Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

June 12, 2009

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. Get out the stretchers and unroll the bandages. The fight is joined.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: In order to preserve what's best about our health care system, we have to fix what doesn't work. For we've reached the point where doing nothing about the cost of health care is no longer an option

BILL MOYERS: Despite the speech President Obama made at a Wisconsin Town Hall meeting this week, the question now is will he push back against the profiteers of health care? A powerful coalition has emerged to keep the profit in sickness and disease — the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, the big drug companies, the insurance giants, Rupert Murdoch's media empire, all of them opposed to what my guest says is real health care reform.

Robert Reich was Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor; he implemented the Family and Medical Leave Act, and headed the Clinton Administration's successful effort to raise the minimum wage. Now you can hear him on public radio's MARKETPLACE and read his byline all over the mainstream media and across the Internet, including his blog at He is the author of eleven books, including this, the most recent, SUPERCAPITALISM: THE TRANSFORMATION OF BUSINESS, DEMOCRACY, AND EVERYDAY LIFE.

Robert Reich, welcome to the Journal.


BILL MOYERS: I wanted to talk to you because you do know how Washington works. TIME MAGAZINE called you one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. So take us inside for a moment or two into how you think this healthcare debate is playing out after the President's speech yesterday.

ROBERT REICH: Well, we're now just about in the real time of fight and conflict. Republicans and the healthcare lobbies, mostly big pharmaceuticals, their trade associations, also the big insurance companies, private insurance companies, they are bringing out the big guns, the lobbyists, the threats, the promises. They're swarming all over Capitol Hill. And the question is how hard the President's going to fight back?

So far the style of the White House is to set objectives and to let Congress come up with the details.

But I think the President's going to have to get involved in the details to a much greater extent because the lobbyists on the other side have so much to lose, they fear, and so much to gain, they expect, if they win.

BILL MOYERS: But this President seems given more to finesse than fight. He seems to want-- you know, he said in his speech yesterday, "Let's get everybody together." Has consensus become his primary aim?

ROBERT REICH: Well, he wants a bill apparently that has some Republicans on it. He only needs 51 votes in the Senate to get healthcare through on a Reconciliation Bill. That's a big victory for the Senate Democrats that wanted him to be pushing hard but he seems to be indicating he wants some Republicans on that bill. The Republicans are not willing to budge. They don't want what's called a public option which essentially would be something like Medicare that gives people a lot of bargaining leverage to get lower drug prices and also puts some pressure on private insurers. That public option is going to be absolutely critical. That's where the fight is going to really be squared.

BILL MOYERS: One of the problems with the Clinton health plan when you were Secretary of Labor was that it was too complex to explain to journalists like me, members of Congress, and the public. So in a sentence, if you can, tell me what a true public option would be in healthcare reform.

ROBERT REICH: Well, regardless of what you want to call it, Bill, it could be called liverwurst. I mean, it simply means that the public-- average members of the public have a choice, if they want it-- of either their private for-profit insurers like they now use or a public not-for-profit insurer.

And that public insurer would resemble ideally Medicare-- low administrative costs. And it would have the economies of scale. It would be so large that it could actually negotiate low drug prices and very, kind of low premiums. That's what the private insurers are scared of. That's what the--

BILL MOYERS: Why are they scared of that?

ROBERT REICH: Because that means that their profits will be squeezed. They don't want anything that's going to squeeze their profits. And, they're putting up smoke screens. They're putting up other things that may look like public options but don't have the bargaining leverage to get drug prices down and also to keep the private insurers honest.

BILL MOYERS: How do we know the real thing?


BILL MOYERS: How do we know the duck from the decoy, right?

ROBERT REICH: Well, there's a very simple test. And that is the public option big enough and is it going to have bargaining leverage to get drug prices down and keep private insurers on their toes, forcing them to cut prices.

There's nothing actually pushing the system unless you have a public option that gives the insurers and the pharmaceutical industry and the hospitals a real run for their money.

BILL MOYERS: In other words, in one word, competition.

ROBERT REICH: Fierce competition.

BILL MOYERS: With the private for-profit insurers, right?

ROBERT REICH: Absolutely right. See, right now, Bill, we've got a medical system in which private for-profit insurers are spending a lot of money trying to avoid sick people. It's an absurd system. And all of that money they're spending, marketing and finding groups of people who are relatively healthy and at relatively low risk and avoiding the sick people, all of that money is being wasted.

And they're also-- as anybody knows who has private insurance, you've had the experience, I've had the experience, they contest a lot of claims, not only our claims-- but also doctors' claims. They are in the business of making money. They are for profit. I don't blame them. They are part of-

BILL MOYERS: Capitalism--

ROBERT REICH: --capitalist system.


ROBERT REICH: But unless they are going to be pressured, genuinely pressured to reform through a public option, there is nothing that's going to change them.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I guess what puzzles me is whether you can squeeze them, as you say, pressure them without regulation or if you just think having a competitive rival out there that is negotiating for prices and trying to come in at a lower cost than the private health plan, you can really achieve anything.

ROBERT REICH: Well, that's a good question. You know, the single-payer system would be the best of all.


ROBERT REICH: Because a single-payer actually would have huge bargaining leverage, be able to tell the providers what they can do and what they can't do without it being-- this isn't socialized medicine. A single-payer would actually have the reins.

