Lyndon Johnson’s mother once told her son that the only way to amount to anything in Texas was to become a teacher, a preacher or a politician. Though Moral Majoritarians have been trampling the boundaries that used to distinguish those employments one from the other, no reasonable man, Rebekah Baines Johnson might have assumed, would try all three. Billy Don Moyers would have surprised her.
In truth, Moyers did not spend much time as teacher or preacher, and his politics was confined to appointive, not elected, office. When the time finally came to choose his life’s calling—at a stage when most of his contemporaries had few choices left—he decided on the dream of his childhood: to be a newsman like Edward R. Murrow. Though there is nothing in Moyers’ soft Texas twang to recall his idol’s electrifying growl, perhaps never has a television personality been better suited to walk comfortably in Murrow’s bronzed footsteps. Moyers’ professional style blends the folksiness of Charles Kuralt, the deceptive mildness of John Chancellor, Robert MacNeil’s doggedness in pursuit of an issue, and even the heart-on-his-sleeve conviction of a Geraldo Rivera. No one in the business can move as easily as Moyers between hard news and soft, or draw praise, as he does, from both New York’s leftist Village Voice and the ultraconservative Christian Alert.
Such broad acceptance, however, is not a reward for blandness. Last December, shortly after rejoining CBS, Moyers was tipped to some congressional flimflammery involving the public refinancing—at a cost of billions to U.S. taxpayers—of a privately built Alaskan natural gas pipeline. Seven days later he took over almost one-quarter of the network’s Evening News for a complex, naming-the-names ex-pose’ of influence peddling at the highest levels of Congress. Moyers signed off that evening in high moral dudgeon. “On this bill,” he declared, “the two-party system was not up for grabs—it was up for sale.” Though the House bill he was attacking passed anyway, Moyers was credited by Ralph Nader with swinging some 50 votes on the issue. He was unmoved by howls of protest from Congressmen that his report violated the network’s canons of even-handedness. Responded Moyers: “It’s one thing to be impartial and another to be indifferent.”
Moyers is more than a tenacious crusader. Last month his former employer, PBS, began showing Creativity, his 17-part paean to human ingenuity. Not only does the series explore the creative impulses of recognized artists like Maya Angelou, Pinchas Zukerman and John Huston, it delves with equal enthusiasm into subjects like the search for a better tomato and some unexpected uses of garbage. If there is a common thread that runs through both this kind of television and Moyers’ often hard-hitting CBS commentaries, it is a desire to impart to his viewers a sense of community. “Television is for people who care about the life of the mind and the life of the country and want to do something about it,” he says. “I want to produce television that engages the viewer instead of passively feeding him.”
Moyers started making his kind of television in 1971, when the PBS affiliate in New York asked him to anchor a news show called This Week. “It simply didn’t work,” he recalls. “I was getting better at it as we went along, but I knew that to make it work I needed to be in control, to be able to hire and fire. The program needed a personal touch.” He applied that lesson to his next PBS project, Bill Moyers’ Journal. For four years he prowled the country, reporting on subjects as diverse as income tax rebels and maritime pollution. He was rewarded with two Emmys and near-unanimous critical praise, but by 1976 PBS was facing one of its periodic financial crunches and Journal was feeling the squeeze. When Murrow’s old network offered him control of its prime-time CBS Reports documentaries, Moyers accepted.
At CBS, he discovered, money was plentiful but freedom was not. Not only was there resistance at the network to putting CBS Reports on the air, there was also occasional static from sponsors. In 1978 Moyers prepared one of the first documentaries to deal with the controversy over peddling Western-made baby formulas to Third World mothers. At a pre-air-date screening for network executives, he was ordered to tone it down slightly. “Congratulations,” Moyers said wryly. “You’ve just turned Jaws into Gums.” Though he made the changes, several advertisers complained even then that the report was too harsh.
Returning to PBS in 1978, Moyers revived his Journal, producing notable interviews with subjects including Rebecca West, George Steiner and Federal Judge Frank Johnson Jr. He also presented a sharp critique of the burgeoning evangelical movement and a program boldly advocating the right to abortion. But once again Moyers ran into a money crunch. By now corporate sponsors had gained in power—and after Journal ran three segments focusing on critics of big business, the show lost its angel, the Weyerhaeuser Co. Meanwhile, continued cutbacks in federal funding were drastically shrinking the PBS public affairs budget. Moyers began to fear that he would no longer be able to film on location.
Finally, last November, after almost 12 months of negotiations with all three commercial networks, he returned to CBS for a salary approaching $1 million. ABC’s Roone Arledge made a more lucrative offer, but CBS presented Bill with Eric Sevareid’s old role as Evening News commentator, plus an assignment to make documentaries. In addition, he was given the freedom to complete such non-network projects as Creativity, another PBS series with philosopher Mortimer Adler, and a cable series interpreting major events of the 20th century. It is, quite simply, one of the best deals ever offered a television journalist, but Moyers, 47, prefers not to talk about it in terms of his paycheck. “I spent years making very little money because I wanted to do what I wanted to do,” he says. “Now I make more than I ever expected to make, and I’m satisfied. Essentially, I came to CBS because that’s where my heart led. I knew I wouldn’t lose any time walking in here because I knew these people and they knew what I could do.”
