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Bearers of Sad Tidings Plead for Social Change

April 16, 1986|PATRICK MOTT

The five panelists were, each of them reiterated, the bearers of bad news--stories of murder, rape, child molestation and abduction, alcoholism and drug abuse. Not the sort of presentation, supposedly, that would go down well in competition with lighter topics on how to buy a home, cultivate good business manners and lose weight.

But with the bad news came emotional, sometimes tearful pleas for action along with expressions of hope, and an estimated 2,000 taut-faced women attending state Sen. William Campbell's Conference on Women Monday responded with their own tears and, finally, long and enthusiastic applause.

The panel of speakers--Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers; Susan Newman, representing the Scott Newman Foundation; Patty Bradbury, mother of the celebrated missing child Laura Bradbury; John Walsh, founder of the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, and Doris Tate, mother of murdered actress Sharon Tate and director of the Los Angeles chapter of Parents of Murdered Children--had been scheduled to address the topic "One Person Makes a Difference" in recognition of their individual, often solitary battles for social reform.

High Emotion

The panel--which did not take questions--was scheduled to be presented twice during the afternoon, in consecutive hourlong segments. But the panelists' high emotions and the audience's reactions were strong enough to prompt the moderator, Orange County Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks, to declare that the impassioned speeches would continue without a break into the second hour.

Lightner, the first speaker, said that neither she nor MADD, formed after her daughter was killed in an alcohol-related auto accident in 1980, were taken seriously during the organization's early days.

"I was a victim, I was mad and I wanted to change the system," she said, but "I found out that it's a man's world. The media at first focused on the fact that I was a woman."

The drunk drivers, the police who arrest them, the judges who try them and the legislators who make the laws that govern them were, she found, nearly always men and not inclined to turn a sympathetic ear to a crusading homemaker.

But usually, she said, "the women are the victims and the survivors" in alcohol-related traffic deaths.

In the face of indifference and opposition, Lightner said she had to learn quickly how to be a political street fighter.

"I used to be apolitical," she said. "I wasn't a registered voter, and I didn't know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat."

With the growth of her organization, however, "MADD became my most demanding child. Grass-roots lobbying isn't easy. If someone asked me today about doing grass-roots lobbying, I'd say, 'Don't.' It was something I could never repeat and something I would never want to repeat."

Worth the Sacrifices

Although MADD has kept her away from home and a more conventional family life, Lightner said "it was worth it. I feel proud that so many women who were 'just housewives' have done things they never thought they could do."

Susan Newman, while voicing her own strong opinions on the media's "inaccurate presentation" of the consequences of drug use, in large measure represented her family. She is the daughter of actor Paul Newman and actress Joanne Woodward and the sister of Scott Newman, who died of a drug overdose in 1978 at age 28. As a result of the death, the Newman family established the Scott Newman Foundation for treatment and prevention of drug abuse among young people.

As a member of a family accustomed to media attention, Newman said that when she began looking for the biggest negative influence on young people who are deciding whether to use drugs, the culprit was nearly at the Newman front door.

"The media," she said, "is the greatest influence on our behavior. Some children's first words are, 'This Bud's for you.' "

Drug Messages

An impressionable school-age child, she said, can awaken to a clock radio blaring, "Wake up, you party animals, it's going to be quite a weekend. . . . If you remember it, call me on Monday."

Children, she added, can then hear of the newest celebrity to check into a drug or alcohol rehabilitation clinic, can see cigarette and tobacco ads in mainstream national magazines, can witness dope deals being consummated at and around school during the day, can stop at the drugstore on the way home and pick up a copy of the drug-oriented High Times magazine, and finally "turn on cable at home and see Madonna getting stoned in 'Desperately Seeking Susan.' "

The mass media, said Newman, offer a dazzling array of artificial mood alterers.

"They're saying the solution is, pop it, dissolve it, drink it, suck on it, but here it is," she said.

At the very core of the problem, Newman said, is not simply media influence, but what she called apathy and hypocrisy.

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