Bill Moyers listens and remains optimistic

April 21, 1992|By Susan White | Susan White,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

I think the 1990s can be as much of a transformation in world affairs as that decade when Columbus came to the New World.

But it requires telling the truth about ourselves to ourselves.

-- Bill Moyers Earlier this month, in the opening episode of his new 26-part series, "Listening to America," Bill Moyers offered a warning.

"You may want to put your children to bed," he said gravely. "It's not a pretty sight."

In that episode, Mr. Moyers was talking about the way big-money special interest groups are buying control of the U.S. government; but his words also apply to other programs in the series.

These are not easy times, Mr. Moyers tells us repeatedly. And they will not become easier until we open our eyes to the enormity of the problems that surround us.

In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Moyers said he thinks Americans are ready to begin the process.

"You know how it is, when you wake up some morning and you smell the storm in the air? And people talk about the weather who never pay attention to it?" he asked. "Well, that's happening now to the crisis in democracy."

The series can be seen tonight at 10 p.m. on Maryland Public Television and subsequent Tuesdays at the same time.


Q. Will your series offer any hopeful news?

A. Well, sure. I believe journalism cannot be only celebratory or only denunciatory. I think it has to deal with reality in its true complexity, which includes being honest about how bad things are and being hopeful about how we can change them. Our job is to organize reality so people can see it clearly. That's what this series is trying to do.

Q. How do these times differ from the days when you were working for Lyndon Johnson, when so many similar things were going on?

A. I don't think it's all that different. LBJ got rich in public office. He cut corners. Everybody has cut corners.

It's just that the weight on the bridge has gotten heavier and heavier. A lot of cars can cross over a bridge that has a crack in its structure. But if you put too many cars on that bridge, it will collapse.

Q. If we looked at this from a historical perspective, are our times really as bad as they seem?

A. If you read back into the literature of 200, 300 years ago, you could hear the same laments in London or in other centers of human endeavor.

What's different today is that the American system has run out of money, it has run out of leadership, and it has run out of time. If we don't address some of these underlying structural problems, the roof may come crashing in on us.

Q. If the roof does crash, how will our daily lives be affected?

A. It's affecting them already. Our lowered standard of living is the consequence of bad decisions pursued 20 years ago.

The fact that it takes two incomes now to support a family -- and even then at a level below what it took one wage earner 40 years ago -- is a reckoning.

The fact of the matter is that the post-war world as we have known it is coming to an end, and we're already living in times that are more difficult.

Many of our large institutions are breaking up. You're seeing real estate prices fall. Debt is imploding. Many consumers and corporations are insolvent.

There are two ways to judge the health of a society. One is the gross national product, the sum of the goods and services we produce, and the other is the gross national psychology, the sum of our hopes and fears. Both of those GNPs are bearish right now.

Q. So many people say, 'If only we had a leader . . . '

A. That's part of it. We're short of leadership. But leaders can't lead unless citizens are willing to listen and hear the bad news and act. And the fact of the matter is a lot of people want more government services than they want to be taxed to pay for.

There's a sense in which we're all living a lie, or at least acting out a romance -- the romance promoted in the 1980s that this was morning in America. It may have been morning in America, but we got to high noon very fast.

Q. When it comes to the future of this country, are you optimistic?

A. I said to friend on Wall Street some time ago, 'How do you feel about the market.'

He said, 'Well, I'm optimistic.'

I said, 'Then why do you look so worried?'

And he said, 'Because I'm not sure my optimism is justified.'

I remain an optimist. I believe that we're a resilient people; that we're people who have the benefit of the First Amendment, which enables us to speak the truth to those in power. We can climb up on the deck of the ship where the captain is and shake his elbow and say, 'That's an iceberg out there, that's an iceberg out there,' and maybe he will turn course in time.

That's what I think journalism is about.

Q. What do you hope people will take away from this series?

A. I hope they will see the world as it is. I hope they will give up their illusions about what's happening to us. I hope they will begin to talk to other citizens, begin to organize, join groups that are trying to change things, get active locally.

I believe that the renewal of democracy has to come from the grass roots, but it also comes from leadership at the top, and they meet halfway.

Don't despair. Don't get mad, get active.

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