Looking for a leader who deserves America’s trust


Bill Moyers speaks with the kind of hard-to-derail commitment to the core truth that America has not heard since Edward R. Murrow.

Moyers’ audiences were squeezed some time ago by the ringleaders of today’s broadcasting circus, the ones in government and those in the aeries of corporate power that manage government in America today. But he is still at large, still making sense and reminding us where he can, more often in the country’s assembly halls, that the clock is running on the mossy old notion that government was intended to protect its people from the abuses of power.

Voices: Looking for a leader who deserves America’s trust

The country, in fact, may be one election away from going into the tank as a workable democracy whose moral beacon once was to give all of its citizens a chance to share in its prosperity.

They gave Moyers an award not long ago at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms ceremony. In his remarks he remembered his father, a small farmer who was flattened by the Great Depression. But he saved his family by working for two dollars a day on the highway in Oklahoma and didn’t make $100 a week until he joined the union on his last job.

Moyers remembered Franklin Delano Roosevelt talking to America over the radio every few months. He remembered his father listening, saw the bond of belief that grew in the man as he listened to the president of the country, explaining what America needed to do to begin lifting itself out of the nightmare of soup kitchens, desolate farms, massive unemployment and despair.

The farmer’s own gloom began to recede when he decided he was getting straight talk from the president of the United States. To an ocean-to-ocean public, at least to those with enough money to afford a radio, Roosevelt described a public works program to get the country moving again, putting people back to work. Henry Moyers, the farmer, was careful about how and to whom he gave friendship. But he told his family he’d found a friend, speaking to the country, who seemed to make sense and seemed to care.

Bill Moyers was a child in the middle of the Depression and couldn’t have heard more than a few of those broadcasts. I was a few years older, in grade school, and listened with my father, an ore miner. His response was Henry Moyers’ response. It didn’t matter that the upright Philco in the corner of our living room, a few miles from the Canadian border, was often assaulted by what sounded like a frontal attack of a dozen bumble bees, a phenomenon called static. But the message was clear: “We can work our way out of this.”

We can’t do it fearfully, Roosevelt was saying.

And why is this relevant today, when America has become the richest and most powerful country on earth?

It is relevant because some of the symptoms that provoked of the Depression are no different today from 80 years ago in the 1920s, when unregulated profiteering in the markets and in the stock exchanges combined with a global economic malaise plowed the country into paralysis.

Is this over the top melodrama instead of hard reality of where we are today.

Not in Moyers’s calculation. “There are 37 million people in this country who are poor; there are 57 million people who are near poor, making $20,000 to $40,000 a year…that’s one third of America still living on the edge,” one layoff, one foreclosure, one buyout away from a free fall into oblivion. His father got the picture in the 1930s, he said, when Roosevelt broke it down into language whose reality nobody could misunderstand. A small group of financiers, he said, “had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money and other people’s labor—other people’s lives.”

What’s so different about the first seven years of the 21st century?

Not all that much. Yes there is nominally more regulation, but it’s dodged every day, which never seems to offend the White House. Now we call the practicioners hedge funds, conglomerates, subprime mortgage lenders, military contractors, media moguls, off shore bankers and oil cartels. Today we go to war to protect some of their commercial empires. To do it the allocators bleed off money from the public treasury, and keep it hidden off the books. When political resistance develops to this massive theft and exploitation, the White House holds a press conference to say an attack on America may be imminent, flags fly and George Bush asks for more money to keep the turmoil spinning. Rupert Murdoch’s trained media robots blame the Democrats and Mexican immigrants; schools close for lack of money, which often winds up in the pockets of the contractors and off shore bankers; and millions of people in the world’s richest country can’t get health care because insurance companies wave the red flag of socialized medicine.

A lot of Americans buy that stale gruel because the public is relentlessly manipulated by political peddlers who make money convincing America that all of this is in the noblest frontier tradition of self-reliance and self-defense and may have been ordained by God, along with the Ten Commandments in city hall.

Iraq is not and shouldn’t be the biggest issue in the campaign. What is a bigger issue in America today is the corruption of the American idea of social fairness and equal opportunity, and the continuing spectacle of the nimble and the privileged and the politically-protected going into the pockets of the gullible and the vulnerable, some of whom are dying because they can’t get the hospital care they need.

One of the country’s leaders saw a picture like that 80 years ago and pulled the country into a new direction of conscience, prosperity and world leadership. You would hope that out of the round-the-clock sideshow of today’s television debate the public can find a leader with eyes as clear, a mind as creative and nerves as steady.

Maybe it’s time to begin looking and listening seriously.