At the start of tonight's two-hour CBS News special "1968," Harry Reasoner proposes that it was "a year we're still paying for. The events of a decade ago still move us, still underlie the events of today. You'll understand 1978 better by watching 1968."
Well, maybe . . . but not this "1968," which airs at 9 on Channel 9 (WDVM). Somehow the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assinations, the Columbia students' strike and Chicago Democratic National Convention, coupled with Reasoner's glib commentaries, seem like moldy leftovers reheated for the tube.
Ironically, some of the most fascinating moments are not the historic spectaculars but the odd glimpses behind the scenes. There's an amusing glimpse of Lyndon Johnson Practicing the speech to the nation about his decision not to run again: He's got his hands over his head like rabbit ears, and the technicians are diddling with camera angles, and he says "If Hanoi is restrained, we will reciprocate - or something like that. This is State Department Language. Doesn't make sense what I was talkin' to you about this morning."
Likewise, the oft-repeated clips of violence at the Chicago convention are of less interest than shots, made six weeks earlier, of Illinois National Guardsmen preparing for the confrontation. Half of them are playing demonstrators, appropriately dressed in bluejeans and Army surplus jackets. They're screaming, "We want freedom " and singing "Glory, glory hallelujah," and except for the beer cans they're carrying, you'd swear it was the real thing.
And now, a real golden oldie: Although he's never identified, we get two glimpses of U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young: first in a black T-shirt walking along in a freedom march; later, in a suit, driving Martin Luther King's limo.
But this is not the stuff of memories, nor is "1968" terribly memorable Reasoner - writer-producer Perry Wolfe - make the fatal historical mistakes of the sweeping generality and the snide putdown. Thus soldiers at the 77-day battle of Khe Sanh are described as "hostages to Lyndon Johnson's ideas," and scenes of a protest concert and battle footage are cut together with a clip of Johnson in a swimming pool with one of his beagles. This kind of guilt-by-editing seems like something more typical of a 1968 radical-chic documentary than a network overview that's ostensibly 10 years removed from the emotionalism of the events.
Later, in assessing the impact of image-makers on the 1968 campaign, Reasoner makes this in-depth analysis: "That year all politicians felt obliged to walk near the water, giving the impression that if elected, they could walk on the water."
The show portends to make some serious new revelations about history that weren't known at the time: The FBI thought King a black messiah who might ferment a revolution; CIA and Army intelligence units had infiltrated the hordes of Chicago demonstrators. As riot footage reels on and on, Reasoner seems - somewhat simplistically - shocked enough to declare, "The government was consistently violating the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens."
Perhaps we're just living in the jaded 1970s, but the episodic presentation of "1968" would have been more shocking then as an instant replay than it is now as studied reflection.