WORLD is beginning a series of interviews with individuals who have had remarkable careers and are still active and passionate about their callings. Our first is excerpted from a January discussion with Bill Moyers, 74, who during the 1960s served as White House press secretary in the Johnson administration. He hosted the PBS news program Bill Moyers Journal during the 1970s and was a CBS editor and analyst from 1976 through 1986. Over the past two decades the courtly correspondent has produced and hosted several PBS series. He has received over 30 Emmys.
Moyers is known for his liberalism but also his marital traditionalism: Married at age 20, he and his wife Judith celebrated their 54th anniversary last December. They have three children and five grandchildren. Moyers is a graduate of the University of Texas and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. As the last question shows, he believes that an individual's Christianity is based on what he does, rather than what Jesus has done.
Q: How did you get into politics at the age of 20?
It was 1954, the year of [Senator Joseph] McCarthy. I didn't know anything about him, but I came to see what a threat many people saw him as to civil liberty. I thought, "What's the best way to learn about politics?" So I sat down and wrote LBJ a letter-it's in the LBJ library because he prized it so much-a letter saying, "I want to be a political journalist. I can come to Washington and you can teach me about politics, and I can teach you about young people in Texas." This was very presumptuous; I was full of myself in many ways. He was up for reelection, so this was my wedge, to tell him something about his constituents in Texas. But I worked on that letter, and it made its way to his desk. Lyndon Johnson later, when he was president, said that the key to politics is shaking hands and licking stamps, because he believed in communicating to his constituents. We didn't have internet in those days, and communication was all by letter-and he liked my letter. It got his attention. To this day, I say young people who are interested in a job or advice from me should write a letter. Don't send an email. The thought you put into a letter tells me more than anything else about you. So, LBJ called me and I went to work for him that summer.
Q: What happened that summer?
It was a traumatic summer. One Sunday afternoon, I was writing letters for the Senate and I heard a report, maybe like a car backfiring. I didn't pay much attention because I was right on Constitution Avenue, across from the Capitol in the Senate office building. Then I heard scurrying outside. I opened the door and saw policemen hurrying upstairs, and I learned that Senator [Lester] Hunt had killed himself right above me. I watched them bring his body out, and learned later that he had killed himself because his son was about to be outed as a homosexual, and he didn't think he could stand the shame. I thought about that for a long time. New McCarthy hearings took place near my office and I went down and watched them. I became disillusioned with politics that summer. I thought no one could go to Washington and have any influence, so I went back to Texas and decided to go to seminary.
Q: What did you come to realize there?
Although I wound up getting my master's in Divinity, I realized that I hadn't been called to preach, and I wound up back doing what I had originally wanted to do, in journalism. For a while I thought I had made a serious mistake, that I should have gone to law school instead of spending four and a half years in seminary. Later when I got back to Washington I realized, fortuitously or providentially, that had been exactly the right choice, because few of the issues I was wrestling with in Washington had to do with law and every one of them had to do with ethics and moral choices.
Q: How did you realize that you were not called to preach?
In those days at Southwestern you went out on Sundays and preached at real churches. And the reason I realized that I wasn't called to preach was the expression on those faces. They were the most good-hearted and kind people, but I realized that what I was saying was not connecting to their lives. I'll tell you the day I realized this was not what I could do: There were two elderly sisters who lived in an old Adams-like house with their brother. These two sisters came every time I was there, and after about a year they asked to see me. Over the course of a few hours they confessed to me that they were practicing incest with their brother. They were obviously in serious trouble. I talked to them as best I could-and it was at that moment I realized that the sermons I was trying to preach, the counseling I was trying to give, were dangerous, because I was not meeting the deep-felt experiential needs of these two women in their 70s at my church.
Q: Did you have any sense that you were called to journalism?
The other force in my life was a deep pull I felt toward journalism since I was 13. All of us have these conflicts and choices, and choosing them is usually a matter of intuition. If you're fortunate to hear what you think is a clear call of God, that's marvelous. I didn't have that. I was negotiating with myself and with my culture as to how I could best use my interests and my talents. And my intuition, my pull-it wasn't a call-won out. I'm glad it's won out, because I've had a long and interesting life. I think I did less harm to people than if I had stayed in the ministry.
