One of the most significant programs likely to screen on TV this season is Debating Our Destiny: 40 Years of Presidential Debates (PBS, Sept. 24, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). If anyone doubts the power of television, here is certain proof of its influence.
This excellent documentary - narrated and hosted by respected news veteran Jim Lehrer (PBS, "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"), who began the project 10 years ago with an interview of President Reagan - takes viewers behind the debates that cost some candidates the White House.
We see pieces of the televised confrontations from Kennedy versus Nixon to Clinton versus Dole. We hear from most of the candidates who are still living (Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot declined to participate), including Presidents Clinton, Carter, Bush, and Ford, and Vice Presidents Quayle and Mondale.
Contenders Michael Dukakis, Geraldine Ferraro, and John Anderson, among others, relive those tense moments in the spotlight when they either blew an opportunity or capitalized on an opponent's mistake.
The unusual frankness with which all of these former candidates answer Lehrer's questions makes this a unique television experience. It feels as if we are meeting the human beings behind the official masks for the first time. How did Lehrer get them to reveal so much?
"My theory is, they all wanted to talk about this," said Lehrer, reached by phone in Virginia. "The debates were important in their lives, and it was harmless to talk about them now. Nobody was going to get hurt. They had something they wanted to say - in their systems - and they had moved beyond the possibility of embarrassment.
"I've been [in journalism] a long time, and I've never been able to get someone to say something they didn't want to say. But I was struck by how straight they were and how they really tried to come to grips with what I was asking them: 'Let me tell you what happened....' "
In a close race, the debates become very important as undecided voters watch to see what kind of a person the candidate is, Lehrer says. Viewers may know already where the candidates stand on the issues, but they want to see how they handle themselves in a crisis.
Take, for instance, the time Mr. Dukakis, who is opposed to capital punishment, was asked on camera, "If your wife were murdered, would you change your mind about capital punishment?" He answered the question as if it were an issue question and not a gut-response question, and it made him seem like a cold fish - hurting his campaign.
Or the time Quayle declared that he was qualified for the job of vice president, having had as much experience in government as Jack Kennedy when he ran for president. His opponent, Lloyd Benson, rebuked him with, "I worked with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. And senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Ouch.
But to hear Quayle and Dukakis explain what they actually meant is to learn how precise and how conscious of the medium a candidate must be when on television.
A candidate has to stand before a studio audience and connect with them, and then beyond them to the millions of viewers who have tuned in, Lehrer says.
"It's part of the job description. If you are going to be president of the United States and guide and lead the American people, you had better be able to communicate with them on television," he says. "It goes with the office."
Former President Bush stresses several times during the film that televised debates are "showbiz." President Clinton acknowledges that he thought up some good one-liners before he went on camera - and several other candidates say they did the same.
Of course the debates are partly showbiz, Lehrer says. He even concedes that a handsome man who presents an image of confidence has a leg up with the TV voting audience - going in.
But, he says, not necessarily after the debate. "People can see if a [candidate] is an empty suit," Lehrer says. "The American people are good at 'Yeah, but....' "
Two other PBS offerings this week are well worth viewing time: the documentary "Daring to Resist," narrated by Janeane Garofalo, and an award-winning neo-realist styled drama "The City (La Ciudad)." Both investigate the sorrows and courage of individuals under extreme duress.
Daring to Resist (PBS, Sept. 25, check local listings), directed by Barbara Attie and Martha Goell Lubell, documents and celebrates the resistance to Nazi aggression during World War II by three teenage Jewish girls. Each reflects on what drove her.
Barbara Rodbell was a blond ballerina in Holland whose profession helped keep her alive. Lots of people knew she was Jewish, but no one turned her in. Passing as a Christian living in a Nazi-sympathizer's house, she distributed underground newspapers and helped hide other Jews and get them to safety.
Shulamit Lack was a fearless child, the daughter of a Hungarian Army officer who taught her to shoot at an early age.
She joined a Zionist group, created a clever system for forging papers, and led groups of Jews to Romania. When she was caught by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, she kept herself and her friends alive.
Faye Schulman was a teenage photographer in Poland whose talent made her useful to the Nazis. Joining the partisans, she documented the resistance, cared for the wounded, and fought beside her male counterparts. The film tells the women's stories without emotional manipulation - but the facts themselves move us to admiration.
The City (La Ciudad), directed by David Riker (PBS, Sept. 22, check local listings) is a work of fiction, and it also eschews sentimentalism to tell poignant stories of Latino immigrants living in New York City.
In one, laborers vie for a job gathering bricks, and find that the boss intends to cheat them.
Another shows a young man alone in the big city. He falls in love with a girl from his own village, only to lose her in the labyrinthine projects. A homeless puppeteer tries to get his daughter enrolled in school, but has no address and therefore no proof of residence. And more.
This well-made, powerful first picture intends to extend the viewers' empathy to people in our midst who often go unnoticed - or worse, resented. It succeeds because it tells its stories wisely, simply, and compassionately. We see cultural differences, and feel the humanity of those who come to the aid of people in distress.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society