05/18/2008 03:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

7 Days : Moyers and Democracy: He'd Rather Write Than Be President, w/ Huffington, vanden Heuvel & Green

There was lots of hard news this week -- West Virginia, John Edwards, appeasement, McCain's 2013 Space Odyssey -- but it was Bill Moyers who uttered some hard truths on 7 Days in America on Air America. (Listen to the show here.)

Moyers is, simply, a national treasure, a reminder that we redeem the promise of America more through the morality, humanity and insights of unelected visionaries than insider politicians. By his books, TV programs and essays -- this month stitched together into a new volume, Moyers on Democracy (Doubleday) -- he's a Sisyphus pushing his beloved country to higher ground.

In our interview, Moyers explains how he never was distracted by entreaties to run for president or any other office. No, his dream and achievement was to be a political journalist in general and a drum major for democracy in particular.

His book therefore explains how America needs less a laundry list of reforms after the Bush-Cheney junta leaves town but rather a new story to rebut Reagan's version about "the freedom of the rich to get richer." And the new story is -- Democracy.

He goes on to note both that "Democrats talk about a new direction without convincing us they know the difference between a weather vane and a compass" and that "the dilemma of democratic politics is how to translate Big Ideas into practical politics."

Ok, I ask him -- and our panel of Huffington and vanden Heuvel discuss -- what would he urge the 44th president to do if he had his/her ear next November? His answer was clear and quick: Cut the Gordian knot of money that's strangling our politics and policies. "There are no victimless crimes," he concludes, meaning that there are huge public costs when polluters, defense contractors and the Business Roundtable control environmental policies, armament policies and tax policies by their lush campaign contributions. In other words, nearly all other reforms depend on this primary reform, even if it's not part of the 2008 presidential campaign conversation. Why talk about democracy when you can be distracted by flag pins, Rev. Wright and appeasement?

As seen from the excerpt below and the audio, Moyers is not optimistic in the short term about accomplishing this fundamental change, comparing it to the anti-slavery struggle in the 1830s. His sober analysis has an historical basis. Recall how in 1993 there was a pro-reform Democratic president, Speaker and Majority Leader yet no campaign finance reform was enacted when congressional leaders convinced a young, new president to hold off.

So if the political stars are again in alignment in 2009 -- and there are again Democratic majorities for change in Washington -- what will be different? Now there's a public disgusted by the corruptions and crimes of the Republican crowd of the past eight years, as turnouts and polls indicate. And there are also real successes to build on, like the clean money election law in Arizona and the matching public funding system of New York City. Hence the Durbin bill in the Senate that seeks to implement the best approaches to ending the golden rule of politics -- he who has the gold, rules.

When politicians become more afraid of voters than donors -- and when a new Democratic president and Congress show the backbone and solidarity toward changing the money game that Bush-Hastert-Lott did in changing the tax code -- we'll be closer to the Story of Democracy that Bill Moyers has spent his life explaining and pursuing.


Listen to the show for free here.

MOYERS: Q: In the first chapter of your book, you write that while progressives need to propose a lot of reforms, what America really needs most in the 21st Century is a new story -- and the story is Democracy. What did you mean by that? "Well the story that's been told for the last 25 years -- the story that Ronald Reagan and the right have told -- is that free markets are the answer to all of our problems, that America has the muscle of an empire and should flex it, and that everybody's getting rich in America because the system is working. And of course that's not true, That's the story told from the top down. But the true answer to organized money is organized people, how people have to stand up and fight for their own rights as guaranteed by The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution."

MOYERS: Q: Can you give us a democracy report card on the Bush / Cheney administration? "We are spoiling our nest, the Earth that sustains us. And the administration has placed the government in the hands of the industries that it is supposed to monitor. The gap between people at the top and people at the bottom grows larger everyday. As Vice President Cheney said in an interview many years ago after they passed the big tax cut for the wealthy, 'we deserve it'."

