Touring the US with de Tocqueville - and Richard Reeves

How would you like a contemporary tour of America with Alexis de Tocqueville as your guide? Well, Richard Reeves did it: American Journey, followed by American Journey Live (PBS, Wednesday and succeeding days, check local listings for premieres and repeats of both programs). And now what he presents to viewers as a result is a Reeves recreation of de Tocqueville's 1831 tour, complete with de Tocqueville's recorded reactions, but superimposed with Reeves's own 20th-century observations and comparisons.

''Journey'' is a glorious, refreshingly flag-waving yet resoundingly critical examination of the contemporary America that de Tocqueville envisioned with enormous foresight about 150 years ago.

''Journey'' does not slavishly follow de Tocqueville's original route, although many of the areas he visited are included; it wanders as far as California and Alaska, which were not states 150 years ago. Produced and directed with refreshing simplicity by Malcolm Clarke, written by Reeves himself , photographed superbly by Gregory Andracke and Peter Schnall, ''Journey'' is only loosely a de Tocqueville-Reeves analogy.

In a series of sometimes too diffuse wanderings represented in visual and verbal vignettes, this electronic paean to America sings melodic praises. But it also allows some cacophonous voices to be heard - mostly black. ''I'm glad to be an American, but not necessarily proud'' is a sad but understandable com-ment.

Reeves, a straight-forwardly critical yet patriotic voice, insistently compares the America he sees with the America de Tocqueville discovered, in most cases finding no great philosophical changes in the midst of obvious technological ones. Both were impressed by the growing homogeneity of the comparatively new nation. Major difference in approach? De Tocqueville calls our entrepreneurs and innovators ''American heroes,'' while Reeves somewhat caustically identifies them as ''American hustlers.''

Both men seem to agree that a democratic America seems destined to be better as a nation than as individuals. But both men, despite great reservations as to such obvious weaknesses as poverty, racism, and materialism, came to the same conclusion about democracy. As Reeves puts it: ''It does work. But in our democracy, each of us has the right and the power to disagree about what it should do. The glory and the frustration of America is that greatness is defined by each American. And that's the way we meant it to be.''

What will the future hold for us? Reeves says he is convinced that ''America will become more and more democratic. Individuals will have more and more power as they get more and more information and an increasingly sophisticated view of the working of the society.'' Although Reeves appears to be a middle-of-the-road liberal, John Wayne probably wouldn't have said it differently.

In what is billed as ''The People's Response'' at the conclusion of the two-hour program, PBS will give viewers a live, hour-long opportunity to phone in questions to Reeves; Jeff Greenfield; and such guests as Mayor Ed Koch of New York, Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, and state Sen. Julian Bond of Georgia about their personal visions of America.

''American Journey'' is an exquisitely incisive odyssey. Many viewers will find it infinitely more rewarding to spend the evening with Reeves's America than with the final episode of ''The Thorn Birds,'' airing opposite it on ABC.

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