The Mythic Rise of Billy Don Moyers

From Marshall, Texas, he set off on a heroic journey: to become LBJ’s protégé, the conscience of TV news, and the prophet of a brand-new faith.

November 1989By Comments

Bill Moyers stood in the wings at the University of Texas’ cavernous performing arts center last spring while the faithful poured in, their hopes caged like anxious doves, waiting for release. Though he had felt this fervor many times before—at times had even cultivated it—Moyers’ ambivalence showed in the tiniest widening of his eyes behind the trademark aviator glasses and the slight but impatient pursing of his thin lips. Still, augustly dressed in business attire, he took his place at stage left, and clasping his hands confidently on the table in front of him, he set about doing what he does best: giving the people what they want.

Tonight they wanted Moyers to do what he had done in his most successful television series to date, to carry the word of Joseph Campbell. In The Power of Myth, six stunningly successful one-hour interviews on PBS last year. Moyers had elicited from the once-obscure elderly Sarah Lawrence professor the message that anyone could be a modern-day Odysseus; all you had to do was follow the path blazed by the heroes of the world’s great myths. Find your purpose, and devote your life to it, Campbell had urged: “Follow your bliss.” Though his blue eyes were cloudy and his gravelly voice was ground to a gentle rasp, Campbell—with Moyers acting as a simultaneous interpreter for the New Age—had unwittingly provided sustenance to a spiritually starved America. Millions of viewers heeded the call to become the heroes of their own lives.

Since Campbell’s death in 1987, it had fallen to Moyers to continue his work. Moyers was no stranger to such duty; it was, in fact, his bliss to carry the word of others, and this role had made him a modern-day hero. Once the brightest boy in Marshall, Texas, Moyers had set out to carry the word of God as a Baptist minister, and then carried the word of Lyndon Johnson as the president’s chief aide. More recently, as a television journalist, he carried the word of the nation’s foremost thinkers in his documentaries and interviews. At 55, Bill Moyers had emerged as the seminal prophet of American values. Over time his role had grown but never changed; he had always been the willing, if somewhat wary, standard-bearer of the best we see in ourselves.

This night was no different. The audience for “The Power of Myth in Everyday Life,” as Moyers’ presentation was entitled, was composed mostly of true believers. Most people in the audience had seen the whole Campbell series at least once. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation. People even nodded in fervent, churchlike fashion as an image of Campbell on a giant screen recited their favorite passages (“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us”). Between clips from the film series, Moyers answered questions of a kind not usually posed to TV journalists, questions about mysticism and spirituality, about living as a human being in an often inhuman world.

A peculiar and dainty dance ensued, as the audience tried to pull from Moyers what he had so often attempted to extract from his subjects: a defining principle, a revealing moment, a true and honest piece of himself that they could take home and apply, like a poultice, to their ailing hearts.

Throughout the evening Moyers’ fabled modesty was in full flower—”I’m just a beachcomber on the shoreline of other people’s knowledge,” he said. “I’m just a Baptist minister”—but the audience refused to accept his line. They were soothed by his voice, so soft and self-assured, the seminarian’s cadence laid over an East Texas drawl. They were calmed by his confidence. Though he had warned audiences in the past not to confuse fame with heroism (“Tom Cruise is not a hero,” he had said, “Tom Cruise is a celebrity. The true hero is a result of a god, a soul, a moment”), that night’s crowd was not convinced. They wanted their hero.

The line between Campbell the originator and Moyers the interpreter began to blur. Without leaving his seat or raising his voice, Moyers moved the crowd. He told them the story of the young woman who had intended to kill herself but had left the television on as she drifted off in her gas-filled room. Then followed the kind of mystical coincidence so pleasing to the faithful: She awoke to Moyers’ first interview with Campbell. So drawn was this woman to Campbell’s hopeful message that she opened the window, turned off the gas, and vowed to live until the second show. And when she watched it, she had a vision of the value of her life and decided to live. The message, courtesy of Bill Moyers, was clear: Follow your bliss—do what you feel you have been called to do—and you too can save…the world! The audience became a sea of bobbing heads, all united in hope and a new belief in their potential to touch one another. And they all owed it to this son of East Texas, who had shown them the way.

All that is, except for one man. He was short and kind of stocky and not as fashionably dressed as the front-row crowd seated near the open microphone. But when the time came for questions, he took his place at the mike proudly, alongside the kids who wanted to know how to find their bliss so they could follow it, and he posed his query with a polite formality that, depending on your point of view, made him appear either humble or patronizing. “Jesus,” he began, quoting from the Scripture, “states that ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’” The man had listened to all this New Age talk—this notion that God lives not above us but within us—and it had set him to wondering. How, he asked, could Bill Moyers, ordained Baptist minister, embrace this new faih without abandoning the teachings of his old one? How could he, in effect, preach two contradictory gospels at once?

