Bill Moyers came to the door of his house in Garden City, Long Island. It was a rambling white-clapboard affair set among others far more imposing. Moyers wore blue jeans of the less fashionable, non-Levi variety, boots of soft black leather, and an old sports shirt. He looked smaller and even more boyish than he does on TV.
“Come in, come in, I’m glad to see you. How did you get here—did you walk? If I’d thought for just a minute I’d have driven right over to pick you up.”
He took his guest’s coat, led him back to a small study in the rear of the house, and equipped him with a beer. “Now,” he said, smiling, “tell me,” smiling a moment longer, “why on earth would anyone be interested in writing about a 40-year-old has-been?”
The reason, to put it bluntly, is that over the last dozen years many of the people who have worked with Bill Moyers have come to believe that he should be President—or at least that he has the abilities to make the run, and to be a good President if elected. His career in government is often cited as evidence, for Moyers moved from coup to coup in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In 1960, having been called at the last moment from a job teaching theology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Moyers negotiated for Lyndon Johnson at the Democratic convention and won the Kennedys’ respect as the ablest of the Johnson men. When the new administration took office, Moyers moved to the Peace Corps, where he soon became the protege of Sargent Shriver, the director, and later was his deputy director. Together with Shriver, Moyers managed to sell the fairyland concept of the Peace Corps to an overwhelming majority of the Congress, a feat of legislative virtuosity unmatched during the Kennedy years.
When Lyndon Johnson became President, Bill Moyers became his closest personal counselor and his policy-making right arm. He directed the triumphant 1964 reelection campaign against Barry Goldwater, and he took a leading hand in drafting the Great Society legislation. Murray Kempton wrote, soon after Moyers came to the White House, that “the President’s friends can think of no one of them who inspires in him the trust that Bill Moyers does,” and later James Deakin wrote, “It is fashionable to describe Bill Moyers as primus inter pares on the White House staff. This is not accurate. He is primus.”
In mid-1965 Johnson made Moyers his press secretary, largely in an attempt to improve the Administration’s quickly deteriorating standing with the press. Moyers succeeded so well in this endeavor that, in the view of some who worked with him, he effectively postponed by two years the onslaught of the liberal press against the war. (Of this, more later.) At the very end of his government career, in January, 1967, Moyers was 32 years old.
In the seven and a half years since he left the White House, Moyers has distinguished himself even more sharply from his former colleagues in the government, for as they have settled back into their law firms and their consultantships, Moyers has moved from stage to stage in the public eye, and succeeded in each of his new pursuits. From 1967 to 1970 he was publisher of the Long Island newspaper Newsday; there he oversaw the transformation of a good local daily into a nationally-respected paper perennially on the Ten Best list. In 1971, after a falling out with Newsday‘s owner, Captain Harry Guggenheim, Moyers wrote a book. It was called Listening to America and was generally praised for its sensitivity to the national mood. Arthur Schlesinger said it was “brilliant in its reporting, its evocation of place and mood, and its understanding of the national folly, anguish, and hope,” and Anthony Lewis called it “beautiful, marvelous.”
Later that year, Moyers moved into public television. When he announced this spring that he was giving up his weekly public affairs program, “Bill Moyers’ Journal,” John J. O’Connor of The New York Times called it “one of the most outstanding series on television,” and Richard Schickel, in Time, said Moyers was “television’s best regularly scheduled observer of the American scene.” Edward R. Murrow’s widow wrote Moyers a letter saying that he reminded her more of her husband than anyone else on TV.
You Feel So Good
After that kind of build-up, it is often hard to approach the golden boy without a sense of suspicion, not to say resentment. But in the four or five hours I spent with Moyers and his family in May, I saw what everyone had been talking about. Rarely has conversation been so enjoyable. Never had I been made to feel so comfortable, so much at ease, so well-respected by a man whom I had, after all, come to inspect and write about. As his television programs have demonstrated to those who never saw him in action at the White House, Moyers is able to discourse with eloquence on the grand themes of the Republic. But unlike other bright men in high places (Goodwin and Sorensen come to mind), Moyers uses his intelligence not as a rapier but as a comforting blanket to wrap around his guests. In this he possesses a “political” skill, in the nobler sense of the word. “Bill just made you feel so good when you were around him that you didn’t care what he was doing,” one of his government associates had told me earlier; and after eating fried chicken and potato salad with Moyers and his wife Judith, after hearing him laugh and tell stories on himself that others had told against him, after wearing one of Moyers’ old jackets to go to the Little League field and see his son’s team get trounced, and after running out the door with Moyers to his car so I could catch the late train to Manhattan, Moyers saying “Good luck with your career” as we shook hands, I went away with the rosy feeling that people were better than I had thought, and Moyers one of the best. I understood what Harry McPherson, one of Moyers’ associates in the White House and a man of no mean gifts himself, meant when he told me, ” I remember saying long ago that I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend another ten minutes wondering about Bill’s future, when I’ve spent 300 hours that way before. And here I am doing it again.”
