The Living Hell of Bill Moyers

Article excerpt

IN A WAY YOU WOULDN'T EXPECT, Bill Moyers resembles Lenin. Maxim Gorky (sycophantic Soviet author who died in 1936) told us that Lenin enjoyed Beethoven's Appassionata sonata, but couldn't bear to listen to music very often. It made him want to say "sweet silly things," and to pat the heads of people who didn't seem to realize they were "living in a filthy hell."

Sometimes, on Fridays, I watch the PBS program "Now with Bill Moyers." His predictability is remarkable-he could say so many things, yet he keeps on saying the same things. And I disagree with just about all of his opinions. Moyers is well to the left of normal PBS fare, but I don't mind that. The spectrum of tolerated opinion there is narrow, and there's something to be said for broadening it. (Any chance of a right-wing Moyers equivalent? I don't think so.) Anyway, I do watch the program, and sometimes even take notes, as though I were his shrink. Now I have a diagnosis.

Like Lenin, Moyers thinks we are living in a hell. That is his basic message. He can't change it and he won't. There was an interesting moment last May when he responded to viewers. Some had been writing in, evidently a bit concerned about his state of mind. "Do we delight in the dark side of human experience, you ask?" Moyers said in his reply. "Do we never see good in the world?"

He was merely being candid, he explained. Telling it like it is. "I like to think journalists are paid for candor." We need to know "what could kill us, whether it's too many lies or too much pollution." So he was the bearer of uncomfortable truths. That was why he kept coming back to "what ails America ... things like the bribing of Congress, the desecration of the environment, corporate tax havens ..." We know the litany. After the last election he said that George Bush believed he had a mandate to use "the power of the state to force pregnant women to give up control over their own lives," and to use "the taxing power to transfer wealth from working people to the rich."

Now, America is a comfortable place to live, perhaps the most comfortable ever, in the history of the world. But there is no point in trying to tell Moyers things like that. You know what his response would be. "Comfortable for some, maybe. Comfortable for rich people." Then he would launch into another tirade. If you expect Moyers to express appreciation of the country that has given him so much, you will have a long wait.

The contrast with Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" struck me the other day. I listen to him, too. Keillor's willingness to dwell on our blessings is striking and perhaps the secret of his success. God (not, as normally said, the devil) is in the details, and Keillor lovingly recites those details week after week. In a recent broadcast from Iowa I was amazed to hear him saying with heartfelt appreciation: "Our town is an alabaster city, in the winter it is, when the roofs are covered with snow; beautiful for its snowy fields and the gray skeletons of trees." Imagine that from Moyers. I suppose Keillor is a liberal of sorts, but his faculty of appreciation, his love of traditional hymns, and the contentment he derives from describing the world, show conservative tendencies. A great gulf separates him from those, like Moyers, who want to change the world, not describe it.

BILL MOYERS, who will be 70 in June, grew up in east Texas and by the age of 30 was press secretary to the President of the United States. He worked for LBJ when the Great Society was forming. He became a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. Ever since he has kept on moving to the left. Now he controls millions of dollars in foundation money (bequeathed by rich businessmen), has access to taxpayer-subsidized airwaves, and his wife on the payroll. Yet he is a profoundly alienated man. Like Lenin, he doesn't want to pat heads when we are living in this hell.

His discontent extends far beyond the nation's borders. …