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Bill Moyers: a thoughtful voice amid the din

TV loves blowhards, but the PBS host has distinguished himself by emphasizing reason and decency.

December 13, 2009|By Neal Gabler
  • Bill Moyers, 75, announced last month that he will be leaving his award-winning show on public television in April.
Bill Moyers, 75, announced last month that he will be leaving his award-winning… (Peter Krogh, Associated…)

It is a testament to how much Bill Moyers matters that this quiet, humble man can still stir passions. When he announced late last month he would be leaving his award-winning weekly PBS series, "Bill Moyers Journal," in April, some of us felt as if we were losing a sacred American institution, a repository of the nation's conscience, while others cheered. Right-wing bloviator Bill O'Reilly went so far as to boast that he had forced Moyers from the air -- a claim that was not only patently false but also a misconception of who Moyers is and what he does. Astonishing as it may be to anyone who has watched Moyers, his right-wing critics seem to see him as just another noisy shill among the army of blowhards, ideologues, demagogues and partisans on the airwaves. They couldn't be more wrong.

The reason so many of us are already mourning Moyers' departure is that he is so unlike O'Reilly and that ilk. Though Moyers has certainly addressed the major issues of his times and taken fierce stands on them -- against military adventurism, against violence, against intolerance and hatred, for environmental sensitivity, for real healthcare reform and grass-roots democracy -- and though his recent programs have provided the deepest and most invigorating discussions of these issues on television, most of his work has had little to do directly with politics or policy and nothing at all to do with opinion-mongering. He is far less interested in advancing a particular position than in inspiring moral growth in the hope of creating a more just and beneficent society. In short, far from being another cudgel-wielding pundit, Moyers may be television's only moralist.

Where Moyers' critics have gone astray is assuming that Moyers' journalistic career was a continuation of his political career. Born in Oklahoma and educated in Texas, Moyers served as a teenage summer intern for Sen. Lyndon Johnson, eventually working in Johnson's campaign and then following him to Washington when Johnson became vice president. After Johnson assumed the presidency, Moyers served as his de facto chief of staff and press secretary. It is a tribute to Moyers that when he came to doubt the wisdom of the Vietnam War -- and even Johnson's sanity -- he left the White House and entered journalism as the publisher of Newsday, a Long Island paper later bought by this paper's parent company at the time.

The Washington Moyers was the political Moyers, the Moyers who was once even touted by admirers as a presidential possibility. But though he was in politics, he was never entirely of politics. Though he had earned a degree in journalism from the University of Texas, he had also received a degree in divinity from Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, and he was later ordained as a minister, which is what he was doing when Johnson recruited him. Still, even in Washington, Moyers never abandoned his ministerial vocation. Rather, he took it into politics, where he assisted Johnson in the formation of the Great Society, and he took it into journalism, at PBS, CBS and NBC, where he became a voice of reason and decency -- all too often a lone voice.

He has his mission

One cannot understand Moyers without understanding his theological training and his moral conviction. His mission has always been to make things better, not louder. In many respects he operates within the religious tradition of the social gospel with its concern for vivifying and actualizing religious values, though he has also called himself a Christian Realist, after the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, by which he means, as he put it, to see the "world as it is, without illusions, and to take it on. . . . "

This, far more than politics, explains Moyers' fervent populism. Populism is where his hardscrabble upbringing, his feeling for his fellow man and his Christianity has led him. (Of course Christianity has also led others to the opposite pole.) For him, politics is a means to a moral end. Christian Realism may also explain his tenacity. Moyers has said that one has a moral obligation to right wrongs, and in this cause, he has been fearless, which is why O'Reilly's braggadocio is so ridiculous. Moyers has never flinched in a fight. He is girded in moral armor.

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