Who could help but wonder when, in the summer of his fortieth birthday, Bill Moyers played Hamlet, pausing to consider his alternatives. He had canceled his television series at the very height of its critical and popular acclaim, and, as he had done at similar junctures in the past, he accepted petitioners bearing offers from a diversity of professional worlds. Would he go to Washington to become publisher of the Star-News? Take over Frank McGee’s position on the “Today Show”? Write the book about Lyndon Johnson the publishers have been clamoring for? Spend a year in reflection at Cambridge University in England, or become president of one of the dozen colleges that want his services here?
Politics was not even on his list, and ‘Moyers has time and again gone out of his way to renounce it. No try for the Presidency in his future, nor even the Congress or Senate. The difference between his own idea of himself and what others expect of him is a gulf explicable by the particular form in which ambition has presented itself to Bill Moyers.
Ambition is usually one of the more straightforward matters a politician must deal with—he wants the office, and he asks people for their support. The question is more complicated for Bill Moyers because until quite recently his career consisted not of normal political advances but of service to a series of patrons. Even before Johnson there had been Millard Cope, publisher of the newspaper in Moyers’ hometown of Marshall, Texas, the man who gave Moyers his first job—at $10 a week as a reporter —and who was enough of an influence that Moyers’ first son, Cope, was named after him. According to Walter Jenkins, who arranged for Moyers to come to Senator Johnson’s staff for temporary work in the summer of 1954, Cope was nearly heartbroken when Moyers did not return to Texas to take up the position Cope had been grooming him for as editor of the paper.
But Johnson was obviously the crucial patron. Moyers’ big break came in 1960, when Johnson was preparing his run for the presidency and Moyers was growing ill at ease at the seminary. Johnson wanted him to work on the campaign, and Moyers eagerly accepted. He started out as a personal assistant, handling the clothing and the baggage, but soon he was “executive assistant” and liaison with the Kennedys.
After the election, no one doubted that Moyers could have had a job at the White House if he had wanted it. That would have meant breaking away from Johnson and the dead-end job as executive assistant to a frustrated vice president, but the Kennedys would have welcomed him.
For the first month or two of the new administration, Moyers stayed with Johnson, living in Johnson’s house and sharing what must have been dark times of the spirit for the man who had given up the Majority Leadership so that he could preside impotently over the Senate and make ceremonial speeches about the space program. Moyers had heard about the Peace Corps, and something in it appealed to his sense of moral’ obligation, his desire to do good during what he still regarded as a temporary excursion into government.
He asked Johnson whether he might go to the Peace Corps, and Johnson said no, I need you here. So Moyers asked again, and again was turned down, until one day the time was right. Johnson was in one of his somber and contemplative moods, having just returned from a funeral in Texas. As he sat in his chair Moyers came to him and asked, once more, about going to the Peace Corps. Johnson looked up at him and said, “Go, goddammit, if that’s what you want,” and he was off.
It was a sea of idealistic sharks, the Peace Corps in those early days, full of people Moyers’ age and even younger, ready to deliver good to the peoples of the world and ready to be placed in charge of the others who were doing good with them. Moyers started out as an associate director in charge of public affairs. This meant recruiting, and developing the enormously successful campaign of Peace Corps ads—but first it meant selling the Peace Corps to a generally skeptical Congress. Opposition was coming not just from the fringes, but from such mainstream figures as outgoing President Eisenhower.
Starting out this far behind, Shriver and Moyers did such a superb job of salesmanship that when it finally came time to vote they had resounding majorities from both House and Senate.
Moyers’ performance on Capitol Hill won Shriver’s loyalty and undying admiration. Within months of his arrival Moyers had, by sheer accomplishment, made himself Shfiver’s protege and prime candidate for advancement. Like his other young competitors at the Peace Corps, Moyers did not intend to stay too long at the lower levels of the agency. Shriver was, after all, John Kennedy’s brother-in-law, and so the directorship was not an immediate target of opportunity. But the deputy directorship was lightly defended, and it became the young men’s goal.
The ambitious young people like Moyers were idealistic, but they were still ambitious enough to use Byzantine tactics to get ahead. Many of the young sharks were, at 23 or 25, too young to get the jobs they wanted, as general counsel or deputy director, so they did the next best thing: they made sure that stooges were appointed to the jobs, so that they would have a clear shot when the time came. Warren Wiggins, an associate director in charge of overseas operations who was the last man in the race with Moyers for the deputy directorship, must have known that it was all over when Moyers got his stooge, a’ man named Paul Geren (who capped his career with service as consul general in Salisbury, Rhodesia) appointed deputy director. Then it was only a matter of time, until January, 1963, when Moyers took over the position himself.