Marriages were once less fragile than they are now, and Henry and Ruby Moyers’ has always been among the most durable. By 1937, when they moved from Oklahoma to Marshall, Texas (pop. then 18,000) with their sons, James, 10, and Billy Don, 3, they had already lost their livelihood as farmers in the Dust Bowl as well as three daughters in childbirth or infancy. In Marshall, Henry, now 77 and retired, became a traveling salesman, then a factory timekeeper, while Ruby worked as a salesclerk and is now a hospital aide. Whatever they lacked in material goods, they gave their sons in affection and upbringing. “My father never knew the difference between black and white except in color,” Moyers recalls, “and to this day I cannot remember his saying an ugly thing about anybody.” Marshall itself, says Bill, “was a wonderful place to be poor if you had to be poor. It was a genteel poverty in which people knew who you were and kind of looked after you. Status was important in Marshall, but more important was being part of the community.”
Moyers’ horizons, however, extended far beyond Marshall and Texas. Growing up, he was in awe of the broadcasts of Murrow, “this stout voice coming across the ocean night after night, describing the horrors of war. He brought history alive for me.” While in high school, Moyers worked as a cub reporter for the local News Messenger. Later he majored in journalism at North Texas State, and as a sophomore wrote to then Senator Lyndon Johnson, looking for a job in Washington that would educate him in politics. LBJ hired Moyers as a summer intern in Washington and persuaded him to transfer to the University of Texas, where he could work for Lady Bird’s Austin TV station. Although his $100-a-week pay allowed him to marry his North Texas State sweetheart, Judith Davidson, Moyers felt a sense of futility about politics and experienced a vocational change of heart. After graduating, he won a scholarship to study theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Returning to the U.S. in 1957, he received a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Seminary and pastored in small towns near Fort Worth. Eventually, though, Moyers found that his Baptist faith was insufficiently orthodox. “I knew I couldn’t be a preacher,” he says. “I thought that my talents lay elsewhere.”
Moyers then decided to study for a Ph.D. in philosophy while teaching journalism at Baylor. But LBJ was running for the Democratic presidential nomination and recruited his former intern as one of his aides. When Johnson was elected Vice-President, Moyers left his staff to help form the Peace Corps, of which he became deputy director in 1962. The assignment was well suited to his vision of politics as a means of influencing the world for the better. Then President Kennedy was killed, and LBJ wanted Moyers as his compliant right hand. As time went on, and the Vietnam War heated up, the relationship showed signs of strain. For one thing, Johnson resented the attention his aide received as his press secretary. “Johnson wanted me out front because I was clean,” Moyers recalls. “Yet the more I was out front, the more envious he was. When Art Buchwald wrote a column saying, ‘Isn’t it wonderful how Bill Moyers discovered Lyndon Johnson and made him a national figure?’ LBJ took that literally. He didn’t think it was funny. Also, I kept good ties with people who disagreed with his policies. He wanted me talking to Bobby and Ted Kennedy, and George McGovern and Bill Fulbright, but his suspicions grew that I was trading with his enemies.”
The break finally came in 1966 when Moyers’ brother, James, who had throat cancer, died of an overdose of medication. James left a widow and two children, and Bill, who planned to support them, asked to be relieved of his $30,000-a-year post at the White House. LBJ pleaded, cajoled and pulled every sentimental string at his command, but all to no avail. Johnson never spoke to Moyers again. Still, Moyers remembers him with respect and affection and scorns recent charges that LBJ took bribes as President. Though Johnson may have tunneled cash to political allies, Moyers concedes, “I don’t believe he ever took money for his own benefit.” Moyers has spurned big-money offers to write his own memoirs of the LBJ years. “That would make me a thief of his confidence,” he explains. “Johnson spent hours and hours with me in unguarded moments. He could not have done so had he ever thought I would write what he was saying.”
After the White House, Moyers signed on as publisher of Long Island’s Newsday. He revitalized the paper, which won two Pulitzers in only three years, but antagonized Harry Guggenheim, its crusty right-wing owner. When Guggenheim suffered a stroke and decided to sell, he pointedly ignored an offer by Moyers and several backers and accepted $5 million less from the Times-Mirror Co. Crushed, Moyers spent three months traveling around the country, writing about the experience in his first and only book, the critically acclaimed Listening to America. Then came the siren call to TV.
Today Bill and Judith still live in Garden City, N.Y., where they moved when he started at Newsday. “We were insane to get married when we were 19 and 20,” says Judith, laughing. “We’ve been lucky to come through some rocky times. Ours is not a storybook romance. But it is a good, realistic, contemporary marriage.” The Moyerses’ older son, Cope (named for publisher Millar Cope, Bill’s mentor at the Marshall News Messenger), 22, is working on his father’s series on the 20th century; Suzanne, 19, is a sophomore at Wake Forest; and John, 17, will be enrolling at Middlebury next fall. Judith herself is an unsilent partner in the Moyerses’ production company, serves on several corporate boards and is a trustee of the State University of New York. “Bill and I don’t play bridge, golf or tennis,” she says. “Our work has always been our play.” Once the family summered in Aspen; such diversion is a thing of the past. “The world dictates my schedule now,” says Moyers. “The news is like a locomotive that never stops.”