It was a good question—the only one of the night to deviate from the adulatory script. It was an opportunity for revelation, a chance for Moyers to share with his flock the moment when he knew his Baptist faith could no longer satisfy him, when he knew Joseph Campbell had soothed a longing in his own heart. He could have shared with the masses his own restless search for salvation. But that is not what happened. Instead, it was as if someone had set off a stink bomb in church. You could feel the sweet air in the auditorium go sour, poisoned by the deadly contempt of the believers. You could almost hear them hissing, you could almost read their lips: How dare he challenge our savior? There was preaching here tonight, but it was preaching to the choir. As in any church, questioning was not allowed. Moyers stated briefly that he was deepening his faith, not abandoning it, but clearly that was a path he had no wish to follow. The heretic returned to his seat, and Bill Moyers returned safely to his sermon. As a hero he had been preserved; as a man he remained a mystery.

Joseph Campbell has said that all hero stories are the same story: The hero hears a call to duty and, after some soul-searching leaves the world he knows to embark on a dangerous journey; he slays many dragons and meets many gods and goddesses who help and hinder him on his way before he returns, transformed, to the life he has known. Above all, he follows his bliss—he senses a purpose for himself and pursues it unstintingly, regardless of the cost. Bill Moyers may seem an unlikely hero for our time—he has little in common with Tom Cruise, much less Rambo—yet he has actually met the necessary criteria at every turn. Each stage of his lifelong journey has enhanced his hero status. Serving a president, he became known as the conscience of the Johnson administration. Battling a network, he was called the conscience of television. Now, preaching the gospel of good values, he is on his way to becoming the conscience of America. He has so captivated the public that political operatives have regularly tried to entice him to run for office—even the presidency.

Consciously or unconsciously, Moyers has devoted his life to fulfilling the nation’s collective need for a man of honor. He lives the way a hero should. Though he made around $1 million a year his last five years at CBS, he is never flashy. Based in New York, he has remained close to his childhood friends from Marshall. He volunteers in a soup kitchen. When he is invited to dinner, he insists on doing the dishes. His own mother wishes that he were a little less dutiful.

Of course, there is another side to Moyers that is less heroic. The word most frequently used by people close to him is “complicated,” and the man they describe is one driven not by public adulation but by private demands. Moyers detests public scrutiny, partly out of a deeply ingrained modesty and partly out of a profound desire to control his own story. (Citing prior and future commitments, he declined, then accepted, then canceled an interview for this story.) He is also much more given to looking forward than looking back. “They finally stopped asking me about LBJ and CBS,” he confided wearily to a friend after a press conference to announce a new TV series. That a hero might be a man with an elusive, complex spirit has no place in the annals of myth. A complicated hero complicates the story.

“I think of a dream as something very private, while a myth is something very public,” Moyers has said. His public life says much about the status of mythmaking today. He is, in many ways, an archetypal contemporary hero. Self-deprecation aside, he clearly sees himself as a man with a mission, destined to pursue it. To follow his bliss—to promote the values he believes in—he has had to master the world of politics and power. He has also had to learn the contemporary art of public relations—to shape his own myth, that is. Finally, he has had to search for the proper pulpit from which to deliver his message. Yet as Moyers has progressed on this path, a more personal journey can also be divined from his steps. All his life he has struggled to live up to the expectations of others while attempting to fulfill his own dreams. Like so many heroes, the myth in the man agrees to carry the hopes and dreams of the multitudes. Meanwhile, the man in the myth is locked in a powerfully seductive search to find himself.

Bill Moyers’ early life is the stuff American myths are made of. Given little to start with, he made a lot. He was born in 1934 in Hugo, Oklahoma, where his father Henry worked as an odd-jobs man. The family had seen its share of tragedy. Washed into poverty by the Depression, Ruby Moyers had lost twin girls between the births of her sons, James and Billy Don. She lost her youngest daughter soon after birth as well. Moving to Marshall in search of opportunity, the Moyers family arrived in the dark, and Ruby cried bitterly all night.

James Moyers is remembered, as were his parents, for being quiet, kind, and hardworking. But his little brother, Billy Don, was something else right from the start. Growing up in a small town peopled with eccentrics, he showed a feel for the narrative—”Tell me a story,” he would demand of his mother—and the stories he loved were those of rescue and virtue as its own reward: the Knights of the Round Table and later the western cinematic version of the same story, Shane.

Moyers’ father described him at fourteen as a “thin, scrawny, tallow-faced boy,” but even then, Billy Don Moyers worked with the frenzy of a child who had absorbed the lessons of his parents’ past and intuitively agreed to pick up the burden of their unfinished dreams. He was drawn to power: Billy Don called his teachers—not his pals—for help with his homework. He supplemented his studies with work at the school newspaper and held down a part-time job bagging groceries. Too small to distinguish himself at football, he became both a cheerleader and a bandmember, switching costumes at halftime to play the $35 trumpet that his parents had saved for months to help him buy. He drove himself so hard that by the time he was fifteen he had ulcers that would plague him the rest of his life.

When Billy Don was not working or studying, he was in church. His parents were devout Baptists, his father a deacon; his attendance was expected at Sunday school, at Baptist youth group on Sunday evenings, and at prayer meetings on Wednesdays. If Bill Moyers has thrown off many of the strictures he learned as a child—the emphasis on sin and damnation, the disdain for abstract thinking—other teachings surely shaped him, particularly the contradictory notions that God has a unique plan—a call—for each of his servants but that each is ultimately unworthy. Salvation comes through sacrifice; duty is the highest honor. That Moyers would have considered a future in the ministry was only natural; it would have been expected of the brightest boy from a place like Marshall, and it would have pleased his parents to no end.