BILL MOYERS: You heard the President say yesterday that we can't go to single-payer because we're too late in the game. It would change the rules.

ROBERT REICH: Well, look it, I lived through Bill Clinton's healthcare attempt--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, how did you do that? That--

ROBERT REICH: Not very well. But a President, to some extent, has got to be politically realistic. There is no real political option in Congress now for a single-payer.

BILL MOYERS: Wait a minute. The folks who are fighting for single-payer out there say it is feasible if only Congress would look at the economics of it.

ROBERT REICH: Well, a lot of things are feasible if Congress looks at the economics of them. But politically, no, unfortunately and I'm a big single-payer fan. Unfortunately, we cannot get there from here because the political forces are just too strong against single-payer.

BILL MOYERS: Are the business forces prescient when they say that if we get a public option, it opens the door down the road to single-payer?

ROBERT REICH: If the government simply requires that the public option pay for itself, can be not-for-profit, just pays for itself that's not going to be necessarily a direct opening to single-payer. But it is going to force the private insurers and the drug companies and the medical suppliers to be honest, to control costs, and to provide better quality.

BILL MOYERS: You've got these powerful lobbies that you've been writing about on your blog. And you said on your blog this week that the real question for you is the extent to which Barack Obama will push back against these lobbies. What's your answer to your own question?

ROBERT REICH: I don't know, Bill. This is the first test where there is huge organized opposition. And it's coming from very, very powerful lobbies who have prevailed-- not just for ten or 15 years. You've prevailed for decades on this issue. So this is the truth time in terms of how able and willing the President and the White House is to really set boundaries and push members of Congress.

So it's at this point-- and I'm talking about the next two or three or four weeks. I mean, we're talking about crunch time right now-- that the President has got to step in and be forceful and be specific. And I don't know whether he will be. I hope he is.

BILL MOYERS: What will you be looking for?

ROBERT REICH: I'll be looking for whether he can say to Max Baucus, for example, of Senate finance, "Look, this is what I want. And if you're not going to go along with this, I want to know why. And if you're not going to go along with this, then would something else you want down the line you're not going to get." In other words, he's got to really create very, very specific conditions, threats, promises. This is the stuff of politics.

BILL MOYERS: When you talk about these lobbies, the public seems to want something that tends toward public option, if not single-payer. So how is it possible for these big lobbies to trump what the public and the President seem to want?

ROBERT REICH: Well, look, Bill, the problem, that's not just pharmaceuticals and it's not just the AMA, the American Medical Association, and the private insurers, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and so on. The whole system now is dominated by for-profit corporations. I think a lot of that growth in private sector lobbying over the years has come about because, in every industry, as the industries have become more competitive or more cutthroat in terms of their competition every individual company has hired fleets of lobbyists to take on their competitors.

You know, Google, for example, didn't have any Washington presence before it went public and discovered that if it really wanted to get favors out of Washington or at least ward off Microsoft, it had to have its own team right there so it's like an arms race.

But when you've got that many lobbyists and public relations professionals and lawyers swarming over the Hill for these corporations, they also can come together against the public. And the public's voice can easily be drowned out. You know, even with regard to Wall Street even Democrats are reluctant to take on--


ROBERT REICH: --some of the big power players. I mean, in trying to pay for healthcare one of things that Obama wanted was a limit on deductions for the very wealthy. A lot of these very wealthy are Wall Streeters, partly of the financial community. They reacted so strongly that the Democratic leadership said, "No, we can't possibly do that."

ROBERT REICH: Look what the lobbyists have managed to do First of all, with regard to the medical drug benefit that George W. Bush and that administration along with many Democrats pushed-- they prevented in that drug benefit bill, they prevented Medicare from negotiating with the drug companies low prices.

Well, that was corporate welfare. I mean, the drug companies got something wonderful out of that bill. They got a bigger market. And they didn't have to pay for it. And, in fact, they got even bigger profits. They didn't have to face the negotiating power of the federal government. That's what is at stake now.

BILL MOYERS: What about this complaint? I'm satisfied with my coverage, and I don't want anybody to take it away from me. Did the President address that satisfactorily yesterday?

ROBERT REICH: I thought he did. He said again and again what we're talking about is not taking away anybody's choice, anybody's coverage, anybody's doctor. Now, the other side is going to trot out that old "Harry and Louise" fear and play upon those fears, just as they did in 1994, just as they did for decades before. They're going to use the term "socialism." They're going to try to scare people.

They have raised, as you said, the specter of socialism. Let me play you what Senator Shelby of Alabama said on Fox News last Sunday. Take a look.

CHRIS WALLACE: Senator Shelby, you say that the Obama administration is taking us down the road to socialism. Explain.

SEN. SHELBY: Well, obviously so. They intervened last fall in the bank crisis. No one has ever done it on that scale before. Now the automobile crisis. Now, Bush, you have to go back to the Bush administration; they started it. Now you're talking about a massive health care plan, while we're trying to right our economic ship.

ROBERT REICH: I believe that there's no doubt that we're going down to government intervention everywhere, government ownership unprecedented in this country. And it's a long road and it's a slippery slope.

BILL MOYERS: A slippery slope. What do you think about that?

