Somewhere along the calamitous road from the '60s to the '80s, the greening of America turned into the groaning of America. "Of 19 countries recently surveyed for their peoples' attitudes about the future, the United States was the most pessimistic of all," Bill Moyers reports on public TV tonight.

"More people than ever in this country believe the present is worse than the past, and the future will be worse than the present," he says, and the search to explain this national change of heart constitutes "Our Times," the season return of "Bill Moyers' Journal," at 8 on Channel 26 and other PBS stations.

To what may be a patently impossible task, Moyers brings his usual reason, realism and resolve. He hopscotches through the disasters and tragedies of the last 20 years and consults both experts and persons-in-the-street for clues to the future.

As usual, the experts tend to play verbal chess and the real people make sense. From the files Moyers resurrects his 1973 interview with the father of the first American combat casualty in Vietnam. "I like this country," the man says "I say what I cotton-picking please about who I please, and if the shoe fits, wear it."

Later, at a Dayton, Ohio, citizen think-tank session, Moyers asks a woman whether she is optimistic "that things will get better" for America. "Oh yes, I am. Very," she says but something in her eyes indicates this is more a matter of what she wants to believe than what she knows for a fact.

In reviewing the crises that tested the country's mettle and fortitude -- Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, racial clashes, changes in sexual roles -- Moyers weaves in details from his own life, but the device isn't carried far enough to be very effective. Director Sidney Smith's way with newsreels and news photos is hardly adept, either, and many of the electronic transitions he uses are distractingly tacky and fey.

In addition, Moyers is a word man and not a picture man, and so sequences that could have made their point with pictures alone are given the encumbrance of a rarely yielding narration.Still, the commentary is fervently analytical and sometimes of a quality, or at least a mentality, which would have pleased Thomas Paine.

Moyers in Washington:

"If you believe government is essential, as so many of us do, what's happened here has to dismay you. It's simply out of control, hopelessly overloaded, unaccountable, incredibly expensive, and perverse in its effects -- for it exports chaos all down the line to state and local officials who find it nearly impossible to manage all the programs dropped in their laps."

"Our Times" is a muffled cheer trying not to be a lamentation, and is therefore in itself a sign of our times.