The Texas Observer at 50
Bill Moyers speech, November 21,
The 50th anniversary of The Texas Observer
is a double celebration for me. Your first issue appeared one
week before Judith Davidson and I were married in December 1954.
We had transferred here to the University of Texas as juniors
and were renting a garage apartment that has now totally disappeared
along with the block on which it stood.
So many landmarks of our lives have disappeared
that it's a joy to come back to Austin and find one that stubbornly
and gamely remains true to its mission. Although many people would
wish The Texas Observer had also been buried under the rubble
of time, a good idea is as hard to kill as a good marriage. And
this little newspaper was a good idea.
As Ronnie Dugger reminds us in his epilogue
to Fifty Years of The Texas Observer , there was silence in Texas
in those days about racism, poverty and corporate power. The state
ranked dead last among major states and next-to-last in the South
in education, health care, and programs for the poor. "We
were as racist, segregated, and anti-union as the Deep South from
which most of our Anglo pioneers had emerged," Dugger writes.
"Mexican Americans were a hopeless underclass concentrated
in South Texas. Women could vote and did the dog work in the political
campaigns, but they were also ladies to be protected, above all
from power. Gays and lesbians were as objectionable as Communists.
And the daily newspapers were as reactionary and dishonest a cynical
gang as the First Amendment ever took the rap for."
Into that atmosphere rode a band of journalists
determined to poke a thumb in the eye of orthodoxy. Dugger summed
up their mission in his lead editorial in that very first issue:
We will have a good time and we hope you
do. We will twit the self-important and honor the truly important.
We will lay the bark to the dignity of any public man any time
we see fit. Telling the whole truth is not an exercise to be limited
to children before they reach the age of reason. It is the indispensable
requirement for an effective democracy. If the press and the politicians
lie to the people, or hide those parts of the truth which trouble
the conscience or offend a friend, how can the people's falsely-based
decisions be trusted? Here in the Southwest there is room for
a great truth-telling newspaper, its editor free, its editorials
cast in a liberal and reasonable frame of mind, its dedication
Thoreau's 'The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth.
I wish I had written those words. I wish
that I had served them all my days as Ronnie Dugger has. But at
the time I wasn't even thinking such thoughts. Back then I was
still in the elementary grade school of journalism. I had transferred
to the University for one simple reason: LBJ offered me a job
on Lady Bird's station paying $100 a week, and that meant Judith
and I could afford to get married. KTBC was the first in Texas
to buy a station wagon, paint it red, and christen it-what else?-Red
Rover. Charlton Heston churning a backlot in Hollywood in pursuit
of Rome's glories never had more fun than I did in that four-wheeled
chariot, careening around Austin in style, broadcasting from crime
scenes and accidents and the state legislature, which of course
was the biggest crime scene in town. My boss, Paul Bolton, the
crusty old news editor of KTBC, would look at the goings on in
the Texas House of Representatives and sigh: "If you think
these guys are bad, you should see their constituents."
No argument there. McCarthyism was a
raging plague in the 1950s and the virus rampaged across Texas
like tumbleweeds in a wind storm. The legendary Maury Maverick
Jr. was in the legislature at the time, one of the "Gashouse
Gang" that fought bravely against the poison of the era.
He said these were "the worst years" in his life. "The
lights were going out" and few voices were raised in protest.
The low point, said Maverick, came when the state Senate passed
a bill to remove all books from public libraries which "adversely"
reflected on American and Texas history, the family and religion.
Even the state teachers association endorsed the bill, in exchange
for a pay raise. Maverick voted against it, but walking back to
his apartment that evening he was suddenly overwhelmed by the
evil of what was happening, and he "vomited until flecks
of blood came up."
That was the lay of the land in the 1950s.
And Democrats were in charge, remember? That's right: Texas was
a one-party state; Republicans were as scarce in high office as
Democrats are today. No matter the players, one-party government
is a conspiracy in disguise.
In that rocky soil and toxic climate,
Frankie Randolph and Ronnie Dugger and a fistful of fellow dissenters
launched The Texas Observer . I wasn't among them. I had yet to
work myself out beyond the cozy confinements of an insular East
Texas Baptist culture where you could be well loved, well churched
and well taught and still be unaware of the reality of other people's
lives. I belonged in those days to that category of journalists
described by George Bernard Shaw as "unable to distinguish
between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization."
So Judith and I graduated and left town.
The Texas Observer stayed: stayed to live out Dugger's dare to
tell the truth about the oligarchy that governed Texas. What kept
that original band of scribblers going remains a mystery to me.