ROBERT REICH: Look, Senator Shelby did admit just now that it was the Bush administration that started the big bank bailouts. And they started that bank bailout because the financial system had overreached with wild speculation and was on the verge of breaking down. Now, I happen to think that those bailouts have not worked very well.

Tim Geithner continued them. Obama continued them. That's kind of socialism for the big corporations. But there's no socialism for average people here. I mean, there is, even now almost none of, nothing of a program to help mortgagees who are in trouble, who might otherwise lose their homes.

BILL MOYERS: And I just saw today, I think this morning I saw the story that the foreclosures are supposed to increase dramatically this year.

ROBERT REICH: Well, because you've got so many people who are losing their jobs. And this is related to medical care as well because if they lose their jobs, most of them had medical insurance through their employer. They lose their medical care. If they have a major illness, they're in deep, deep trouble. Just losing their jobs means they can't pay their mortgages. So, you know, you have an interlocking system in which average Americans need a great deal of help. Wall Street does not need help. I mean, Wall Street, in fact, has pulled the wool over the administration's eyes and over the public's eyes. A lot of these toxic assets are still on the books.

You know, Wall Street has made, basically, wangled the system right now where it's beginning to show profits not because it's got rid of the toxic assets but because it's gotten an accounting change that enables it to paper over these toxic assets.

BILL MOYERS: Is it possible that we could be next year right back where we were last year with the financial system that has successfully resisted oversight and regulation and has reclaimed for itself the same powers it had two years ago, three years ago?

ROBERT REICH: Well, Bill, that's going to be another — besides healthcare, that's going to be the next big lobbying fight on Capitol Hill where the president is going to have to go toe to toe with the financial lobbyists who are very, very powerful and are going to say, "We don't want regulation of any kind of compensation. We don't want regulation with regard to conflicts of interest."

You know, a lot of what happened in the- on Wall Street had to do with the fact that, number one, you had people who could make gigantic bets with other people's money. And if the bets turned out great, they would make a great deal of money. If they turned out badly, too bad. Well, their compensation was based upon making the big bets rather than being responsible. You also had all kinds of conflicts of interest. You had the credit rating agencies who were rating the issues coming out of the very companies that were paying the credit rating agencies to begin with. That's all still there. It's all still there.

BILL MOYERS: And the banks, as we speak, are fighting regulation. And they're winning. The banks are actually winning on this issue. Do you see it that way?

ROBERT REICH: Well, they're winning right now because, as these banks come out from under TARP — basically the bailout mechanism — the government has less and less leverage over them with regard to regulations that are going to prevent a repeat of the future. There's still no regulations out there. And there are lobbies. I want to come back to this theme, Bill, because it's important for the public to understand. The lobbies, whether we're talking about healthcare, insurance, pharmaceuticals, or we're talking about the banking system, the lobbies in Washington are enormously powerful.

The only way we're going to have any kind of regulatory regime for the banks that make sense is if people understand what's going on, if they pressure their individual members of Congress if Obama stands up to the banking industry and forces real regulation on them.

BILL MOYERS: You were on the transition team, Obama's transition team. You were a supporter of his. And the coalition, the Democratic Coalition seems to be holding behind him now, progressive Democrats, like yourself, are staying with him despite his compromises on detention, despite his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, despite other compromises he's made, including possibly a compromise on the bailouts and healthcare. When will he show you what you want to be shown? What will you be looking for?

ROBERT REICH: Healthcare and the public option is the first big one. I think that's a big test. And then the real hard, tough regulation of Wall Street to prevent a repeat of what we've had before. Those are the two big upcoming fights. And, but, you know, Obama can't do it alone.

Even though the presidency has all this power attached to it, only has a limited amount of power if the public is not pushing the president to take certain action and pushing Congress as well. There is no substitute, Bill, for an informed active citizenry.

BILL MOYERS: Is there any other way to see what's happening on Wall Street? As anything but a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the financial class?

ROBERT REICH: Well, that's what happens between 2000 and 2007. You had for the first time a lot of people in the middle class buying shares of stock, getting involved, thinking, "Oh, this is great, greatest thing since sliced bread." They were lured into a speculative bubble. And that speculative bubble burst obviously leaving behind a lot of middle-class people who have lost their homes and their savings and their 401(k) plans, 40 percent of them.

The only people left standing — and I hate to say this because I sound like a class warrior and I don't want to sound like a class warrior — is a lot of people at the top. Look, I'm not one to cast blame at anybody. There's enough blame to go around. But the fact of the matter is that as late as 1980, the top one percent by income in this United States had about nine percent of total national income.

But since then, you've had increasing concentration of income and wealth to the point that by 2007, Bill, the top one percent was taking home 21 percent of total national income. Now, when they're taking home that much, the middle class doesn't have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going. You know, that was hidden by the fact that they were borrowing so much on their homes. You know, they kept on consuming because of their borrowing. But once that housing bubble exploded, it exposed the fact that the middle class in this country has really not participated in the growth of the economy. And over the long term, we're not going to have a recovery until the middle class has purchasing power it needs to buy again.

BILL MOYERS: What has happened to capitalism that has led it to the abyss?

ROBERT REICH: Essentially, capitalism has swamped democracy. You see, there's no such thing really as pure capitalism without rules and regulations that set limits on profit making, because otherwise it's everybody out for themselves. Otherwise, nobody can trust anybody. Otherwise, it's the law of the jungle.

