The great Bill Moyers story almost goes back to the beginning of his public career. After being one of the founding members of John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, he served Lyndon Johnson -- the Kennedy successor so tragically necessary -- as both senior White House assistant and, eventually, press secretary.
In the employ of the magisterially profane LBJ, Moyers was the resident Man of God, the true believer from Texas who was the one called on to lead morning prayers, say grace and do general divine beseechment duty for a president actively engaged in the most bruising possible secularism.
The classic Moyers/LBJ story had the underling leading the White House staff in prayer. "Speak up, Bill," barked the president from the back of the room. "We can't hear you back here."
"I wasn't talking to you, sir," replied Moyers, and then resumed praying for divine grace to be bestowed on a Vietnam-escalating White House that sorely needed it. Is it any wonder that LBJ loved his fellow Texan -- the one who had his own homey believer's way of speaking truth to power?
But that, in a nutshell, has been Moyers' problem. He has spent his entire public life as a well-remunerated, high-profile and well-respected member of America's liberal establishment. He was the publisher (not the editor) of Newsweek, a CBS News commentator and a star of public television, that center of American public thought considered so responsible in post-"Saturday Night Live" America that it might as well have been out on the margins.
And that's because, in a sense, that's where PBS has come to be -- on the margins, far from the action, which is where the jokers, bloviators and jugglers of jibber jabber are.
I have, in truth, spent far too much of my life avoiding PBS, much the same way prep school students might avoid the school's headmaster or neighbors might avoid the clergyman who lives two doors down.
I well know, of course, about Moyers' best-selling book with Joseph Campbell, "The Power of Myth," which was something of a phenomenon in its time, but I could never bring myself to follow the intellectual hungers and searches of this sadly marginalized establishmentarian in either book form or on PBS.
Here, in fact, in a truly extraordinary book of conversations, is what we all missed by not watching "Bill Moyers' Journal" between 2007 and the show's demise in April 2010 -- the era straddling the liberal and intellectual impotence of the George W. Bush years and the skeptical liberal optimism of the Obama years. It turns out to be, I think, one of the year's great books.
No, you're not going to find Moyers engaged in a colloquy with, say, Noam Chomsky at one political pole or Rush Limbaugh and one of his dittoheads on the other. What you find, though, are some of the most interesting minds in America -- everybody from poets (Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin) to scientists (Edward O. Wilson) to radical historians (Howard Zinn) to TV satirists (Jon Stewart) and TV creators (David Simon, of "Homicide," "The Wire" and "Treme" fame.) And you will find Moyers, with almost unerring perspicacity backed by research, asking so many of the right questions and finding the mother lode of terror and wisdom about the current state of America and the world.
Believe me, the blurbs on this book's cover give precious little sense of what an eloquent and frequently bone-rattling 500-page residence in a think tank this book turns out to be. The front blurb is by NBC's anchor Brian Williams: "Bill Moyers has been and remains an essential voice in our national conversation," which is eminently suitable for describing someone in the back of the room who doesn't realize that the needle in his arm is sluicing with embalming fluid. On the back, the brilliant and witty but effectively marginalized Neal Gabler, quite eloquently, says, "While everyone else in the media has been exploring topography, Moyers has been exploring geology." The final blurb is from Michael Copps, an FCC commissioner I never heard of and, my guess, you never heard of either.
You'd be hard put to find a less prepossessing blurb collection on a book dustflap.
Gabler, though, couldn't be more right. In Moyers' Think Tank between covers, we are given the uncut macro-view -- full of anxiety, dismay, even horror along with hope -- with little "micro" to distract from what we most need to know. You're getting incredibly cogent thinkers of vastly different kidney telling us things we'd all better start thinking about PDQ.
David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and wildly controversial creator of "The Wire" and "Treme," calls capitalism without "a shared purpose" and benefits for everyone a "pyramid scheme. Who's standing on top of whose throat? We're in an era where we don't need as much mass labor; we are not a manufacturing base. People who built stuff, their lives had some meaning and value because the factories were open. You don't need them anymore. Unions and working people are completely abandoned by this economic culture."
When Moyers, with intended flattery, tells Simon he's sometimes called "the angriest man in television," Simon snaps back, "It doesn't really mean much. The second angriest guy is, you know, by a kidney-shaped pool screaming into his cell phone because his DVD points aren't enough."
Sam Tenenhaus -- editor of the New York Times Book Review and historian of conservatism -- says that the American conservatism we see now is "revanchism," from the French word for revenge. It's a "politics of vengeance," a "politics based on the idea that America has been taken away from its true owners and they have to restore and reclaim it. They have to conquer the territory that's been taken away from them 'Give it back to us.'" It is, he says "accusatory protest," not conservative at all but radical. "They have many mouths, Bill, but they don't have many ears."
Biologist Edward O. Wilson has the most chilling God's-eye-view of all. "If we do not abate the various changes we're causing -- climate, habitat destruction, the continuing pollution of river systems and so on -- we will, by the end of the (21st) century, lose or have right at the brink of extinction about half of the plants and animals in the world, certainly on the land." A few pages later, Jane Goodall matter-of-factly reports that at the turn of the 20th century, there were 2 million chimpanzees in the world. By 1986, there were 400,000. "We're destroying the cradles in which new species are born."
Political theorist Benjamin Barber explains, "Things are flying off the shelves that we don't want or need or even understand what they are but we go on buying them." He calls it "push capitalism" -- not developing what there's a need for but "it's supply side. They've got to sell all this stuff and they have to figure out how to get us to want it. So they take adults and they infantilize them. Dumb them down. They get us to want things."
And then along comes Moyers to smarten them up again -- to mature a world whose infantilism is increasingly tethered to destruction, self-destruction and otherwise. He gives us a book for those who might prefer understanding things to wanting them.
When his very cultural and political centrality took him out to the margins, Moyers became more important than he'd ever been.
Which is what he is now.
Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.
BILL MOYERS' JOURNAL: The Conversation Continues
By Bill Moyers, edited by Michael Winship
The New Press592 pages, $29.95