But when he was fourteen, Billy Don heard another call. James had gone to work at the Marshall News Messenger,and though still in school, his younger brother followed suit. Billy Don’s zeal caught the eye of editor Millard Cope, a genteel historian. Cope was not a crusading editor; he was, for example, a segregationist, in keeping with his time and place. (“Deep down you might have known something was wrong,” Moyers would say in the autobiographical documentary, Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas, “but you didn’t want to admit it to yourself, or share it with others.”) Cope took Billy Don under his wing, just as his teachers had done, and by the time he was a high school sophomore, the boy was the editor of the sports page. It was assumed that Cope was grooming him to inherit the paper one day. Moyers grew into his role: Instead of Billy Don Moyers, his byline became Bill D. Moyers.

But Cope believed his protege needed broadening. In 1954, when Moyers was a sophomore at North Texas State University-dutifully writing his mother eac hday—Cope suggested that he ask Lyndon Baines Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, for a summer job. Moyers did as he was told. In a letter to Johnson he vowed to work hard at any task (“This…is not a request for a political favor”), cited his qualifications (author of several student handbooks, director of the college radio station, class president), and displayed a nascent political savvy by offering to help LBJ reach young voters (“What so many office-seekers fail to realize is that, although many of those people are too young to vote in the current election, they will be of age next time”). But it would have been the letter from Johnson’s longtime ally Cope that would have caught LBJ’s eye, a letter that eloquently reveals the passions this young man would stir in his mentors throughout his life: “He’s a top boy, Lyndon,” Cope wrote of Moyers, “and I truthfully can say I have never known a boy of his age with the newspaper possibilities he possesses. In addition, he knows how to handle himself…and seems to be able to do just about any job that comes along. He’ll work 24 hours a day and loves to do it; you can borrow money on what he tells you.”

So it happened that in the summer of 1954 the young journalism major who had never made a grade other than A found himself being introduced to Lyndon Johnson in a corridor of the old Senate office building. Moyers gaped as Johnson’s hand enveloped his. “Millard Cope’s friend,” Johnson said. “Yes sir,” the boy answered. “Well, I hope you’re not as conservative as Millard, but I hope you’re as loyal,” Johnson said.

The terms had been established. When the first overload of mail came in, Moyers worked around the clock to answer it. Within three weeks, the top boy had advanced himself to a desk located strategically outside the senator’s office. “Late in the day I’d be the only one left in the office,” Moyers once related, “and he’d call me in, and I’d sit there—I wouldn’t breathe—I’d just sit there and listen.”

And he learned, and the world of politics beckoned. But there were other expectations to attend to, and as the summer ended. Bill Moyers, naive to the will of Lyndon Johnson, still believed he had a choice. There was the call to the ministry to consider, and there was Millard Cope, who still hoped Moyers would return to run the paper in Marshall. But the new mentor advised him to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin, where he could get a better education. A job at Lady Bird’s radio station there would help him foot the bill. So Moyers and his bride, the former Judith Davidson, headed for the state capital, where Moyers was again an honor student in journalism and again worked as if pursued, this time at the radio station. His salary was $100 a week, higher than his father’s had ever been. Bill Moyers had built a world in which he could still be all things to all people: He even traveled the Hill Country as a lay preacher on weekends.

But the choice could not be put off forever. Accepting a Rotary scholarship to study ecclesiastical history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1956, Moyers’ determination to enter the ministry deepened. “I would feel like a heel in not going back to Austin,” he wrote a Johnson aide, “simply because I owe you so much … but it would never work out for me. I could never be complete with just a job. There are other things I must consider, things which are largely intangible and indivisible, and which, because often I myself have trouble understanding them, I cannot honestly ask anyone else to understand. These could only be sufficiently expressed in either of two fields that are both divergent and similar at the same time: politics and religion. Because my opportunities are definitely limited for many reasons in the former, and because of my background beliefs, I have chosen the latter. Perhaps someday it may lead to the other; who knows?”

Moyers headed for the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, with plans to go on to Yale. He served as the school’s director of information while preaching in several churches nearby. He had hoped to be called to a large church in Abilene, but in a rare disappointment, he did not get the job. For once Moyers’ youth was not an attribute; an elder told him he was too immature. (“There was something about being called Reverend that I couldn’t endure,” Moyers would later say.) Instead, as he finished his seminary work in 1959, he served as a $35-a-week pastor in Brandon, a farming community of 121 souls near Hillsboro. The sky above Brandon is beautiful and infinite, the ground below bountiful but monotonous, an endless sea of plaintive sorghum fields. The few streets even today are dusty and semi-paved. The First Baptist Church, with two small towers, is gallant but forlorn. It is hard to believe such a place would have satisfied a young man who was convinced there was a grand plan for his life.