I mean, we rely upon government to set the boundaries. This can't happen because it's fraud. That can't happen because you're stealing something. This can't happen because you're imposing a huge burden on other people. But unless you have a democratic system that allows the rules to be created not by the companies but by the people and the people's representatives reflecting what the public needs, not what the corporations need, you're going to have a system that is not a democracy and it's not democratic capitalism. It's super capitalism without the democracy.

Go back to years and ask yourself why did we get into the banking crisis we did get into. And what you see again and again is that Wall Street lobbyists prevented the right kind of regulations. Again and again. The Wall Street said, don't do it. Don't limit us. Let us speculate. Let us do whatever we want to do. The market can take care of itself. Well, again and again we learn the lesson and then we forget it. The savings and loan crisis should have been-

BILL MOYERS: Twenty years ago, late '80s.

ROBERT REICH: Yeah, we should have learned it then. You know...

BILL MOYERS: We don't learn, though. Why don't we learn?

ROBERT REICH: And then Enron and WorldCom in 2001, 2002, we should have learned it then. We don't learn it partly because we forget and partly because the lobbyists are so powerful that they have our representatives around their- a chokehold over them.

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me there's another reason. And I still have an essay you wrote some 10 or 12 years ago. You talked about how people who are at the top of the establishment had abandoned their sense of responsibility, that they had, looking out for themselves.

ROBERT REICH: That is and continues to be both a tragedy and something that is perplexing. Go back 20, 30, 40 years. And people who were at the top of our institutions, political, economic, not-for-profit, big corporations — they understood their social responsibilities. They had, left over from the Depression and the Second World War, a kind of a sense that they were there not only to maximize profits and not only to look for themselves, not only for their shareholders, but they were there because they had some public duties. That, over the last 20, 30 years, 40 years, has been lost completely. And we've got to bring it back.

I mean, how we do it — is it turning the pendulum swinging right now? Is the election of Barack Obama signaling maybe a change in public consciousness from a period of me to a period of we? Well, I hope so.

BILL MOYERS: Finally, a historian knowing that you were going to be on the show tonight wrote me and said, "I would hope you might ask Secretary Reich, if we're rebuilding the financial system with some controls over the exuberance and the greed that led us over the cliff, or is the administration giving lip service to our concerns while planning instead just to put back in place the status quo that existed before the collapse?"

ROBERT REICH: Well, first of all, there's no recovery in the sense of going back to where we were before because the old path was unsustainable. Look where it got us. If we don't lift middle class wages, if we don't get some control over Wall Street, if we don't have genuine healthcare reform, if we don't do something about the environment and global warming, we are going to not have a recovery.

And then the next downturn is going to be worse than the downturn we just had. There's no going backwards. A lot of people would like to say, "Oh, we can just go back to where we were before." That is not possible.

Now, I think the administration understands this, Bill. Certainly, the president, every conversation I've participated in with him during the campaign and in the transition, left me with the impression that he understood this very, very well. I think most of the people around him understand this. The question is can he pull this off? Can he overcome the vested interests?

BILL MOYERS: But for you, as I hear you, the Armageddon that now is before us is the healthcare debate. You'll be watching how he handles this to see if he's tough enough to push back against the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, Murdoch's media empire, big pharma, big industry. How he stands up to them you think will, in effect, determine how he's going to handle these other battles?

ROBERT REICH: It will be a clear indication of his toughness with regard to the willingness to twist arms and demand that the public interest be foremost.

BILL MOYERS: The book is "Super Capitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life." Robert Reich, thanks for being with me.

ROBERT REICH: Thanks, Bill.

CROWD:Single-payer! Single-payer! Single-payer! Single-payer!

BILL MOYERS: He was the master wordsmith of the American Revolution. His ideas are embedded deep in our DNA. "These are the times that try men's souls," he wrote, and patriots of every rank responded — farmers, blacksmiths, merchants and aristocrats. Thomas Paine lived a life of adventure, stirred radical sentiments on two continents, knew Washington and Jefferson, Lafayette and Napoleon. But he died broke, scorned and alone, here in New York City two hundred years ago this week.

So unsung is this hero, a foundling father one historian calls him, that only a handful of his most ardent fans showed up at the ceremonies marking the bicentennial of his death.


JOYCE CHUMBLEY: Read Tom Paine, read about Thomas Paine, he will inspire you!

The reason Thomas Paine is not more celebrated, recognized is because he's still too dangerous. If we really adopted his principles, his ideas, it would be a very different world.

JOHN NICHOLS: All men, all women shall be free. Tyranny shall be thrust from this earth and a new age of liberty shall be born. This is the age of Paine!

BILL MOYERS: Thomas Paine came to America from Great Britain in 1774 when he was 37 years old. He burned with righteous indignation at the cruel tyranny of kings. Half a million copies of "Common Sense," his plainspoken call for rebellion, flooded this fledgling nation of three million people. His rhetoric so moved and persuaded George Washington that he read Paine's words to the troops at Valley Forge.

After America won its independence, Paine found himself in another fight, the French Revolution, and wrote another best-seller, "The Rights of Man." But he got into trouble in France and was thrown into prison, narrowly avoiding execution. He returned to America in 1802, a prophet without honor in the nation he helped to create.

