Bill Moyers at UT: “The Heroism Keeps Coming”

Two days after Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was severely injured in a Tucson shooting, Bill Moyers—renowned journalist, former White House press secretary, and UT alum—found himself sitting in a radiology lab awaiting an MRI for a torn muscle. The only other person in the waiting room was a woman about his age. They made small talk and occasionally watched the muted TV tuned to a film filled with bloody car crashes and shootings.

At one point, the stranger asked Moyers whether he was optimistic about America. “Sometimes I sense that it’s sinking like a great ship and not many of us are going to make it off,” the woman said.

Struggling to answer, Moyers dodged the question until the technician called him. But since that day, Moyers said, he has regretted not answering her question.

Moyers wove this story throughout his lecture to a full house at the LBJ Library Auditorium Tuesday night, inaugurating the Tom Johnson Lectureship series.

Moyers studied journalism at UT and wrote for The Daily Texan. He served as President Lyndon Johnson’s special assistant from 1963–1967, including two years as press secretary.

“I’d like to give the stranger in the waiting room a more considered reply, and Tom [Johnson] has given me the chance this evening. This is what I would say: I am an optimist because human beings are capable of selfless action and goodness toward others,” Moyers said.

He shared a story he says he hasn’t been able to forget from the January floods in Australia. When a rescuer made his way to a woman and her two young sons trapped in their car, the older son said, “If you can only save one of us, save my brother first.”

The rescuer pulled the younger brother to safety, and when he returned to the car, it had been swept away.

“The astonishing thing to me is that the heroism keeps coming,” Moyers said. “Something deep and indomitable in human beings finds its expression in the illogical, confounding, and inexplicable cry ‘save my brother first.’”

Moyers said this is what he would have said to the woman in the waiting room, but he also would have told her that he is no longer sure whether his optimism is justified.

“Our political system today is organized to stifle, not nurture, our best instincts. Instead of encouraging this tendency for selfless cooperation, our politics and economy are all about winner-take-all. America is dividing into winners and losers, with little sympathy for the losers,” Moyers said.

“So what, finally, would I tell that stranger in the waiting room who feared that the great ship of fate was heading for the iceberg?” Moyers concluded. “America can no more survive as half democracy and half oligarchy than it can survive half slave and half free. Keeping it from becoming all oligarchy is steady work and it’s paramount. I’d tell her, urge her, petition her, plead with her to join the chase.”

LBJ Library photo by Dirck Halstead


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