'Frontline' has Terry Waite's 'Secret Story'

TELEVISION

November 26, 1991|By Michael Hill

Maryland Public Television is giving us a one-two combination of "Frontline" tonight and, as usual for this PBS documentary series, it delivers with a couple of solid punches.

First up at 10 o'clock on channels 22 and 67 is "The Secret Story of Terry Waite," a BBC documentary that "Frontline" rushed onto its schedule following last week's release of Waite after almost five years of captivity in Lebanon.

In the mid-1980s, Waite was a media darling. A tall, self-effacing Anglican church envoy, he seemed the embodiment of altruism, willing to risk his life as he negotiated for the release of Western hostages in Lebanon, apparently for no reason other than it was the right thing to do.

When the Iran-contra scandal broke, the relationship of Oliver North and company to Waite was a small sidebar to the big story. This hour documents that the relationship was quite close; indeed, it makes a strong case that North and the U.S. officials trying to buy hostages' freedom through arms deals with Iran used Waite's activities to help hide their own activities.

The result was that when Waite tried to re-establish his independent credentials following the uncovering of the Iran-contra affair, he himself was taken hostage as an American spy.

Waite's image does not come through this hour totally untarnished. Though he is not seen as involved in the duplicity that had him acting as the front man for hostage releases that he really didn't have anything to do with, he did not shy from the role, either.

Indeed, he is depicted as a man who enjoyed the spotlight these activities brought him, who thought the world stage was about the right size for his 6-foot-7 frame and didn't mind at all when North and crew made sure that he stayed on it.

But, in a brief interview, it is North who comes out the worse for wear in this documentary. Since it was his activities that made it look as if Waite were an American agent, North is asked if he feels any responsibility for Waite being taken hostage. North refuses to answer, presumably because "Frontline" couldn't offer him immunity.

Following that, at 11 p.m., MPT is running the "Frontline" it pre-empted last week, "Losing the War with Japan," a hard-hitting hour that makes the case that while we might be trying to play fair in the game of international trade, Japan is approaching it like a war, in which all's fair.

It opens with the cautionary tale of Al Pace, a Cleveland owner of a family business that made parts for the auto industry. When hard times hit his traditional Detroit customers, he went after the Japanese and got a contract to supply parts to a Honda factory in Ohio.

There was one catch -- he had to take as his partner a Japanese firm, Kikuchi, that is part of the tangled web of Honda's industrial family. His Japanese partners made the machines that would stamp the parts. But they didn't work right. When the Kikuchi engineers came over to fix them, they didn't fix them right.

Pace was unable to fulfill his contract. He went out of business. Honda pointed to his failure as an example of the unreliability of American suppliers. And then who built a big parts factory near the Honda plant in Ohio? Kikuchi, of course.

"Losing the War with Japan" documents other American industries under similar attack. The makers of flat panel displays -- the type of screens used in many laptop computers -- face the dumping of Japanese screens at below-profit costs as those firms seek to corner the market of a growth industry.

Nascent American video game manufacturers find themselves encircled by Nintendo, a Japanese firm that sometimes does more than hint to toy stores that they shouldn't carry competitors' merchandise.

But, in the face of this, the documentary finds a Bush administration that puts its full faith in the free market system, that good old American know-how will eventually prevail.

While "Losing the War with Japan" ignores many of the sins of American businessmen -- they wouldn't think of sacrificing next quarter's bottom line for long-term profits as those Japanese flat-display manufacturers are doing, for instance -- it does effectively make the case that those who see global economics in terms of free trade vs. protective tariffs are fighting an irrelevant battle with obsolete weapons.

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