You really can't go wrong with Charles Kuralt. And there aren't a lot of folks in television news that can safely be said about.
Tonight at 10 on Channel 9, CBS News offers a cut-and-pasted special called "On the Fourth of July With Charles Kuralt" that is merely a collection of pieces Kuralt has done in the past for his own "Sunday Morning" show or for the "CBS Evening News." And yet it's a very nice collection, and a very satisfying hour, and none but a cynical churl would grouse.
When Charles Kuralt visits a flag factory, as he did in 1979, it's nothing like George Bush visiting a flag factory, as he hammily did in 1988. Kuralt has a merciful gift for depoliticizing things. With all the talk about the flag on this special, there's not a mention of the recent ugly rash of flag burnings, nor of the congressional poltroons who tried to muck around with the Constitution ostensibly on Old Glory's behalf.
Is "Old Glory" a corny name for it? Maybe. But it is old, and it is glorious. Kuralt gives proof through the night that our flag is still there.
In other segments, Kuralt chats with author Eudora Welty about her evocative photographs of impoverished Mississippians during the Great Depression ("Nobody had anything and the black people least of all"); visits painter Andrew Wyeth as a Wyeth collection is packed for a tour of the Soviet Union in 1987; and lingers awhile in Witwen, Wis., population 51, where women in stars-and-stripes dresses form a human marching flag for the Independence Day parade.
"This one day when the flags all fly, Witwen is on the map," Kuralt says.
A piece on Woody Guthrie that includes interviews with his son, Arlo, and a daughter, Nora, is a little heavy on quaint, and some of the film shot a decade ago appears to have deteriorated severely. The special is underproduced (perhaps a pleasant departure from the usual mania for overproducing) and CBS was awfully, if typically, stupid to schedule it at such a late hour, when people are likely to be watching fireworks in person or on public TV.
It's as if the network programmers don't really expect anybody to tune in and are merely humoring old Charlie by airing the special. But old Charlie shows what a seasoned, smart, literate pro can do with just a bunch of clips and a theme.
"Fourth of July" harks back to a time before love of self replaced love of country, and before network news departments went from the art of broadcast journalism to the science of glitz and hype.
The best piece on the show combines a couple of encounters with Glen Wooldridge, a crusty Oregon navigator who ran a wild river in 1915 and went back to it time and time again. He took such notables as Clark Gable and Herbert Hoover on fishing trips, but he told Kuralt, "I don't consider myself a celebrity. I'm just a river rat."
He's gone now, but only in the most literal sense of the term.
Our portly host doesn't seem to consider himself a celebrity either. He'd be more likely to blush at a compliment than quote you his credits. Maybe he doesn't have a high profile or a ferocious investigative zeal. But he knows a good human story and how to tell it with words and pictures.
Given a choice, I wouldn't trade one Charles Kuralt for six Bill Moyerses. And one is precisely how many there is.