Why has history forgotten him? With me are two scholars who actually know Thomas Paine's story well. The historian Harvey Kaye directs the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. His many books include two biographies of Paine, one for young adults and this one, "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America."

Journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of the "National Review," one of America's most influential conservative publications. He has written seven books about the leaders of the American Revolution, including "What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers." This is his latest volume, brand new in fact, published just this week, "Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement."

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

BILL MOYERS: What's the most important thing to know about Thomas Paine, and why does he fascinate you?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: He fascinates me because I'm a journalist, and I think he may have been the greatest journalist to have ever lived. Certainly the greatest one in America. The pieces and the pamphlets that he wrote, especially in the early days of the Revolution, were so urgent, they were so on point. I think the first "American Crisis" that he wrote, when Washington was being driven across New Jersey by the British, that is comparable to the speech in Shakespeare when the Henry V is rallying his troops for Agincourt. But that's fiction. And that was written, you know, two hundred years after the real battle. This was real time. It was happening.

HARVEY KAYE: Here's this guy, you know, essentially off the boat. Somehow he picks up on the spirit of America quickly. And he takes that pen of his, and he figures out how he's going to sort of grab hold of that American spirit and turned it in this radical, democratic direction, to make a new nation.

BILL MOYERS: What was the Paine idea? What was his singular contribution to the Revolution?

HARVEY KAYE: The singular idea, people immediately think independence. But I think it goes far beyond independence. I think it has to do with the idea that he took what he recognized in American life, and he inscribes it into the meaning of America-- and that is, the democratic impulse. And that democratic impulse would be a model to the world. I think that's what's fundamental to Paine.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: He certainly is a world thinker, because we're only the first revolution he involves himself in. He is the man who conveys the key to the Bastille, after it has fallen, to George Washington.

BILL MOYERS: Literally?


BILL MOYERS: He brought it back?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Lafayette gave it to Paine, said "Please give this to George Washington." And Paine knew both men. And he happened to be in France at the time, building a bridge.


RICHARD BROOKHISER: But so, he's the one who brings it over to Washington. And he says, "A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose."

HARVEY KAYE: I also would add, "In two revolutions and a great social movement"-- the British labor movement. As E.P. Thompson said, there were two Bibles in the English democratic and labor movement, "Pilgrim's Progress and The Rights of Man." And I think, you know, we shouldn't leave that dimension out as well.

BILL MOYERS: In one way, he was a visionary of democracy. He wanted to end slavery. He wanted to grant women equality. He wanted to abolish all property requirements for citizenship. He wanted a complete separation of church and state. He wanted to establish public schools and old age pensions. I mean, he did see the promise of America unfolding through the years.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he saw a lot of things that came to be, and he also saw some things that didn't come to be, and maybe never could come to be.

BILL MOYERS: What was behind that long dispute he had with John Adams? Was it because Adams felt Paine's desire for a full-blown democratic revolution was unrealistic and even harmful, and Paine thought Adams wanted to unfold it too slowly?

HARVEY KAYE: Adams welcomed the call for independence. But Adams disliked aristocrats and he didn't trust the people. And when he read Paine's arguments-- he's a brilliant guy, Adams-- he recognized pretty quickly that this was a call for a far more democratic kind of struggle and nation-building than he imagined. And as I tell my students, it's fascinating to consider that when Abigail Adams reads "Common Sense," she sends the letter to John Adams and says, don't forget. Remember the ladies. We can't trust you men.

And Adams writes back, knowing full-- and with a touch of affection, there's no doubt about it. He says, "Not you too." You know, the black slaves are rising in North Carolina, the students are rising in these Ivy colleges, Indians on the frontier, artisans in New York, something to that effect. Now, the biggest tribe of all is demanding this kind of democratic revolution. So, I mean, Adams knew that Paine could be extremely valuable to the revolution, but very dangerous in the sense that working people would respond to that call.

I'll just add, there's that moment where Adams is in the barber's chair in Philadelphia, and the barber has his blade in hand and is shaving him and says, "Have you read "Common Sense?"" And Adams must have been wondering, "Uh-oh, you know, the blade is at my throat."

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, but to do Adams justice, he was a very skeptical man. He was always looking for things that might and could go wrong, and he was often right to look for those things. Not always. So, when Paine-- whose visionary quality is so both intoxicating and, Paine hopes, transformative-- Adams is saying, "Well, no, look it's just-- it's not going to be that easy. It can't happen this way. What are we thinking here?"

HARVEY KAYE: But in terms of the democratic impulse, which never ceased in America, in every generation, progressive movements, radical to liberal, reached back to the American Revolution. And who did they rediscover? Oh, yes, they honored Washington, they honored Jefferson, but the words that they reprint-- sorry, I'm shouting. The words they reclaimed were Thomas Paine's.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: That's true. But as we see in Paine's own life, there are possible problems on this path. And Paine, the second revolution he's involved in, I think he misunderstands what's going on, on the ground.



BILL MOYERS: What did he do wrong?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he comes to France, he's highly honored in France. They make him a member of the National Assembly. He's elected from the district on the Channel, Calais. Now the one problem is, he speaks very little French. So, the people--

BILL MOYERS: That is a handicap.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: The people he associates with are the people who also speak English. And this is the Girondins faction. Well, as the Girondins start duking it with the Jacobins, the ones who go to the guillotine first are Paine's faction. And the only reason he's not guillotined is that a guard, by accident, passes his cell in the night.