For sure they made up in irreverence what they lacked in financial
security. At that very time, in faraway Washington,D.C., I.F.
Stone was also afflicting the comfortable. In his little I.F.
Stone's Weekly, he would pour through the government's own official
documents to catch the government's lies and contradictions. Amid
the thunder of his battle with Potomac dragons he boasted, "I
have so much fun I ought to be arrested." Here in Austin,
Dugger and friends were also just a laugh away from jail or bankruptcy.
It took me a long time to catch up-to
realize that what matters in journalism is not how close you are
to power but how close you are to the truth. I had gone on to
seminary, was catapulted into the Washington maelstrom, and then
wound up as publisher of Newsday in New York, where I started
to get my feet on the ground again.
Back at home, The Texas Observer was doing
what journalism does best: setting the record straight. This,
said the late Martha Gellhorn, is the reason we exist. Gellhorn
spent half a life observing war and politicians and journalists,
too. By the end she had lost her faith that journalism could,
by itself, change the world, but she had found a different sort
of comfort. "Victory and defeat are both passing moments,"
she said. "There is no end; there are only means. Journalism
is a means, and I now think that the act of keeping the record
straight is valuable in itself. Serious, careful, honest journalism
is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it
is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the
Honorable behavior is what this newspaper
was exhibiting here in Texas. The journalists who embodied it
included Ronnie Dugger, Willie Morris, Robert Sherrill, Larry
Goodwyn, Kaye Northcott, Jim Hightower, Geoffrey Rips, Lou Dubose,
Michael King, Nate Blakeslee and Molly Ivins (whose wit should
have prompted her arrest long ago. Who else makes us laugh so
hard even as we read about the betrayal of democracy?)
Then there were the writers whose creativity
and courage buoyed many an article and essay: J. Frank Dobie,
Roy Bedichek, Walter Prescott Webb, Bud Shrake, Garry Cartwright,
Larry King, Larry McMurtry, Bill Helmer, Billy Porterfield, Elroy
Bode, Amado Muro and Katherine Anne Porter, to name a few.
Just sample the legacy:
In these pages 40 years ago, Dugger called
on liberals to remember our commitment to personal liberty, personal
love, personal joy and pain. He urged us to listen to the critique
of big government-"It is big, it is impersonal, it is confused"
-and to be vigilant in the name of the lone individual: "We
must test our system, not by whether we get to the moon, but by
whether a man [or woman] can freely and fully express himself
here on earth; not by whether we are ahead in weapons, but by
whether we are ahead in real room to be free and aliveto be ourselves."
In 1960, Dugger wrote that Lyndon Johnson
"might be a great liberal president-might transcend his thin
education, his rural bias, his evident dislike of city-industrial
liberalism, his mottled record in civil rights and civil liberties,
his relative ignorance in foreign policy-might lead the nation
to great new public works and world service." This made LBJ
think a little more kindly toward "that fly in Austin that
keeps swimming in my soup," as he once described Dugger &
Company. But it was also the fiercely independent Dugger who,
six years later, challenged the escalation of the war in Vietnam
and cried out against bombing "the men, women, and children
in Hanoi" in order to force our will on them. The president,
he wrote, "has already scarred his place in history"
by bringing to the war "a West Texan's simplistic frontier
ideas about man-to-man relationships and how to behave in a fight
with the enemy."
Some things never change.
In these pages, Lou Dubose predicted early
on what would happen when the chickens of Reaganomics and (Phil)
Grammonomics came home to roost, Robert Sherrill anticipated the
rapacity of corporate greed in a new Gilded Age, and James Ridgeway
imagined a perversion of populism that could serve multinational
corporations even as they moved their operations offshore to exploit
poor countries for cheap labor and raw materials, costing American
workers their jobs.