It didn’t, of course. Moyers was deeply loved by the community—he would arrive in a battered car, always ready to demonstrate a magic trick, coach a softball game, or rehearse the choir after Sunday school. But far away in Washington, Lyndon Johnson was laying plans to run for president. One day in church Moyers’ mood was unusually somber. He told the assembly that he had reached a great decision—to leave the ministry. He had stood upon a ridge, he said, and had seen his life spread out before him and had found that the path of politics, of action, was the one ordained for him.

Leaving his flock, Bill Moyers broke down and cried. But his real journey had begun. “Senator Johnson called him,” Ruby Moyers remembered, “and told him to get himself to Washington.”

They were a perfect match. LBJ and Moyers had a shared background of near poverty, a mutual passion for education, limitless energy, and the profound desire to do good. Then too, the enormous, overwhelming putty-faced master and the anxious, angular protege in horn-rims each possessed what the other needed. Lyndon Johnson demanded herculean loyalty from those closest to him; Bill Moyers—quick, clever, and awesomely ambitious—had an equally boundless desire to please. Finally, Johnson was an expert in the uses of power, and Moyers was not. “Power is what counts, power to change things,” LBJ told him time and again. “You get power through politics and money—you hear me, boy?” Bill Moyers wanted to change the world, but he didn’t know how to effect change; in Lyndon Johnson he had once again found the elder who could teach him what he most needed to know.

When Johnson lost his bid for the Democratic nomination and settled for the vice presidency, it seemed to Moyers that his sentimental education had reached its conclusion. With Johnson glumly installed in the vice president’s office, Moyers begged for and got a job creating the Peace Corps with Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver. It cut Johnson to see him go—”Go then, damn it” were his parting words to Moyers. President Kennedy too would have preferred that Moyers remain in his role as liaison to the soul and psyche of Lyndon Johnson. But for an ambitious young man who believed in values, the Peace Corps was the ideal place. He could change the world and build a power base at the same time.

First, however, Shriver and Moyers had to sell the idea to a Congress that was, at best, indifferent. Turning to his mentor once more for help—LBJ told Moyers who to call and how to apply the screws—Moyers lobbied the Peace Corps into existence, making sure, for instance, that Shriver met personally with each of the House’s 435 members. As deputy director, Moyers had learned the lessons of power well. He had established a network of political and bureaucratic contacts throughout the government—in both the Kennedy and Johnson camps.

Another man might have launched his own political career from that vantage point, but instead, in 1963, Moyers heeded a call of a different sort. Sensing a brewing political crisis, Kennedy’s advisers asked Moyers to go to Texas to mend fences between U.S. senator Ralph Yarborough and Governor John Connally. Political loyalty placed Moyers at a luncheon in Austin on November 22; when he received the news that Kennedy had been shot, a more profound instinct took over. Moyers chartered a plane to Dallas and fought his way through the chaos to Air Force One. When a Secret Service officer refused to let him on the plane, he penned a fateful note to his mentor: “I’m here if you need me.” Within minutes, the door to the forward cabin swung open, and the Peace Corps receded into the past. By the time Lyndon Johnson gave his first televised speech on November 26, Moyers was operating with Johnson’s portfolio. Set up for the new president was the lectern that Kennedy had used. “This won’t do,” Moyers said. “Get one sixty-two inches high.”

That was how it was to be. As Moyers grew in knowledge and skill, it became more and more difficult to realize where Johnson ended and Moyers began. “He was a hustler. He walked the halls of power with a sure tread,” remembers former press secretary Liz Carpenter. “He was cocky.” In Johnson’s service, Moyers’ power seemed unlimited. At 30, he could cut a deal with a Southern senator as easily as he could converse with the Kennedys’ Georgetown crowd. With speechwriter Richard Goodwin, he joined the president for nude swims in the White House pool. The price for all this was, of course, his independence. It was Judith Moyers who refused the president’s attempt to put a phone in their private car and who endured LBJ’s ire when he learned that the couple had named their firstborn after Millard Cope instead of after him. Though Moyers had a reputation as the only man who could say no to the president, he did so rarely and rather glibly. (A popular anecdote held that when Johnson admonished him to speak up while saying grace, Moyers replied, “I wasn’t addressing you, Mr. President.”)

In 1964 Moyers was charged with engineering the landslide Johnson so desperately wanted. As part of his work, he oversaw the creation of the so-called Daisy commercial, in which a young girl plucked petals from a daisy while a countdown for nuclear holocaust played in the background. Devastatingly subtle, it painted opponent Barry Goldwater as too irresponsible to have his finger on the nuclear button—without mentioning name. “My God, what’s happened? “ Johnson demanded, when objections to the commercial flooded the White House switchboard. “Well, it seems to have done what you wanted it to do,” Moyers replied.

Moyers wanted to return to the Peace Corps as director, but he could not break free of Johnson. “You’re not going to get the job, and I want you to get that into your head,” he told Moyers. Instead, Johnson made him a special assistant. Moyers supervised the drafting of Great Society legislation—on pollution, housing, education, and anti-poverty programs—as thoroughly and swiftly as he had once drafted Johnson’s speeches. He was not an innovator; his talent, like Johnson’s, was for consensus building and packaging. “He’s the fastest brain picker I’ve met,” recalled a colleague, Joe Laitin. “You’d tell him about an idea, and before you were through, he would turn it back to you, and you’d think it was brilliant.” Sometimes Moyers collapsed from work and required a few days of hospitalization. Mostly, however, he coated his ulcer with Coca-Cola and Pro-Banthine pills and, puffing 25-cent cigars, went back to work.

