Democrats take stage in harmony Convention opens with emotional show of unity, moderation

'Four more years'

Actor Reeve, tribute to late Ron Brown add poignant notes

Democratic Convention

Campaign 1996

August 27, 1996|By Paul West and Carl M. Cannon | Paul West and Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Susan Baer of The Sun's national staff contributed to this article.

CHICAGO -- A united Democratic Party opened its national convention yesterday with a heavy dose of emotion and celebrity.

The words and images from the podium, designed to send a message of moderation, were reinforced by Bill Clinton's campaign-trail criticism of Republican efforts to block gun control.

Alma Brown, widow of former Democratic Party chairman and Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, delivered a poignant tribute to her late husband, who was killed in a plane crash in Bosnia last spring.

And two Republicans, former White House press secretary James S. Brady, crippled in a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and his wife, Sarah, drew tears from the delegates as they slowly made their way to the microphone.

"Jim, we must have made a wrong turn. This isn't San Diego," said Mrs. Brady, a gun control advocate, to a standing ovation.

"The National Rifle Association said that seven days, or even seven hours, was just too long to wait to buy a handgun," she said, to scattered boos at the mention of the NRA.

"Well, listen, our family can tell the gun lobby a little bit about inconvenience, and the despair and the pain that can result from a gunshot wound," she said.

Plea for medical spending

But the emotional high point was an appearance by paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, who appealed for increased government spending for medical research.

"President Roosevelt showed us that a man who could barely lift himself out of a wheelchair could still lift this nation out of despair," he said.

"I believe, and so does this administration, in the most important principle that FDR taught us. America does not let its needy citizens fend for themselves. America is stronger when all of us take care of all of us," Reeve said.

The crowd in the United Center, home of pro basketball's Chicago Bulls, buzzed noisily through most of the six-hour program.

One speaker, actor Edward James Olmos, star of the movie "Stand and Deliver," whistled three times for quiet during his remarks in a futile effort to hush the audience.

Gore appearance

The first real excitement of the evening came when Vice President Al Gore made a brief appearance on the convention floor before last evening's session, drawing a mob of well-wishers and setting off chants of "Four more years."

First lady Hillary Clinton also visited the hall, after first being beamed into the hall, TV-reporter style, from just outside.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, welcoming delegates to the first Democratic convention here since the violence-scarred 1968 edition, acknowledged the clashes that shattered the party that year.

"America was at war abroad, and at home our party and our convention reflected the deep divisions of those difficult times," said Daley, whose father was the mayor then and was condemned for encouraging the police riot that summer. "Tonight we gather in Chicago not to revisit the old battles but to renominate a popular and successful president."

'Not just a show'

House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt and others sought to draw contrasts with the Republican convention in San Diego, and their repeated mentions of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's name drew boos from the delegates.

Gephardt insisted the convention was "not just a show for television" but the final hour of the program was scripted to attract the largest possible viewing audience.

Instead of showcasing elected officials, the Democratic producers brought out a parade of non-politicians, including Mike Robbins, a Chicago policeman wounded in the line of duty, and Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, heralded by the throbbing bass tones of the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" and a laser light show.

Delegates waved Clinton-Gore signs touting the administration's achievements, including raising the minimum wage, putting more police on the street and enacting an assault weapons ban.

Earlier, delegates clapped to the sounds of a gospel choir, danced the Macarena during musical breaks and watched live views of Clinton's campaign train, projected onto huge screens suspended above the podium.

In Toledo, Ohio, surrounded by a sea of police officers, their gold badges glinting in the bright sun, the president emphasized his credentials as a crime fighter.

Yesterday's events aboard the 21st Century Express were closely coordinated with the managers of the convention in Chicago.

Clinton told an audience in Columbus, "When a person gets mugged, they don't ask you if you're a Democrat or a Republican It's an American issue to stand up for public safety."

Hoping to drum up enthusiasm for the president's sojourn through the Midwest, White House officials had promised that the president would unveil bold new crime-fighting initiatives. When those ideas were made public yesterday by Clinton, they proved to be four proposals that the administration has previously supported.

They were:

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