Moyers pays attention to the home front

Television

May 29, 1991|By Michael Hill

You can tell Bill Moyers came to political and social maturity in a different era, back in the 1960s, when pointing out a problem in American society caused all sorts of people to roll up their sleeves and get to work trying to correct it.

Such is not the case these days. Frustrated by the fact that some problems can never be eliminated, influenced by a general decline of confidence in the nation's ability to cure its ills and tempered by a decade in which selfishness was elevated to an admirable trait, the America of today has a different response when confronted by a problem: "So, what do you want me to do about it? I've got troubles of my own."

Clearly Moyers, a veteran of civil rights and Vietnam war struggles during his years in the Lyndon Johnson White House, is seeking another way to try to get America to acknowledge its problems, and to do so with the confidence that would allow us to try to do something about them. That seems to be the thrust of "The Home Front," an hour-long PBS documentary that will be on Maryland Public Broadcasting, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock tonight.

The device is a gimmick, almost a cheap trick, but it is still effective. As a dedicated, committed and euphoric America launched into the ground war in Iraq in February, Moyers visited homeless men at a drop-in center that is losing its funding.

He went to hospitals that were seeing services cut due to budget cutbacks, to a library that is closing one day a week and reducing literacy efforts, to a public school that's facing the prospect of teacher layoffs.

He spent time with a real life Willy Loman, a man who had spent his career selling fabric in New York's garment district and now, at the age of 58, is unemployed, putting his home, his self-image, and his version of the American dream in jeopardy.

"Attention must be paid," Moyers seems to be telling us of this dark underbelly of the United States, in the words that Arthur Miller gave to Willy's wife in "Death of a Salesman" 40 years ago.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the war reporting. Voice-overs from news reports tell of the coalition advances.The electronic headlines above Times Square trumpet the victories. The headlines in the daily papers splash the news from the Gulf in large type across their front pages.

You look at the rusting spans of a New York City bridge, lear that something like 70 percent of that city's bridges can no longer do the job they were built to do, that about half of the country's bridges are in similar shape, and you hear the news about smart bombs taking out Iraqi bridges with such splendid precision.

Somewhere back there Moyers is hoping you'll remember that each of the stupendously successful cruise missiles that flew so accurately to their Baghdad targets cost $1 million. That the Patriot missiles, whose effectiveness against the Iraqi Scuds is losing a bit of its luster in hindsight, came with a similarly astronomical price tag. That all those other missiles and planes and smart bombs and such also cost millions and millions of dollars to do their jobs in the desert.

The point Moyers is making is that it is not, as is so often alleged, that we can't afford to take on these problems, it's that we choose not to. As a nation, we find it easier to vote to spend $1 million on a cruise missile to take out an Iraqi bridge than $1 million to fix up a rusting New York bridge.

He tries to demonstrate that he's not talking about blindly throwing money at these difficulties. He shows programs that are working, that are getting results, but that are losing out to the combination of the recession and tax-cutting that have pared public budgets across the country.

Moyers didn't have to travel far to find these stories. All are from the New York City area. But across the country, they are now as ubiquitous as yellow ribbons were on this Memorial Day.

' Attention must be paid.

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