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Is Campaigns' Path to the Heart a Proper One?

Critics say it's exploitative to use the ill, disabled to play on emotions.

August 11, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last week in Philadelphia, Windy Smith became the first person with Down syndrome to speak at a major political convention. The 26-year-old Tennessee resident even stood side-by-side with George W. Bush after he delivered his acceptance speech.

There is no reason to believe that the Democrats will not follow a similar emotional path at their convention in Los Angeles.

Politicians have always loved to be seen kissing babies and helping those in need. But are some exhibits of compassionate conservatism and liberal outreach actually crass exploitation and political manipulation, especially of the ill and handicapped? It depends upon whom you ask.

"I don't think the American people are particularly cynical," said Karlyn Bowman a public opinion analyst for the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. "People think about the enormous struggle someone like Windy Smith has faced and admire her. I don't think they overanalyze it."

But others say the GOP went too far with the appearance of Smith, who read a brief letter of support she had written to Bush weeks earlier. "It was a pretty empty charade," said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College, City University of New York. "All you heard was that this young woman thought the world of George W. Bush. She loved him and he loved her."

On some level, though, most would agree that such appearances resonate with voters.

"It's just politics," said Frank Gilliam, a UCLA professor of political science. "Politics is as much about tugging on the heartstrings as it is cold-eyed policymaking."

Smith's appearance was the latest example of the personalization of politics, particularly at national party conventions.

Such scripted displays, Gilliam said, are "meant to elicit the same response--an emotional one. The candidate wants you to feel good and hopes that feeling will make it more likely you'll vote for them."

Emotional appeals have also helped fill a void at conventions created by the disappearance of spontaneous platform debates and the lack of wrangling over the selection of candidates.

Four years ago, Al Gore's poignant account of his younger sister's death from lung cancer moved many to tears at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

But Gore's speech was overshadowed emotionally by opening night remarks by wheelchair-bound actor Christopher Reeve. Paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident the previous year, Reeve's mere appearance said more than his words. The actor did manage a relevant political quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself wheelchair-bound: "America does not let its needy citizens fend for themselves."

Reeve's largely nonpolitical remarks stood in contrast to those of former White House press secretary James Brady, wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, who urged the same convention to support controversial gun control measures.

But the prominent placement of Hollywood's Superman in the convention drew fire from critics who argued that the line between politics and melodrama had been unwisely crossed. One reporter wrote at the time that he thought he'd "stumbled upon a Barbara Walters special."

At last week's GOP convention, a packed house sat spellbound during the brief and historic appearance by Smith, a diminutive young woman in a plain red dress and big frame glasses.

"I guess politics is just in my heart, but so is God, and that's the reason it's important to vote the right way," said Smith, as she read her letter to Bush at Philadelphia's First Union Center. "Remember the Alamo and remember why you want to be president!"

When Smith finished, her ovation rivaled the intensity of those given later for Dick Cheney and Bush.

In the wake of Smith's public talk, leading Down syndrome advocates have also cheered her inclusion. The appearance culminates a decade of growing national exposure, largely over television, for people with Down syndrome, who number 350,000 in the United States, advocates said.

"What the nation witnessed was the passing of the torch," said JoAnn Simons, president of the Atlanta-based National Down Syndrome Congress. "Individuals with disabilities don't necessarily need people to speak for them."

But other advocates for the developmentally disabled question whether the appearance was somewhat hypocritical in view of the poor level of services provided in Texas, where Bush is serving his second term as governor.

Texas is one of the few states that sided with Georgia in a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case that involved two mentally retarded women who sought the right to leave an institution, with a doctor's consent, for a smaller community home.

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