Trouble came, finally, because Johnson’s reputation began to sag just as Moyers’ started to take off. As criticism of the Vietnam War began to mount toward the end of 1965, Johnson added the job of press secretary to Moyers’ already packed list of duties. But Moyers could not stop the country from turning against the president. Moyers did what he could to overcome what reporters were calling the credibility gap—he tried to focus attention on the cease-fires instead of the body count—but Johnson negated his efforts. Once, after Moyers told the press that Johnson was returning from a Southeast Asia trip to campaign for Democrats in the 1966 off-year elections, Johnson denied that he had ever made any such deal.

Reporters trusted Moyers but not Johnson. Moyers was charming, he had access, and he was a consummate leaker. (Like all insiders, he leaked when it was to his advantage as well as his boss’s. When LBJ, weary of reporters, decided to build a wall between the press office in the Executive Office Building and the White House, Moyers leaked the information, knowing once LBJ saw the news in print, he would give up the idea. Later, Moyers ran the same play when he sensed Johnson intended to replace him as press secretary with another aide.) In return, the press made Moyers a star—so much so that his face appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in 1965.

LBJ was not happy that his chief aide had become a media darling. Moyers tried to reassure his boss—and protect himself—by following his natural inclination to lay it on thick. “You have been so good for this country so far,” Moyers wrote in a note after a particularly difficult time. “I know the decisions, whatever they are—on Vietnam, the budget, poverty, the economy, civil rights, housing, all ofthem—will be right. Helping you execute them, however small my part, is the most satisfying experience of my life, and my gratitude to you for permitting me a share will be enduring.” When he refused to participate in a Time profile, he carboned his letter to LBJ. “I hope you believe me,” he wrote the president, “when I say I am sick and tired of the stories in the press about me…whatever I have done, whatever my success, is a reflection of your confidence and permission.” Still, few heroes are enchanted with obscurity, and most like to manipulate their own myths: Moyers traveled on the press plane, not Air Force One, and he gave any aide who leaked information about him an ungodly chewing out.

Eventually, however, even Moyers could not keep spinning so many political plates. He wanted out. He longed for something grander than the press secretary’s job—undersecretary of state, perhaps, when George Ball departed—but once again, Johnson would not turn loose. He saw Moyers’ restlessness as betrayal. “Deep down, he knew he needed Moyers,” says George Christian, who took the press secretary’s job after Moyers. “In my opinion, anybody could leave the White House except Bill—he’d been the glue.” Moyers’ continuing relationship with the Kennedy crowd only added to Johnson’s growing distrust, and though Moyers was not particularly vocal in his opposition to the war—contrary to what many writers have suggested—he wasn’t a supporter of massive escalation either, which further angered LBJ. In addition, Moyers’ carefully constructed power base had eroded. Old White House allies like Walter Jenkins were long gone, replaced by ivied technocrats like Walt Rostow, who had a grand agenda and guerrilla tactics of his own. And though Moyers was a seasoned infighter—his nickname was Mack the Knife—Johnson’s waning loyalty made him more vulnerable. Slowly the ultimate insider was being pushed out.

Still, it took a personal tragedy to get Moyers to break the tie that had defined his entire adult life up to that point. In 1965 Moyers had recommended that his brother, James, come to work for the Johnson administration. Johnson had been all for the plan—he had called James at his PR job in Shreveport, Louisiana to charm him into coming. James did a competent job under extreme pressure in the press office, but like his father and brother he was plagued by ulcers. In 1966 he developed stomach cancer. In horrible pain, he killed himself with an overdose of medication.

A different kind of duty called: Bill Moyers assumed responsibility for his brother’s wife and children, but clearly he could not support two families on his salary of $28,000 a year. Moyers’ era as a golden boy had come to an end. James’s death, recalls Liz Carpenter, “taught him to count the time.”

Moyers spent a weekend at the president’s ranch with Johnson, wandering the caliche roads in Johnson’s Lincoln. Afterward, neither man would speak of the resignation, except to offer contradictory reports about who had or had not begged whom to go or stay. Either way, Moyers was leaving. He had accepted an offer to become the publisher of Newsday for $100,000 a year. Even in departure, Moyers would play the loyal servant to his generous benefactor. “I believe you know that I am not leaving because things are dark or because of any differences between you and me,” he wrote Johnson. “I am leaving because of personal reasons you and I discussed…At any rate, I intend to try to be of help to you—that I pledge.”

But loyalty had dwindled on both sides. Each man felt as though the other had failed him. On his last day in the White House, Bill Moyers celebrated by having lunch with Robert Kennedy at San Souci. Two weeks before, LBJ had made two changes in the draft of a reply to Moyers’ resignation letter. Johnson altered “You leave a legacy of trust and deep respect behind you in Washington” to eliminate the reference to trust. The phrase “I treasure the past” Johnson cut altogether.

