The Magazine

PBS's Televangelist

Bill Moyers preaches on . . . and on.

Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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WHEN PBS executives asked themselves the question so many Americans asked after the September 11 attacks--what can we do?--their answer was obvious: Bill Moyers. We can give America Bill Moyers. Lots of Bill Moyers.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting promptly set aside some $440,000 in public funds for "emergency programming" featuring Moyers and friends. First there was "Moyers in Conversation," six half-hour episodes beginning September 12. Also on September 12 came "New York Voices: The Day After," an hour-long special co-hosted by Moyers. Then, on September 20, "America Responds: A National Conversation with Bill Moyers," two hours of live dialogue between Moyers and, among others, author and rapper extraordinaire Cornel West, O.J. attorney Alan Dershowitz, and "Vagina Monologues" playwright Eve Ensler.

They weren't done. PBS executives also wanted a more ambitious contribution from public broadcasting--a continuing, "serious show with people who know terrorism and international relations," says one. They thought of Moyers, the furrowed brow of American democracy. This time, already knee-deep in public-broadcasting work, Moyers turned them down.

PBS president Pat Mitchell personally interceded. Moyers told the New Orleans Times-Picayune he could sense her "disappointment in the opportunity of the moment, because of 9/11, to create something new. And [PBS] didn't have a person, an on-air journalist, around whom to create it. And I really anguished over that. I've been at this for 31 years. I didn't want, in my twilight years, to let Pat Mitchell, PBS, and public television down." So Moyers agreed to create what became "Now with Bill Moyers," an open-ended series of weekly, hour-long, primetime shows that debuted on January 18.

In one sense the choice was natural. Through the work of Public Affairs Television, Inc., the private company he and his wife run, Moyers has been communing with American audiences for decades. He has hosted scores of documentaries and "think" shows, on everything from death and dying to the nature of myth; from NAFTA, modern dance, and chemical companies that kill to the power of ideas; from Genesis to fundamentalism to "Amazing Grace," all the while cultivating a reputation as an avuncular examiner of life's Big Questions. A sweater-wearing sage with a southern-sweet style, Moyers admits to being passionately biased in favor of the public interest.

In another sense, though, the choice of Moyers to lead a national reflection in the wake of September 11 was strange. Moyers hardly qualifies as politically nonaligned, a neutral moderator respectful of all sides. In recent years, this veteran of the Great Society--he began his public life as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson--has drifted further to the left, his arguments increasingly strident. By 1991, he was telling interviewer Eric Alterman, "I find it very hard to have intelligent conversations with people on the right wing because they want to hit first and ask questions later."

Moyers's difficulty conversing with people on the right seems to have impaired his ability to report their opinions fairly, particularly on issues of race. "The right gets away with blaming liberals for their efforts to help the poor, but what the right is really objecting to is the fact that the poor are primarily black," he told Alterman. "The man who sits in the White House today [George H.W. Bush] opposed the Civil Rights Act. So did Ronald Reagan. This crowd is really fighting a retroactive civil rights war to prevent the people they dislike because of their color from achieving success in American life."

For Moyers, the statement was hardly exceptional. No wonder some on Capitol Hill and in public television are incensed at Mitchell's choice of host for the new PBS series. "Why Moyers?" asks one longtime Republican adviser. "The only qualification for Moyers in this area is that he keeps comparing conservative Republicans to the Taliban."

IF MOYERS hasn't made that comparison explicitly for almost a year, he apparently still believes it. An address he delivered to a gathering at the LBJ library in Austin, Texas, on January 4 offers an instructive sample of his thinking. It elaborates what has become a favorite theme: Democracy is threatened not only by terrorism but also by the sinister forces of money and the market.

The speech lasted an hour and was at times quite eloquent. American democracy, Moyers said, "is at a crossroads. Just as we've been visited with tragedy, we've also been presented an extraordinary opportunity to redefine in deep and enduring ways our faith in democracy and then to live that faith every day personally, practically, and politically as if everything depends on it because it does. It does."