Superman plays Chicago Watch him and weep: DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

August 26, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

TONIGHT AT the Democratic convention, they'll wheel out Christopher Reeve for all the world to see. Everyone except Christopher Reeve (and a few other disabled people in the crowd, strategically placed in view of the TV cameras) will stand.

Many will weep. And then they'll smile, wiping away tears, as Reeve speaks.

It will be an emotional moment, as we once again see Superman in a wheelchair, we hear Superman's determination to some day climb out of that wheelchair and we root for Superman to fly, or at least to walk.

Reeve will say what the people want to hear: that he hasn't given up on life, that he even expects to walk again. And then he'll ask for people to contribute to research for spinal-cord injuries. His appearance will raise millions of dollars.

It seems like a good thing.

It is, if you enjoy seeing people exploited.

It is, if you think that applauding a person with a disability is the same as actually enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It's easier to applaud than to actually fund wheelchair ramps and elevators.

It is, if you believe that those who put the Democratic convention/TV show together have anything in mind except piggy-backing on Reeve's great smile and tragic story.

And it is a show. In fact, tonight's opening night of the convention concludes with the cast of the hot musical "Rent" -- which won a Tony and a Pulitzer -- belting out the show-stopping "Seasons of Love." Yeah, it's a show all right.

But don't get me wrong. Reeve should not be blamed for any of this. He has the best of intentions. I'm sure he doesn't want to be used by anyone. I'm sure it's important to him -- as it would be to anyone -- to maintain the same high profile he enjoyed before his injury. I'm sure he wants to do good. And nothing's wrong with raising money for spinal-cord research.

And maybe Reeve even understands that if he were less physically appealing, if many in the TV audience were tempted to turn away rather than smile back at his smiling face, that he wouldn't be up there at all.

But he's there because everyone is rooting for Christopher Reeve. And that's what conventions are about -- not picking candidates, not discussing issues, but to provide a rooting interest and a tug at the heartstrings.

You could say it was cynical.

Or you could say it was deeply cynical. I'm not sure what else you could say.

Not that the Democrats invented this game. The Republicans certainly know how to play. At the recent Republican convention, Mary Fisher once again gave an AIDS speech. If Reeve is acceptable because he's so photogenic, Fisher is acceptable because she got AIDS the "right" way. She's not gay. She doesn't use needles. It was a "mistake."

Did the Republicans have Fisher speak in order to promote a better understanding of the disease? Or did they have her speak so we would see the Republicans as a party with a human face?

In keeping with that theme, the Republicans produced Jan License, a rape victim, for the convention crowd and the TV cameras. When she told her story, everyone in San Diego and those watching on TV had to fight back tears. And why not?

You'd have to be slightly less than human not to be moved by the courage it took for her to share her story and try to put her life back together. But what did it have to do with Republican politics? Are they suggesting that Democrats are in favor of rape? Watching this, you began to wonder whether this was a political convention or a daytime TV talk show.

Of course, Reeve is very hot these days. He's on the cover of this week's Time. He's done Barbara Walters and Larry King. He tells national audiences how important it is that insurance companies not have monetary limits on coverage. He's working with Congress to get a new law on the books, which says something about Congress that it needs a disabled celebrity to spark legislation.

He's motivated. He's charming. He has those blue eyes. But there are those in the disability rights community who worry about his message.

Understandably, Reeve is focused on a cure for spinal-cord injuries. Many in the disability rights movement want him to use his time to discuss equal access for anyone with a disability. They want someone who will shame the politicians into putting more teeth into enforcement of the ADA.

Maybe Reeve will address these issues. The Democratic convention planners, who have an election to win, don't care if he talks about wheelchair access or if he talks about insurance reform or if he talks about deep-dish pizza. All they care about is that there's not a dry eye in the house.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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