Holding back in Boston

July 29, 2004|By Clarence Page

BOSTON - The Clintons' entrances onto the big stage at the Democratic National Convention on Monday were predictably grand, but surprisingly less grand than they could have been.

Unlike in the olden days, when party delegates would "riot" for 10 to 20 minutes of televised "spontaneous demonstrations," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York glided onstage and almost immediately began to speak, forcing the cheering, clapping, chanting and foot-stomping crowd to hush up. So did former President Bill Clinton, physically gesturing for the crowd to chill out, even though it forced an abrupt end to his own 1992 campaign theme song, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow."

They appeared to want it that way. After all, if any two people know better than to refrain from talking over their own applause it's Bill and Hillary. But it would be tacky for the party's old stars to outshine their new one, especially when the rising star is as charismatically challenged as John Kerry.

But, frankly, I felt sorry for the delegates. Let them have their fun, I say. Haven't the party bosses learned the lessons of filmmaker Michael Moore's success with Fahrenheit 9/11? After years of free rein by Clinton-bashers all over the airwaves, Democrats yearn to show a little nostalgic appreciation for the Clinton years.

Besides, cathartic hooting and hollering and horn-blowing are part of what political conventions are supposed to be all about. Cutting back on the party's superstars only frees up more face time for the networks' talking heads. I tune in to see the actual newsmakers, not just the news talkers.

And as a listener who was expecting to hear a historic, full-tilt Bill Clinton sermon, I was disappointed. He predictably ticked off numerous examples of programs and prosperity that Democrats have given and that Republicans have starved or taken away. He easily threw enough rhetorical red meat to the delegates to unleash their partisan passions for a tightly choreographed 20 minutes or so.

But he offered no bumper stickers, no memorable slogans to capture the spirit of a campaign shifting into high gear. He offered no warm, engaging Reaganesque anecdotes to personalize the abstractions with concrete human realities. Nor did he milk the riveting imagery-filled oratory with which 1984 keynoter Mario M. Cuomo reminded Democrats of their heart and soul as they set out to battle Ronald Reagan's revolutionaries.

Instead, Mr. Clinton richly recited a laundry list of Republican deficits and Democratic achievements as if he was talking to people who had never before heard of Democrats. Maybe he was. In this peculiar campaign year, the national contest has not been so much between Democrats and Republicans as between President Bush and Anybody But Bush.

Thanks to the ABBs, Mr. Kerry went to the Democratic National Convention in a virtual dead heat with the president, without saying much at all. And Mr. Bush has defined himself and his opposition without much interruption by Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Kerry's naming of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate took on tremendous drama and seemed to energize the campaign, making Mr. Kerry more of a player in crucial swing states.

And although Mr. Bush stands confident, he has another reason to worry: In tight political contests, Mr. Kerry tends to be a late bloomer. He beat back a challenge from former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld in the final weeks of what had been a losing campaign in the late 1990s. In this year's Iowa caucuses, Mr. Kerry was nearly given up for dead until he scored a surprising victory on the very day that the caucuses met. (That's OK. Polls can be wrong from time to time. When democracy is totally predictable, that's a sign that you've really got a dictatorship.)

So in his quest for the White House, I expect Mr. Kerry to take a calm, measured path that is disciplined to the point of being excruciatingly dull. Since clinching the nomination, he has behaved like a man who is committed to saving his best ideas and energies until the contest's final stretch, after Labor Day. That's not very exciting for us media folks, among others. But it's always hard to tell a man to change when he appears to be doing just fine.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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