Wilbur Mills to LBJ: ‘We ain’t gonna give money to folks without some strings attached’

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Congress doesn’t work that way, said Wilbur Mills, the formidable chair of the House Ways and Means Committee in the late 1960s. Bill Moyers, then a young aide to President Johnson, recalled the upshot of the Public Broadcasting Act: Congress created CPB but left it without a dedicated revenue source, destined to lobby unceasingly for annual appropriations. This account is excerpted from Moyers’ speech to the PBS Showcase Conference in May 2006. (The full text of the speech is also on this site.)

… When he signed it, the President said that the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 “announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than ‘a chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too…. At its best, public television would help make our nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all its citizens.”

He got it. Even a man hardened and compromised by the dog-eat-dog, knock-down-drag-out backroom brawls of hardball politics knew that a vigorous artistic, cultural, and intellectual forum is important to the health of democracy. So he said at the signing, “Today we rededicate a part of the airwaves — which belong to all the people — and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.”

To pay for this enlightenment, the Carnegie Commission had recommended an excise tax on the sale of television sets that would then be placed in a trust fund specifically for public broadcasting. President Johnson thought this was a good idea — probably the best, he said, to remove public broadcasting from efforts by either party to intimidate and manipulate it. You can’t imagine what a radical idea this was — to create a federally funded public broadcasting system that would simultaneously be financially independent of the government.

And that was the catch. It was a bold idea, and it went nowhere. I want to tell you why because there’s a lesson in it for us right now.

hist-wilburmills Lyndon JohnsonThe President asked his old friend Wilbur Mills to come down to the White House and talk it over. Wilbur Mills of Arkansas was the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee where all tax legislation must originate. We wouldn’t get the excise tax without him. So he and the President met in a small room next to the oval office. They gossiped for an hour or so, shared rumors about friends and enemies, relived old battles in Congress, schemed about bills then pending — and then LBJ began to press the flesh: what Washington called “The Treatment.”

Standing, sitting, leaning in, cajoling, whining for pity, teasing, bribing, threatening, the President was all over Mills. And when he got to the payoff — when he was ready to drive home the pitch and close the deal — he told a story. He told a story of the two little boys in Texas [one of them was the writer and broadcaster John Henry Faulk from whom LBJ himself first heard the story] who were playing in the hen house when they spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests, so close it looked like a boa constrictor.

Their courage drained right out of their heels — actually, LBJ said, it ran down their legs and on their overalls. And in a matter of seconds they had made a new door through the henhouse wall. One of their mothers came out and asked what the fuss was all about, and when they told her, she said: “Don’t you boys know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you.” One of the boys, rubbing his forehead and his behind at the same time — and the President was now standing, towering above Wilbur Mills, illustrating precisely what he was describing said: “Yes, ma’am. But they can scare you so bad, it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.”

And that, said the president to the chairman, is why we need to give these people (public broadcasters) some room to “protect them from the likes of you and me. If we don’t, they’ll be so scared they’ll hurt themselves.”

Lyndon Johnson knew well the wisdom of the old saying: “The pen may be mightier than the sword, but an eraser is mightier still.” He knew, because he kept a drawer full of erasers.

Wilbur Mills listened. The President was sitting down again, leaning forward almost in the other man’s face and these two old crafty cardsharks, drinking buddies, shrewd and tough as nails, were looking right in each other’s eyes. Then the Chairman said to the President (I am paraphrasing): “Well, that’s all well and good, Lyndon. But you were up there long enough [in Congress] to know we ain’t gonna give money to folks without some strings attached. We don’t work that way.”

That was that. It meant a life on the dole for this new enterprise. And it left us vulnerable.

Just look at what happened as early as 1970. Public television broadcast a documentary called Banks and the Poor, holding up to critical scrutiny financial practices that exploited poor people. With the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as its score, the film closed with a crawl listing the names of 133 Members of Congress who were directors of banks or had bank holdings.

All hell broke loose. President Nixon and his director of communications, Patrick Buchanan, were so outraged that the President vetoed CPB’s reauthorization bill and wouldn’t sign another until the chairman, president, and director of television for CPB resigned. When public television hired two NBC reporters – Robert MacNeil and Sander Vanocur — to co-anchor some new broadcasts, Nixon commanded Buchanan to “get the left-wing commentators who are cutting us up off public television at once — yesterday, if possible!” They failed at that, but they did succeed in cutting CPB funding for almost all public affairs programming, and they knocked out multiyear funding for one of the most promising of all innovations — the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT), which had been created to provide independent journalism for the sake of democracy. They also took away from PBS its ultimate responsibility for the production of programming.

Actually, they would have strangled the infant in the crib — or like Queen Hera at least toss a couple of snakes into it — except for the courage of a man named Ralph Rogers. Ralph Rogers was a powerful and wealthy industrialist from Texas, a Republican — also of the old school — who was chairman of our station in Dallas. Principled and wise, crafty and independent, he believed in the first amendment and he saw the White House intimidation as an assault on freedom of the press. He once told me, with a wink and sparkle in his eye, that he figured a Democratic White House could one day do what the Republican White House was trying even then to do, and that wouldn’t be good, either. So Ralph Rogers stood up to his own President and led a nationwide effort that saved public television. Ralph Rogers is one of my heroes. Without him, it’s unlikely we would be here today.

(Paradoxically — and perhaps poetically — the very National Public Affairs Center for Television that President Nixon and Patrick Buchanan had tried to kill, put PBS on the map by re-broadcasting in prime time every night that day’s Watergate hearings, drawing huge ratings night after night and establishing PBS as a force in the country.)

But the shock of those assaults had a lasting impact, and the pressure never wholly let up. NPACT couldn’t sustain its funding and disappeared. A Woody Allen special that poked fun at Henry Kissinger was cancelled, and far too many other unconventional programs never had a chance. Even when the strings are not tightly pulled, you knew they are there, and the worst thing that came out of that ugly episode was that we have never been able to completely shake out of our collective mind the fear that the chicken snake might prove to be a boa constrictor. . . .

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