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Book Review: Moyers on Democracy by Bill Moyers

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Moyers on Democracy is a collection of speeches Bill Moyers has given over two decades—from 1987 to 2006—grouped together by subjects he believes, and likely many others would agree, are fundamental to preserving and maintaining a healthy democracy. They include religion, service, politics, and media; his biography reveals all are subjects of which he has first-hand knowledge.

Moyers is an ordained Baptist minister. He worked on then-Senator Lyndon Johnson’s 1960 U.S. Presidential campaign and also for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. Kennedy appointed him to help found the Peace Corps. After Kennedy’s assassination, he served as a special assistant to Johnson from 1963–1967, including time as White House Press Secretary. But he is likely best known for his work as a highly decorated journalist, mostly during his time at PBS, where he produced intriguing, thought-provoking series like Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers, and Genesis: A Living Conversation. His work has garnered top industry prizes, including more than 30 Emmys, nine Peabody awards, three George Polk Awards, and numerous lifetime achievement awards. He is also a best-selling author.

The book opens with the section, “The Ideal of Service.” Moyers speaks at the Peace Corps Twenty-fifth Anniversary Memorial Service as he is concerned “a generation of Americans is tempted to live undisturbed, buying tranquility on credits while hearts atrophy, quarantined from any great enthusiasm but private ambition.” Following is an excerpt from the 2006 Sol Feinstone Lecture to cadets at the United States Military Academy where he spoke of his misgivings about the Iraq War, concerned that the lessons of the Vietnam War have not been learned. He also pointed out some actions of “the cheerleaders for war in Washington” contradict their words and the tacit agreement between the country and its soldiers, revealing, “Not every politician who flatters you is your ally. Not everyone who believes that war is the wrong choice to some problems is your enemy.”

The book also contains eulogies and remembrances Moyers performed for people he knew, both famous and lesser known, who served the greater good: Fred W. Friendly was CBS News president and co-creator of Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now. Barbara Jordan had the distinction of being the first Black congresswoman from a Southern state (Texas). Lady Bird Johnson was the wife of President Johnson and she worked to beautify America's cities and highways. William Sloane Coffin, senior minister at New York’s Riverside Church, fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race.

Moyers honored Hubert H. Humphrey on the 50th anniversary of his 1948 Democratic National Convention where Humphrey risked his political career talking about race and the work of the National Security Archive that “has become indispensable to journalists, scholars, and citizens who believe the United States belongs to the people and not the government.” He responded to being awarded an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Charles E. Wilson Chalice Award from Religion in American Life, as well as a co-recipient in tandem with his wife and producing partner Judith of the Union Medal from the Union Theological Seminary and the first Frank E. Taplin Jr. Public Intellectual Award.

While some may argue with his positions as he leans left politically, Moyers on Democracy shows the power of words used in a long, sustained expression of ideas and conveyance as he expresses his perspective and perception of the United States. He also provides context and reflections to the reader, augmenting the experience by offering an introduction to each speech, which offsets not getting to hear Moyers give the speeches. 

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS