Bill Moyers

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Bill Moyers

Television journalist and author Billy Don (Bill) Moyers (born 1934) served as special assistant, speechwriter, chief of staff, and press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Billy Don Moyers was born June 5, 1934, in Hugo, Oklahoma, and grew up in Marshall, Texas. By the age of 15, Moyers was working as a reporter on his local paper, the Marshall News Messenger. He started college at North Texas State College, where he became class president. In 1954 he worked on Lyndon B. Johnson's Senate campaign and then, at Johnson's urging, transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in journalism and worked at KTBC, the Johnson's television station. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1956, then spent a year studying church history at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, before returning to study for a bachelor of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which he completed in 1959. Meanwhile, he married Judith Davidson in 1954. They had three children.

In 1960 Moyers abandoned plans to pursue graduate work in American studies in order to join the campaign staff of Lyndon Johnson as a personal assistant, then a special assistant, during the Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign. In 1961 Moyers became associate director of public affairs, in effect the chief lobbyist and public relations director of the Peace Corps, working under R. Sargent Shriver. He became deputy director of the Peace Corps in 1963.

On the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, Moyers was in Austin helping with the presidential trip to Texas. When he heard that Kennedy had been shot, Moyers flew to Dallas to offer his services to Lyndon Johnson, sending a handwritten note, "I'm here if you need me." From that moment until the end of 1966, Moyers served Johnson in a variety of important roles under the traditional and ambiguous title of "special assistant to the President." Moyers coordinated the work of the 14 task forces that produced the legislative foundation for Johnson's "Great Society" programs in a sweeping series of bills designed to implement the "War on Poverty." These domestic programs were the most ambitious and progressive social welfare measures to be enacted since the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though their impact was blunted by the burdens imposed by the war in Vietnam.

Moyers helped to write the Democratic party platform of 1964, which had a strong commitment to civil rights. As Johnson's liaison with the advertising firm that was preparing television advertising for the campaign, Moyers ordered a strong attack on Barry Goldwater. Moreover, he approved of the famous "Daisy" ad, which showed a young girl counting the petals on a daisy, then cut to a countdown to a nuclear explosion with a voiceover of Johnson speaking of the importance of peace. The ad evoked protests from the Goldwater campaign and was aired only once. Though it never explicitly mentioned Goldwater or the Republicans, the ad was a highly effective evocation of Goldwater's reputation for nuclear bellicosity.

As a special assistant, Moyers acted as an adviser, as chief speech writer, as chief of staff, and from July 1965 until he resigned in December 1966, as White House press secretary, where he was highly regarded by the working press. As the Vietnam War deepened, Moyers became one of the most visible doves in the White House, and he became increasingly isolated from Johnson. Moyers resigned in December 1966, with considerable bitterness on Johnson's part, to become publisher of Newsday, a large circulation daily paper on Long Island with a reputation for conservative political views. Moyers hired star writers such as Pete Hamill and, for special reports, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Saul Bellow. He led the paper in a progressive direction and to a series of journalistic awards. But the conservative Harry Guggenheim, who owned a controlling interest in the paper, withdrew his support of Moyers and sold out to the Times-Mirror company. Moyers left the paper in 1970.

Moyers took time out to write Listening to America (1971), based on interviews conducted on a tour across America. He then turned to a successful career as a television journalist for CBS and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). At PBS, Moyers found he had the freedom to examine and tell stories that interested him in whatever way he wanted to present them. Moyers was editor-in-chief of "Bill Moyers Journal" on PBS from 1971 to 1976 and again from 1978 to 1981. He was editor and chief correspondent of the "CBS Reports" series from 1976 to 1978 and senior news analyst for CBS News, 1981-1986. Beginning in 1987 he was executive editor of Public Affairs TV, Inc., an independent production company making documentary and public affairs series for public television. His television work won virtually every major broadcasting award.

Moyers' television style was a traditional mix of news and documentary formats, in which he acted as narrator and interviewer. His series were distinguished not for innovations in form so much as for their combination of deep seriousness, earnest curiosity, attentiveness, and respect to his subjects (without, however, giving up his own views). Moyers held a consistent and clear set of values that were progressive and humane, and he possessed an ability to aim his material in such a way as to be both popular and intellectually lively.

As part of his series "A Walk Through the Twentieth Century with Bill Moyers," Moyers tackled such subjects as the arms race, labor history, and the influence of television on political campaigns. The most noted show of the series was "Marshall Texas, Marshall Texas," a description of the town in which he grew up, containing interviews of friends, residents, and former teachers. The series included a long interview with James Farmer, a civil rights leader who also grew up in Marshall, but whom Moyers had not known at the time he lived there because of the culture of segregation (hence the image of Marshall as two towns, and the repetition of the name in the title of the show).

In 1988 Moyers released the six-part series "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth." Campbell, for many years a professor of comparative religion at Sarah Lawrence College and author of a number of influential works on world mythology, talked with Moyers about myth as a way of coming to an experience of "the rapture of being alive" as Moyers, trained as a Baptist minister, engaged with him in a search for the cosmic truth behind religious doctrines and mythical tales.

