In a Word, MOYERS Let others sound-bite and spin, chat and flame. When Bill Moyers has the floor, expect complete thoughts and intimate discourse. Especially now that his subject is nothing less than the mother of all stories: Genesis

September 22, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Bill Moyers is taking rather wicked delight in a tabloidesque tale that he recently read, one literally as old as the Bible. Genesis, in fact, Chapter 27, in which Rebekah, the family matriarch, conspires with her favored son Jacob to trick his brother out of his birthright.

"It's like an episode of 'Dallas,' " Moyers says. "I was thinking, Larry Hagman would be a terrific Jacob."

This leads Moyers to start casting the rest of the clan as well. "Bret -- that young actor who is so popular now -- he would make a great young Abraham."

Bill, Bill, leave the pop culture to "ET." Dated TV references and half-remembered celebrities -- Brad Pitt? Matt LeBlanc? -- are what you get when Moyers tries to get down to our level.

Moyers, though, can be forgiven: He's just trying to add some sizzle to the steak that is his coming public television series, "Genesis: A Living Conversation." It's one hard sell, for sure, a 10-part series in which a group of theologians, writers and academics sit around and talk -- and talk and talk and talk some more -- about the first book of the Bible.

Honey, where's the remote?

But wait. It's Bill Moyers leading the discussion, and, for many viewers, that's all the selling they need.

In his 25 years in broadcasting, Moyers has become the thinking person's Charles Kuralt, roaming the byways of America's internal life and providing voice to what the rest of us only felt or sensed or suspected in some inexpressible way. Myths, meaning, language, healing, ideas, faith: In the clattering world of Internet chat rooms and Howard Stern, of sound bites and instantaneous spin, Moyers has dared to discourse, lengthily and often loftily, on the larger issues of life.

Often, he's out there before the rest of the pack, capturing a just-emerging phenomenon or a near-percolating idea: "A Gathering of Men" in 1990, for example, discovered the men's movement in its genesis long before it became the stuff of parody. He has done programs on violence, on children's issues, on the ways that the mind may heal the body, on the increasing effect of big money on sports, on the renewed interest in poetry -- again, often before they became standard fare elsewhere in the media.

And TV audiences -- assumed by programmers to be attention-deficit-disorder cases in need of quick cuts and beautiful faces and laugh tracks to navigate the airwaves -- actually stopped and listened.

An astonishing 30 million viewers, for example, saw what is perhaps the signature Bill Moyers show, "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth," which was basically a coupla white guys sittin' around talkin'. But, oh, what talk: of heroes and journeys and bliss and transcendence.

The program proved to be a star turn, for both the little-known academician Campbell, who died before the program aired in 1988, and Moyers, who rode it into broader fame and significant fortune. On the advice of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a Doubleday editor, he produced a companion book based on the transcripts of the interviews, and it, too, found a wide audience, remaining on the best seller lists for more than a year. Videotapes of the program also sold well, and PBS frequently rebroadcasts this most unlikely hit.

"I'm afraid to turn on the TV now for fear of seeing it again," Moyers jokes.

Its success has eased the way for subsequent projects, even something as seemingly non-telegenic as a discussion group on "Genesis." Moyers, though, has learned to trust his instincts: If something captivates him, he finds a way to share that passion with viewers.

There is something of the eternal child about Moyers, full of wonder at all that interesting stuff out there. He is the embodiment of one of the running themes that thread through his work, that of the eternal seeker.

Sharing the passion

What he is searching for is as difficult to pinpoint as what any of us are searching for. If not answers, then at least the right questions. If not a grand plan for how to live a life, then at least some guideposts along the way. In a word, meaning, however mocked Hillary Clinton was for her quest for a politics of meaning and, more recently, her spiritual exercise in "speaking" with Eleanor Roosevelt.

"I was there, at the University of Texas, when she talked about the quality of life and the politics of meaning and brought 15,000 people to their feet," Moyers says. "And yet the pundits in Washington just pounded her."

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