Q: Were you able to deal as a journalist with the deep questions you faced as a preacher?
It is possible to be a sophisticated and learned journalist, an analyst, who studies the way a professor studies, or a psychologist studies, or a gymnast studies. I consider myself a student of the news. My job is to gather information, weigh it, make judgments about it-what's important, what's not important, what's less or more important-organize it, and then present it in a way that people who don't have the time to study the world can benefit from it. It's not a depth of knowledge as much as a skill of analysis that's important, and this is what the best journalists bring to what they do.
Q: Do you think the substance of journalism is getting better or worse?
I read six or seven papers a day, I spend two or three hours surfing on the web, I read seven to 10 magazines a week, 25 to 30 different magazines a month. A journalist is a little more than a citizen when it comes to being informed, but a citizen has to work today to stay informed. If you just read one paper or one website, you're going to wind up not understanding the world the way you should to function as a viable, capable citizen. The same is true of journalism: It's hard work. I start my day with Josh Marshall of Talking Points.com and end it with Jon Stewart, who usually gets closer to the truth than many established news sources because he can see the other side through humor. Sometimes I suffer from information fatigue, but it's what I do, and I can't imagine not doing it.
Q: And much of your journalistic work over the last two decades has involved religion.
I had had several careers. Finally, I settled on the one that provided me some satisfaction and contact with all of my loves: religion, which is about all of my loves, and about how we order our relation to the transcendent. Joseph Campbell, the anthropologist and mythologist, said something to me that has been very true in my life: He said, at any given moment there doesn't seem to be a pattern in your life, there doesn't seem to be a purpose in your life, but years later you will look back and see that one event folded into another. Almost every moment in life is a feeder-feeding into the person you are and are becoming. And it's why, particularly in journalism, you have no idea where you're going to wind up; but every moment is connected to the next one. I didn't see it. I had a crazy quilt life, and then all of a sudden, I look back and see how it all fit together.
Q: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth is your most famous PBS series. When you look at Christianity, where do you think fact ends and myth begins?
Well, it's faith, which begins where fact ends. . . . Faith is not based on fact-it is the story that we make up to help us understand where we come from. It's not a matter of fact or faith, it's fact plus faith.
Q: So would you say that the resurrection is a myth? What are the facts of Christianity?
When I was in seminary, these were big issues to me. They're not anymore, because I realized that if things were based on fact it would be a very disillusioning experience. You can't take the resurrection by fact-you have to take it on faith. You appropriate the story for what it means to you and what it says to you. . . . If it means something to you, that's very important.
Q: If you were a journalist employed by the Jerusalem Times sometime around a.d. 30, do you think you would actually be able to go out and see Jesus being crucified, or do you think that that's just a story that has spread without any factual basis?
I have a strong suspicion that He was crucified, but there's no empirical evidence about it.
Q: Paul writing some 20 years after the resurrection said that it happened, and that this is the basis of our belief. Do you believe that the resurrection actually happened, and if you don't, what is the basis of your faith?
Well, I've come a long way and I have a long story behind me. Growing up in a Southern Baptist church, and all these years since-my faith is based on my experience. This includes being taught to learn, thinking, reading the Bible critically from a historical and journalistic standpoint-I, like you, spend a lot of time reading my Bible-and it can't be justified by any of those measures. It is part of my story and is therefore a necessary part of my faith, but I wouldn't dare suggest it is essential to anybody's faith who doesn't have my experience.
Someone recently asked me what the moment was when I became a Christian. And I told them, I never did become a Christian. I can't turn the other cheek. I can't sell all my possessions and give them away. I can't love my enemy. I am not a Christian because I can't do what Jesus asks. But, I care deeply about that figure. He has instructed my faith; He looms large in my life. But I can't do what He asks me to do, so I can't legitimately claim to be a Christian.