In these pages, Larry Goodwyn ruminated
on the difference between "a politics of the present"
and "a politics of the future," urging liberals to think
hard about whether their strategy meant a winning coalition 10
years down the road. Would the election next spring, say, of a
"given liberal candidate in Dallas have any real meaning
in altering the caste system under which the people of Dallas
live?" The headline above that essay read: "Caste and
Righteousness." It was a startling headline at the time,
and it still fits today, alas. As The Texas Observer continues
to remind us, Texas in 2005 is run by the rich and the righteous,
producing a state of piracy and piety that even the medieval papacy
Consider the scene just a few weeks ago
when your Gov. Perry, surrounded by cheering God-folk, showed
up at a pep rally in Fort Worth for yet another cleverly staged
bashing of gay people, contrived to keep the pious signed on for
the culture war so they won't know they are losing the class war
waged against them in Austin by the governor and his rich corporate
patrons. The main speaker was none other than the Rev. Rod Parsley
of Ohio. Keep your eyes on Rev. Parsley. He is the new incarnation
of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, that devout duo who channeled
Elmer Gantry into a new political religion driven by an obsession
to punish people on account of sex. Parsley runs a multimillion-dollar-a-year
televangelism ministry based in Columbus, Ohio, with access worldwide
to 400 TV stations and cable affiliates. He describes himself
as neither Republican nor Democrat but a "Christo-crat"
-a gladiator for God marching against "the very hordes of
hell in our society." But he shows up with so many Republicans
that he has been publicly described as the party's "spiritual
The "advice" he offers is the
same old stuff peddled by Robertson and Falwell in their own rise
to the top of the dung heap of religious bigotry and bile. Parsley
demonizes other faiths ("The god of Islam and the god of
Christianity are not the same being") and rouses the partisan
faithful to fever pitch by tossing them the red meat of radical
disinformation: "The church in America is under oppression."
"The separation of church and state is a lie perpetrated
on Americans-especially on believers in Jesus Christ." So
intense is his scapegoating of gays that one cannot help but think
of the 1930s when the powerful and the pious in Germany demonized
Jews and homosexuals in order to arouse and manipulate public
passions. Watching the two of them together, you have to wonder
if Gov. Perry and Rev. Parsley have ever read a history book detailing
how Heinrich Himmler organized a special section of the Gestapo
to deal with homosexuality and abortion, exhorting his country
to remember that "Germany's forebears knew what to do with
homosexuals. They drowned them in bags." You want to believe
the governor and the preacher are surely ignorant of such horrors,
horrors you know they would never condone, but you want to grab
them by the lapels and shake them and tell them their loathing
of other people is the kindling of evil.
Ohio newspapers report that Parsley has
launched Reformation Ohio to bring "spiritual revival and
moral reformation" to the Buckeye state by using pastors
and their churches to register at least 400,000 new voters motivated
by "Bible-based values." It's a familiar agenda: deny
women freedom of conscience in the difficult personal choices
affecting pregnancy, discriminate against gay people who seek
the commitments of marriage, outlaw stem-cell research no matter
the lives it might save, and overturn a provision in the U.S.
tax code that prohibits non-profit churches from endorsing political
candidates. (At one recent rally, Parsley and former U.S. Sen.
Zell Miller delivered "fiery speeches" as more than
1,200 pastors were handed thousands of mail-in petitions to spread
among their congregations urging the Senate quickly to confirm
John Roberts to the Supreme Court.)
Rev. Parsley is a master of mass psychology.
He sees the church as a sleeping giant with the ability and the
anointing from God to transform America. At a rally in July he
proclaimed: "Let the Revolution begin!" And the congregation
answered: "Let the Revolution begin."
So what was it that brought Rev. Parsley
to Austin recently to meet with Gov. Perry? Both showed up for
a "Pastors' Policy Briefing" sponsored by the Texas
Restoration Project (not to be confused with Reformation Ohio,
unless you think of kissin' cousins). Once again the aim is to
sign up "Patriot Pastors" who will call on their congregations
to vote the Lord's will on Election Day. Also present in Austin
was Ohio's secretary of state, Ken Blackwell. You will remember
him as the overseer of the election process in Ohio last year
when a surge of conservative Christian voters narrowly carried
Bush to victory there. Yes, the same Ken Blackwell who had modestly
acknowledged that "God wanted him as secretary of state in
2004" because it was such a critical election. Now, apparently,
he has been divinely designated for higher office. One wonders
what Blackwell, Perry and Parsley were really talking about when
they got down on their knees here in Austin. We will never know,
because the praying and preaching and politicking were closed
to the press, as befits the stealth salvation they are plotting
Who paid to bring preachers from all over
the state to town for this politically religious camp meeting?