Two Seconds Sooner
Moyers displayed other bureaucratic skills at the Peace Corps, and he used them to defend the power he had gained. He developed great webs of personal loyalty, enmeshing those below him in a form of comfortable bondage. To those serving beneath him, Moyers offered not only his charm but also an unfailing willingness to bail them out of tight situations. He was always the one you could go to if you thought you were getting screwed, and most of the time you could count on his help. (“What do you mean we’ve got a problem with the White House?” Sargent Shriver said once after Moyers had left the Peace Corps. “Isn’t Bill Moyers still working there?”) It was in many ways a feudal arrangement; in exchange for his seigneurial protection Moyers obtained the personal loyalty of those he defended. But unlike a feudal alliance, the loyalty was freely given, the product not of explicit exchanges but of affection and respect.
Less than a year after he became deputy director, Moyers was drafted for political work. In November, 1963, he was sent down to Texas to “advance” John Kennedy’s fencemending trip. On November 22 he was having lunch in Austin when news of the assassination came.
Moyers rushed to the airport, chartered a plane, and arrived alongside Air Force One in Dallas in time to pass Johnson his famous note, “I’m here if you need me.” Of course Johnson did need him that day, and Moyers took a place by the President’s side he would not relinquish for more than three years.
“We were sitting at home, doing something stupid, crying,” says Coates Redmon, who worked at the Peace Corps and whose husband, Hayes Redmon, was Moyers’ assistant at the White House. “We were watching TV and we saw the plane land in Washington. Lyndon Johnson—President Johnson’ still sounded strange—got out. Right over his shoulder you could see Bill Moyers’ face. I remember, at that moment, we all went ah-h-h-h-h-h-h. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but Bill had known what to do when the rest of us hadn’t. Some other people might have had the same instincts, but Bill had them two seconds sooner.” The irony is that even if Moyers had been on the other side of the world that day, Johnson would probably have called him back and promptly installed him in the inner office. He was the one who least needed to rush to the plane, but he was the one who did.
For at least the next two years Moyers was the closest man to Johnson in the White House, serving not only the confidant’s function, like Harry Hopkins, but also taking a leading role in developing the crucial pieces of Great Society legislation and in managing the 1964 campaign against Goldwater. Moyers shared Johnson’s determination not simply to beat Goldwater but to roll up the tremendous margin which would give LBJ his “mandate”; to that end, Moyers directed the series of chilling TV ads which portrayed Goldwater as an H-bomb fanatic.
During this first year in the White House, Moyers nursed his hope of returning to the Peace Corps as director. Later it became a sour joke, with reporters chiding him, “When are you going to drop that line?” But for a while it was a genuine possibility. It was a sign that there was something more than hustle to Moyers, for many of his old competitors at the Peace Corps would never have turned down a spot at the White House.
Moyers prepared for the transfer as skillfully as he had when maneuvering Paul Geren into place. He knew he needed some time to persuade Johnson to let him go back, and in the meantime, he needed to start opening up the position. He did his best to get Shriver appointed director of the new Office of Economic Opportunity, and then convinced Johnson to keep Shriver at the Peace Corps too. That way, when the time came to make his move, he would not seem to be attacking Shriver but instead rescuing him from his crushing burden of overwork. But Johnson was not to be persuaded. When the need for a fulltime Peace Corps director became acute, he toyed with Moyers, telling him he was going to appoint Moyers’ friend Harry McPherson, and finally sat him down to say, “You’re not going to get the job, and I want you to get that into your head.”
And so Moyers moved full-steam into management of Johnson’s White House and of the Great Society. These days, which were brightest for Johnson’s presidency, were also best for Moyers’ personal standing. It was then that stories began appearing like the one Tom Wicker wrote for Harper’s. “Johnson’s Good Angel,” it was called, and it described the bright, selfless young Texan who added a principled touch to the otherwise rowdy Johnson White House. The accomplishments Moyers says he is proudest of also came from this time; as he told Patrick Anderson in 1966, “The newspaper clippings in my wife’s bureau drawer will fade, but no one can ever take from me that the Higher Education Act and the Elementary Education Act bore something of my mark, even if it was only a tiny toeprint.”
The good days began to come to an end in July, 1965, when Johnson made Moyers his press secretary. The reasons for the appointment are complicated, and it is impossible to say which was most important in Johnson’s mind. Moyers’ unbelievably good press must have been part of it. It was clear enough that Moyers was the boy genius of press relations—at least when it came to getting coverage for himself—and to Johnson it must have seemed natural to put him out front when the Administration was being taken apart in the papers. The nominal reason for removing George Reedy, who had succeeded Pierre Salinger as press secretary, was a condition described as “painful hammertoes,” but there was no mistaking the implication that Reedy was being shoved out of the way so bright Bill Moyers could come to the President’s rescue. Reedy, who generally maintained his sense of perspective better than others on the White House staff, remained bitter for years, imagining that Moyers had elbowed him out of the job.
