Touring The Century With Bill Moyers

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The idea of Progress takes an awful pounding in these programs, as perhaps it should. It does sometimes seem that nothing in this century has quite worked out. In “The Arming of the Earth,” for instance, one of the most powerful shows, three devastating new weapons are introduced to the world—the machine gun, the submarine, and the bomber—each in the certainty that its mere existence would make war obsolete; instead, of course, they made it worse. Even world’s fairs, which once celebrated technological milestones and confidently promised more, now give equal time to every sort of nostalgia; in a memorable sequence from “Come to the Fairs,” filmed at last year’s Knoxville exposition, an enthusiastic cook offers visitors a taste of that old Tennessee mountain favorite, barbecued groundhog.

Americans were surest of their future at the century’s turn, and perhaps that is why we seem to be more derisive of this era than any other. In “TR and His Times” the historian David McCullough makes a plea for understanding that period on its own terms: “Progress was real,” he says. “Life for everyday people was improving daily. And if we could carry this progress— to the rest of the world, that seemed like a very noble thing to do.” Theodore Roosevelt himself “was a genius,” McCullough believes, and genius makes us uneasy; “one of the ways we react to it is to laugh at it.… ‘Good old Teddy, he’s a joke.’ ” One needn’t believe in TR’s literal genius to know that these points are well taken, but the rest of this oddly schizophrenic program seems calculated to contradict them; actors give arch readings of the words of Roosevelt and his contemporaries, who appear as animated cartoon characters so like those used on Monty Python that one expects a big pink foot to come down and squash them. This curious, trivializing program makes the rest seem all the better.

The idea of Progress takes an awful pounding.

It is the living witnesses to history who breathe life into this series:

  1. • Edward L. Bernays, the nonagenarian father of public relations, recalling an early and only marginally successful effort at presidential image-making: In order to make Calvin Coolidge seem more human, Bernays invited famous entertainers to lunch with him at the White House, among them Al Jolson and the beautiful Dolly Sisters. Next day the New York Times headline read: PRESIDENT NEARLY LAUGHS.
  2. • The black poet Sterling A. Brown, a stolid-looking man, suddenly weeping as he reads aloud “Old Lern,” his poem about a lynching, the memories its words stir still raw half a century after they were written.
  3. • Dennis Bosonni, a veteran newsreel cameraman, remembering how he dealt with the competition: “If somebody got funny,” he put chewing gum on their lens, then he’d “stick him in the jaw” with his tripod.
  4. • The late Sir Phillip Noel Baker recalls watching news film of the Nazi bombing of Warsaw with Winston Churchill in 1939: “His comment as the film ended was, ‘Bloody amateurs,’”

Moyers calls his programs “personal essays,” and it may not be surprising that the best of them is also the most intimate. In “Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas” he revisits the town where he was raised and without a trace of pedantry lets its citizens show us the play of history on one American place. He has assembled a colorful and articulate cast of friends and acquaintances: an elderly moonshiner who made a good thing of Prohibition; a school-teacher who did her best to make Shelley come alive for the sons and daughters of the Texas and Pacific Railroad men who worked the town yards; the aged mistress of a decaying plantation who can’t conceal her cackling glee at the memory of the cheap wages she used to mete out to the blacks who picked her cotton; the banker who remembers that in his boyhood “you could reach out and touch the past” because every weekend he went fishing with a grandfather who had fought in the Civil War. Even now that war is not so far away. The second Marshall, Texas, of the program’s title is the segregated side of town, about which Moyers admits he knew next to nothing as he grew up. He learns about life there from local blacks—and so do we. Among the most eloquent is Dr. James Farmer, the civil rights activist, who was born in Marshall and who explains quietly that it was memories of the indignities he suffered in silence as a boy in its segregated downtown that eventually drove him to establish CORE. When integration finally came in 1964, one white resident says, “We lost the Civil War. Up till then we had won.”

I’d be surprised if there were a more interesting documentary on public television this season, or one filled with more vivid and compelling human history.