Bill Moyers is 78 Today!

I have written a number of times about Bill Moyers on this site. He is important to the history of the agency, and he also is great copy.

Moyers started out at the Peace Corps at age 27 or so, as the Associate Director for Public Affairs, and later was the Deputy Director under Shriver,

In 1986, he spoke at the Arlington National Cemetery Amphitheatre on the 25th anniversary of the agency. Here is a short except of what he said that bright September Sunday morning. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest statements about the Peace Corps and our place in American history.

Moyers Remarks

“We are struggling today with the imperative of a new understanding of patriotism and citizenship. The Peace Corps has been showing us the way, and the Volunteers and staff whom we honor this morning are the vanguard of that journey.

To be a patriot in this sense means to live out of a recognition that one is a member of particular culture and society, but so are all other human beings, and their kinship and bonds-their sacred places-are as important to them as ours are to us. Love of country, yes. Loyalty to country, yes, but we carry two passports-one stamped American, the other human being.

We are members of the same great race, but our tents are pitched on different grounds, and so we look out on the world from different angles. This has very practical results for the way one works. You go abroad cautious about the help you can be to others; the only change that really matters must come from within. But you go because the world is your home.

We knew from the beginning that the Peace Corps was not an agency, program, or mission. Now we know-from those who lived and died for it-that it is a way of being in the world. It is a very conservative notion, because it holds dear the ground of one’s own being-the culture and customs that give meaning to a particular life-but it is revolutionary for respecting the ground revered by others. This is the new politics and the new patriotism that may yet save this fragmented and dispirited age, and it is the gift they gave us.”

Vanity Fair

In the July 2011 issue of Vanity Fair Moyers  was asked in the Proust Questionnaire column: “What do you consider your greatest achievement?”

He replied: Personally? Our marriage, a great antidote to self-absorption. Professionally? Those early Peace Corps days. We were making a statement to the world about America that is still valid half a century later. Remember, there is a moral alternative to war.

Moyers in Trouble at the Peace Corps

Finally this is my favorite story about Moyers. It is a famous Peace Corps story from the early years that has been told and retold a couple thousand times, and is retold.

It is a story [as all good Washington, D.C. do] that begins in Georgetown. It was a Sunday evening in the fall of 1961 and Dick Nelson, who was Bill Moyers’s assistant, and Blair Butterworth, whose father was ambassador to Canada, and who worked as a file clerk at PC/W, were living together at Two Pomander Walk in Georgetown.

That Sunday, Moyers’ wife and kids were in Texas and he came over to see the two guys, who had been roommates at Princeton. Nelson and Butterworth were both twenty-two or three at the time. Moyers was maybe twenty-six.

Moyers was a Baptist and didn’t drink, so Blair and Dick decided to teach Moyers how to drink. And they did. After a few drinks, Nelson does his imitation of JFK and Blair does his imitation of Bobby. Moyers thinks they are uproariously funny. [It could have been the booze to a Baptist.]

Moyers says, “Dick, why don’t you call Warren Wiggins [Warren was, as you know, the co-author with Bill Josephson of ‘The Towering Task” and a key figure in the new Peace Corps] and say you’re the president?” [People who knew Moyers in those days know he would rather play jokes on people than do anything like real work.]

Nelson is not sure it will work. He thinks Warren might smell a rat and hang up, or as Dick recalls, “What if he believes me?” and Moyers replies with glee, “Then we’ll really have some fun.”

They dial Wiggins at his suburban Virginia home. Edna Wiggins, Warren’s wife, answers the phone and Nelson says in the purest possible Kennedy tonalities, “Uh, this is the president. Is Sahge theah by any chahnce?”

Edna goes berserk, as who wouldn’t. She puts her hand over the mouthpiece and shouts, “Warren, get out of the shower! It’s the president!”

Dripping wet, Warren rushes to the phone to say hello. Nelson continues, “Mistah Wiggins, I am looking for Sahge. Do you know wheah he is?”

Warren crisply says, “No, sir. But I’ll find him, sir.”

Warren hangs up and calls the White House because the White House is famous for finding anyone. They connect him to Sarge and Warren says, “Sarge, this is Warren. The president’s looking for you.” And Sarge replies, “Warren, someone is pulling your leg. The president is right next to me. I’m in his car.”

Meanwhile, back at Two Pomander Walk in Georgetown, Moyers, Nelson and Butterworth are thinking how hilarious it all is. Then Nelson thinks, “Say, can the Secret Service trace that call? What about the FBI?” They begin to panic.

They pull the shades. They begin to tremble. But not Moyers. He rallies. He rushes from the house. He races down to the Peace Corps office, then located in the Maiatico Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue, signs himself in-back-dates the time by two hours so it looks as if he was at the Peace Corps at the time of the call.

And the next day, when Sarge calls a senior staff meeting he complains that somebody had been imitating the president on the telephone-and that it must be somebody on the staff–Moyers immediately speaks up and volunteers to have the FBI find out who did it.

I’m told no one was ever caught.

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