Consciously or unconsciously, Johnson may also have been working a subtle revenge on Moyers. Within the inner councils Moyers had by this time begun to raise questions about the Vietnam war. It was clear that as press secretary much of his work would consist of selling the war to the reporters. To Johnson, what form of punishment could seem more exquisitely appropriate than impaling the dissenter on the issue of his own dissent and letting him squirm? And Johnson must have savored another delicious twist of the situation—that Moyers, who had been Number One at the President’s side for nearly two years, would forever after be stuck with the label “press secretary,” lumped in the same category with the Salingers and later the Zieglers rather than with the Sorensens and Hopkinses where he belonged.
Moyers himself had no illusions about the meaning of the appointment, neither about his position in the White House hierarchy nor about the difficulties of coming across as an honest press secretary without angering a President who liked to keep a lot under his hat. He must have known, too, that if he was at all interested in salvaging his role as head policy man on the staff, he would have to find a way to free himself of the maddening operational duties of a press secretary.
The Not-So-Secret Dove
It was a good long while, though, before outsiders could see that Moyers was in a doomed position. Moyers’ old charm and stroking ability went into play on the reporters, with the result that most members of the White House press felt closer to him than they had to Reedy or Salinger. He could make friends across the intellectual and political spectrum; as Patrick Anderson wrote in The President’s Men, “He found it expedient to deal with writers at the lowest possible level of sophistication. To a reporter who demanded no more, he could make as banal a declaration as ‘I can’t make the President do a gosh-darned thing he doesn’t want to,’ but to the intellectual and introspective Murray Kempton he declared, speaking of his return to the Peace Corps, ‘I sometimes feel the way Odysseus did when he said how he longed to see the smoke leaping from his own island.’ ”
Johnson knew that the reporters liked Moyers better than they liked him (“That boy Moyers is getting his picture on the cover of Time when his job is to get my picture there”), and his pique may have blinded him to how good a job Moyers was doing of projecting Johnson’s good side. Because they believed Moyers, and even when not believing him on specifics, respected him generally, reporters tended to absorb the full-featured and human version of Johnson he presented. This meant that, for example, Hugh Sidey, perhaps the most sensitive observer of the Johnson Administration, and the reporter Moyers most respected, presented through 1966 a view of the Administration which any man less vain than Johnson would have recognized as enormously sympathetic. On July 8, 1966, after Johnson began bombing near Hanoi, Sidey wrote:
The President was the loneliest man in town when news of the oil-dump bombing at Hanoi and Haiphong came out… . He is, in his soul, a dove. But in running the Vietnam war, Johnson places mind over heart, experience over hope.
And on October 28:
What he wants for those nations [of Southeast Asia] and these people is not so different from what he sought for his home district when he was a Congressman. … For the President, the underprivileged people of the Pacific have replaced his neighbors in Blanco County…. He has the notion that he would like history to remember him as the Pacific president.
Sidey was certainly no pawn of Moyers, but reports like these illustrate an attitude which Moyers played a crucial part in shaping. Many reporters sensed that Moyers was troubled by the war and that he was doing what he could to bring things around from inside. In fact, even before he became press secretary, he had started to develop an anti-war maquis within the White House.
His style was not to stand and argue, as the in-house Devil’s advocate, George Ball, had been encouraged to do; like others at the President’s ear, Moyers knew his strength was his access in the private moments, and not participation in the general debates. He concentrated on providing extra information for the President, which would keep reminding him of Moyers’ ability to smoke facts out of the underbrush. He discovered, in 1965, that George Ball’s dissenting memoranda, intended for the President, had been getting to McGeorge Bundy’s desk and no further. He took it upon himself to bypass Bundy and bring the papers to Johnson. It was a move likely to please Johnson, who would see that Moyers was serving as extra eyes and ears again, but considering the still-Promethean stature of Bundy, it was a courageous act as well.
As time went on, Moyers and his assistant, Hayes Redmon, made a concerted attempt to develop their own sources of information, as well as passing on what had become clogged elsewhere. Out of this network came not a general change of policy but a number of small victories. According to James Thomson, who was a State Department Asian at the time, they included: the President’s speech at Johns Hopkins University, at which the long-awaited “carrot” was produced for our carrot-and-stick policies in Asia; another presidential speech, this one in West Virginia, opening the door toward China a crack; and the shooting down of several outrageous proposals for covert activities in the Pacific.
Even though the exact details of the Moyers-Redmon operation were unknown on the outside, enough of the general line-up was clear for reporters to see that Moyers was at work. Knowing what they did about his views on the war and respecting his character and abilities as much as they did, members of the liberal press (that is, the people who started hammering away on the war policies two years later) sensed that, as long as Bill was on the inside, the madmen couldn’t have taken over. Somehow Moyers and Redmon would pull something off; and when a ray of hope, like the Johns Hopkins speech, did appear, it was easy to take it for a turning point. At the least it was a faint sound of reason, which could make you draw back for a few months before writing that scathing editorial on the war.