BILL MOYERS: That's for real? That really happened?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: That is for real.

BILL MOYERS: The guard passes by--

RICHARD BROOKHISER: He was on the list and he just passes past the cell.

HARVEY KAYE: That is-- that is true.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: And, you know, the Girondins were as bloodthirsty as bad as the Jacobins. They're sort of romanticized by later historians of the Revolution, but it's like Trotskyites versus Stalinists. These were two bloody, totalitarian gangs. And Paine did not see that quality.

HARVEY KAYE: Paine's problem, and I think of this as a wonderful problem, is that America had turned him into a revolutionary. This is a man who creates this Atlantic revolution of these radical democratic artisans. And all of it based on his having come to America and drunk -- having had-- you know, taken in the waters of this democratic spirit, and then explained it all to Americans

BILL MOYERS: But his colleagues back here disliked him. I mean, they thought he really made a serious mistake in underestimating the bloodiness of that French Revolution.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, Jefferson stuck with the Revolution until Napoleon appeared. But then Paine stuck with it after Napoleon appeared.

BILL MOYERS: I read that Napoleon kept Paine's words under his pillow. I mean, this little despot--

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Isn't that sick? I mean, that sort of tells you something about Napoleon's, I think preening and-- and hypocrisy. Because he's the man who buttoned the revolution up and ended up.

HARVEY KAYE: But you know what? There is something important that came out of that relationship. Paine, by the way, did not trust Napoleon. Let's make that clear. But what is important is that Paine played-- and this is something historians have never quite resolved-- he played a role in Jefferson's acquisition of the Louisiana territories. And so, if you think about Paine in that sense, throughout, from that time he comes to America, calls for an end to slavery, calls for an American Revolution, all the way through his life, you can't refer to anything that took place in the late-- and I'm sure you would agree-- in the late-18th century that Paine himself hasn't inspired or enabled. I mean, it's-- I mean, he-- in some ways, he's both the product of his times, and he defines his times.

BILL MOYERS: So what's kept him from receiving the honor that both of you think he deserves? I mean, he's rarely mentioned in the text books. There have been numerous efforts to try to erect a statue of him in Capital Hill. And all of them have failed. How come he can't get no respect?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he attacked two people in late-18th century America that it was fatal to attack: George Washington and Jesus Christ. And that's not a good reputation-builder.


BILL MOYERS: Just last weekend I read a letter that he had written George Washington. I hadn't seen it before. Scathing. Calling Washington names and all.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: He was bitter, because he felt Washington had not exerted--

HARVEY KAYE: Had abandoned him in the--

RICHARD BROOKHISER: --to get him out of prison, in France.

HARVEY KAYE: Right. We don't actually know if Washington even knew that he was remaining in prison in France.

BILL MOYERS: But you don't call the founder of your country a bastard. And win the Gallup poll, right?

HARVEY KAYE: Well, consider this — no, undeniably-- But it was not unpopular, in many circles, to do that. Let's keep in mind, the United States, how ever much Washington was revered, was at that time divided between these Republicans and Federalists. And the Fed-- and the Republicans, they're the ones who published the letter. And it's the kind of thing where it had a resonance in America.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: But I think the big sort of turn in his reputation and in his career had to do with the "Age of Reason," his great work after the "Rights of Man." And this is his full frontal assault on organized religion and particularly on Christianity. He's not an atheist. Teddy Roosevelt called him a "filthy atheist." He wasn't an atheist. But he was a deist, and he thought organized religions were frauds and impositions and lies and all the rest of this. And he lays this out at devastating length.

BILL MOYERS: Well, just as he loathed the power of medieval kings, he loathed the influence of priests, right?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: But he also he loathed the Bible. And he knew the Bible very well. But he quotes its inconsistencies. And, you know, what he thinks are its follies and its mistakes and its obvious errors. And it's-- I mean, it's rather entertaining, but it's just a full-fledge assault on Christianity. And that's certainly--

HARVEY KAYE: Well, on all organized religions. No one could feel comfortable-- none of the faithful of any faith would feel comfortable with it.

BILL MOYERS: That's where he says that all books are written by men, not God.


BILL MOYERS: And books are sensible, he said, or not sensible. They certainly aren't sacred or divinely inspired.

HARVEY KAYE: If I could just say, in Paine's defense, as a believer, that Paine believed that the creation was God's presence. I mean, he was absolute about that and repeatedly pushed the idea. If we want to worship God, then we should study the creation.

BILL MOYERS: So, would Paine cringe to hear President Obama refer to the Holy Koran and the Holy Bible?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Oh, sure. He'd be out there burning them. I mean, you know, he was-- he was-- well, he was--

HARVEY KAYE: Burning them, I think may be-- might be pushing it.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he wouldn't want to oppress believers.

HARVEY KAYE: Paine would never burn books. I think that's --

RICHARD BROOKHISER: But he would-- he would mock their scriptures.

HARVEY KAYE: Undeniably.

BILL MOYERS: So, is this where he fell from grace? No pun intended. I mean, is this where he really fell out of favor with the burgeoning population of this country? Because he seemed to be anti-religion?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: I would say so. And I think one reason Jefferson was such a successful politician is that even though Jefferson shared a lot of these views, he didn't run around proclaiming them. Because he knew what Americans were, he knew what the electorate was. And he wasn't going to stick his chin out there in that fashion.

