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Stamps and Spit

Television journalist Bill Moyers is a man of letters

By Gretchen Giles

It's not easy being a celebrity, even if the celebrity you possess is the hard-earned and well-respected dignity of journalist Bill Moyers. In Sonoma to bestow the reward of himself--"I'm the prize," he chuckles--on the community and on Readers' Books for winning last summer's nationwide poetry contest based on Moyers' Language of Life series, Moyers pressed more flesh than a politician in the final desperate weeks of a fourth-year October.

"This has been an experience of a very high order," says Moyers, seated comfortably alongside his wife and partner, Judith, in a back room of Readers' Books. "I was just very, very touched," he smiles, referring to the public lave of adoration that he and his wife had received the previous night at a private reception and poetry reading for boosters and volunteers of the 1995 Sonoma Valley Poetry Festival.

At a press conference the morning after the reception, the Moyerses talked with the charm of professional conversationalists about poetry, the mandate of television, Lyndon Johnson, and the importance of democracy.

"I said last night as I listened [to the poets] that poetry is at the heart of the democratic experience," Moyers said, characteristically templing his fingertips. "Because a poem is someone's own experience . . . and no one, no government, no corporation, no church, can own that. And it just hit me last night that democracy is much larger than government. We can't all participate in government--though we can all vote--but we can all participate in the culture of democracy, and poetry is the most democratic of the arts."

Democracy and interchange are two of the primary components of Moyers' brand of journalistic art. "Our philosophy is that public television has a mandate to engage the public in the ideas that we are producing television programs about," he says, looking to his wife.

"This is an effort to show that television is not a one-way street. It is not about us doing something for the people to watch. It is us collaborating with the viewers to try to create a dialogue about the subjects that we put forth."

His next collaborative subject is Genesis: A Living Conversation. To be aired in 10 segments next October, the series features Moyers speaking with writers, philosophers, religious leaders, and artists about each book of Genesis. "In the beginning," Moyers intones playfully, "there was sex, seduction, murder, and rivalry. It made a great book. Now it makes great television."

Part of what makes great television is Moyers' onscreen persona. Possessing a master's degree in divinity, he posits himself as a seeker, one who is vulnerable to experience. "I'm honestly not aware of what you call my vulnerability," he responds, when asked about this quality. Quoting the adage that a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, he continues, "I am aware of not being a cynic.

"Deep down I really believe that . . . what makes this country unique is the First Amendment, which gives us the right to climb up on the deck of the Titanic and grab the arm of the captain and say, 'That's an iceberg up there! You've got to turn the ship of state around before there's a collision.'

"That keeps me hopeful even though, as a journalist and as a father, I've seen my children stumble, and fall, and get up again, and I know that human beings trip, but I also know that human beings can get up . [I have an] awareness of the dark, depraved corners of the human heart that flower into the Holocaust, genocide, [and] the horrors of Liberia and Rwanda, but I also know that we're capable of the Gettysburg Address, Browning's sonnets, and the Washington Monument. I can never see the human stage lighted only one way.

"That's what I am; I'm just not aware that it comes out in my work."

This man, who veritably speaks in poetry, has an affinity for poets. In addition to the Language of Life, his 1989 series The Power of the Written Word was extensively devoted to those who wrangle with rhythm and meter. "I would say that the one overwhelming realization that struck me while doing those series is that poets may be the last people in our society who truly speak the truth. They aren't paid," he smiles, "so they have no commercial stake in deception. Politicians have a stake in deception because they're always trying to be exposed.

"All poets out there--without exception--are eager to speak from the heart," he continues, "irrespective of critical res-ponse, irrespective of any commercial value, and that may be the last sanctuary for the honest person. Of course, not all that they tell you is true. But they don't intend it to be a lie--it's true to them, and that's why it's so valuable to me as a journalist. When I pass it on to you, I'm conscious that I'm giving you something that's authentic, because with poets, I do not join the con game, like I do when I interview politicians."

Moyers, who has won some 30 Emmy awards, acted as deputy director for the Peace Corps, published Newsday magazine, and worked as the senior news analyst for CBS before forming the Public Access Television company with Judith, has some experience with politicians.

One of his first jobs was with Lyndon Baines Johnson, the man who hired Moyers sight unseen in 1954 after the then-college sophomore wrote the senator a letter suggesting that he could help with Johnson's appeal to the young people of Texas. "Lyndon Johnson felt that politics was 50 percent stamps and spit," Moyers smiles.

In the equivalent of placing Moyers in a room piled high with straw and telling him to spin gold, Johnson escorted Moyers upon his arrival to the basement of the Senate, where he directed the young man to address envelopes--175,000 envelopes.

Using a foot-treadle machine, Moyers spent the night in that basement pressing on addresses to Texan constituents. Johnson approved. "Because I was willing to do that," Moyers remembers, "he put me in his correspondence office." Office policy dictated that Moyers' initials appear at the bottom of each letter he penned, finally prompting LBJ to demand who the heck this BDM was that kept appearing at the end of his most important letters.

"He liked my letters; I guess it was my turn of phrase," Moyers says self-effacingly. He eventually worked for the president from 1963 to 1967 as Johnson's special assistant.

"Never underestimate the importance of representing yourself as someone who writes," Moyers says, getting to the moral of the story.

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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