Democratic presidential candidates were handed a dream audience of 1,000 "ready-for-action" labor, civil rights, peace and economic justice campaigners at the Take Back America conference organized in Washington last week by the Campaign for America's Future. And the 2004 contenders grabbed for it, delivering some of the better speeches of a campaign that remains rhetorically -- and directionally -- challenged. But it was a non-candidate who won the hearts and minds of the crowd with a "Cross of Gold" speech for the 21st century.
Recalling the populism and old-school progressivism of the era in which William Jennings Bryan stirred the Democratic National Convention of 1896 to enter into the great struggle between privilege and democracy -- and to spontaneously nominate the young Nebraskan for president -- journalist and former presidential aide Bill Moyers delivered a call to arms against "government of, by and for the ruling corporate class."
Condemning "the unholy alliance between government and wealth" and the compassionate conservative spin that tries to make "the rape of America sound like a consensual date," Moyers charged that "rightwing wrecking crews" assembled by the Bush Administration and its Congressional allies were out to bankrupt government. Then, he said, they would privatize public services in order to enrich the corporate interests that fund campaigns and provide golden parachutes to pliable politicians. If unchecked, Moyers warned, the result of these machinations will be the dismantling of "every last brick of the social contract."
"I think this is a deliberate, intentional destruction of the United States of America," said Moyers, as he called for the progressives gathered in Washington -- and for their allies across the United States -- to organize not merely in defense of social and economic justice but in order to preserve democracy itself. Paraphrasing the words of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president rallied the nation to battle against slavery, Moyers declared, "our nation can no more survive as half democracy and half oligarchy than it could survive half slave and half free."
There was little doubt that the crowd of activists from across the country would have nominated Moyers by acclamation when he finished a remarkable address in which he challenged not just the policies of the Bush Administration but the failures of Democratic leaders in Congress to effectively challenge the president and his minions. In the face of what he described as "a radical assault" on American values by those who seek to redistribute wealth upward from the many to a wealthy few, Moyers said he could not understand why "the Democrats are afraid to be branded class warriors in a war the other side started and is winning."
Several of the Democratic presidential contenders who addressed the crowd after Moyers picked up pieces of his argument. Former US Senator Carol Moseley Braun actually quoted William Jennings Bryan, while North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry tried -- with about as much success as Al Gore in 2000 -- to sound populist. Former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt promised not to be "Bush-lite," and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean drew warm applause when he said the way for Democrats to get elected "is not to be like Republicans, but to stand up against them and fight." Ultimately, however, only the Rev. Al Sharpton and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich came close to matching the fury and the passion of the crowd.
Kucinich, who earned nine standing ovations for his antiwar and anti-corporate free trade rhetoric, probably did more to advance his candidacy than any of the other contenders. But he never got to the place Moyers reached with a speech that legal scholar Jamie Raskin described as one of the most "amazing and spellbinding" addresses he had ever heard. Author and activist Frances Moore Lappe said she was close to tears as she thanked Moyers for providing precisely the mixture of perspective and hope that progressives need as they prepare to challenge the right in 2004.
That, Moyers explained, was the point of his address, which reflected on White House political czar Karl Rove's oft-stated admiration for Mark Hanna, the Ohio political boss who managed the campaigns and the presidency of conservative Republican William McKinley. It was McKinley who beat Bryan in 1896 and -- with Hanna's help -- fashioned a White House that served the interests of the corporate trusts.
Comparing the excesses of Hanna and Rove, and McKinley and Bush, Moyers said "the social dislocations and the meanness" of the 19th century were being renewed by a new generation of politicians who, like their predecessors, seek to strangle the spirit of the American revolution "in the hard grip of the ruling class."
To break that grip, Moyers said, progressives of today must learn from the revolutionaries and reformers of old. Recalling the progressive movement that rose up in the first years of the 20th century to preserve a "balance between wealth and commonwealth," and the successes of the New Dealers who turned progressive ideals into national policy, Moyers told the crowd to "get back in the fight." "Hear me!" he cried. "Allow yourself that conceit to believe that the flame of democracy will never go out as long as there is one candle in your hand."
While others were campaigning last week, Moyers was tending the flame of democracy. In doing so, he unwittingly made himself the candle holder-in-chief for those who seek to spark a new progressive era.