Moyers would spend the next few years in a kind of cushy limbo. Still and forever possessed of the profound desire to serve people, he would be thwarted each time he tried to act on his ambition. At Newsday, for instance, the best that can be said is that he did his job well and benefited mightily before it was taken away from him. Moyers arrived in Garden City, Long Island, with little experience in running a paper but with carte blanche from its owner, a conservative Republican named Harry Guggenheim, who was, nevertheless, a fan of Johnson’s. Once again Moyers captivated an older man and willingly, if subconsciously, embraced his expectations. So enthralled was Guggenheim with his new publisher that it was commonly assumed he would leave Moyers the paper. For Moyers, the job may have shimmered, miragelike, as a return to the call of journalism and the comforts of Millard Cope and the Marshall News Messenger. A blinding optimism afflicted both men: Neither could acknowledge their profound political differences.

Moyers threw himself into his standard work pace and set about remaking Newsday in his image. Office-bound on Sunday mornings, he was so innately solicitous that he took calls from irate subscribers who had not received their papers. He was not the typical publisher, concerned with the paper’s business side; editorial—the idea side—inspired him. It was not enough for Moyers that Newsday spoke to the people of Long Island. He wanted the same access to the world that he had had in the White House, and he set about broadening the paper’s scope. He added international desks and pushed for writers whose stories would demand to be read. Saul Bellow covered the Six Day War in the Middle East, and John Steinbeck traveled to Vietnam.

But as that war came to dominate public life, the paper’s editorial side shifted to the left, particularly when Richard Nixon took office in 1969. Guggenheim, weak from a stroke and afflicted with cancer, began to see his publisher as a traitor to the cause. Egged on by Republican cronies, such as CIA director-to-be William Casey, Guggenheim finally sold the paper to the Times-Mirror Company, rejecting a higher bid from Moyers, and imposed the condition that Moyers be dismissed. By May 1970 Moyers was gone, two Pulitzer prizes for the paper behind him. Once more, the rupture with a mentor was grievous.

Still, Moyers had used his time at Newsday wisely. The network he had built so shrewdly in Washington now extended to include the East Coast establishment; he could count as his friends everyone from Republican David Rockefeller—who made him a trustee of the family foundation—to Jack English, Bobby Kennedy’s onetime point man in New York. The hero may have lacked a forum, but his following was larger than ever.

In fact, another contact, Harper’s editor Willie Morris, gave Moyers the inspiration for his next project, a book called Listening to America. “I learned that it is possible to write bills and publish newspapers without knowing what the country is about or who the people are,” he wrote in the introduction, explaining that he was setting out to find Americans “who are trying to correct the wrongs of society.” The moral of Listening to America is the same one that propelled Moyers through his White House years—there is salvation in the service of social change. The book is, finally, a series of mini-heroes’ journeys, those of a conscientious objector, a small-town doctor, a labor organizer, and a civil-rights worker. Though well received, it was a comparatively small project for a man who had once shaped national policy. Listening to America resembled nothing less than a trial run for what was to come.

Billy Don Moyers of the White House by way of Marshall, Texas, and the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was trying to begin anew in more ways than one. He was described on the book jacket as “a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, a Director of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Member of the Board of Visitors of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.”

But beginning again was not so easy, of course. Whether from a genuine longing to be of use, a deeper need for forgiveness and absolution, or both, Moyers continued throughout this time to try to win back Lyndon Johnson’s affection. He passed on the results of polls, as well as political intelligence he picked up from Moyers and shakers like Averell Harriman. He refused to take part in anti-administration attacks engineered by former administration hands—and let Johnson know of his refusal. In November 1967 Marvin Watson had reported to LBJ that he had seen Moyers and sensed his desire to return to politics. “He does not like being a critic—he wants to be a player,” Watson noted. But Johnson, who had at one time loved Moyers more than anyone else, punished him by pushing him further out of his life than anyone else. Even as Johnson lay hospitalized in San Antonio in the early seventies, he continued to refuse his former protege’s reconciliation attempts. For Moyers the road behind and the road ahead took on a slightly different cast. “You go out to conquer and come home humbled,” he told a reporter in 1968. “You turn on everything you possess and you still can’t save the world. Then you realize that perhaps it wasn’t the world but you who needed saving.”

Though Moyers was uncertain about which path to take, other people had plenty of ideas. He had offers to become the president of several colleges, to take over a Washington newspaper, and to man a slot on the Today show. He could, in response to great popular demand, write his White House memoirs. So many people had come to see Moyers as a hero by the midseventies that writer James Fallows, now the Washington editor of the Atlantic, saw fit to write a contrarian profile in the Washington Monthly. Fallows had his own expectations for Bill Moyers: He asserted that Moyers could not be a true leader until he got the nerve to strike out on his own—specifically, to free himself from reliance on patrons.

Moyers responded to Fallows’ interview with a haunting eight-page single-spaced letter, signed by an alter ego named Spectre Pliny. Simultaneously florid and excruciatingly intimate, it reflects Moyers’ grandiose side and his continuing need to shape his own story “My man doesn’t think that politics is all that matters,” Pliny declared, explaining why Moyers had turned away from that call. “The democratic experience … can’t be confined to politics….It has become, as Moyers sees it, the whole range of human conversation among a people looking to fulfill the seemingly irreconcilable appetites for liberty and order….” Pliny claimed that the man who could bridge the gap was a “communicator [emphasis his] who can convey not only facts and information but symbols of meaning: values as well.”