That, too, is a big secret. Two Texas oligarchs were spotted at
the closed-door sessions-James Leininger and Bo Pilgrim- and they
may have dropped something into the offering plate. But no one
will say who put up the half million shekels it cost to bring
the brethren to town and provide for them more than a few loaves
Some years ago the classicist scholar,
William Arrowsmith, writing in The Texas Observer, described the
"worst of Texas attitudes-the rock-bottom conviction, expressed
in stone throughout the state and in the hearts of politicians,
that what counts is always and only wealth, that everything is
for sale and can be bought." Including now the Faith of Our
Fathers, the Old Time Religion, the Rock of Ages. Right-wing religion
provides the political and corporate forces running America a
cloak of "moral values" with which to camouflage the
plunder of America. It is the Texas machine duplicated many times
over. For, as The Texas Observer once put it, "The men who
run the Lone Star State, through a tacit but powerful interlocking
directorate of politicians and corporation executives [joined
now by preachers] are perpetrating and perpetuating a monstrous
deception on the public" -namely, the illusion of self-government.
Everything President George W. Bush knows,
he learned here, as the product of a system rigged to assure the
political progeny needed to perpetuate itself with minimum interference
from the nuisances of liberal democracy. You remember liberal
democracy: the rule of law, the protection of individual and minority
rights, checks and balances against arbitrary power, an independent
press, the separation of church and state. As governor, Bush was
nurtured by the peculiar Texas blend of piety and privilege that
mocks those values. With the election of 2000, he and his cohorts
arrived in Washington like atheists taking over the Vatican; they
had come to run a government they don't believe in.
The results have been disastrous: reckless
tax cuts, a relentless assault on social services, monumental
debt, pre-emptive war, an exhausted military, booming corporate
welfare and corruption so deep and pervasive it has touched every
facet of American government.
Much has been made of the president's
inept response to Hurricane Katrina. His early response was to
joke the fun he had as a frat boy in now-grieving New Orleans.
When a reporter pressed him on what had gone wrong after the hurricane
struck, he sarcastically asked: "Who says something went
wrong?" His attitude would surprise no one who read the 1999
profile of Bush by a conservative journalist who reported how
the then-governor had made fun of Karla Fay Tucker's appeals to
be spared the death penalty. The journalist-a conservative, remember
-wrote that Bush mocked and dismissed the woman, like him a born-again
Christian, as he depicted her begging him, "Please don't
kill me!" But this is not what she had said. Bush made it
Such contempt for other people's reality
is embedded in a philosophy hostile to government except as an
instrument of privilege and patronage. This is the crowd, remember,
that was asleep at the switch in the months leading up to 9/11
when the intelligence traffic crackled with warnings about terrorist
attacks (look it up in the official commission report). It's the
same crowd that made a mess of the occupation of Iraq-and then
awarded themselves Medals of Freedom for the wreckage they had
created. Their mentality was well summed up by Donald Rumsfeld,
who, after Baghdad's libraries and museums were sacked, shrugged
his shoulders and said, 'Stuff happens.'
Hurricane Katrina uncovered what the progressive
advocate Robert Borosage calls the "catastrophic conservatism"
of the long right-wing crusade to denigrate government, 'starve
the beast,' scorn its purposes and malign its officials. We are
seeing the results of an economic policy focused on top-end tax
cuts and deregulations to reward private investors, as opposed
to public investments in the country's vital infrastructure. On
the day that Katrina struck the coast, the census bureau reported
that last year, one million people had been added to the 36 million
Americans living in poverty. A few weeks earlier, the Labor Department
had reported that while incomes had grown impressively last year,
the gains had gone mostly to the top-the people with stocks and
bonds and income other than wages. But the 80 million people who
live paycheck to paycheck barely stayed even. It took a natural
disaster to expose the stunning inequality and poverty produced
when people are written off and shoved to the margins. And to
remind us, as Borosage writes, of the dearth of basic investment
in the boring but essential public works vital to civilization-schools,
public transport, water systems, public health, and yes, wetlands
We are seeing now the results of systemic
and spectacular corruption and cronyism and the triumph of a social
ideal-the "You get yours/I'll get mine" mentality-that
is diametrically opposed to the ethic of shared sacrifice and
Consider the story of the president's
buddy, Joe Allbaugh. When he was appointed head of the Federal
Emergency Management Administration-FEMA-he described the agency
as "an oversized entitlement program" and told states
and cities to rely instead on faith-based organizations. Not surprisingly,
the first in line at FEMA's front door in the aftermath of Katrina
was the televangelist and tycoon, Pat Robertson. Although he had
only recently called for the assassination of a foreign head of
state and had prayed in public for God to open some Supreme Court
vacancies "one way or the other," Pat Robertson's Operation
Blessing-sic-got one of the first faith-based grants for relief
work on the Gulf Coast. As a Christian magazine has now informed
us, Robertson used some of those tax dollars to help rush 80,000
Bibles to the stricken region.
