Bill Moyers, renowned journalist, author and television producer, drew a full house to Campbell Hall on Tuesday night as he conversed with award-winning Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye for a UCSB Arts & Lectures fundraiser.
In an interview-style presentation, Nye spoke with Moyers about his views on President Bush, comparisons between the Vietnam and wars in Iraq and his appreciation of poetry. Moyers also touched on how his career has influenced his view of American society. The discussion is Moyers’ first public appearance since retiring in December 2004 as host of his television program,”NOW,” which appeared on PBS.
Moyers said the war in Iraq compares to the Vietnam War because the Bush administration is making similar mistakes to those made by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-1960s. During the Johnson administration, Moyers served as a special assistant to the president.
“Like the White House today, we didn’t talk about how much the war would cost because, in the beginning, we weren’t sure,” Moyers said. “It wasn’t the price tag that hurt as much as it was the body count. We forget about the mothers and fathers on the other side.”
He also said serving under Johnson made him reconsider what the Constitution says about the declaration of war. Moyers said that under the U.S. Constitution, the government’s first priority is to defend its citizens – a priority that does not always justify the invasion of other countries.
“War may sometimes be a necessity, but to treat it as a sport is obscene,” he said.
Moyers said the one piece of advice he would give to Bush about the situation in Iraq would be to divide the country into three separate nations – the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunnis. He added that Bush has a narrow view of opposition groups.
“[Bush] doesn’t seem to exhibit the imagination to put himself on the other side of the American frame of reference,” Moyers said. “I struggle with this question, ‘How is it you can be well-loved, well-taught, well-churched and still be so unaware of the experiences of other people?'”
In addition to criticizing the current administration’s foreign policy, Moyers said the trend among many politicians to rely on ideologies – such as religious fundamentalism – would keep governments disconnected from their constituents, and is a threat to American democracy.
“The danger in America today is the coupling of theology and ideology,” Moyers said. “Theology asserts propositions that do not have to do with the improvement of truth. Ideology embraces a worldview that cannot be changed. Governments have married ideology and theology and have become immune to local discourse.”
Religious ideology can also be a barrier to communications between different nations, Moyers said. There is still an element of separation among certain peoples of the world, despite the growth of economic globalization.
“We are seeing a rise in the resurgence of tribalism that is manifested in religious fundamentalism,” Moyers said. “[The world doesn’t] have, at this point, a large spiritual or political or cultural leader who is speaking beyond the polarities of tribalists and globalization to try to peel through that universal human intuition.”
In discussing less politically charged subjects, Nye asked Moyers for his thoughts on poetry, since he and his wife, Judith, produce public readings every year. Moyers said poetry is the greatest outlet for the sensual, religious, erotic, intellectual and spiritual experiences in life, and that, although he has only written one poem in the course of his life, he greatly appreciates the art.
“Poetry is like going to church,” he said. “It is like finding a voice that says, ‘This, too, shall pass.'”
Moyers said his profession did not offer the same creative freedom that poetry could.
“As a journalist, you are not quite as much at liberty as the poet because you are supposed to be tethered to verification,” he said. “We’re supposed to offer evidence, and we’re supposed to have deep respect for the facts. You don’t speculate in public domain. The best journalists are cautious in that respect.”
After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Bill Moyers served two years as the deputy director of the Peace Corps under the Kennedy administration. Throughout his 30 years in the media industry, Moyers has received over 30 Emmy Awards and 10 Peabody Awards, and has held positions ranging from publisher of New York Newsday to senior analyst for “CBS Evening News.”
Nye, who lives in San Antonio, is the author of several books and was the recipient of the 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship. She is currently the poetry editor for the Texas Observer.