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Marylouise Oates

It Was the Speech That Ate Atlanta

July 22, 1988|Marylouise Oates

ATLANTA — "Please. Your time is up."

That was the message flashed across the TelePrompTer Wednesday night during the marathon speech by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. The 41-year-old governor, given the publicity plum of the convention, turned his scheduled 15-minute nomination speech into a discourse of at least twice that length.

"Give him the hook," some delegates chanted. Reports from those inside the convention machinery said that the TelePrompTer was finally turned off, a last-ditch effort to turn off the oratory.

"Nationally televised political suicide" was the consensus--doubly surprising since Clinton had presidential aspirations of his own this year and has been considered a real comer, a self-described "wandering minstrel of the Democratic Party."

Wrote Nine Drafts

Known as a pragmatic politician who can extemporize an electrifying speech, Clinton was convinced before his disastrous nationwide debut that he had a difficult job ahead. He did at least nine drafts of the text--which became the Incredibly Growing Speech.

Clinton got his loudest cheer when he said, "In closing. . . ." Television cameras showed Clinton ignoring a flashing red light on the podium signaling it was time to stop. House Speaker Jim Wright, the convention chairman, at one point edged close to admonish Clinton to finish.

"When this started, I was a young man," joked Massachusetts Senate president William Bulger as the speech droned on.

Leaving the podium, Clinton told reporters that he had practiced the talk repeatedly and it had never lasted more than 15 minutes. It ran twice as long because of the cheers and chants of the enthusiastic Dukakis delegates, he insisted.

"They just desperately wanted to cheer for Dukakis," he said.

"The yellers took half my speech time," Clinton complained.

"I just fell on my sword. It was a comedy of errors, one of those fluky things," said Clinton.

Responses from the floor of the convention included those of restless delegates, who had initially given the speech a warm reception, chanting "We Want Mike!" Some shouted, "Wrap it up!" and ran fingers across their throats. Clinton told reporters Thursday that he was thrown off stride when he mistook the chants of "Duke, Duke" for boos.

Networks Defected

At points during the 4,000-word, 18-page speech, ABC and NBC stopped airing it, CBS showed shots of delegates drawing their forefingers across their necks to make "cut" signals and CNN focused its cameras on the red podium light glaring at Clinton to stop talking.

Dukakis aides, who had hoped that Clinton would give their man a well-televised boost with the speech, were clearly disappointed. According to their version of events, the problem was caused by Clinton making an 11th-hour decision to lengthen his speech.

The speech captured the post-session conversation Wednesday night, eclipsing all other topics since the only other event was the roll-call vote for Dukakis and the only suspense there was which delegation would put him over the top.

The "buzz" was especially strong since Clinton, with his good ol' boy charm, a resume including a Rhodes Scholarship and a Yale law degree, and a pragmatic political sense, was a rising star.

Blame Flies in All Directions

Thursday, it was back-and-forth blaming. Key Dukakis staff people said they had not seen an advance text of the growing speech, while Clinton aides complained that Dukakis' floor managers had not tried hard enough to get delegates to sit down and listen. Some staff people said that Kirk O'Donnell, a senior adviser on the Dukakis staff, had signed off on the text.

Clinton conceded today that the speech, lasting more than 30 minutes, was a "bust in the hall," but he said the Dukakis camp had wanted him to give a serious speech and had cleared it before delivery.

At one network trailer, an executive taped a hand-lettered sign on the front of an Atlanta Phone Book: "Transcript of Gov. Clinton's Speech."

HI, THERE--Everyone knows that when TV reporters come into your living room on the screen, they soon become part of the family. So a morning drive-time deejay in Washington wondered Thursday just how NBC Correspondent Connie Chung was doing here at the convention.

Somehow he got the name of her hotel--and rang her up with a cheery "Good morning." She had been working until a couple of hours before the unscheduled wake-up call. And she had just gone back to sleep when who should call but a drive-time deejay from the Midwest. She turned off her phone. . . .

Seen strolling along Atlanta streets on two different days (and now you know what politics at the convention really means): hotel magnate Robert Tisch and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union lobbyist Bob Guiliano. . . .

Everybody has a cause, so it's no surprise to see people with buttons and signs reading "Die Yuppie Scum."

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