HARVEY KAYE: I think the key here is that undeniably Paine became the antichrist to many people. But I also want to say that that doesn't explain two hundred years of conservative efforts to either denigrate his reputation or deny he even existed.

BILL MOYERS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. I mean, the last thirty years, the people who most reached out to claim him are the Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, circles in this country.

HARVEY KAYE: It's fascinating. Absolutely fascinating.

BILL MOYERS: Is that right?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, Ronald Reagan used the sentence, "We have the power to begin the world again." He loved that sentence, so it was very Reaganesque.

BILL MOYERS: Let me show you the video we have of that 1980 speech when Reagan accepted the Republican nomination. Take a look.

RONALD REAGAN: There are no words to express the extraordinary strength and character of this breed of people we call American. [...] They are the kind of men and women Tom Paine had in mind when he wrote during the darkest days of the American Revolution, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

HARVEY KAYE: Reagan was a New Deal Democrat, okay? And the other thing about Reagan is this-- I mean, you know, people are shocked when I say this on the left. Reagan, though not my kind of politician at all, he understood the American spirit far better than the liberals of the 1970s and perhaps even most of the 1960s. And what he knew is that Americans did not forget Thomas Paine. Any more than they had forgotten Roosevelt.

Who were the two people he keynotes? FDR and Thomas Paine? Now, why would he do that? Because he wanted to speak to American working people.

BILL MOYERS: Richard, as a long time conservative, do you agree with Harvey that Ronald Reagan was speaking to the working people of America, when he invoked Thomas Paine?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he was certainly speaking to a vein in America that responds to rhetoric about liberty. And Paine is one of the great wordsmiths of such speech. And so, I think Reagan was not poaching or stealing somebody else's heirloom. I think it was a legitimate for him to invoke that.

BILL MOYERS: Libertarians have claimed him, because of his long time opposition to any consolidation of power. And they take him as one of them, right?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes. Yes, they do.

HARVEY KAYE: But it's the same line, curiously enough. "Government is a necessary evil."

BILL MOYERS: The Libertarians?

HARVEY KAYE: That's Paine. Libertarians love him. And the anarchists love him. For that very reason. And--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but you take from Paine what you want and give to him what you need to give him, right?

HARVEY KAYE: Well, I guess we all do. But I like to think of, you know, the image that I don't dwell on the "Government is a necessary evil" because I think of that as his diatribe against aristocratic government at the time. The image I like is a little-- four or five paragraphs later, when he's talking about gathering under this big oak tree, to deliberate. Now, he admits that this is not possible. Okay? Any longer.

But imagine this fundamental democratic moment. And this is also what distinguishes him from Locke, where Locke doesn't take that next step and imagine that democratic possibility. And I think that that's my Paine, I have to admit. I mean, you have your journalist Paine. And I love you for having that Paine. And I have the democratic Paine, right there in that moment. And that's the Paine that grabs me.

BILL MOYERS: He wrote "Common Sense," "The Crisis Papers," you just mentioned the "Age of Reason," which is the one that really got him into trouble with believers. What about his third book, "The Rights of Man?" What kind of impact did that have?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, it had a huge impact. And in a way, Paine is at the founding of modern dispute about revolutionary movements, because he's responding to Edmund Burke's reflections on the revolution in France. And Burke was a liberal politician in many ways. But when he saw the revolution beginning in France he was appalled by the direction that it was taking, even very early on. And wrote an eloquent attack on it. And Paine responds with "The Rights of Man." This was like a split in sort of liberal English sentiment, going in two different directions. And two eloquent men, you know, taking each other on.

HARVEY KAYE: Yeah. You know, I'm glad you said that. Because, you know, when people are teaching political theory, it's Hobbes, Locke and so on. But the real grounding of modern political theory, I think is in the Burke/Paine exchange. Because the Hobbes/Locke always does is social contract and liberalism. But if you really want to get to the fundamental American question, it's probably the debate between Paine and Burke, having to do with liberalism versus conservatism. And at that moment, it's radicalism, reaction, but it's liberalism and conservatism. But in the United States, we have that same kind of interaction between Paine and Adams.

These are the two currents in American thinking. Adams, the tempered Republican, and Paine, the radical Democrat. And I think that's very, very fundamental.

BILL MOYERS: Toward the end of his life, Paine urged American citizens to renew their patriotism in reference to, he said first principles. Today, 2009, what are the first principles you think Paine, if he were blogging today, would be espousing?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, I think he would say liberty. I think he would say opportunity. And economic opportunity. I think those are the things that he would hammer at.

HARVEY KAYE: I agree. But I think I would take it a step further. And I go back to what I said at the beginning. Paine was a small "d" democrat. He was a political democrat. He became a political democrat by what he recognized in American life. And later, when he did come out of prison, he wrote "Agrarian Justice." And there he lays out a social democratic vision. That's where he says, "Let us create real opportunity for young people. And not give them a life of poverty. Let us tax the landed wealth, and use that money in some kind of community chest, a national treasury, to provide stakes, S-T-A-K-E-S."

