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Actress Julia Roberts Testifies Before Congress

Aired May 9, 2002 - 14:10   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Actress Julia Roberts was lending her star power, bringing a little bit of Hollywood glitz to Capitol Hill today. Her appearance, though, before Congress, very serious.

Roberts testified on behalf of the Rett Syndrome Association, asking now for $15 million for research. Rett syndrome primarily strikes infant girls, leaving them unable to communicate or control their motor skills.

Roberts was emotional as she talked about a little girl who she knew who suffered from the disease.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JULIA ROBERTS, ACTRESS: Rett Syndrome could not suppress her sparkling smile and her inner light. Abigail, her parents, David and Ronnie (ph), and my family -- thank you Dr. Percy (ph) -- have been friends for a long time, and Abigail was my pal.

We spent time together without words. We connected with our eyes, with her squeals of delight and her incredibly wicked sense of humor, she was a joy to be around. And everyone who was ever near her loved her.

Abigail joined the film "Silent Angels" as a wonderful ambassador for Rett Syndrome. Then last June this silent disorder suddenly and unexpectedly took Abigail from us, and she was just 10 years old.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HEMMER: Julia Roberts in Washington today.

Chances are you were like a lot of us today. We had never heard of Rett Syndrome. Here are some quick facts about the disease. A neurological disorder, found almost exclusively in young girls. Symptoms include loss of communication skills and limited use of the hands, basically a breakdown of the ability to control movement.

It's often misdiagnosed as autism, so we understand.

Celebrities can certainly draw media attention to the causes they bring before Congress, but do they really influence lawmakers with their testimony? Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider in D.C. has been looking into this. Bill, good afternoon to you.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Thanks, Bill.

HEMMER: So, Julia Roberts comes in, sits down, very emotional delivery, and the impact then is what, based on past experience?

SCHNEIDER: The impact, number one, is what you said. Vast numbers of people, myself included, had not heard of Rett Syndrome. Now they have, and they will have heard of it in the next few days.

She's going to be all over the evening news tonight, all over the country. People are going to ask what is this disorder. How does it happen? How diagnosed?

There's going to be a lot more awareness, possibly more contributions, because a celebrity has come forth to testify.

HEMMER: Bill, if you look at list, Michael J. Fox comes to mind. I think we have some videotape from him during his appearance on Capital Hill.

Christopher Reeve is another big name that has gone to Capital Hill. Mary Tyler Moore comes to mind.

Can you say if the issue is moved when big stars from Hollywood go to Washington?

SCHNEIDER: Well, it depends on how much persistence these stars have.

I think the best example of a star who has had the persistence to really push this agenda, again and again and again, is Elizabeth Taylor on the AIDS issue.

She testified before Congress. She worked on this issue. She didn't just drop the cause, but she maintained a steady presence on that issue.

Very much depends not just on who the celebrity is, but also on sponsorship in Congress.

I noticed that Julia Roberts today was escorted around Congress by a senior Maryland Democrat, Steny Hoyer, which is good. He's an influential member of Congress.

It would be better if she had a Republican on her side, working with her on this issue. The Republicans are the majority in Congress and frankly, much more than the celebrity power is the power of the member of Congress who takes up the issue.

HEMMER: Is this new? Bill, go back in history. Is this the new phenomenon, where Hollywood goes to Washington, or have you seen it before?

SCHNEIDER: Well, we've seen it, certainly in the past 15 or 20 years, if that's new.

Before that, not quite as much. I don't recall in the '30s and '40s that movie stars regularly appeared in Congress except perhaps to testify in the McCarthy hearings a suspected Communist. But I don't think they testified on behalf of these kinds of causes very often.

It's part of our celebrity age and part of celebrity culture. And in these cases, they're using their celebrity power to try to do good.

And it does help. It changes people's behavior. Often people get tested for disorders. They're more aware of them. It may bring in contributions.

But as i say, the key factor in Congress is which member of Congress is on the side of this issue, and how much power does that member have.

HEMMER: The bottom line is, we all know a lot more about Rett Syndrome after today.

SCHNEIDER: Absolutely.

HEMMER: Thank you, Bill. Bill Schneider in Washington.

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