Times Television Critic

ABC News has achieved the seemingly impossible by shaping a three-hour program about thS. Constitution into light entertainment.

That’s a rave, not a rap.

“The Blessings of Liberty” (8 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) comes across on paper like the sort of dry, musty tome you find yourself enduring out of duty, if at all. It’s one thing to join as a viewer in celebrating the Constitution’s 200th birthday. Three cheers. It’s quite another, though, to abide traditionally stiff, ponderous, archival utterances about the document’s importance to American freedom.

Perhaps we do need to be admonished about taking our constitionally guaranteed liberties for granted. But the stuffy and pedantic messengers, in such cases, are rarely equal to the message.


That changes tonight.

Well conceived and crafted, this is a very watchable program, a big, handsome quickie course that falls halfway between a documentary and a docudrama. Let’s call it a news dramamentary: an artful collage of interviews, clips, readings and cameo performances by well-known actors reciting the words of American historical figures. Catch Louis Gossett Jr.'s Frederick Douglass.

A newsreel from the early 1930s shows Franklin Roosevelt controversially moving to “pack” the Supreme Court in favor of his New Deal legislation. FDR: “We have reached the point as a nation where we must take action to save the Constitution from the court and the court from itself.” If you were a New Deal Democrat, that is.

In a way, the segment underscores the latest high court drama: those just-starting hearings on Judge Robert H. Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, the outcome of which may profoundly affect the United States for years to come.

Hosted (a bit theatrically) by Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and David Brinkley, “The Blessings of Liberty” does not explore and define the Constitution’s soul as Bill Moyers has done in his worthy series on PBS. In fact, the ABC program is rather broad and external in profiling landmark interpretations of the Constitution by the Supreme Court.

For what it aims to do, though--breezily survey the braided destinies of the Constitution and American life--it succeeds admirably and entertainingly.