Watergate -- a Greek tragedy of our times -- relived on PBS

The summer of 1973 was the summer that millions of Americans lost their political innocence. But at the same time, many gained a sophisticated friend in TV.

It was Watergate Summer, and for four months, May through August, every day many of us sat for hours in front of our TV sets, shedding ingenuous attitudes about politics as we came to appreciate the value of gavel-to-gavel coverage of national affairs.

I camped out in front of the TV set, watching the unfolding of a contemporary tragedy . . . the story of Watergate and its aftermath. It is a story that needs to be retold every now and then, and it is being retold vividly next week: Summer of Judgment: The Watergate Hearings (PBS, Wednesday, 9-11 p.m. and other nights at other times, check local listingsm).

Very early on in the summer of 1973 it became apparent that what I - and millions of other Americans - were witnessing on the then-newfangled PBS TV system was a modern-day Greek tragedy, complete with chorus, narrator, and central figure. Day by day, it was a personal ordeal to watch the tragedy evolve , seeing it move unyieldingly toward its inevitable climax. The calm, droning, amazing testimony of John Dean, the stonewalling defense by many other principles, the soul-searching of the little fish caught in the big-pond traps, the down-home reactions of Sam Ervin, the revelation of the existence of the Oval Office tapes - all were Hellenic scenes performed on camera.

We, the audience, mumbling to ourselves, declaring our outrage to friends, neighbors, and congressmen, constituted the chorus.

Now, 10 years afterward, WETA, the Washington PBS station most responsible for the total Watergate coverage which put PBS permanently and firmly into the American TV viewer's guide, is giving us all another shot at interpreting the real meaning of Watergate in ''Summer of Judgment.'' It is a two-hour summary of the 250 hours of tape in the WETA archives. Although the program also offers retrospective looks at the events by some of the major figures in the investigation, its major strength is that while it comes down clearly on the side of morality in government, it allows the viewer to judge for himself just how fair the preceedings were.

Charles McDowell, Washington correspondent for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, performs the function of a knowing tour guide through the chasms of Watergate, pointing out the sights as well as the pitfalls. His delicate but pointed comments are delivered with an inflection as noticeable as Sen. Sam Ervin's.

Senator Ervin, then chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, is the real star of the show - in tapes of the original proceedings as well as in an interview conducted only a short time ago from the family home in Morganton, N.C. He claimed he knew that a president's duties did not cover criminal action. How did he know that? He was challenged. ''Because the English language is my native tongue,'' he replied, ''and I understand it.''

The documentary can only manage a quick sampling of the wealth of watchable material available. Producer Ricki Green has done an amazingly skillful job in getting to the essence of the event and its electronic disclosures.

There's a touch of John Dean, coming over as opportunistic, seemingly honest; and there is testimony from H. R. Haldeman, unnervingly friendly but still steely; and a disturbing picture of the joshingly judgmental John Erlichman. And then there is the surprise testimony of Alexander Butterfield announcing the existence of the tapes.

Through it all there are also the balancing words of Sens. Howard H. Baker and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and minority counsel Fred D. Thompson to counteract the obvious partisanship of chief counsel Samuel Dash.

When asked about a positive legacy of Watergate, Stephen Hess - a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and frequently a panelist on PBS's ''Washington Week in Review'' - says: ''There is a whole set of laws on the books now that are there because of Watergate. I don't think they all do exactly what they set out to do, because we can't legislate morality. But ultimately the great consequence of Watergate is the knowledge of Watergate. Politicians know that Watergate existed, that the press, courts, congressional committees, can act, and the politicians had best be very careful.''

Undoubtedly there will be those partisans who feel that this digest of the hearings (and also some tapes of the impeachment committee hearings) has been loaded so that President Nixon is not shown at his best. But the fact is that the essence of Watergate has been maintained honorably. The mean spirit of winning at any price is pictured here in all its political horror.

Undoubtedly, there will be other TV programs about Watergate with, perhaps, more scholarly interpretations. But meantime, ''Summer of Judgment'' is of great value because it is the beginning of the period of Watergate retrospection. It is especially timely in these days of ''Debategate,'' the controversy over briefing papers allegedly used in the Carter-Reagan debates. Maybe in the process of understanding, we will regain some of our marvelous ingenuousness about political morality, which seems to be essential if the democratic process is to work. Chat with producer Green

''Debategate'' is just a pale shadow of Watergate, according to Ricki Green, producer of ''Summer of Judgment: The Watergate Hearings.''

''People have forgotten the details. We seem to have just a general impression left. And I am especially horrified at the fact that there seems to be a whole generation of young people who didn't live through the hearings and to whom Watergate is a kind of overinflated mystery.

''For my generation, Watergate was a direct experience, not filtered down through the eyes of commentators and reporters. We saw it on television ourselves. And because PBS had the foresight - and the air time - to give us gavel-to-gavel coverage, it was the beginning of wide public acceptance of PBS. It was originally brought to TV by NPACT, which was later incorporated into WETA , Washington. Many people forget that the anchors of the TV hearings were Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.''

Miss Green, who also produces ''Washington Week in Review,'' believes that the current handling of ''Debategate'' is a legacy of Watergate. ''Nobody denies there was such a thing as a purloined briefing book and nobody on an official level seems to be trying to hinder the investigation. Nobody wants to get caught covering up. That's the lesson of Watergate.''

Miss Green asserts that, despite the fact that the Nixon administration made some attempts to influence political programming on PBS, there was no apprehension about the political ramifications of doing this show on the Washington PBS station.

''I found only a great commitment to put the show on,'' she insists. ''I never heard any suggestion that it be softened or anything like that. The station was determined to get the program on the air, even without underwriting. We all felt it was important, and after all, we are the only ones who have the entire 250 hours of tapes.''

Miss Green at first suggested it would make a good 14-hour mini-series, but PBS stations who cosponsored the show would not go along with that much coverage. ''So we decided to limit it to just the hearings. After all, many politicians would agree that without the hearings and the kind of public judgment that occurred because of the TV coverage, there probably wouldn't have been the impetus for Congress to move to the impeachment hearings.''

Miss Green and her staff had transcripts of the entire 250 hours. They were able to winnow it down to around 60 hours, which were viewed and then edited down to 2 hours. ''It was a mesmerizing experience, watching the tapes,'' she recalls. ''So many unknown politicians seemed to rise above themselves. And so many of them have already receded into history . . . and, in some cases, mediocrity.''

What does she hope the documentary will accomplish?

''If it reminds people what Watergate was all about and can be used as a frame of reference to judge things that are happening today and in the future, I'll be happy. Especially if it is a belated learning experience for a whole generation of young Americans.''

Is this the end of Watergate as a topic for TV shows as far as Miss Green is concerned?

She laughs and shakes her head. ''Remember, next year there's another anniversary . . . the tenth year after the impeachment hearings. . . .''

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