In a five-part PBS series that premiered in 1993, Moyers examined the connection between emotions and physical response. Healing and the Mind took viewers first to China and the ancient medical traditions of "qi" (pronounced "chee"), which emphasizes the mental-physical energy that herbalists, acupuncturists, and massage therapists have insisted is the basis of good health. Moyers also paid visits to hospitals in the United States where nontraditional therapies are being used: a hospital in Massachusetts uses Buddhist meditation to aid patients with unyielding pain; and a Boston hospital showed how "the relaxation response" has been beneficial in the treatment of insomnia, hypertension, and infertility. Georgetown was slated to be the first medical school with a thorough course of study in mind-body techniques. Dr. David Eisenberg, who developed an "unconventional medicine" course at Harvard, reported that 34 percent of the people they surveyed had tried at least one unconventional therapy in the past year for primarily chronic conditions, such as back pain, insomnia, and headaches, a percentage that converts to about 61 million people. Moyers' series reinforced a growing popularity of alternative medicine. The companion book soared to the top of the best-seller lists, and PBS scored ratings with Healing and the Mind double what they usually earned at that time of the year.

Moyers was not as fortunate with his 1995 series, The Language of Life, in which he spent eight installments celebrating poetry readings and workshops which were flourishing after decades of relative disappearance. Although he did point out that the publication of poetic tomes had been abandoned by many trade publishers, Moyers showed how enlightened and unified poets are after what Brad Leithauser described as "the poetry reading as a blend of A. A. Meeting and encounter-group therapy," in his article for Time. Leithauser criticized Moyers' lack of probing questions about what the public needs to understand about the contemporary poet, not just the joy of sharing one's work. Most poets, for example, still have to teach to earn a living. Furthermore, he questions why we continue to refer to poetry as Postmodernist after 75 years. "Moyers makes virtually no attempt to place the poet in a larger social context— to view poetry as a profession (or, perhaps more to the point, to analyze what it means that ours is a culture where it's all but impossible to be a professional poet)," Leithauser wrote.

The next issues Moyers tackled were ones more close to home for the ordained Southern Baptist minister. Newsweek called his Spring 1996, five-part series, The Wisdom of Faith "disappointing." The show was to center around religious guru Houston Smith, one of the foremost scholars of world religions; yet Kenneth Woodward said it lacked focus. Moyers, he said, was unable to decide if the programs were about Smith and his experiences or about the six "wisdom traditions" of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The fall of 1996 brought better reception of his probe of the first book of the Bible. Genesis: A Living Conversation was a ten-part "outreach," bringing together small groups of scholars, writers, and other intellectuals for hour-long discussions. PBS widely promoted the programs, distributing more than 100,000 copies of a 177-page accompanying guide. Moyers' intention was to promote study groups around the country like the one broadcasted into living rooms, anticipating "that this series will become part of the resurgence of democratic conversation." Hoping to capture the same success as Healing and the Mind, Moyers recycled some of his journalistic techniques to find contemporary meaning out of the ancient text. Believing the Baptist conviction that everyone is equipped to interpret the Bible for him or herself, Moyers brought together a diverse group, consisting of a psychotherapist, poet, author, evangelicals, and even nonbelievers to reveal the meaning of the stories of Genesis. Moyers wanted people to "listen and understand," not to change their beliefs, and "to talk to each other without that kind of false protocol and superficial tact we sometimes pretend we have." Kenneth Woodward and Anne Underwood of Newsweek commended Moyers for performing "a public service by discussing Genesis in extended conversation." However, they recognized that the series did little to explain why the stories found their literary forms or how they influence the Biblical material and message. Moyers told Christianity Today that he perceives himself more as a student than as an adversarial journalist. Because he finds himself drawn to learn what others have to offer, Genesis: A Living Conversation became what Woodward and Underwood called "too much free association and self-confession for a series that wants us to be serious about the Bible."

Nevertheless, during the decades in which television news evolved into a form of entertainment and public television sometimes seemed to play it safe by hiding behind nature documentaries, Moyers was one of the most consistent champions for the democratic potential of public affairs television, exercising a special blend of historical awareness, moral imagination, and intellectual integrity.

Further Reading

For additional information see especially works by Bill Moyers: Listening to America (1971); A World of Ideas (1989); The Secret Government (1988); and The Power of Myth, with Joseph Campbell (1988). Video tapes of Moyers' television series are available in many university libraries. For biographical accounts of Moyers, see Patrick Anderson, The President's Men (1968); Martha Gross, The Possible Dream (1970); and Mimi Swartz, "The Mythic Rise of Billy Don Moyers," in Texas Monthly (November 1989). Periodical sources cited are "Mind Over Malady," Time (March 1, 1993); "Helping Docs Mind the Body," Newsweek (March 8, 1993); "Prince of PBS," Modern Maturity (October-November 1993); "I'm Ed, and I'm a Poet," Time (July 3, 1995); "The Spiritual Surfer," and "In the Beginning," Newsweek (April 1, 1996 and October 21, 1996, respectively); and "Bill Moyers' National Bible Study," Christianity Today (October 28, 1996). □

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