As public television grows more and more financially enfeebled, innocuous documentaries proliferate on PBS and its stations. It's easier to get funding for them than for hot topical programming, or for bold departures. "Camp David," the one-hour film airing at 10 tonight on Channel 26, is nice and simple and aspires to make but a wee little peep.
Mission, such as it is, accomplished.
The program traces the history of the well-known but little-seen presidential retreat near Thurmont, Md., in the Catoctin Mountains. Memories of happy days there are provided by such presidential offspring as Lynda Johnson Robb (who remembers LBJ falling asleep during movie screenings), David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and Susan Ford Vance; and by former White House aides Clark Clifford, H.R. Haldeman, Jody Powell and Dave Powers, now curator of the JFK Library.
ABC News correspondent Ann Compton, who anchors the report, interviews Ronald and Nancy Reagan as a finale. Reagan quotes wife Nancy as having said, "Presidents don't get vacations; they just get a change of scenery." He seems to have taken his share, however.
Both Reagans are glimpsed in a film clip hunkering down together for one of the president's radio addresses from the camp. It suggests that when he leaves office, they should stay before the microphone and do a "breakfast with the Reagans" show, the kind that used to be popular back in the '50s.
Both Reagans love Camp David, they say. He laments that a president living in the White House "can't go out and run around on the lawn anymore." Yes, it stirs the American soul to see a president running around on the White House lawn. As the interview ends, someone cues the Reagans' dog, who paddles into the frame. Ron says the dog often takes his seat on the executive chopper and has to be moved elsewhere. Love that Rex!
Because it is a secure and private place, little film apparently exists of life at Camp David. There's one funny, nostalgic shot of Harry Truman, who didn't like the place much, hobnobbing with a gas station attendant while en route. Naturally the illustrious Begin-Sadat peace accords, thrashed out under Jimmy Carter's watchful eye, are recalled.
Richard Nixon can be seen strolling with Brezhnev there, and Dwight D. Eisenhower ambles with Khrushchev. It was Ike who dropped the moniker FDR gave the camp, "Shangri-La," to name it after his grandson.
Produced and directed by Lori Evans, and written by Richard Winter, the hour is casually informative and includes a diverting anecdote or two, but the tone is a little too chirpy and cheery. At times the show looks like one of those "Showcase of Homes" commercials sponsored by local real estate firms. Camp David is extolled with such enthusiasm that you begin to wonder if it's on the market.
Compton, while a good reporter, seems to be talking down to the audience here, perhaps assuming it to be made up of tots and toddlers, and she's on camera (walking down roads, popping out from behind trees) much more than she needs to be.
As a documentary, "Camp David" is squeaky-safe and, more often than not, politely dull