Speakers aren't at controls To avoid '92 repeat, faces are different, text is uniform

Campaign 1996

Republican Convention

August 13, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- When Republican Party chief Haley Barbour issued invitations to prospective convention speakers last month, he notified them that their remarks would have to be reviewed, edited and tightly controlled by convention planners "in order to ensure each presentation enhances the objectives of the convention."

Translation: We're not going to have another 1992 on our hands.

Republicans have been so intent on avoiding a repeat of their gathering four years ago -- in which Patrick J. Buchanan delivered a fiery speech that many thought set a tone of intolerance -- that they have insisted on having a hand, a heavy hand in some cases, on the words emerging from the podium.

As a result, the speeches have become more like scripts -- written, in some cases, by party officials. And several prominent Republicans were scratched from the lineup after they refused to accept specific scripts or when their words didn't comport with what the planners had in mind.

"This is choir practice and choir practice needs a conductor," said former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who ran for the GOP nomination this year. "Bob Dole wants to make sure we're all singing off the same sheet of music. We tried it the other way in 1992, and it scared the American people half to death."

This year, party officials laid down stringent rules from the start and even assigned each speaker a "speechwriter liaison" to make sure each person's remarks stayed on message.

In a letter to California Gov. Pete Wilson last month inviting him to speak, Barbour wrote that this "new approach," which included initial drafting responsibility, advance speech review and final editorial control by the party, was "simply a must."

A subsequent memo to convention speakers from William I. Greener III, the party's convention manager, said it was "crucial that we carefully plan each participant's involvement."

"To gain maximum impact, each of your words and phrases needs to be carefully selected," the memo states. "Your convention speechwriter liaison is very familiar with current-day research."

Even veteran politicians face the blue pencil and some are balking at having their words heavily edited and rewritten. A speechwriter for a prominent politician speaking this week said party officials rewrote what he had written and then faxed back their version that was "cliche-ridden and inferior to what we had sent them."

Party officials also trimmed about two minutes off the politician's six-minute speech.

In fact, time -- or the lack thereof -- is another complaint speechmakers are voicing. Most of the speeches are in the three- to four-minute range, and speakers are fighting over seconds.

New York Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato joked about his "spirited three-minute remarks," which were slated for 8: 36 to 8: 39 last night. "They wanted 300 words," he said. "I can do 500 words in three minutes and 10 seconds. The 500 words would take [Mississippian] Haley Barbour 20 minutes."

The minute-to-minute planning, geared to the networks that televised the final hour, seemed to pay off. Last night's proceedings stuck so faithfully to a schedule released days ago that the program ended just in time for the 11 p.m. news. Only Colin L. Powell, who was clearly given more leeway with his speech, exceeded his allotted 10 minutes.

In some cases the desire to avoid controversy has meant more than heavy editing. Several governors who support abortion rights had their invitations to speak withdrawn because of disputes over whether they would agree to stick to assigned topics. For instance, Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts, who wanted to speak on abortion rights, was asked to address Dole's economic policies and declined.

New York Gov. George E. Pataki declined to speak after party officials insisted he follow a script on immigration. The script endorsed the platform, which denies citizenship for children born in the United States whose parents are illegal immigrants. Pataki has said he disagrees with that position.

And Wilson, the host governor and a former mayor of this city, said he was disinvited from speaking "with no explanation."

Barbour said Wilson's invitation was withdrawn because he ran for the nomination this year and none of the other also-rans are delivering speeches.

But abortion rights supporters aren't the only ones being sidelined. Buchanan, a staunch abortion rights opponent who came in second to Dole in the primaries, has been denied a spot.

"I think they have completely overreacted" to the legacy of Buchanan's 1992 speech, said abortion rights foe Phyllis Schlafly. "I don't mind that [abortion rights proponents] Colin Powell and Susan Molinari are speaking. I just think they should have more speakers and more points of view."

Some say the party has come close to censorship. "We are not going to place standards and requirements such as you're seeing here on speakers at our convention," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

But Barbour said on NBC's "Today" show that the inordinate controls are in the interest of keeping the convention focused on issues. "Because it's an issue-oriented convention, we couldn't just say and didn't say to a single speaker, 'Here, here's 10 minutes. Go talk about whatever you want to.' We want the public, and the public has a right, to see where we stand on issues."

Tony Blankley, press secretary to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, applauded the tight controls: "The Bush convention in 1992 was undisciplined, and it showed."

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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