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.

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

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