Alan Brinkley Christopher Caldwell Karlyn Bowman Herb Stein
7:24 a.m. Tuesday 8/27/96
Watching the first night of the Democratic Convention--the whole night, not just the prime-time hour--was like watching two entirely different worlds. From 8 to 10, there were Democratic politicians speaking about the party, the president, and the opposition. They weren't saying anything very surprising, perhaps, but they were at least saying something that had a vague connection with politics and the campaign. Then, from 10 to 11, both the tone and the substance shifted abruptly, with people who sounded more like the traveling inspirational speakers they are--or, in Chris Reeve's case, may become--than like anyone related to a political cause. To say that they could as easily have made the same speeches in San Diego is to understate the case; Colin Powell could have made his speech in Chicago, but it would still have sounded, at least vaguely, like a political speech. The Bradys and Reeve could have been speaking anywhere, to anyone.
Having said that, I have to confess that the sight of Jim Brady willing himself on his feet across that broad stage to the lectern was very moving; and Sarah Brady spoke quite well. Watching Chris Reeve was a very poignant experience too; what he said was almost irrelevant--although some of what he said was quite poignant. For the Democrats, I suspect, the point of all this was to fuse the emotional appeal of these speakers with their message: that we need government to do at least some things to protect and support us. The Bradys and Reeve made government sound not like the alien and oppressive force that Republicans portray, but like the nurturing partner that Democrats have always wanted it to be. Clinton's ebullient video appearance at the end was a somewhat jarring anticlimax.
All in all, an effective and even moving evening of television, but also a somewhat vague and diffuse evening of politics. It certainly did the president no harm. If it drew the audience into the convention, it may have done him some good.
8:13 a.m. Tuesday 8/27/96
I agree with the moderator that the Christopher Reeve speech does little for public discourse. But, 10 points up, Democrats are wise to play it safe, and nothing could be less controversial than asking us to empathize with someone crippled in his prime.
Republicans did the same thing in San Diego. Why? Manafort, Gingrich, Barbour and other organizers came to politics in the 70s when the GOP was risible among their contemporaries. They must have thought, "No one would dare laugh at this." Maybe Democrats took the same lesson out of the 80s.
The Democrats did an excellent job of creating a non-partisan tone. (Reeve: "[Can-do] is not a Democratic motto or a Republican motto; it's an American motto.") It felt like the country's convention, not a party's. But Reeve also said "America does not let its needy citizens fend for themselves." That was a cue for networks to probe delegates on welfare, which they didn't do.
The real coup tonight was the Brady speech. It looked like a single-issue address, but it was a defection, and both Bradys played it as such. That made it a greater momentum-lending episode than anything that happened in San Diego. The only recent parallel was Republicans' justified exhilaration when half a dozen national Democrats switched parties in late 1995. Democrats should be giddy with delight.
Allow me to wish the moderator a very happy birthday.
8:59 a.m. Tuesday 8/27/96
Just as I did during the Republican convention, I watched the proceedings on C-SPAN. Herb Stein's question asked whether the Democrats could match the glamor and orchestration of the Republicans' convention. Monday night they fell short. The evening seemed disorganized and loose. I found myself yearning for the tightly scripted GOP convention when at 9:45 the convention simply stopped. No music, no speeches, almost nothing for 15 minutes. Particularly jarring were the President's comments at the end after Christopher Reeve's speech.
The convention may not be working yet, but the whistle-stop tour is. It helps that this kind of pressing the flesh is Clinton's "idea of heaven." The daily announcements, the nostalgic appeal of the train trip, the number of presidential interviews over the past week have gotten the president off to a good start.
1:27 p.m Tuesday 8/27/96
I return to one of our early questions. Are the Democrats using the convention to advance the image of themselves as the party of the center?
I suppose that everyone considers where he is to be the center. Monday's convention did not look like the center from where I sit. There was that long-haired person playing some weird music on a weird instrument that no one could identify but that I believe was a soprano saxophone with an electronic amplifier. There was the trumpeter who mangled "The Star Spangled Banner." There was the cast of "Rent". There was the blasphemously partisan and interminable benediction.
If anyone said "balance the budget" I didn't hear him. If anyone said "small government" I didn't hear him. The only spokesman for a centrist Democratic party was Mr. Wilhelm (I don't remember his first name), who had been the convention chairman in 1992 and spoke for about five minutes. All the applause was reserved for suggestions that involved more government spending.
As for Christopher Reeve, his talk was a list of all the ills the flesh is heir to, with the demand that the government cure them. I have a fair dose of sentimentality in me, but that was too much for me.
Am I wrong? Maybe my set wasn't tuned in correctly. Maybe Tuesday will be centrist day.
Christopher Caldwell Karlyn Bowman Herb Stein
Karlyn Bowman Herb Stein