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Bill Moyers Acts Up : It Isn't Enough Being the Conscience of America; He Wants to Be an Agent of Change, Too

March 27, 1994|Marshall Blonsky | Marshall Blonsky is writing a book about the business and politics of information for Viking Penguin. He teaches semiotics at New York University and the New School for Social Research

The blue and magenta ceiling lights coat a high-tech set at PBS' WETA television studio with a glitzy aura. "On Bill Moyers, OK," says a technician at a console behind me. Moyers, 10 yards away, sits still as statuary, his handsome face turned in profile, a makeup woman spraying and brushing his already perfect hair. He has been through this routine for 23 years, most of them on his own terms, the journalist without a brief except the brief he sets for himself: conscience of America, some would say.

The taping resumes, and an oversize screen to Moyers' left displays Bill Clinton orating. On monitors inside the control room, the wall behind Moyers glows magisterially, like a midnight sky traced with purplish rocket trails. With Moyers as interlocutor, two best-selling political authors, William Greider and Kevin Phillips, are about to take aim at the President and big-money politics.

In quick succession, like knife thrusts, Moyers leads the two--and after them, a group of activists--in delivering the blows. They list the President's ties to corporate America and lambaste his "skimpy" attempt at campaign-finance reform; they lay out the mechanisms of lobbying, the damage done to democracy. It is typical Moyers--discourse interlaced with mini-documentaries.

Then, just after Moyers thanks his final guest, just before the credits roll, he turns toward the camera, his face a study in sober geniality, and lets slip the journalist's mask. In that famous Texas baritone, rich with gravitas , he appeals to his audience to act.

"You can work to challenge the system," he says. "Call this toll-free number. . . . Let me repeat that. . . ."

A few weeks later, "Money Talks" is the opening installment of PBS' "Bill Moyers' Journal" for 1994 and, it would seem, the opening act for the second half of the journalist's life. This is the year that Bill Moyers--in a riposte to critics who have long called him partisan--becomes an activist.

"I really believe our democracy is being auctioned off every day," he tells me days before the taping, "and that unless we address the dominance of money in politics, we're going to lose our democracy. Whatever voters want, donors can trump and negate. One of the consequences of the sabbatical"--Moyers is only recently returned from eight months off--"is to realize it's not enough just to produce television. I have also as a citizen to try to be an agent of change on at least one fundamental issue. And that issue is money politics."

A year earlier, Moyers had called me from New Hampshire. "I'm up here taping Donald Hall, the poet," he said. "He's dying. It's very moving." In those days, he was mentioning death more than a little. "I guess I've outlived my time," he had joked in November, 1992, fumbling with a ticket machine in the Washington Metro. Then, back in New York: "You should watch me interview Agnes de Mille; I want to tape her before she dies." And driving around his hometown, Marshall, Tex., his mood was sometimes funereal. "What breaks my heart," he said, pointing through the windshield at Marshall's faded downtown, "is that this next block and all on around was just one small shop after another, full of mysteries and wonders and goods from all over the world. That hotel was as bustling as Times Square." Now, he says succinctly, "It's dead."

It had been a dark season for Moyers. In October, his grandson, William Henry Moyers, was born with a serious lung defect. Moyers flew back and forth from his homes in New York and New Jersey to Atlanta, where his son and daughter-in-law live, charting the baby's progress, worrying about his namesake's tenuous hold on health. He anchored "Listening to America," a weekly campaign series of round-tables and issue pieces--many of which critiqued image-over-reality politicking--and, when it ended, looked up to see such programs all but declared passe in the supposed era of phone-in talk shows and infomercials. He had a new PBS series set for February of 1993, "Healing and the Mind" (a variation on the theme of death), but when he looked beyond that, nothing was sure.

"In the middle of the path of our life," wrote Dante to begin "The Inferno," "I found myself in a dark wood because the right way was lost." This middle is the moment when death becomes real and it produces a desire for a change of life. At the end of 1992, contemplating his upcoming sabbatical, Moyers told me he was "hoping for an encounter, someone or some experience to indicate a new way. I don't want to go on just repeating myself more efficiently," he said. His franchise, as he put it, had worn not out, but down.

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