750,000 copies of The Power of Myth are in print, and "The World of Ideas" inspired a spin-off book that also made the best-seller lists after being plugged on the shows. PAT's catalog of shows has by now acquired a hefty market value. How much it is worth won't be known unless Moyers sells it, as he might if he finds another line of work, like running for president.
The odds that Moyers will contradict his public line and run for the White House next year are very long. He told me, however, that next year will be the last in which he makes a "major commitment" to public TV'. "It will be my twentieth year in the business. I plan to quietly stand back after that." Or maybe not so quietly. Bill Moyers's America, after all, is a country that desperately needs Bill Moyers--a theme to which his program titles, notwithstanding their various subject matter, attest: "Moyers: The Public Mind," "Moyers: God and Politics," "Moyers: Project Censored," "Moyers: In Search of the Constitution," "Moyers: Sports For Sale."
The truest model for a Moyers candidacy is perhaps that of Pat Robertson. Like the Rev. Robertson, Moyers has left behind a seamy past to take to the airwaves, where he tells tall tales to the gullible, appropriating their confusions, only to administer a salve of undemanding reassurance. And like Robertson, Moyers has made a nice living doing so, masterfully employing all the techniques of the video age. The politics of both are resolute, moralistic, and unyielding.
The differences too are telling: whereas Robertson draws his budget from the voluntary donations of dupes, Moyers taps the public trough, through tax-free foundations and tax-write-off corporate donations, and a government-subsidized network whose devotion to him is boundless. And whereas Robertson's religion relies on a historical tradition and common text against which it can be measured and criticized, the spiritualism that Moyers has lately been retailing comprehends only the unfalsifiable whims of pop shrinks, elastic and malleable. Neither, it's safe to say, is a credible guide for politics or life. To the apolitical among us Bill Moyers is an Elmer Gantry of the New Age. To the Democrats, he is a Henry Wallace for the 1990s.
Andrew Ferguson is an editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service.
By Andrew Ferguson