Bill Moyers and Our Call to Bear Witness in a Time of Crisis

At a time when we find ourselves in near-despair over a democratic process increasingly influenced by concentrated economic power, let us heed the visionaries in our midst who offer bold alternatives. From legendary writer/ecologist/farmer Wendell Berry to young fair-wage activist Saru Jayaraman, many of these crucial players are known to us thanks to the insightful interviews of television journalist Bill Moyers.

A legendary figure in his own right -- the most honored person in television news today -- no wonder Moyers was featured recently by New York public radio's Brian Lehrer, who told his listeners, "As Bill Moyers gets ready to turn 80(?!)... he is still on public television by popular demand." In particular Lehrer was struck by Moyers having said, "I'm angry with what's happening to our country. I'm angry with myself that I can't do more. I would be miserable if I couldn't bear witness."


"Bearing witness" is also the title of my current book project on Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, even as Bill Moyers cited these two prophetic figures from the 1960s in one of his own pieces. In the foreword to Scott Stossel's definitive biography of (Peace Corps and War on Poverty founder) Sargent Shriver, Moyers wrote that Shriver "is the radical I would like to have been if only I had met earlier his inner circle... Merton, Dorothy Day..." And in one more interesting intersection, I am currently writing an article on Bill Moyers, Sargent Shriver and their central roles in the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson (as we are coming up, in 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the Great Society in high gear.)

Such unanticipated but resonant links, as we experience them in life, bring to mind that famous exchange in Bill Moyers' blockbuster public television series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth: "Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden hands?" Moyers asked, with a slight hesitation in his voice, and Campbell, with the warmest of smiles, responded, "All the time."

So here we are, with a landmark journalist celebrating a landmark birthday today, June 5. This date is a landmark in a tragic sense as well, for on June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated shortly after winning the California primary.

Early the next morning RFK died, and Moyers told the Kennedys that he would anything -- run errands, staple papers -- anything to help. They asked him to do something much more important, as reflected in Ethel Kennedy's thank you note, which read, "Dear Bill: All of us were grateful to you for flying down to Washington and taking charge of all the details connected with the ceremonies surrounding Bobby's funeral in the Capitol." Robert Kennedy's widow added special thanks for Moyers' "support and assistance" with RFK "in his struggle against the war and for the poor," and she concluded with, "You have a most illustrious future ahead of you."

Bill Moyers bears witness, as in his latest show, which spotlighted"a new report by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz...[that] suggests that paying our fair share of taxes and cracking down on corporate tax dodgers could be a cure for inequality and a faltering economy."

Let us take a cue from Bill Moyers. In this time of crisis, let us all bear witness.