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An Eyewitness to Memorable Moments of the '80s : Television: The tube was at its best as a window on the news events of the decade, from recent events in Romania to Kirk Gibson's homer.

December 29, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Television is moments.

It was such moments--fleeting confluences of sights and sounds that instantly convey lasting impressions--that helped make television of the '80s so memorable.

Some are still reverberating, among them the revolution in Romania.

If Vietnam was the living room war, this has been the living room revolt, surely the first violent government upheaval to be played out literally on television. These Romanian TV pictures--ranging from crowds angrily shouting down dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in Bucharest to his captured son being paraded before the camera like a bewildered prisoner of war--were beamed to the United States, exposing Americans to yet another unique experience.

The moments of Romanian TV that linger longest, though, are the recent ones showing the last moments of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, at their secret trial, and then after their execution, the close-up of the dead dictator on his side with his eyes open, staring vacantly.

Stretching from Eastern Europe to China, movements to reform or abolish communist regimes created other TV moments to remember, too.

Nothing on TV was more awesome than the hundreds of thousands of citizens demonstrating in Prague this winter in support of toppling Czechoslovakia's communist government. Nothing was more exhilarating than sitting in on the dismantling of the Berlin Wall via TV and seeing throngs of joyous Germans attacking it with pickaxes and celebrating the demise of this symbol of oppression. You wanted to be there with them.

For a single sight, however, nothing topped last May's TV shot of the solitary dissident who boldly defied the Chinese military by using his body to block a column of tanks in Beijing's Tian An Men Square, moving in front of them each time they tried to go around him.

Almost as unforgettable were those live TV pictures of CNN executives and CBS anchorman Dan Rather strenuously resisting Chinese government attempts to pull the plug on their coverage of the rebellion that was shortly to result in a bloody crackdown on students and others demonstrating for reforms.

In Manila, the TV moments occurred on Feb. 7, 1986, when American networks chronicled goon squads trying to steal the Philippine election from Corazon Aquino, providing lasting and irrefutable proof of the corruption and brutality of Ferdinand Marcos.

In July of 1987, the TV stage belonged to enigmatic national security aide Lt. Col. Oliver North. For North, the memorable TV moment lasted six days, the length of his tense, combative, often-caustic and gratingly self-righteous testimony in the televised Iran-Contra hearings. Hero to some, heathen to others, North, by virtue of his TV moment, caused many Americans to rethink national priorities and the meaning of patriotism.

There were more moments.

With Nancy at his side, Ronald Reagan held an impromptu press conference on Aug. 1, 1984, and appeared to go blank when pressed on what he was doing to break the deadlock with the Soviet Union on space weapon talks.

Caught by the camera was the First Lady's attempt to prompt her seemingly helpless husband, and it was simply incredible. "Doing everything we can," she was heard to mutter under her breath to Reagan without moving her lips. "We're doing everything we can," he echoed. Our leader.

Other moments were haunting, and none more so than a public service announcement featuring Yul Brynner warning viewers about the dangers of smoking. The spot ran nationally in 1985, after the heavy-smoking actor had died of lung cancer.

Still other moments were transmitted as piercing jolts of horror.

Under that category came the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle over Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 28, 1986. There was, of course, that famous shot of the twin plumes, one continuing to ascend as the other plummeted. Perhaps even more profound, however, was the shot showing first puzzlement and then utter shock on the faces of the families and friends of the Challenger astronauts who were present for the liftoff.

The networks unjustly took some criticism from those who felt that showing instant reactions to the calamity was an intrusion that violated a basic right to private grief. In this case, however, the coverage was warranted, for the reaction shot was crucial to the story. You didn't need to see the actual explosion, for those horrified faces were the truest expression of tragedy.

More jolts:

There was the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during a public appearance. Visible on the screen was the approach of trucks carrying the assassins, and when the footage was slowed down for the evening news, you could see them raise their weapons and begin firing.

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