The 1983 Democratic Telethon Was Bad Television


On June 1, 1983 Democrats reeling from the popularity of first term Republican president Ronald Reagan, decided to hold a fundraising telethon.

travHad the 1984 presidential election hung on the “humorless and chintzy 17-hour” affair Reagan would have been guaranteed the second term that he ended up winnings anyway, I wrote in the Milwaukee Sentinel at the time.

If hosts Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon made a movie together with profits going to the Democratic National Committee “that would have been worth watching,” I wrote.

Instead their “rhetorical testimonials were neither entertaining nor inspiring.”

Implications the Democrats cornered the market on patriotism “were offensive. And Jane Fonda’s hillbilly routine was condescending.”

Wisecracks about violent torn El Salvador and Nicaragua by Borscht Belt comedians “were insensitive.”

Racine native Daniel J. Travanti and Leslie Uggams urged viewers to join “American’s Together Now,” by contributing $12 monthly. Other show business types who appeared included Helen Reddy, Ed Asner, Willie Nelson, Stephen Stills and Candice Bergen.

The telethon also “slung mud” at fellow Democratis Jimmy Carter and LBJ. And while the just ended Vietnam war debacle was mentioned briefly no homage was paid to its veterans, an oversight considering the telethon was held over the Memorial Day weekend.

“Hill Street Blues” star Travanti “brought his Capt. Frank Furillo credibility to his role as Democratic father figure and was probably the weekend’s most effective fund-raising device.”

But when it was announced that the telethon earned “between $16 and $20 million (pick a number, any number),” I wondered “about the Democrats ability to handle large sums. Hey, what’s $4 million among friends?” The Democrats later charged Republicans with dirty tricks for tying up the lines.

I was “floored” when Uggams introduced the song “Dixie,” “the bigot’s national anthem” as a tune to “inspire every American.” There were “no ringing phones to provide a sense of urgency. There was no tally board” to create drama. “There were no cuts to the audience if there was one.” There were no regional cut ins to show grass-roots support. And most of the bits were accompanied by canned laughter and applause.”

The result “may have been for a good cause,” I concluded, “but it was bad television.”

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