NEW YORK -- If the White House didn't know the extent of the mess it has on its hands in Central America before, it will know in terms both bloody and brutal after Saturday's CBS News special, 'Central America in Revolt.'
On the whole, the knowledge is not likely to enhance President Reagan's chances of persuading Congress to get the United States more deeply involved that it already is.
Dan Rather anchors the report, to be aired from 9:30-11 p.m., EST, from New York and Washington. Bill Moyers reports from El Salvador, Mike Wallace from Nicaragua and Ed Rabel from Guatemala, and they leave little for imagination or political rhetoric to pick up.
What emerges, through extensive interviews with military rulers in El Salvador and Guatamala, defiant Sandinistas in Nicaragua and guerrillas and their supporters in all three nations, is a picture of Uncle Sam damned if he doesn't, but even more profoundly damned if he does.
Governments being backed by the Reagan administration come across as gangs of psychopathic thugs, eager to slaughter their own people in the name of 'anti-communism' -- a term that translates freely to mean personal wealth and power.
Suffering peasants in all three unhappy lands weep, bleed and die at the hands of 'death squads' working both sides of the street with savage efficiency.
The prototype of the 'Ugly American' is there -- a businessman in Guatemala who blandly disputes Amnesty International estimates of 50 to 60 political murders a day by calling them 'just something that some reporters have thought up.'
'I don't think there's been 120 people of all types assassinated here in the last year,' he tells Rabel, adding, 'I mean, I'm not counting the peasants or ... men of that category.'
Rabel's cameras presumably are recording the remains of 'men of that category,' and they tell a story in pictures many may not want their children to see.
Throughout the escalating battle of words and bullets, the only sane, rational voice seems to come from Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo who has, with little success to date, offered to mediate the mess between the warring parties and the United States.
'I do understand that the United States is interested in safeguarding its security,' he tells Moyers. 'I am a realist. But why should it be that the great American democracy gives its support to repressive solutions and to dictatorships?
'This is a paradox which the free world can never understand.'
Moyers, perhaps, sums it up best with words that apply equally to Nicaragua and Guatemala, as well as to El Salvador.
'Tough and ruthless men are at war in this country -- men likely to dismiss political results that do not go their way,' he says. 'None of the assumptions here are provable.
'You cannot prove the army will accept civilian rule. You cannot prove the right will disband its death squads. You cannot prove the guerrillas will not impose a tyranny of their own. You cannot prove we are helping to end the misery, or prolong it.'
Current policy makers -- fearing the rise in our own back yard of multiple Cubas armed by the Soviet Union to the nuclear teeth - doubtless would like a bit of proof. The only kind they have in the CBS report is proof that no matter what they do, death, misery, repression and hatred of America is not likely to go away.
Home Box Office, for which drama shot from the living stage before a live audience almost is becoming a logo, has created another television gemstone for its subscribers, but then Neil Simon writes gemstones for any setting.
HBO premieres 'Barefoot in the Park' March 21, with four repeats to follow through April 4.
Richard Thomas -- light years removed from the 'John Boy' image of his youth -- is superb as Paul Bratter, the buttoned-down young lawyer struggling to come to terms with the elfin free spirit with whom he finds himself honeymooning.
Bess Armstrong glows in the role of his wife, Corrie, but Barbara Barrie virtually walks away with the show as her bemused mother, struggling to come to her own terms with an aging bohemian lecher - played with gusto by the late Hans Conried -- who lives on the roof of the Bratter's apartment building.
'Barefoot in the Park' will air from 8-11 p.m., which is fortuitous. It's a prescription that should be taken as soon as possible after the evening news.