Even more important, Moyers was part of an effort which focused everyone’s attention on the bombing, rather than on all the men we were shipping off to war. When you celebrated each bombing pause and took it as a sign that the war was almost over, you would could forget that our commitment of armed forces was growing every day. There were less than 20,000 American soldiers in Vietnam when Moyers came to the White House with Johnson, and roughly 30 times that many when he left. But that was not what most people wrote about, because they were concentrating on the B-52s. Moyers was not conning the press so much as he was conned himself—most of his own inside efforts were directed at the bombing. But, intentionally or not, he helped to postpone the tide of criticism which finally drove Johnson out of office.
Two Tries for the Prizes
As he had in the Peace Corps, Moyers used his network and his skills with the patron to angle for promotion. He felt he might escape intact from the dread press secretary job and free himself of the chores which were consuming so much of his time if he could win one of the big prizes. Biggest and most attractive of all was McGeorge Bundy’s position as National Security adviser, which opened up when Bundy resigned at the end of 1965. In the three months between Bundy’s departure and the appointment of Walt Rostow in the spring of 1966, Moyers made his bid. James Thomson says: “As the hiatus went on, no one had the guts to call a meeting of the National Security Council staff, because that would have been the key.
“Finally one day someone did call a staff meeting. It was called for noon, and it was called by Bill Moyers. This meant to me that he was about to get the job, or that he was making his play.
“The meeting began. We were about four minutes into it when Moyers was called away by the President. It was to announce that Rostow had got the job.”
Sharply aware that he had to escape the press-secretary trap if he hoped to survive in the White House, Moyers made another bid, this time for the position George Ball was giving up as Undersecretary of State. Here the odds were all against him. The symbolic demands of international diplomacy required that blue-bloods fill the position; Moyers’ abilities were not enough to offset his North Texas State Teachers College background. But such were his efforts that when it came time to fill the position, Johnson had to bring in invincible armor— Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach, Princeton, Oxford, Yale, upper-crust, Attorney General—to hold Moyers out.
So as 1966 wore on, conditions were deteriorating on every front for Moyers. He had become, in Johnson’s eyes, not only “Mr. Stop the Bombing,” but also the boy who kept trying to -weasel out of the job Johnson wanted him to do. The press was now and then losing its patience with Moyers, and Johnson’s exasperation was even more frequent. What has frequently been described as a fatherson relationship between Moyers and Johnson began disintegrating as Johnson expressed his disappointment and Moyers his independence.
Finally one other element tipped the balance. Moyers had an older brother, James, a man uniformly described as “pleasant” and “nice,” though lacking Bill’s obvious talents. James had worked for the Freeport Sulfur Company since 1953, and by 1965 he was an advertising manager. In September of that year Bill arranged for him to come to the White House, a move which cost him pension rights at Freeport. One year later, at age 39, James killed himself, and Bill felt immediately responsible for support of James’ wife and two daughters. Money suddenly assumed new importance for him. He announced in December, 1966, that he would leave his $30,000 job at the White House for Newsday, where he would reportedly earn three times as much and where he was presumptive heir to Captain Guggenheim’s operations.
For two proud men who had been as father and son, it was a cruel separation, with many pained feelings on each side. Soon afterwards, Johnson began talking about “the day I fired that boy Moyers,” and even in his four years of retirement on the ranch would not consider a reconciliation. Moyers showed his loyalty in his own way, turning down the many offers to write about Johnson and resigning quietly, not in a great burst of principled objection and denunciation. Johnson did not make a point of deriding Moyers in public, although his book, The Vantage Point, mentions Moyers only seven times, compared to 80 for McNamara, 34 for Hubert Humphrey, and 18 for Arthur Goldberg. Only one of the mentions is remotely flattering, and three certify that Moyers was present and acquiescent when controversial military decisions were made.
Doris Kearns, a White House Fellow who filled part of the void left by Moyers, says that in his years at the ranch, Johnson was bitter toward Moyers, but even more was he hurt: “He just couldn’t talk about Bill in the same jaunty tone he would use to denounce other people. He could scream about Eric Goldman with enthusiasm and invective, but he had such feeling and trust and caring for Bill that it was different when he spoke of him. He would talk about Bill as you would talk about a really good person who had fallen into evil hands. He believed that the Kennedys had sucked Bill away. He couldn’t understand that other people might have their own interests and ambitions, and that it wasn’t tantamount to disloyalty to Lyndon Johnson to leave.”