Bill Moyers had always carried the word. He had been preaching nothing less than the gospel of good values whether he was preaching in the service of God or Lyndon Johnson. But since leaving the president’s service, he had not found a way to reach the multitudes on a comparably grand scale. The solution had been there, of course, waiting for him to see it. He had known it when he had watched a little girl alter a presidential election by plucking a single daisy. An entire world of symbols could be shaped to convey an entire world of ideas—to millions. Bill Moyers followed his bliss, and it led him to the largest pulpit of all. Television.

He was only loosely bound by the conventions of journalism. Moyers was not a reporter, he was an advocate, one who would teach and preach. He was contemptuous of most reporting on television, having no use for the trendy lifestyle stories found on most morning shows or the splashy “infotainment” news shows, such as West 57th,that ran in prime time (Moyers was such a purist that he even disdained 60 Minutes). From the time he started at This Week on PBS in 1971, he opted to make classic public-affairs television, documentaries rich in historical context, that generally took months to make and required at least an hour of air time. Moyers also favored extended interviews with people he considered the value shapers of the day, from poet Maya Angelou to pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and physicist Steven Weinberg. Shows like Creativity and A World of Ideas fall into this category, which Moyers’ faithful refer to as “ideas television.”

His years of preaching gave his work a deeper emotional pitch, and his years in politics had perfected a common touch that helped him draw out everyone from African famine victims to Mortimer Adler. Unlike more conventional reporters like Sam Donaldson or Dan Rather, Moyers was polite and deferential: unlike more unconventional documentary filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, he never took his viewers where they were not ready to go. To lead his flock, Moyers appeared to dwell squarely within the realm of the ordinary (“What is a profound experience?” he asked Campbell, in his trademark flat-footed style).

I am just like you was his message. In his soothing-rural cadence, Moyers frequently harked back to his small-town beginnings. A 1982 Easter commentary for CBS News was typical. After reporting on Curly Wiggins’ new catfish place and the Rives’ expanding feed business, Moyers told viewers. “The mimosa trees in my parents’ yard died of old age last year, but in their place this spring are two young dogwood. Life is its own news there, and the big story is that old people still plant trees they will never sit under.” Other correspondents acted like stars, but Moyers stayed on equal footing with his subjects. Unlike other reporters, he would stay behind with the camera crew to put an interviewee’s furniture back in place. So intent was he on reflecting the views of ordinary people that producers joked about installing a bag lady outside his office to pitch his ideas.

His work had added resonance because it was almost always autobiographical. He had a tendency to explore the same questions—on race, religion, and the government’s role in people’s lives—over and over. Politics was, naturally, at the heart of many of Moyers’ reports. He offered a shrewd critique of Jimmy Carter’s failings and later interviewed hardworking Americans who had slipped into poverty (Moyers’ chance to subtly blame the Reagan administration for dismantling programs he had been instrumental in creating). He took on the church of his youth by exposing the hypocrisy of the religious right. “I know the people in this report. I was born and reared among them,” he stated in closing. “They’re my kin.” Redeeming himself from a time when he was too young and powerless to speak out, Moyers produced programs revealing the devastation of bigotry on black neighborhoodsand families. (Loyalty made for his own sacred cows. During the making of Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas, childhood friend Joe Goulden, the author of Fit to Print, urged Moyers to reveal Millard Cope’s role in keeping the town segregated. Moyers, tight-lipped and pale, stonily ignored him.) It was as though, in sorting out the American agenda, he could sort out his own history.

To the public, his image was one of profound deference—of being the best listener around—inside the business he was perceived differently. He drove his staff at a Johnsonian pace, papering their desks with ideas and assignments before seven-thirty in the morning. One producer, after working for Moyers for months without rest, got a call from his boss on his first night off. Moyers, calling from a meeting, ticked off new ideas in a frenzied whisper. To work with Moyers was to sign on to a holy crusade, and loyalty was as much an issue for him as it had been for LBJ. Moyers became a father figure to young producers and expressed profound disappointment when one of them strayed from the fold. He may have been frustrating to work for—testing an idea, he would voice a different opinion morning, noon, and night—but the withdrawal of his approval often left former proteges angry and bereft, as if by striking out on their own they had abandoned the side of right.

This version of Moyers rarely found its way into most reporters’ notebooks. He had done his PR work. As he had during the Johnson administration, Moyers cultivated decision makers in the media and elsewhere, making sure his programs were noticed. “There’s something you should see…” began his handwritten notes. When Moyers lost his sponsors at PBS or was censored by the CBS brass for tough reporting, the media somehow got the word; when Reagan administration officials protested some of his criticisms on the nightly news, it only added to his heroic appeal. Hence, Moyers’ departures—from PBS in 1976, CBS in 1978, PBS again in 1981, and CBS in 1986—were similarly portrayed as a moral battle in which both public and commercial television failed to support quality TV (Moyers’ weary and disillusioned quotes, however sincere, certainly helped his case). Still, with each departure, Moyers got more air time, more viewers, more influence—and more great press.