MOYERS: Q: You've been a big proponent over the years for public financing for public elections. What's the chance that can happen in '09? "Mark, I became interested in campaign finance reform because I read the book you wrote 30 years ago, Who Runs Congress? That book opened my mind even though I had been in Washington for seven years... You would think at the measure of any democratic system of politics would be its ability to address the problems that it has created for itself. And we cannot do that because money has a monopoly over the decisions of those in power. I'm pessimistic at the moment but I am not fatalistic, because I think we are in the drive for public funding where the abolitionists were in the 1830s or the women's suffragettes were shortly after The Civil War. This is a long march toward a fundamental reform of a system that has gone terribly awry. It will take long-term commitments, the pursuit of a moral idea, that representation requires controlling the amount that can be raised and spent. It will require a couple of generations, I think Mark, before we get it. But we have to get it or, like slavery and inequality, it will be the issue that brings us down."

MOYERS: Q: In 1988 we saw how exploitation of Willy Horton and the flag helped defeat a Democratic Greek nominee named Mike Dukakis; in '08 we see how Reverend Wright and the flag again is being used against a potential black nominee in Obama. What is your level of optimism that should Obama be the nominee, America in 2008 won't be as gullible or easily distracted as in 1988? "During the West Virginia Primary of this week, I heard a BBC report with some very frank responses from voters down there who said, in that West Virginia accent, 'down here we don't think much of black people, we're not likely to vote for them.' I mean there is latent as well as overt racism still prevalent in America. But it's not what it was in 1988, when the Bush people ran the Willy Horton ad. There is a greater appreciation of our diversity."

MOYERS: Q: Bill did you ever seriously think of running for president or any office? "My seven years in government and politics were a detour. I set out at the age of 16 to be a journalist. That's really all I wanted to do. And convergence and coincidence brought me into politics in 1960. I wanted to be a political journalist, that's how I got to Washington in the first place. But as a young man I got caught up in that campaign and in organizing The Peace Corps, and then by the tragedy of John F. Kennedy's assassination thrust into The White House with my mentor Lyndon Johnson. But as soon as I had the opportunity, January of 1967, only three and a half years after I'd been in The White House, I left because I had the opportunity to get back to journalism, to come to New York and be the publisher of Newsday. I've never looked back."

VANDEN HEUVEL: Q: Katrina, we just heard Moyers's closing comments on how he never ran for office because, in effect, he would rather "write than be president." Tell us your view about Bill's career as a journalist in the past now and going forward. "I think of Bill Moyers as a kind of secular prophet of our time. He's our media conscience. He's someone who's been close and in the belly of the beast, he has seen power as Lyndon Johnson's press secretary. And he talks openly how after that experience it took a while to get his footing in journalism. But he has used that perch to talk about a morality in our politics, not hucksterism, but a morality about money and power. And what he does so well is explain that our deeper mission as journalist is to uncover the news that powerful people, whether in government or corporate life, would prefer to keep hidden."

HUFFINGTON: "And he's probably one of the very few people in America who can use emotional language, who can not just use dry words but somehow capture the imagination with what he says."

HUFFINGTON: Q: If Democrats go from a 30 seat to a 50 seat majority in the House -- which might happen given the recent Democratic wins in Republican districts in special, off-year elections -- and from a one seat majority in the Senate to 56-57 Democratic votes in the Senate, which is nearly filibuster proof, doesn't that create a realigning moment and opportunity for a new America? "There is something pretty fundamental that's going on, which is a new center in American politics and I don't think we've paid enough attention to it. A lot of the positions that used to be considered left-wing -- bring the troops home, universal health care, some form of corporate responsibility, doing something about global warming -- are now solidly mainstream. That's really the reality that John McCain is dealing with."

VANDEN HEUVEL: Q: What do you think of what Bush said in Israel about Obama types engaging in appeasement with terrorists, which was then seconded by McCain? "You have a president who has done more to setback U.S. security in the Middle East than anyone in our memory, and he has become the smearer-in-chief. I thought of John Kenneth Galbraith, the great economist, who wrote for Kennedy in that great American University speech in 1963, 'Never negotiate out of fear and never fear to negotiate.' And I thought that Obama's push back suggests he is ready to fight and fight hard for leadership that this country so desperately needs"

HUFFINGTON: Q: Is there a chance that a referendum will overturn the California Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage -- and will this decision have an impact on the 2008 presidential race? "First of all, yes, there is definitely a chance that a referendum would overturn it. The right is already making noises. But in terms of whether it will impact the election, I don't really think so. We're in a different reality. People know that these are really terrible times for millions of Americans, that we are trapped in a war that we cannot win. So I don't really know if the right can have as much success riling up people over same-sex marriage as they've done in the past."