THOSE of us who make a living describing the world with words tend to disparage television as cheap and dumb.
Television often is. There is nothing quite so insulting to human intelligence as a laugh track. A second reason is that we are occasionally envious.
I remember watching live the launching of the shuttle Challenger, and thinking, as the rocket described that corkscrew trajectory on its way to oblivion and the sea, "This moment belongs to TV."
It seems ironic that the virtues of our own tools, of the well-wrought description and the evocative still photograph, have been illustrated inimitably this week by television itself. The occasion is the 11-hour PBS documentary "The Civil War," which ended Thursday night.
It represents simultaneously the best of television and the best of journalism too, because it is not full of cheap effects, of manufactured smoke and thunder, of false conflict and synthetic emotion. It is composed largely of black-and-white photographs, and the narrated words of the American people, from senators to slaves to soldiers.
It turns out that no more than that was necessary to tell us everything we need to know about war, love, death and freedom.
Film at 11? None is available. Instead we get something better. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln, his eyes the eyes of a man flogged by principle; a portrait of a slave, his eyes the eyes of a man flogged by other men. The words of a free black man fighting for the Union, encountering his former master among the prisoners of war: "Hello, massa. Bottom rail on top dis time."
Three Confederate prisoners, standing jaunty, proud and ragged before the camera's eye. And always, the bodies, limbs splayed, eyes blind. One mother in a small town lost five sons. No videotape need accompany that. "How do you feel, ma'am?" The answer is manifest in our hearts.
This program makes a mockery of all the recent talk of "dramatic re-creations" of news events.
That reminds me of something you learn as a parent: that the best toy is not one of those wind-up whizbang things that spin and shake and spew nursery rhymes. The best toy is often an empty box, a saucepan, a spoon, those items that require a child to bring his own mind to bear on an object, that make him imagine and think.
That is what happens here.
Wars no longer lend themselves to this kind of treatment. Sam Donaldson will be at Vicksburg, although he will not be able to tell us precisely where for security reasons. Ted Koppel will have Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln argue with one another from studios in Richmond and Washington; we will notice that Lincoln's voice is a little high, and his advisers will suggest some discreet vocal coaching.
The people who made "The Civil War" realized that their subjects left behind words that need no moving pictures. They are moving in and of themselves, like this letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah, in Rhode Island:
". . . I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me -- perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and nTC foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness. . . .
"But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead: think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again. . . ."
The television we revile would have Sullivan Ballou march home to the arms of his waiting wife. The television that rivets us this week has no choice but to tell the truth. One week after he wrote that letter, Sullivan Ballou was killed in the first battle of Bull Run. His words need no embellishment. They tell the story, straight and true.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.