Joe Allbaugh, meanwhile, was already on
the scene-but not as head of FEMA. He had returned to "private
life," as the term is laughingly used among Washington lobbyists.
Having failed to prepare his agency to cope with disaster, he
carefully prepared himself to exploit disaster when it strikes.
It had not escaped him that the invasion of Iraq opened splendid
opportunities for gain among the well-connected of Washington
who ha cheered it on. Setting up a lobbying firm near the White
House, he was soon facilitating business for contractors in Iraq
and running another company that provides security for private
companies operating there. Allbaugh house his entire complex at
the Washington lobbying and law firm of Barbour, Griffith and
Rogers. The 'Barbour' in that lineup is none other that the former
chair of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour. The
'Rogers' is Ed Rogers, Barbour's partner, who is also-hold your
breath-one of Allbaugh's vice presidents. Haley Barbour, having
enriched himself as an influence peddler, went back to Mississippi
and ran for governor, which means he is playing a big hand in
passing out your tax dollars for reconstruction. Lo and behold,
on September 1, the Pentagon announced a major contract for repair
of Naval facilities on the Gulf Coast to Halliburton, whose chief
lobbyist is Joe Allbaugh. What a lucky coincidence. Or as Shakespeare
might put it: 'Merit doth much, but fortune more."
This is what you get from people who don't
believe in government except to aggrandize their own privilege.
It wasn't the lack of resources that prevented the administration
from responding effectively to the disaster. The Washington Post's
Bill Arkin, among others, reminds us that the federal government
had water, medicine, food and security at hand, in addition to
the transportation needed to get it down to the coast in a hurry.
The problem was "leadership, decisiveness, foresight."
And this goes to the core of the radical right's atheist-in-the-Vatican
philosophy: Denounce the government you now run, defang its powers
and dilute its responsibilities, and direct the spoils of victory
to your cronies in the private sector.
This predatory convergence of corporate,
political and religious power has taken the notion of our commonwealth
-the 'We the People' in that magnificent preamble to the Constitution-and
soaked it in the sanctimony of homegrown Ayatollahs, squeezed
it through a rigged market, and then auctioned it to the highest
bidder for private advantage, at the expense of working people,
their families and their communities.
When the right-wing apostle of no government,
Grover ("Starve the beast") Norquist appeared on my
broadcast last year, I told him that I regretted having announced
my retirement. With the corporate, political and religious right
now exercising a one-party monopoly over Washington, I said, we
are going to see such a spectacle of corruption that muckraking
journalism could yet produce a new Golden Age of investigative
Sure enough, not a day passes that I don't
wish we could clone The Texas Observer, plant it smack dab in
the center of the nation's capital, and loose the spirit of Thomas
Paine. Paine was the journalist of the American Revolution whose
pen shook the powerful and propertied, challenged the pretensions
of the pious and privileged, and exposed the sunshine patriots
who turned against the revolutionary ideals of freedom, equality
and justice. That spirit permeates The Texas Observer . Thanks
to your Nate Blakeslee, the wrongly accused in Tulia are finally
out of jail. Thanks to your Jake Bernstein and David Mann, "The
Rise of the Machine"- the stunning account of modern political
corruption in Texas that is the basis of Tom DeLay's power-has
begun to topple the dominoes. Just imagine how such fearless journalism
in Washington today could probe deep into the political machinations
behind our nation's shocking inequality, expose the corruption
of our public life, and reveal to Americans just how the regime
in power is hollowing out the middle class, punishing working
people and shackling future generations to runaway debt.
I read The Texas Observer and am reminded
of the Irishman who comes upon a street brawl and asks, "Is
this a private fight, or can anyone get in it?" You never
let us forget that democracy is a public fight. For half a century
now, you have covered that fight like no other journalists in
the state. From Marshall in East Texas to El Paso in the far west,
from Dallas to Corpus Christi, from Bastrop County to Deaf Smith
County, you have reported on the men and women who struggle against
much larger forces-sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of
others, knowing that whether they succeed or not, they had to
make a fight of it, had to take a stand, if justice is to have
a chance in Texas.
So you richly deserve tonight's rousing
celebration of the difference a free press can make. I am honored
to be with you. But the evening will soon end, and just outside
those doors the fight is waiting for us. Good luck-and may the
dollars rain down on you from good folk far and wide, to make
possible another 50 years of independent, courageous journalism.