This documentary series from 1996 was an excellent reflection on America and how the political scene of the 60s affected what followed. Charles Wheeler was one of the BBC’s most distinguished correspondents. Between 1965 and 1973 he served as the BBC’s man in Washington, from where he crossed the country to report on the response of a nation to civil rights reforms, the war on poverty and the Vietnam War. It was the episode on ‘Lyndon Johnson’s War’ that was the most powerful. Here we saw politicians, government officials and supporters of the president grapple with questions of loyalty. In the end, there seemed to be no room for the great society reforms Johnson proposed because the war dominated everything.
Richard Goodwin,who worked with both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson put it succinctly when he said the Vietnam War would be central to understanding the 20th Century as the Civil War had been to the 19th. Both were watersheds in the development of American society.
Wheeler is an erudite guide through a significant period in history. The programme shows footage from the his news reports of the 60s and Wheeler reflects on his comments from that time; he stands by most, but not all, of his comments. His judgements are adjusted by time and new information.
Wheeler’s views on Nixon have stood the test to time. When Watergate forced Nixon out of office, though, Wheeler was elsewhere in the world. He was a journalist to trust. His mission was to inform and make clear; quite different from modern news output which seeks heat rather than light. His death in 2008 left a hole the BBC have yet to fill.