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‘92 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION : TELEVISION ANALYSIS : Emotional AIDS Speeches Steal the Show

Tuesday’s earlier-than-usual “CBS Evening News” had ended. Soon to follow on the same network was baseball’s 63rd All-Star game. Said anchorman Dan Rather: “We’ll bring you updates on the action--and lack of action--at the convention.”

Everyone’s a critic.

Rather had a point, though. Forget about trying to compete with baseball. You suspected that the Democratic National Convention was in trouble as a television attraction when pundits dissecting it on CNN began discussing next month’s Republican convention.

Or when, during Tuesday’s earlier doldrums, you found yourself wishing for the return of the Democratic National Convention Marching Band.

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But then, almost as if “Music Man” Prof. Harold Hill himself had strutted into River City with his mesmerizing act, something quite extraordinary happened. “It was a profound and emotional moment that will linger in the minds of everyone here,” KNBC-TV Channel 4 political reporter Linda Douglass would observe afterward from the convention floor.

But it wasn’t oom-pahs that blew away the Madison Square Garden throng and probably much of the TV audience tuning in shortly after 5 p.m. PDT (prime time in the East).

It was words.

Not the words of resurrected former President Jimmy Carter, whose typically humdrum speech would follow later. Or even the words of that spellbinder the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He did indeed slap his own unique exclamation point on the convention’s second day with an electrifying 29-minute address that likely would command most of the headlines because it clashed with the centrist platform being hammered out under the name of the party’s soon-to-be presidential candidate, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Because of his speech, Jackson at least temporarily displaced former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. as the first name on the lips of TV pundits and reporters.

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This was not the first starring performance for Jackson at a Democratic convention. But it was for Bob Hattoy and Elizabeth Glaser.

“I’m a gay man with AIDS,” Clinton adviser Hattoy told the conventioneers in a speech that charged President Bush with lack of commitment to AIDS research and treatment. The convention’s gay activists were shown waving their placards.

AIDS patient/activist Glaser was equally tough on the Bush Administration in an even more stirring address (“While they play games with numbers, people are dying”) that, like Hattoy’s, was as unforgettable as it was free of false emotion and manipulation.

It was less what these two said--neither their charges nor their message was new--but where they said it and under what circumstances that was so striking. Rarely have TV cameras found so many moist eyes to linger on during a convention speech. And never have there been such convention pictures, at one point during Glaser’s speech a camera showing two men tightly hugging, each wearing a button saying, “Gay and Lesbian Voters for Clinton.”

The two AIDS speeches were aired live on PBS, CNN and C-SPAN. Ironically, during one of Glaser’s attacks on Bush, the President could be seen on CBS, striding across the field at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium prior to the All-Star game he was attending. Although AIDS is increasingly one of society’s common denominators, the TV pictures from New York and San Diego seemed a universe apart.

About that decision to give Hattoy and Glaser such prominence at the podium? “I don’t know whether it’s good or bad politics,” Clinton told ABC’s Peter Jennings Tuesday. TV pundits debated that into the night, while also wondering just how many Americans were watching given that a popular baseball classic was the attraction on another network.

The All-Star game surely would score much higher in the ratings. But when it came to memorable television, it was the Democrats who hit the ball out of the park.


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