Trying to be heard above the tumult: microphones no use

Delivering a speech on economics while 5,000 to 6,000 people chant "We want Kennedy" is n act of redundancy: a good deal like leaving a sprinkler on in the rain.

The attention span of the Democratic convention at Madison Square Gardent to speeches in platform fights seems to be about 30 seconds: Former UN Ambassador Andrew Young at 8:04 p.m. is explaining the Carter administration's opposition to a $12 billion antirecession jobs program. He just keeps talking through a Niagara Falls of tumult. There are, in fact, two audiences -- the one in this huge ampitheater that doesn't listen and the one on radio-TV to which he appeals.

That is the first discovery in this astonishing convention process: Permanent chairman Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (Speaker of the US House of Representatives) doesn't even try to preserve order. Not once does he order ushers to "clear the aisles," which are clogged like a subway at rush hour. The second discovery is that there is no unwritten rule of "live and let live" in this extraordinary confrontation. On the contrary, most speakers are drowned out by the din.

The two sides are more interested in the Kennedy-Carter personal drama than the intellectual battle over whether inflation can be cured by some other means than putting on the high-interest brakes that cause unemployment. It is hardly a matter to be settled over the microphones.

At 8:20 p.m. an excited attendant with an armful of papers hastens through the press section, and everybody grabs: It is the advance text of the Kennedy speech, which will highlight the evening. It is a six-page, single-space document that takes exactly half an hour to deliver and that is certainly one of the most effective political addresses in a lifetime, perhaps comparable to the "Teamsters' speech" of Franklin Roosevelt which did muct to defeat Thomas E. Dewey.

Senator Kennedy's bugle-call delivery is perhaps overly rhythmic and cadenced for the family living room television medium. But in a vast hall to an enthusiastic audience, it is one of the most powerful of modern declarations. In short, he wows them. Ronald Reagan's acceptance speech at Detroit was spoken more quietly and almost conversationally; it was as though he were in the living room. It had some of the intimacy of a FDR "fireside chat" and was effective.

The Kennedy speech to the Democratic convention of 1980 is quite different in style and tone; it is a powerful oratorical indictment using metaphor, repetition, ironical understatement, and scalding satire, and delivered with verve and utter self-confidence. It unveils an attack on some of Governor Reagan's utterances, made before he entered politics and when he was employed as spokesmen for various commercial employers. Some of them guileless and naive in retrospect, like the charge that "unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation plan for freeloaders" and the nearly comment that the progressive income tax is "the invention of Karl Marx."

Carter forces have cross-indexed every Reagan comment for years past, and it would appear that the Republican will have to disassociate himself from some of them as the casual comments of an earlir time.

In any case, Kennedy's use of them delighted the Democratic audience, where he finished to a roar -- rising to an ovation that sank and rose again. Some followers tried to start an old-fashioned convention hall parade with banners and standards, but there are no broad aisles any longer for such historic demonstrations.

At 9:03 p.m. chairman O'Neill makes a half-hearted effort to end the noise. At 9:05 he tries again: The crowd just yells; the bank strikes up; and the noise lasts till 9:38.

Then it is a test of wills between the white-maned chairman and the Kennedy supporters in the hall who want to keep on hollering. He says he will put four minority reports on the platform to voice vote.

But O'Neill tricks them. The issues are on economic points, and the Carter administration is prepared to cocede them to the Kennedy forces -- save one.

O'Neill asks for a voice vote. Do the "ayes" yell louder than tha "nays?" The chairman announced gravely that "in the opinion of the chair" the ayes (those favoring the Kennedy activist planks) "have it." That is, on questions No. 2, 3, and 4. But he listens to rival roars on No. 1 and gravely announces that on this catch-all plank, "the nays have it."

At first, the Kennedy clan doesn't grasp the rebuff. Then there is an indignant cry of protest. Chairman O'Neill doesn't seem to hear this, either.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.