In leaving Johnson, Moyers did not free, himself of patrons, for he went to Newsday under the wing of Captain Guggenheim. The Captain was a deeply conservative man (he supported Goldwater and the Long Island Republican machine), and at age 76 he was anxious to find a trustworthy heir to take over the paper. That Moyers, Lyndon Johnson’s boy and proponent of the Great Society, would seem to Guggenheim a fitting candidate is testimony to Moyers’ great ability to persuade others, especially patrons, that he was trustworthy, sympathetic, exactly the kind of person they were looking for. Almost never was this by calculation or dissimulation, but rather by Moyers’ natural intuition about people and his gifts as a personal diplomat. Captain Guggenheim was hell-bent for victory in Vietnam at the time, and he may have thought that the President’s right hand man would be, too. It is easy to imagine Moyers warning him, saying that his views were not exactly the same as the President’s on all points and that he would have to be free to run an independent paper and call his shots as he saw them; it is easy to imagine, too, that Guggenheim would hear all this but never quite understand that someone he liked as much as Bill would seriously disagree with him.
Guggenheim was almost never at the office, spending his time instead in Florida or at his beloved horse stables, and Moyers had a free hand in the daily operations. Despite Guggenheim’s own philosophy, Newsday had traditionally been a solid local paper of liberal inclination. As long as his wife, Alicia Patterson, was alive, Guggenheim confined himself to the business side of the paper and left the editorial policy to her. When the paper endorsed Adlai Stevenson for President, Captain Guggenheim wrote a separate signed column supporting Eisenhower. After Alicia Patterson’s death in the early ’60s, Guggenheim assumed general control, but the paper did not change as much as the difference in their political outlooks might suggest.
The most important change in Newsday‘s orientation did not occur until just about the time Moyers was hired. It was a change dictated by the paper’s changing audience. Long Island was less and less an outpost of Manhattan, and increasingly a selfcontained region. “We have five times the circulation of the Times out here,” said Paul Laventhol, the paper’s managing editor. “Moyers sensed that Newsday‘s horizons had to widen. We’d do a story on the Congo instead of leaving it to the Times. We were a primary paper just like a paper in St. Louis would be.” Moyers added reporters to cover the stories that had previously been left to The New York Times, and he encouraged a general overhaul of the paper’s format. He emphasized a livelier, more magazine-like approach to local coverage, and imported people like Laventhol, who earlier had created The Washington Post‘s “Style” section, to revamp the news page.
After Moyers had been there for two years, Newsday won two Pulitzers—one for an investigative series about corruption among local officials and the other for the work of a cartoonist Moyers had brought to the paper and personally encouraged.
He Needed to Have Gone to Harvard
Moyers made some enemies among the old-line editors he had to move out of the way, but hostility against him was no greater than would be expected for a man who was shaking up an organization. Far more serious were the troubles developing between Moyers and the Captain. Richard Nixon was a kind of hero to Guggenheim. When he saw the paper’s columnists and editorials knocking the President day after day, Guggenheim became convinced that Moyers was the dupe of radical “left-wingers” who were out to subvert the paper, if not the country as a whole. He was encouraged in this belief by the local Republican leaders, who had been the targets of Newsday exposes.
The situation took a turn for the worse when Guggenheim suffered the first of several strokes in 1969. His accusations became wilder against the “left-wingers” who were ruining the paper. The Captain knew he was dying of cancer, and when he finally realized that Moyers was not going to follow his orders and purge Newsday of left-wingers, he set about selling it to The Los Angeles Times. The final, sad irony, for both Moyers and the Captain, is that Guggenheim accomplished not a thing by selling Newsday and forcing Moyers out. He believed he was entrusting the paper to steady, square old Norman Chandler, reigning elder of The Los Angeles Times, but Chandler’s son Otis was actually the man in charge. Under the Times‘ ownership, most of the people Moyers hired are still there, and the changes he encouraged are being carried out.
Deprived of what had seemed a secure base, Moyers entered a period in which his old nemesis, the need for conventional respectability, rose again to dominate his judgment. Even in the government, where his power made up for several dozen Ivy League degrees, Moyers had been abashed by the traditional Eastern credentials. At the Peace Corps, he hired one assistant, Dick Nelson, for no apparent reason other than that he went to Princeton; another of his assistants, Blair Butterworth, was the son of an ambassador. In the White House, Nelson enticed Moyers into getting Princeton’s Eric Goldman hired as the in-house thinker, a move Lyndon Johnson, in one of his sublimely correct judgments, considered the biggest mistake of his presidency. The KatzenbachBall episode, of course, did little to build his confidence in his own non-pedigreed worth.
At Newsday he had the same problem. David Gelman, who came to Newsday under Moyers to run the editorial pages and who generally has the highest praise for him, says, “My only complaint about Bill was his attraction toward the mighty. When we were arguing editorial policy on the war, he was always susceptible to what `Henry’—Cabot Lodge—had told him the other day, because Henry had talked to him as an equal, and Bill was still somehow surprised to find himself in the company of the mighty. So he would tell us what Henry had said, or Averill, or Ellsworth Bunker. He could first-name them, and he was beguiled by that.”
