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Letting Go of a Dream Is Hard on Just About Everyone

February 18, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG

O hhhhhh , Donna.

On Feb. 7, the day before the Iowa caucuses, a letter from a woman named Donna was printed in the small daily newspaper serving the community where I live. Eloquently, issue by issue, Donna explained why she believed that former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt was best qualified to be the Democratic nominee for President.

"If you are as impressed with Babbitt as I am," she wrote, "I urge you to send a contribution to his campaign as soon as possible."

I thought of Donna's letter Tuesday night as I watched TV, first learning the results of that day's New Hampshire primary (where Babbitt finished a lowly sixth among seven Democratic candidates), then seeing the vastly improved CBS News series "48 Hours."

After last week's smashing program on the Israeli/Palestinian crisis in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, "48 Hours" focused on New Hampshire in the immediate aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, where Babbitt also had done poorly.

Babbitt was one of several elements woven into a behind-the-scenes hour that yielded a chain of fleeting impressions. The program offered no new insights on the campaign but was absolutely fascinating on a visceral level.

Like much of TV news, "48 Hours" is really a field-producer's venue. Its big-name reporters are deployed mostly as cosmetic adornments who get their mugs on screen and record voice-overs for stories prepared by the producers.

Tuesday's hour honored unsung volunteers. It eavesdropped on opposing Republican activists, and one isolated Democrat, as they good-naturedly bickered in a diner the morning after the Iowa caucuses.

"48 Hours" spent time with reporters on the bus, inventively contrasting candidates'-eye-views of New Hampshire with that of a Boston Globe columnist who actually spent time with the street people whom candidates allude to while on the stump.

The program also profiled the planning and execution of a Republican candidates' event that was hilarious to listen in on but a nightmare for its poor organizer, who was unable to please anyone. If nothing else, it proved that when people are mad, they don't seem to notice that a TV camera is right up to their noses, beaming their private outrage to the rest of America. They're just mad !

The hour's most poignant and compelling segment, however, involved Babbitt, wired for sound as he tried to put on a happy face for his supporters after his devastating setback in Iowa. It reminded you of the Titanic's orchestra bravely playing on even as the ship sank.

"We're going on to New Hampshire, and we're gonna make it happen!" he declared, convincingly.

In a private moment with Lesley Stahl of CBS, however, his private gloom about the campaign spilled out, and he all but told her that his candidacy was done. No, he would not run again in 1992, he replied to a question, adding, "I don't want to be the Harold Stassen of the Democratic Party."

Going through the motions, at least, Babbitt did go on to New Hampshire. But he didn't make it happen, and he scheduled a press conference for this morning at which he was expected to announce his withdrawal from the race.

Babbitt got favorable treatment from much of the media. In Iowa and New Hampshire, however, he may have been the Democratic candidate least comfortable with TV, a significant flaw for office-seekers in the '80s.

"I was struck by how terrified he seemed to be of television," a Des Moines TV reporter who interviewed Babbitt there told me prior to the Iowa caucuses. "At one point, I looked down and his hands were actually shaking."

Babbitt recalled on "CBS This Morning" Wednesday that it was difficult for him "to learn how to do television debates in front of 20 million people."

Appearing on "CBS This Morning" with his wife, Hatti, Babbitt was relegated to the back of the bus as the two-hour program's final post-primary interview. At 8:51 a.m., after all the other candidates had articulated their strategies or made their excuses, after all the crap shooters and hip shooters had vanished, after all the media sages had ponderously weighed in, it was time for Bruce Babbitt.

"I'd like to go on (with the campaign)," he said. "It's hard to let go."

"Did the media discover you guys too late?" asked co-host Harry Smith. "Absolutely," Babbitt replied with a playful belly laugh. "It's all your fault!"

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