The Blessings of Liberty ABC, tomorrow, 8-11 p.m. Anchors: Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, David Brinkley. Executive producer: Av Westin. Strange as it may seem because of its serious history-oriented content, ``The Blessings of Liberty'' is, perhaps, the quintessential vaudeville show.
Timed to air the day before the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, this phenomenal birthday celebration displays a fervent, almost fanatical dedication to the United States Constitution. Overflowing with a serious sense of history and a clear determination to find balanced perspective, it also manages to sneak in joy and celebration amid its many meaningful moments.
``The Blessings of Liberty'' lives up to its promise to present the Constitution as a living document by using the framework of a lively show.
Executive producer Av Westin and a large staff of producers, writers, and directors (unusual in this time of budget cutting) use three outstanding anchors - Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, and David Brinkley - as archival interlocutors. They call upon fiction film clips, newsreel footage, photographs, eyewitnesses, and a group of actors - including F. Murray Abraham, Ossie Davis, Louis Gossett Jr., Richard Kiley, Linda Lavin, E.G. Marshall, John Randolph, Roy Scheider, Martin Sheen, Richard Thomas, Cicely Tyson, and Sam Waterston - to portray individuals important to the shaping and interpretation of the Constitution.
Certainly, even a three-hour program can offer only a once-over-lightly history of a document so complex as the Constitution. But ``Liberty'' manages at least to mention the major crises, then focus on high and low points in the framing of the document. There is no attempt to skip over ticklish questions; the script faces head on such constitutional issues as the separate-but-equal battle, the Japanese-American internment camps, McCarthyism, the war powers act, the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam, Watergate and the Nixon resignation, abortion, the Iran-Contra hearings, and the current Bork confirmation hearings.
Undoubtedly there will be viewers who will object to the program as biased in one way or another. But there seems to be a real effort to find the center, without leaning too far to the right or left. The program focuses on a series of major Supreme Court decisions that have deeply affected the course of liberty, among them, Marbury v. Madison, the Gramm-Rudman decision, Dartmouth v. Woodward, the Dred Scott decision, Plessy v. Virginia, and Muller v. Oregon. The importance of such decisions becomes especially apparent, the program points up, in light of the debate raging about the Bork nomination.
There are sonorously portentous moments in this program, as the anchors present the basic facts while standing stiffly in the echoing rotunda of the National Archives, where the Constitution is enshrined. But the most impressive portions of the telecast are those that pinpoint the roles played by individuals from all walks of life.
The Constitution, seen through their eyes, makes the most inspiring stories of the past 200 years.
If you can't spare three hours tomorrow evening, try to tape this show and watch it later, possibly in two or three sittings. But do watch it, because not only is it likely to fill in some blind spots in one's understanding of this document; it is, pure and simple, good television, with its extraordinarily satisfying combination of entertainment and information.