Put Them All Together, They Spell Daddy
Those who doubt there is a vicious class system in this country need only consider the case of people like Moyers—more talented than 90 per cent of the graduates of Harvard and Princeton and Yale, wiser and more able than the habitues of the University Club of the great foundations, still they are boys from North Texas State, seized by genuine anguish at not having acquired the credentials in time, and often tempted to make themselves into something they are not.
For Moyers, the extreme point came in 1971, when Listening to America was published. He had had the wisdom and the sensitivity to write about common people and their opinions. Yet on the back cover of the book he stared out from a Fabian Bachrach photo, like a junior John J. McCloy. On the cover he identified himself, after all he had done, this way:
Bill Moyers, 36, is 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.
What could twist Bill Moyers into this embarrassing obeisance to meaningless credentials? This was the grotesque version of an attitude which had pushed him from patron to patron before—Cope, Shriver, Johnson, and Guggenheim. The Eastern Establishment was a type of patron, too. Put them all together, they spell Daddy—the Daddies Moyers turned to for advancement at each stage of his career. He was never a sycophant to these Daddies—indeed, he could have stayed longer with Lyndon Johnson if he had emulated Jack Valenti—but it was to the Daddies he always turned for help. Getting-it-from-Daddy, rather than striking out on his own to get if for himself, has affected not only where he’s ended up but also the means by which he got there.
For one thing, it meant that Moyers was playing to the boss, or potential bosses, rather than to his peers and subordinates. “I had perfect confidence that Bill would always protect me against a screwing,” said a man who worked with him in the Peace Corps. “But I had equally perfect confidence that he would never lift a finger to promote me, especially into a position I’d be very good at.” As a protector, Moyers was a genuine hero; after firing 17 people from one Peace Corps division he spent two days on the phone finding them all other jobs. Protection was important as a means of maintaining his base.
But promotion, a shove into the limelight—that was something else again. Those who worked with him most closely have generally disappeared from the public eye. One of Moyers’ assistants, Wilson McCarthy, left the Johnson-Moyers world after the 1964 campaign. He had been a campaign advance man and had run into troubles with one of Johnson’s secretaries. At a bon-voyage party, Moyers, a practical joker of great renown, gave him a picture of the President signed, “To Wilson McCarthy, who made one advance too many.” Since then McCarthy has not been heard from in public life. Another of his assistants, Hal Pachios, is quite a talented man, but his big “break” in working for Moyers has not exactly made his name a household word.
Hayes Redmon, the Air Force captain Moyers had lured from the Pentagon and who did so much in Moyers’ anti-war network, had a tragic end. It was a fast pace, working on Moyers’ staff, and in 1967, soon after Moyers had left the White House, Redmon had a heart attack. He was in his mid-thirties. He spent the summer recovering on Martha’s Vineyard, and then, as his reward, went right to work as assistant to another legendarily hard-driving taskmaster, Edwin Land of Polaroid. During the next five years, his health deteriorated, and in the fall of 1973 he had another heart attack and died.
Controlling the Story
Relying on Daddy can also produce an eagerness, like Henry Kissinger’s, to have a spotless public record and to avoid the kind of slugging-itout in public that is the cost of political careers like those of Kissinger’s and Moyers’ bosses, Nixon and Johnson. During the course of preparing this article, I developed enormous sympathy for those White House reporters who sensed that Moyers was somehow controlling their stories when he was in the White House. It was bad enough, from my point of view, that so many of Moyers’ present and former associates believe he will become President, because this encourages them to speak of him only in terms that would bring a blush to the cheeks of Louis XIV. In case anyone’s devotion had flagged, Moyers also managed to have lunch with nearly everyone I saw in the week or two before I met with them. On one memorable occasion an interview was interrupted because Moyers was on the phone calling the person I was trying to talk to.
Moyers himself could not have been a more cooperative or cordial subject for an interview, but while I was sitting in his living room watching him pat his children lovingly on the head and listening to him flatter my professional and personal conceits, I could not help suspecting that something was going on. A few days later Moyers called the editor of a magazine based in the town where I will live next year, a fine magazine in need of extra editors, and told him what a hot prospect I would be. I would love to think that it was purely my charm that made him so obliging, but the nagging doubt remains that he might have handled me differently if I had been interviewing him for a story on, say, the national debt.
I don’t mean to imply heavy-handed calculation on Moyers’ part; I’m sure that at least two parts good will, five parts subtlety, and nine parts intuition were involved in these gestures. But his reaction does suggest that Moyers has a thinner skin about public criticism than anyone this side of Kissinger. He may also have been affected by his experience on public TV, which has made him a figure of trust to many thousands of people. While Moyers has been free enough of the star syndrome to turn down the “Today Show” offer, he did come to enjoy the genteel celebrity public TV provides. One producer who has worked with him says, “There is something that happens to people who get on camera. You could see it happen to Bill. As the season went on he was on camera more and more. When he would tell you that a program `lacked substance,’ you knew what he really meant was that he wasn’t on camera enough.” What he got by being on camera was a personal constituency. His followers spoke up when he announced he was dropping his show, and the letters he’s received from them have obviously moved him. “They’re from people to a person, a real human personality,’ ” he wrote me, “and they talk about life and politics and the country in the warmest, most intimate terms, as one close friend confides in another.” It would be natural, with such a constituency, to do your best to keep looking pure.
