Bill Moyers on Saving Our Democracy, ‘Selma’ and LBJ

Jan 14, 2015

By Karin Kamp
January 14, 2015

This is an excerpt from Please see the full story here.

What did you think of the film Selma?

Bill: “There are some beautiful and poignant moments in the film that take us closer to the truth than anything I’ve seen to date — to the cruelty visited upon black people by everyday whites and armed authorities. To the courage and fear of those black people who put themselves on the line for freedom’s sake; the ambivalence in Martin Luther King Jr. facing the inevitability of leadership and the constant threat of death. As for Lyndon B. Johnson: There’s one egregious and outrageous portrayal that is the worst kind of creative license suggesting the very opposite of the truth, in this case, that the president was behind J. Edgar Hoover’s sending the ‘sex tape’ to Coretta King. Some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced that one. And even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way, way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him.

Then casting the president as opposed to the Selma march, which the director does, is an exaggeration. He was concerned that coming so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 there was little political will in Congress to follow up so soon with voting rights legislation. As he said to Martin Luther King Jr., “You’re an activist; I’m a politician” and politicians read the tide of events better than most of us read the hands on our watch; he knew he needed public sentiment to gather sufficient momentum before he could introduce and quickly pass a voting rights bill. He asked King to give him more time to bring a few Southern ‘moderates’ over to the cause, but after King made the case that blacks had waited too long for too little, Johnson told him: “Then go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.” He wouldn’t have welcome the bloodshed at the bridge, but when it happened he knew the time had come and within days he made his own famous ‘We Shall Overcome’ speech that transformed the political environment. (By the way, this is one of the weakest moments in the film.)

Also, the director has a limpid president speaking in the Senate chamber to a normal number of senators. In fact, he made that speech in the House of Representatives where the State of Union speeches are delivered. Johnson was more animated and passionate than I have ever seen him, and I was standing very near him, off to the right. The nation was electrified. Watching on television, Martin Luther King Jr. wept. The film blows the possibility for true drama here — the drama of history happening right before our eyes. Nonetheless, go see it. You’ll be reminded of what happens when courage on the street is met by a moral response from power.

You were involved in passing the Voting Rights Act? How do you assess its impact all these years later?

Bill: Just as Lyndon B. Johnson said at the time, the right to vote is “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” We’re a different country today because of what happened then, obviously — with black Americans holding office all the way up to the president of the United States. After he signed the Voting Rights Act I asked LBJ if he thought this meant we’d have a black president in our time. He said no, we would have a woman first. Well, one down, another to go. On the other hand, the reactionaries never give up.

The George Wallace of then would be pleased with the John Roberts of today. You may know the chief justice was a young lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice during the 1980s and doing everything he could to undermine the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. Roberts’s great conceit – shared by other conservative members of the court, including Clarence Thomas who keeps trying to kick over the ladder by which he himself was hoisted to prominence — is that racism is no longer the problem it once was. More or less what you can imagine a privileged elite of corporate law would think, no? Read some of the memos and op-eds the younger Roberts wrote arguing for watering down the Voting Rights Act and you will understand why the conservative movement saw him as their new white hope on the bench. He seems to believe discrimination has to be intentional to be unconstitutional – that there’s no such thing as systemic racism, or racism layered over decades or centuries. So we have now a good soldier for the conservative strategy of legal resistance to equal rights would now occupying its commanding heights.

How do you remember LBJ?
(Note: Bill served as Lyndon B. Johnson’s press secretary from 1965 to 1967.)

Bill: Lyndon B. Johnson owned and operated a ferocious ego. But he was curiously ill at ease with himself. He had an animal sense of weakness in other men (he wanted to know what you loved and what you feared and once he knew, he came after you). He was at times proud, sensitive, impulsive, flamboyant, sentimental, bold, magnanimous and graceful (the best dancer in the White House since George Washington); at times temperamental, paranoid, ill of spirit, vulgar. He had a passion for power but suffered violent dissent in the ranks of his own personality. He could absolutely do the right thing at the right time — the reassuring grace, if you will, when he was thrust into the White House after Kennedy’s assassination; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But when he did the wrong thing — escalating the Vietnam war — the damage was irreparable.

How would you describe the most striking and significant differences in our government that you have observed between the Vietnam era and today?

Bill: First, the sheer size and complexity of government — check out a recent post on by John J. Dilulio Jr. reviewing Francis Fukuyama’s new book on the state of democracy; the two of them — Dilulio and Fukuyama — make this point brilliantly.

Second, the growth of the deep state — private instruments or agencies of power acting for and funded by the government (intelligence, the military, etc.). There’s a vast government we don’t see. A long-time senior Republican staff member of Congress, Mike Lofgren, wrote an extraordinary essay for under the title The Deep State. Read it before you go to bed tonight. Rather, first thing in the morning. If you tackle it before bedtime, you won’t sleep.

And finally — although I should have started with this one: The triumph of money over every aspect of government. Money’s always been a force, but never to the extent it is today. We are just this close (I’m squeezing my index finger and thumb tightly) from oligarchy — the rule of the wealthy few for the purpose of increasing their wealth.