His most brilliant PR campaign was waged during the most difficult struggle of his professional life, from 1981 to 1986, while he was at CBS. Moyers had joined the network believing he would be allowed to televise documentaries in primetime; instead, network executives wanted him to do shorter pieces on more-popular topics (he was once asked to do a show called American Parade, in which Michael Jackson was a suggested guest). In short, values were not high on the agenda. For a while, he fought back using his political skills. Ignored by flamboyant CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter, he protected himself by working vulnerable and unpopular lieutenant Ed Joyce with a mixture of flattery and angst. (Moyers’ tortured resignation attempts were a running joke at CBS News; so too was his habit of calling on his allies nationwide each time a decision loomed. He earned the nickname Hamlet, and one executive even referred to him as “remote from Elsinore.”) Meanwhile, as chronicled in Peter Boyer’s Who Killed CBS? suspect Moyers publicly and privately undermined CBS News, even criticizing programs created by a protege.

Finally, however, Moyers could not convert CBS any more than he could have converted Lyndon Johnson. Seizing control of the debate, he let reporters know that he planned to leave and would not go quietly; the New York Times and Newsweek began competing furiously for the scoop. Moyers finally went with Newsweek, which provided him a page of his own accompanying a cover story on the decline of CBS. There was another reason he preferred Newsweek: The Times, he told a reporter, felt obligated to present both sides of the story—what he had to say was too important to be trivialized in that manner. Objectivity is the journalist’s burden; the prophet journeys free of such constraints.

Moyers lacked only the proper message for his time. America in the late eighties did not seem particularly interested in the social and political issues Moyers had traditionally chronicled. Leaving CBS in 1986 for PBS (this time with his own production company and $15 million in grants), he had sensed a spiritual restlessness in the country, a longing for meaning that established religion seemed unable to satisfy. There was someone who could speak eloquently to that need. Back in 1980 Moyers had interviewed Joseph Campbell, an aging professor of comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. His seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, had been a college classic far years and had evolved into a kind of New Age self-help guide. The first time Moyers put Campbell on the air, 14,000 people requested transcripts.

But when Moyers decided to talk to Campbell again, many of his friends were lukewarm. “Bill, that’s comparative religion. It’s Frazer’s Golden Bough. It’s Freud’s dream projections,” warned Moyers’ friend James Dunn, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. “It’s old hat.” In agreement were public-television station executives around the country, who in Moyers’ five-year absence from public TV had become disenchanted with the interview format. They thought it was boring. Suddenly, a fight ensued over the very definition of educational television, and Moyers found himself in a popularity contest with nature specials like Ducks Under Siege.

But Moyers persevered, and eventually things fell into place. Star Wars director George Lucas, who had been heavily influenced by Campbell’s work, learned of the project and offered his Skywalker Ranch as a place to film the interviews. There was the phone call from one of Moyers’ friends from long ago. “I have two heroes in the world, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers,” said Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, now an editor at Doubleday. “I want to do a companion book with the series.”

Without Moyers, Joseph Campbell could be inscrutable. (“We have come two stages: first, from the immediate emanations of the Uncreated Creating to the fluid yet timeless personages of the mythological age; second, from these Created Creating Ones to the sphere of human history.”) Without Campbell, Moyers could be leaden. To make The Power of Myth succeed, Moyers once more played the dutiful son, sitting at his master’s feet and interpreting his words. Rubbing his chin, knitting his brows, he asked his questions in an almost reverential whisper: “Do your emember the first time you discovered myth? The first time the story came alive in you?” In so doing, Moyers turned Campbell’s words lost yuppies found a day soothsayer. Now, instead of belief in established religion, belief in myth could lead to transcendant experience. In Joseph Campbell’s words ailing yuppies found a spirituality uncomplicated by religious doctrine and a self-determination missing from twelve-step programs. “When you are following your bliss, it is as if invisible hands are helping. Doors open that you never knew were there,” Campbell said, and millions of viewers guided by Bill Moyers believed.

In record time, The Power of Myth—both the television series and the accompanying text—went from good idea to phenomenon. Campbell’s original works hit the best-seller lists along with the series transcript, and across the nation, study groups formed to watch the video. One attorney even wanted to hire the book’s editor, University of Texas Plan II director and English professor Betty Sue Flowers, as myth consultant on a case. As so often happens, a project intended to promote a spiritual flowering became a vehicle for personal realization. And after Campbell was gone, the public expected yet another incarnation from Bill Moyers. They wanted him to become the prophet of a brand-new faith.

Faced with that prospect, Moyers behaved consistently. He made two appearances with his revival and road show ofthe spirit—at Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Texas—and then he folded his tent, hearing the call of TV seasons to come.

The elements in Moyers’ life had come together in a kind of heroic fusion. The success of The Power of Myth had brought Moyers full circle: The former Baptist minister had found a word he believed in, the professor of Christian ethics had found the largest classroom imaginable, the ambitious Washington operator had even found redemption. “We’re not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves,” Moyers posited to Campbell. “But in doing that,” his teacher replied, “you save the world.”

Related Content