You know, grants to young people, so when they reach twenty-one, and he said that of men and women, which was a very progressive thing to do at the time. And that way, they'll have a chance to, you know, buy land, gain an education, set up a small business. And we can also then afford pensions to the elderly. So, he did very much sort of look ahead to the idea, absolutely, of economic opportunity, but in a social democratic way, I think.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes, if he had thought that there were people who were permanently stuck in a, you know, servile or lower economic class, he would not have liked that. And he would have--

HARVEY KAYE: Right. And he did say--

RICHARD BROOKHISER: --he looked for means to--

HARVEY KAYE: He did say--

RICHARD BROOKHISER: --move them outside of it.

HARVEY KAYE: --everyone had to accept the payment, whether you needed it or not. You could give it back afterwards. But he didn't want it to be a charity.

BILL MOYERS: Richard Nixon came up with something like that. Remember that? Is that part of Paine's genius, part of his greatness? That we, each of us, no matter what end of the political spectrum we're on, find a real American there, a true American there?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Isn't that a problem that writers always face with their words? I mean, once you let those words out there, then they're not yours anymore. And especially if they're words as well written as Paine's. And then people grab them for bumper stickers and off they go.

HARVEY KAYE: Very true. But I agree with you, I really do. 'Cause I cannot deny the beauty of the words and the wonder of the pen. But I think the real question is, "Why do Americans seek to recover Thomas Paine?" And I think it's because they feel the impulse that he imbued in American life. And they go looking for the source of that impulse, when crisis occurs. And I think that's why I think Paine's great legacy is this American democratic impulse.

BILL MOYERS: Why aren't liberals quoting him more? I mean, you don't find any liberals in the last thirty years--

HARVEY KAYE: That's the most-- that frustrates me to no end. I find it-- I think it will actually haunt liberals, ultimately. Because it's Thomas Paine who can renew the democratic spirit that liberals need to rediscover. They don't need to rediscover themselves in government. They need to rediscover their connection with American working people.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: And maybe liberals are not so keen on the democratic spirit.

HARVEY KAYE: Maybe they're not.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Maybe they feel their agenda is not popular.

BILL MOYERS: Corporate liberalism is all about a regulated economy.

HARVEY KAYE: Maybe they're not. Maybe they're not.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Maybe social liberalism that, you know, "We the enlightened know what should be done. But, you know, we have to bring the boobs along slowly."

HARVEY KAYE: Well, my friend Norman Lear says, "With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?"

BILL MOYERS: Richard Brookhiser and Harvey Kaye, thank you for a very interesting discussion.

HARVEY KAYE: Thank you.

GRAHAM DEAN: Dance to Tom Paine's bones,
dance to Tom Paine's bones,
dance in the oldest boots I own to the rhythm of Tom Paine's bones.

Dance to Tom Paine's bones,
dance to Tom Paine's bones,
dance in the oldest boots I own to the rhythm of Tom Paine's bones.

BILL MOYERS: Finally, you know by now that in our nation's capital on Wednesday, an elderly white supremacist and anti-Semite is alleged to have walked into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with a rifle and killed a security guard before being brought down himself. 88 years old!

You will know, too, of the recent killing in church of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country still performing late term abortions. It was evidence that violence works. His family has now announced that his Kansas clinic will not be reopened.

You may be less familiar with the June 1st shootings in an Army recruiting office in Little Rock that killed one soldier and wounded another. The suspect in question is an African-American Muslim convert who says he acted in retaliation for U.S. military actions in the Middle East.

Soon, however, these terrible deeds will be forgotten, as are the three policemen killed by an assault weapon in Pittsburgh, the four policemen killed in Oakland, California, the 13 people gunned down in Binghamton, New York, the eight dead in a North Carolina nursing home. All this year alone.

There is much talk about hate talk and hate crimes, about violence committed in the name of bigotry or religion. But why don't we talk about guns? Friends, we are arming ourselves to death. Even as gun shots ricocheted around the country, an amendment allowing concealed weapons in national parks was snuck into the popular credit card reform bill. Another victory for the gun lobby, to sounds of silence from the White House. Fact is, neither party will stand up to the National Rifle Association, the best known front group for the arms merchants. In Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the Holocaust Museum, the winner in this week's Democratic primary for governor was a man who supports allowing concealed weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol and opposes limiting handgun purchases to one a month. I'm not making this up.

And I'm not making this up either: after that shooting at the Holocaust Museum a conservative organization immediately offered those of us on television a chance to interview the founder of the organization Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. His expertise, it is said, is in helping people understand why gun control doesn't belong in a civilized society. Thanks, but no thanks. And no thanks to his counterparts among Christians and Muslims who use every violent shedding of blood to promote the worship of guns.

Guns don't kill people, they say. People kill people. True. People kill people -- with guns.

So, let the faithful of every persuasion keep their guns for hunting and target practice, for collecting. And their permits for a gun to protect their business or home, even though it's 22 times more likely to shoot a member of their family than an intruder. But, please, every year there are 30,000 gun deaths and more than 400,000 non fatal gun-related assaults. Enough's enough.

That's it for the Journal, we'll be back next week. In the meantime, our work continues on the Moyers website when you go to and click on Bill Moyers Journal, you can celebrate Tom Paine by reading his classic works online and learn more about the American tradition of dissent. You can also read more from Robert Reich on health care and the economy. Just log on to I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next time.

Moyers Podcasts -- Sign Up for podcasts and feeds.
Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