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Robert Severi/PBS

'It all fit together'

Q&A | Religion, politics, and journalism have been part of a "crazy quilt life" that has made Bill Moyers a liberal icon

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

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?

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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.

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