Luce Lips

Luce, whose Life eventually would morph into People.Photo: Time Archive/PBS

To declare, if not a bias, maybe a vested interest: I was the television critic for Life magazine, the old weekly Life that died for People’s subsequent sins, from 1969 till 1972, when they turned off the lights and put out the trash. It was a Life editor who first suggested that I write about TV after I had to stop reviewing first novels for him. So I knew some of the people mentioned in Henry Luce & Time-Life’s America: A Vision of Empire (Wednesday, April 28; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13), liked most of them, and mourned the passing of a vibrant magazine as well as a fat check. About the editors of such slicks, Wilfrid Sheed observed in Max Jamison: “They were soft, affable people who wouldn’t hurt you because they couldn’t bear to be hurt themselves. Paternal organizations were built on great piles of spiritual blubber.” This might have been true when Sheed wrote it, in 1970. Today, of course, big-foot journalism is proudly sadomasochistic.

If A Vision of Empire misses the boat, at least it waves a vigorous farewell. Henry Luce made a lot of money, but money wasn’t why he did it. Born with a good brain and a bad stutter to American missionaries in China, a scholarship boy among the Wasp elite at Hotchkiss, a member at Yale of Skull and Bones and an editor of the college paper, a partner with Briton Hadden at the giddy launch of Time in 1923, he was the perfect Presbyterian, equally worshipful of his Christian God and American success—though he did dump his first wife and small sons for the haberdash and tail fins of Clare Boothe Brokaw, who, in her turn, dervished from Vanity Fair to playwriting to Congress to Roman Catholicism. Never, however, apologize; seldom even explain. After two years of promoting Ike for president in Time’s pages, Henry explained to disgruntled staffers: “I am biased in favor of God, the Republican Party, and free enterprise. Time will not allow the stuffed dummy of impartiality to stand in the way of telling the truth as it sees it.”

That is, as he saw it. While he made it a habit to hire the best and pay them well—James Agee reviewed movies, and Irving Howe books, for Time; Archibald MacLeish and Dwight Macdonald wrote, and Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton painted, for Fortune; photographers became artists in the pages of Life—that didn’t mean he published what these writers wrote unimproved. Time Inc. was noisily proud of a group journalism guaranteeing that what we read had never been written by the person who actually saw what happened. When Theodore H. White saw something happen in Chiang Kai-shek’s China that Luce and his New York editors didn’t want to know about, Teddy had to find a job somewhere else. So, too, would Charles Mohr move on, after reporting bad news from Vietnam. And moving on was harder to do then than it is now because a warm company took care of you while outside on cold streets savage tribes stalked Chicken Littles.

“Luce was the perfect Presbyterian, equally worshipful of his Christian God and American success.”

In this American Masters installment, we hear from the opinionated likes of Alan Brinkley, David Halberstam, Daniel Okrent, Hugh Sidey, Calvin Trillin, Gore Vidal, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault. We look at the remarkable pictures of Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Carl Mydans and wonder how we had ever imagined war before Life covered it for us. We recall FDR, whom Luce hated; Wendell Wilkie, whom he adored; Joseph McCarthy, whose methods were deplored; JFK, whose charm almost but not quite undermined Luce’s support for Richard Nixon; and Abraham Zapruder, whose Dallas home movie was a must-buy for the editors of Life. We attend Time’s 40th birthday party in 1963, to which everybody who had ever made the magazine’s cover was invited.

Dwight Macdonald once praised Luce’s “respect for facts,” “personal decency,” and “genuine intellectual curiosity.” But was he good for his profession? We are reminded that the secret formula for Luce News was to tell the story from the point of view of the personality. We are not told where this would lead, which was directly to a New Candy-Colored Journalism of Free-Falling Fluff and Occasional Make-Believe, the How-Do-You-Feel? Stress Syndrome School of Eye-Witless Street Reporting, People, Us, George, Smart-Ass Reality Programming, a New News of production values instead of legwork, of performance art instead of fact-checking, all tease, no scruple, and not to be usefully distinguished from the cool ads for heroin and bulimia.

If it makes you feel any better, the Frontline episode devoted to The Jesus Factor (Thursday, April 29; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) seems to have persuaded itself that George W. Bush, born-again Christian, is perfectly sincere. He really did repent of his drinking and save his marriage, after a Vulcan mind-meld with the Rev. Billy Graham, by recommitting his heart to Jesus Christ. And never mind whether or not the evangelical vote got him into the White House (which it did); he would still oppose same-sex marriage, partial-birth abortion, and embryonic stem-cell research even if he weren’t running for reelection (which he is)—because if he has to choose between the Bible and the Constitution, well, as he explained on the White House lawn: “We will rid the world of the evildoers. We’ve never seen this kind of evil before. But the evildoers have never seen the American people in action before, either, and they’re about to find out.”

Be My Baby (april 30; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) sits in with Barbara Walters and 20/20 as a soon-to-be brand-new mother, a high-school sophomore, interviews five different couples who want to adopt her unborn baby boy. Then everybody goes away, to come back six months later.

Mary Higgins Clark’s I’ll Be Seeing You (May 1; 9 to 11 p.m.; PAX), like all previous Mary Higgins Clark TV movies, leaves almost everything to be desired. But Saturday nights are such a hole in the head that you just might need this account of a young woman who identifies the body of an identical twin she didn’t know she had.

The Damned and the Sacred (May 3; 9 to 10:15 p.m.; Sundance) follows a children’s dance troupe as it leaves its war-ravaged hometown of Grozny, in Chechnya, for a two-month European tour that amazes the eye even as it breaks the heart. Golden Gate Bridge (May 3; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) takes American Experience back to the twenties, when San Francisco’s city fathers needed more room for people and the economy, and so engineers had to figure out how to bridge a mile-long gap between counties, in the face of gale-force winds off a turbulent Pacific. Thus, this magnificent suspension of disbelief.

The Opposite Sex (May 3; 9 to 11 p.m.; Showtime) tells “Rene’s Story” and then, in June, “Jamie’s Story,” tales of “gender reassignment.” After each story, sex-change experts and the transgendered (though not these transgendered) talk things over.

Luce Lips