There is an odd dissonance between title and contents in ABC's hour-long special at 10 tonight on Channel 7. The program is called "The New Civil War," and during its first 10 seconds Peter Jennings looks somberly at the camera and declares, "We are going to spend the next hour with the most explosive social and political issue in America."
That the issue is abortion comes as no surprise at all, but what is disconcerting is how thoroughly "The New Civil War" manages to strip the abortion debate of the passion and personal depth of feeling that really have pitted opponents against one another with the ferocity of clashing armies. "In this hour, seven skirmishes in the new civil war," Jennings promises, but that is about as far as ABC will let the metaphor go; what is delivered instead is an hour about politics and the sometimes unattractive ways people will behave as they try to wrest what they want from the political process.
This is old news to anybody who ever picked up a newspaper during an election year, but "The New Civil War" uses arty fade-outs and mysterious camera angles to suggest that the viewer will be shocked to learn that even abortion law is subject to the cynicism of American politics. Here is Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, filmed from below as though the FBI had hidden cameras in the potted plants, chatting at a governor's convention with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton about Roemer's veto of Louisiana's sweeping antiabortion bill: "Have you done the abortion routine in Arkansas?" Roemer asks, and when Clinton says no, Roemer says, "Well, wipe that smile off your face. It's coming."
The campaign manager for California 1989 state senatorial candidate Lucy Killea is caught off-guard too; the Catholic bishop in Killea's district has just announced that Killea's public support for abortion rights compels him to refuse Killea the right to receive communion. Since Killea's opponent is an antiabortion Republican, this instantly heats up what might otherwise have been an unremarkable local race, and Killea's campaign manager tells the camera that his side couldn't have been more pleased: Killea had thrown out the abortion issue early on, he says, as "bait." "We wanted to see who would react," the campaign manager says. "We didn't really expect it to be the bishop, but when it was, we were delighted, because it was exactly where we wanted to go."
These are meant to be revealing glimpses, and indeed they are; it is true that over the coming months the practical changes in abortion law will be shaped in shirt-sleeves meetings and statehouse exchanges like those captured on sometimes interestingly candid camera in "The New Civil War." The program notes that the abortion issue apparently helped Killea win her race, and that Pennsylvania Republican state representative Steve Freind is now fighting for his own seat after championing new state abortion restrictions that Pennsylvania antiabortion leaders hope may lead to a successful legal challenge of Roe v. Wade. Freind, we are told, is "running scared," and in case the verbal imagery is inadequate there is also a soundtrack to get the message across: Freind runs, literally (jogging shorts and so on), and heavy in the audio comes the thudding of his feet and the pant-pant of his rapid breathing.
None of the abortion rights leaders in "The New Civil War" are shown sweating, or sounding momentarily shrill, as Freind does in an anxious moment on the telephone as he is compiling election returns for a primary he barely wins. It may be that the ABC cameras sought out equally desperate moments on the other side and simply didn't find any, but you'd have a hard time making that case to an antiabortion viewer. People convinced that the television and print media are inherently hostile to abortion opponents will find plenty of fodder in "The New Civil War," where the breathlessly paced editing and choice of sound bites manage to work fairly reliably in the service of one camp rather than the other.
Buddy Roemer gets away with explaining his veto by saying, "I started listening to women," as disingenuous a political comment as we are likely to hear on this subject, but when Freind gets off an equally honey-toned line about not caring whether he personally secures a place in history for the eventual downfall of Roe v. Wade, Jennings jumps all over him. "Oh, come on," Jennings says disparagingly. "In a hundred countries, I've never met a politican who said that."
There is no retort from Freind, of course; another arty fade-out takes care of that. They are arresting to look at, these cuts back and forth from the Jennings interviews to the hidden-camera-style footage of politicians and lobbyists aslog in the trenches, but this is not a subject that demands tricky television to convince the viewer that it matters. The producers here clearly wanted to offer up something besides rhetoric and the now-familiar arguments for and against legal abortion; they have certainly done that, but it would be nice if they had relied more on slow and old-fashioned techniques like allowing characters to explain themselves. The show is to be followed at 11:30 by a live debate between supporters and opponents of legalized abortion; that may be a conventional sort of format, but perhaps it will haul back some of the drama that makes the abortion issue deserve the label the ABC special gave it in the first place.