PBS, seeking a way to please, finds God and sells its soul Review: As it launches a new series, PBS searches for God, but comes up with a gentle interview with ex-con Charles Colson, once of the Nixon White House.

July 05, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

First, there was former Reagan and Bush speech-writer Peggy Noonan "On Values." Now, we have former Reagan and Nixon aide Hugh Hewitt "Searching for God in America."

What hath Newt Gingrich and his threat to "zero out" funding for public television wrought?

I'll tell you what it's wrought: Some incredibly calculated and lame TV series that shows just how willing PBS can be to trim its sails to suit whatever ideological winds are blowing in Congress and various other ports of potential funding.

It's wrought conservatives trying to wrap themselves in the same artificial, "I'm-on-a-moral-journey" rhetoric that liberal Bill Moyers rode to fame and fortune on public television.

Hewitt says his four-part PBS series of interviews with eight religious leaders is like "reliving everyone's sophomore year in college" when the questions involve, "What is the meaning of life?"

Wrong. If tonight's first installment, which features interviews with Charles Colson and Rabbi Harold Kushner, is representative, the series is more like a Sunday school, Bible or temple class in which the priest, minister or rabbi spiels the spiel and the good little children are expected to nod their heads in assent and not ask any tough questions.

As an interviewer, Hewitt is mainly an enthusiastic head-nodder.

This might not be so maddening if the first half-hour tonight weren't spent with Hewitt nodding his head at the altar of Colson -- the former Nixon-White House hatchet-man, convicted felon and founder of the Prison Fellowship Ministries in Reston, Va.

Here's this guy in a blue business suit, dropping the names of his CEO friends and boasting about the size of his ministry while he explains that the big change in his life since he "accepted Christ" is that humility has replaced vanity and pride.

Oh, really? The first time I saw and heard these apparent contradictions in Colson, it looked to me like maybe he had simply replaced the fallen Nixon with the risen Christ in his life and that he found a constituency of prisoners that was slightly more forgiving than American voters.

I could be wrong, but any interviewer's ears should prick up when someone repeatedly tells you how humble he is as he looks into a camera and does virtual non-stop autobiography for almost 30 minutes.

Not Hewitt, though.

Who knows why he doesn't challenge Colson on the matter of his self-described Christ-like humility? But my guess is that he and Colson are so much a part of the same culture that Hewitt can't manage for a minute to stand outside and question it: Both are lawyers, both from the West Coast, both worked for Nixon and both seem extremely proud of what religious men they claim to be. The only difference I can see is Hewitt favors a blue blazer while Colson sticks with the Nixon blue suit, right down to the lapel pin.

In fairness, Hewitt does stop nodding his head long enough to challenge Colson once. Just as Colson finishes telling his road-to-Damascus story of conversion -- which ends, by the way, with him sitting in his car outside the home of one of his CEO friends and sobbing -- Hewitt asks Colson how he knows it was a religious experience and not a nervous breakdown.

Good question. But when Colson says he knows it wasn't a breakdown because he was aware of what was going on, Hewitt acts like that is a great answer and moves on, rather than challenging Colson with the fact that many people having emotional breakdowns are perfectly aware of what is happening, which is one of the things that can make it such a painful experience.

As for the interview with Kushner, it simply goes nowhere. As deep as it ever gets is Kushner's rather mechanically saying that God allows evil so that man may freely choose to do good. Instead of trying to connect with the compassion of Kushner the author, Hewitt chats up the celebrity he refers to in toastmaster-ese as "America's rabbi." Instead of the spiritual and poetic, we get pop, television God talk.

"Searching for God in America" falls so short of what its title implies that it made me re-think the entire genre of such public television programs on religion and God. There isn't any real "search" involved -- just an interviewer and interviewee sitting in front of a fireplace or across a desk.

At least, Moyers used to open with a bit of videotape, for example, showing him walking up the steps of a church on his way to interview the minister who preaches there -- in hopes of creating the television illusion of the pilgrim's progress toward moral enlightenment. The brief, non-talking-head moments in "Searching for God" shed no insight into what might make Colson or Kushner special.

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