I have long been a fan of Bill Moyers. One-time Baptist minister and former Press Secretary to Lyndon Johnson, Moyers is a respected journalist who does not fit into most news formats. He isn’t willing to spend two minutes on a story and move on. His PBS shows have looked into the questions facing Americans by delving into the issues. He will talk to conservatives and liberals alike. He does not hide his bias, but never is dogmatic in his opinions.
Capital Crimes is a new 2 DVD set based on his 2006 Moyers and Company episode with that title. The first disc is that two-hour show that focuses on the role of money and lobbyisst in the political process and the extent to which this actually corrupts our democratic system. Central in this program is the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff and various neo-con Republicans took advantage of the GOP taking control of the House of Representatives in 1995 to solidify their hold by funneling campaign contributions through various sham committees and foundations. (In the process Abramoff skimmed off several million dollars for himself.)
Abramoff is especially known for working with Native American tribes to set up casinos. He would have them write huge checks to some political committee (set up by Abramoff) and then pass the funds on to Congressmen to get a good outcome. Were they buying votes? Perhaps not explicitly, but Moyers shows convincing evidence that their money went a long way toward making things happen.
Early in the show Moyers tells us “Campaign finance is the core of the corruption.” Throughout the show the word “shakedown” is frequently used for various aspects—not only of Abramoff’s work but of the politicians who have come to accept the idea that money is a key part of our political process. It should be noted that this is well before the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to corporate money and SuperPACs. Regardless of party, with people literally giving millions to these SuperPACs (which candidates cannot have anything to do with—but if you believe that is the case I have a bridge to sell you), can we expect that candidates and political parties will be willing to tell these donors “no”?
This show illustrates the way huge sums of cash can and do corrupt our political system. It is perhaps only truer now than it was when the show aired.
The second disc includes Buying the War, Moyers’ 2007 look at the press and its failure to question the run up to the Iraq War. Moyers is a consummate journalist. He believes that the press has a vital role in the operation of a democracy. Yet as the Bush Administration steadily made its case for attacking Iraq, the press did little to critique those arguments. Some in the press feared they would be labeled as “unpatriotic” if they questioned the reasons presented. Even respected journalists went along with all the administration said. Moyers finds this to be a major abandonment of the press’s responsibility. As a journalist himself, Moyers is very critical of the job done by the press, especially the Washington press corps, in this situation. This program is just as important as Capital Crimes.
Also on the bonus disc are two hour-long interviews, the first from 2008 with historian Andrew Bacevich about the American consumerist/credit/imperialist culture and the way our idea of the American Dream is so tied to possessions and being able to have what we want when we want it; the second from 2010 with Mother Jones writers Kevin Drum and David Corn about the banking crisis and bailout.
There is a bit over five hours of well-informed examinations of some of the issues that continue to be a real part of our world. Bill Moyers is helping us to see and understand that our democratic institutions may not be working the way that they are supposed to work. If our society is to work for all of us, we need to pay attention.