Comes now Bill Moyers, the Hamlet of the Hamptons, to lead us in two more bouts of rigorous heavy-duty pondering. Tonight at 9 on Channel 26, Moyers helms a "Frontline" inquiry into the Iran-contra scandal. Tomorrow night at 9, he prowls his way around Florence in "The Power of the Past."
Neither of these is a particularly riveting report, but the "Frontline" special, "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," does recap Iran-contra in a crisp and comprehensive way for all those who are interested in such an undertaking. All those? Probably a handful or fewer.
Declassified material like entries in Oliver North's notebook and computer messages that were sent among the conspirators (sprayed across the screen like entries in Doogie Howser's diary) give the story a punch it hasn't had on television before, as do comparisons of what Reagan administration officials said publicly and what was actually true.
Lies, lies, lies, lies.
"There was no quid pro quo," declared then-Vice President George Bush after in fact delivering the quid -- $100 million in military aid -- to Honduras in return for the quo, a Honduran base for the contras. We also get to see a letter Bush wrote to Ollie North referring, with typical Bushian eloquence, to "the hostage thing" and telling North of having "great pride" in him.
Moyers interviews such key figures as former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who tells him at one point, "President Reagan doesn't retain very much of what comes his way on a given day." Talk about things you already knew! The program works overtime at pinning the tail on Reagan; not only does it not succeed, it embarrasses itself by trying too hard.
Another problem with the broadcast, which was produced by Sherry Jones and Elizabeth Sams, is that its exhaustiveness is indeed exhausting.
There is also Moyers's knee-jerk sermonizing to contend with: "A president who chooses to act entirely on his own, secretly and off the record, has neutralized the checks and balances of a democracy. The rest of the government and the people are shut out."
Rightly or wrongly (or neither), Americans have shown a consistent indifference to the details of this story. "Frontline" isn't going to make many converts.
Tomorrow night, "The Power of the Past With Bill Moyers," as it's officially called, roots around the beautiful Renaissance city of Florence for deep meanings applicable to our time. Like what? Well, Moyers concentrates so heavily on the relationship of generous patron to talented artist that he seems to be lobbying for bigger grants from U.S. corporations to public TV stalwarts such as, for instance, by way of example, mayhaps and perchance, him.
The art -- everyday adornment then and priceless antiquity now -- is everywhere, and so breathtaking at times that one wishes Moyers and his guest authorities -- who include novelist Umberto Eco -- would step aside and shut up about how breathtaking it is. "One could speak about these frescoes for weeks," one expert says, and you fear he will.
Moyers is not the investigative skeptic here, as he is on the Iran-contra report, but rather the starry-eyed humanist, strolling the streets and asking his guests such professorial questions as "What's the story that the statue tells?" And "What are these stories telling us here?" And "What does this say about the Renaissance to you?"
This isn't a show, it's a pop quiz.
Moyers asks director Franco Zeffirelli, "How do you account for this striving for perfection?" Zeffirelli, whose own strivings have usually fallen far short of it, says Florentine society was imbued with the idea of people becoming part of God.
One can hear Moyers silently wondering why we can't all be that way now -- and why, indeed, more of us can't be like Bill Moyers.
Visually, the 90 minutes is impeccable, except for the cinematographer's perverse insistence on cropping Michelangelo's David at the forehead in several shots. David Grubin, the producer and director, co-wrote the script with Moyers. In general, Grubin and Moyers show too little and tell too much, and the avowed purpose -- to demonstrate the relevance of the Renaissance to our time -- is not very satisfyingly fulfilled.
You do meet some charming Italians along the way, but virtually all of them are male, and the repetitious encomiums to "man" and "his" relationship to God get to be a bit much. Indeed, "A Bit Much With Bill Moyers" might make a good title for yet another Moyers series.
Not for nothing is one of the show's last stops a mausoleum.