As television, it had all the excitement of a cross between "Sunrise Semester" and "Sermonette," and as a political act, it was a leaden embarrassment. But "Let Poland Be Poland," the U.S. International Communication Agency's $500,000 TV spectacular, failed to achieve the level of Hollywood tastelessness some of its detractors had predicted for it, and so its supporters may this morning be claiming a quaint sort of victory.
Perhaps a bit more Hollywood tastelessness would actually have helped; 90 minutes of repetitious rhetoric does not exactly make for scintillating TV. It was impressive that so many world leaders had been convinced to make videotaped contributions to the program, but most of them looked propped-up and blank, their eyes aimed off-camera in a teleprompter trance. There was not a single genuinely spontaneous emotional moment in the whole program until the end, when Henry Fonda showed up, and this was heart-wrenching in an irrelevant way, since one was struck by how old and frail the bearded Fonda appeared.
Fonda read from Engels on the subject of Poland's independence, a way of throwing Commie words back in Commie faces -- take that! The Commies had dropped the ball, after all, and this was the USA's way of running, or rather lumbering, with it. USICA rules normally prohibit domestic broadcast of such efforts as the Poland show, but Congress, which can always make time for pious idiocies, voted last week to waive the rule, and time was purchased (for about $1,000 by the right-wing Heritage Foundation) on the PBS satellite transponder so that PBS stations, if they wanted to, could air the production.
Thus the program broke precedent -- it was the first USICA production to be aired simultaneously in this country and abroad -- but, one would hope, will not set one.
Lawrence Grossman, PBS president, took pains on Friday to make it clear that "Poland" was by no means a PBS program; there was to be no PBS logo used before or after. "Some station managers" were "troubled" by the idea of airing the show on their stations, Grossman said; "My own personal view is that if I were a station manager, I would run it, with all kinds of framers and disclaimers."
WETA-TV here did run it with framers and disclaimers, but interrupted a tennis match between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors to do it.
Among those seen on the program were entertainers Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Glenda Jackson, Max von Sydow, Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston, and such foreign leaders as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, French President Francois Mitterrand, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and the prime ministers of Norway, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Belgium and other countries.
American politicians included President Reagan, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill. Also seen were former Polish ambassador to the United States Romuald Spasowski, author James Michener and National Symphony conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.
While most of the statements from foreign politicians were tactfully worded and emphasized support for Polish workers over condemnation of the Soviet Union, the remarks by American politicos, and the lines written for the American entertainers and program hosts, sounded like the Cold War rhetoric of years gone by, heavy-handedly opportunistic and transparent.
Reagan referred to "brutal repression" by the Soviets and to martial law in Poland as "a dark night of tyranny." Secretary of State Alexander Haig, caught podium-thumping at a rally in Chicago, spoke of "falsehoods" and "repression." Von Sydow said at one point that "In Poland today, beauty is against the law," and, earlier, compared the Soviet presence in Poland to the Nazi invasion of that country at the start of World War II; he referred to the Soviet intervention as "government ineptitude," and said, "Poland's own government is brutalizing its people . . . It is sad and very stupid."
In short, there was no doubt, on this program of back-to-back commercials, who the sponsor was. It was like a telethon in which you were expected to send in your heart instead of your bucks.
On Friday, USICA director Charles Z. Wick made a last defense of the costly project before flying to the Netherlands, and he gave the show, which he conceived, a rave review. "It will all be done very nicely," he pledged. "Very tastefully done. Serious. Dignified. Really powerful, very compelling."
He said he was irked by advance criticism of the production but also said, "That controvery has just created an enormous interest. Now a lot of countries that wanted to see it before deciding whether to show it are rivaling to carry it. The world will see what this is -- a serious effort to show concern in a very human way!"
Wick called charges of bad taste "preposterous" and then began rummaging through papers to make his point. "Frank Sinatra -- 'tasteless, vulgar,' right? Let me read this to you, okay? Frank Sinatra comes on camera, black background, no big production, and says, 'I'm not a politician, I'm a singer. . .' " Wick read Sinatra's lines and described the slides of Polish life that would accompany a recording of his song "Ever Homeward," and then exclaimed, "That's a far cry from Hollywood razzamatazz, isn't it?"
What did he hope the program would accomplish? "Create a reverberation that will loosen the fetters that suppress Poland," he said. There was justification for showing the documentary in the United States because there is "a great deal of interest" in the Polish crisis here, Wick said. Asked if it didn't represent a throwback to hard-line Cold War propagandizing, Wick said, "It's an expression of moral outrage, so how hard-line can it get?"
"This program itself is a demonstration of solidarity," Heston said during the show, after a big show-bizzy drum roll and before other hosts introduced all the guest-starring nations. The program did afford Americans the chance to see what kind of glitter-prop their tax money is paying for, but it's very likely that those who tuned in grew too bored from what they saw to work up anything as dramatic as outrage.