NEW YORK. — New York -- They ended with Family Night in Madison Square Garden. Bill Clinton and Al Gore presented themselves to the American public last week as a governor and senator, would-be president and vice president. But they also offered themselves as sons, as husbands and more than anything else, as fathers.
On the day that Ross Perot become a government-school dropout, the Democrats from the baby boom generation made their case to the American public with family biography as well as policy.
Al Gore described himself first as the son of a woman born before suffrage who graduated from law school when it simply wasn't done. He was the son of a man who was a teacher before becoming a senator and the husband of a woman who, in Mr. Gore's words, helped do more for children in the last dozen years than the entire Reagan and Bush administrations.
But he was also the father of a boy he'd seen hit by a car and thrown nearly lifeless to the pavement. It was a tale that brought this rambunctious hall of Democrats as close to silence as it ever gets.
Bill Clinton reintroduced himself earlier this week to an audience of women as the grandson of a working woman, the son of a single mother, the husband of a woman who'd earned more money than he did and the father of a daughter who wanted to build colonies in space. On the final night of the convention he rounded out that family picture.
He was the child born after his father's death. The boy whose mother went off to nursing school so she could support him. The big brother who watched over the younger. The stepson who stood up to and for an alcoholic stepfather. And in the film that preceded his speech, the father who sat and watched the famous ''60 Minutes'' interview on television with his daughter by his side.
If there were stories that people repeated over coffee the next morning, one was the tale of young Al Gore's brush with death. Another was the image of Mr. Clinton seeing what his own father had never lived to see, the birth of his child. A third was the tough moment when Chelsea Clinton, after watching her parents reveal the troubles in their marriage to a nation, reassured them that she still thought they were okay.
Call this the hearts and flowers, soap opera, Oprah Winfrey, New News part of the Democratic show and tell. Maybe we try to know too much of anyone asking to lead the country. We strip-search our candidates, looking for the moments when life reaches out, touches and toughens people.
But these biographies were important as well because the Democrats are trying to tell a family story of their own. A debate about ''family values'' is expected to track this campaign all the way to November. The Republicans are going to talk about Gennifer Flowers and Murphy Brown. They'll be selling Hillary Clinton as the Liberal Co-President with an Attitude.
We know where the Republicans stand. Traditional Families R Us. Any family that doesn't fit the mold is dysfunctional or pitiable or immoral. They divide families by moral fiber.
The Democrats are trying to create a politics of inclusion and a family portrait as diverse and complex and sometimes as hard as real family life in America. For the Democrats, families include not only as Mr. Clinton said, ''every traditional family and every extended family. Every two-parent family and every single parent family and every foster family.''
They also include imperfect homes in which there may be trouble and love; too much alcohol and forgiveness; infidelity and renewal. Where life can change as quickly as a kid can run in front of a car.
The family portrait painted by this Democratic Party is not permissive. ''Governments don't raise children; parents do,'' said Mr. Clinton. ''Hear me now, I am not pro-abortion. I am pro-choice.'' To any father who abandons his children and his child-support he warned, ''Take responsibility for your children or we will force you to do it.'' To any mother on welfare he said, ''Welfare must be a second chance not a way of life.''
But to the children who don't have an easy life, he said, ''I know how you feel. . . . If the politicians who are lecturing you don't want you to be a part of their families, you can be a part of ours.''
Republicans, like Ronald Reagan himself, also include the sons of alcoholics who've been over the coals of marriage and divorce. But Bill Clinton Democrats deal with it by talking about it.
For 12 years, we've been asked to see families through the wash of nostalgia and the harsh glare of moral judgment. What they offered at Family Night in Madison Square Garden looked a lot more like real life.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.