The letter from which the preceding quote came was perhaps the most interesting of Moyers’ attempts to direct the story. On June 5, 1974, Moyers’ fortieth birthday, an eight-page, single-spaced letter arrived in this office. Its return address was Moyers’ home in Garden City. The signature at the end was “Spectre Pliny,” who said he was “writing on behalf of my friend Moyers, for whom I have long been amanuensis if not alter ego.”
The letter was a detailed rebuttal, philosophical rather than argumentative, to the questions and criticisms I had raised with Moyers—and those I had asked his friends. It showed a curious mixture of self-awareness and blindness about Moyers’ strengths and weaknesses, and is interesting because it does give at length Moyers’ own explanation for why he has not gone into politics: “My man doesn’t think politics is all that matters. That politics is everything and that politics is nothing are (in his judgment) two fatal illusions in our society. One illusion leads us to be consumed by it: men and institutions alike. . . . It leads some men to think the only way they can be useful is to hold office. But the democratic experience (and here I’m paraphrasing my boss) can’t be confined to politics. It is not only elected legislatures and governments, the secret ballot and conventions. Its fabric is far more complex (hike up your pants, we’re getting deep). 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. . . .
“Somehow, he feels, the gap between the two illusions has to be bridged by romantics who are willing to whore after reality, or vice versa; he thinks these people are communicators (not journalists or transmitters, but communicators: people who can convey not only facts and information but symbols of meaning: values as well).
“That explains the real reason he hasn’t gone into politics. . . . He has discovered these past few years that he is part of a process that overflows politics and in our particular age may be the only place for people like him.”
Of course holding office is not the only way Bill Moyers could “be useful,” but his determination not to enter politics may reflect a larger consequence of relying on Daddy. The world of patrons and appointive office involves very different forms of ambition and failure than those a politician, or even a small businessman, encounters. The politician and the entrepreneur are people who must expose their ambition to the public. They are saying I want this office, and I want my project to succeed, and they must openly ask for support on those terms. In the appointive world, ambition is veiled and consists of living one’s life so that others will come with offers. The risks are also muted, at least when compared to the public spectacle of losing an election or investing oneself fully in a project and seeing it fail.
The point of this distinction is not to show that politicians are “braver” than their appointees—often they are simply less sensitive—nor to say that Moyers is somehow not living up to his potential by not running for office. Rather it is to suggest, in Moyers’ case, how reliance on the patrons can close off paths of activity that otherwise would seem natural. For one thing, confining your choices to the options others present postpones the time of figuring out what you want to do and be held responsible for. Moyers’ experience may also have affected his attitude toward defeat. He has suffered setbacks in the last dozen years—he would have preferred not to be press secretary, and he would have loved to stay at Newsday—but he’s never really lost. As each of his brief careers has ended, the next has been waiting right there to beckon him on. When he left the White House, Newsday was waiting, and when he was squeezed out there, Willie Morris encouraged him to write Listening to America. Other friends suggested public TV, and now that he’s given up the “Journal,” he is again a coveted prize, sought by many.
If you have started winning as early as Moyers and have never had a serious defeat, losing can become a more terrible prospect than it needs to be. If you haven’t been down you don’t know that down’s not so bad and that you can step up again. The chanciness of any run for office Moyers might make—he is estranged from his constituency in Texas, and the Democratic machine in New York State might not adopt him without considerable persuasion—seems to have deterred him before he has even tried. He stands a chance of joining that great tradition of the public figure waiting for the “draft” or the sure thing—Sargent Shriver, for example, who wouldn’t run for the governorship in Maryland in 1966 even though the coast was fairly clear on the Democratic side and the Republican candidate was named Agnew. He had his ear cocked for Richard Daley’s call “drafting” him to run for office in Illinois, but it never came. When Shriver finally was drafted in 1972, it was for the vice-presidential nomination just about the only nomination you can get by appointment. Moyers probably nurses fewer illusions about the possibilities of a “draft,” and so has decided to stay out of politics rather than run in risky circumstances.
Three of Moyers’ friends tell the same story about him. Two left government to set up their own businesses; the third was a free-lance writer who interviewed Moyers in the White House. To each of them Moyers said, “I envy you—it must be great being on your own.” Moyers’ television series was a step in this direction. Although it was sheltered by those soft institutions, the foundations and the public television bureaucracy, it did represent an attempt to lay himself on the line in a situation where he couldn’t blame the President or the Captain when things went wrong. One almost wishes the show had been panned, so that Moyers could have gotten out of bed the next morning, seen that the world was still there, and realized he could set out on his own.