Clinton's Convention

Convention Diary

BOSTON, Wednesday, July 28—Some Democratic officials worried that the party would have a hard time staying on message this week. But they’ve had no trouble with at least one theme—“Don’t Stop Thinking About 1992.”

This convention has seized on many of the themes that dominated its predecessor 12 years ago and propelled little-known challenger Bill Clinton to the White House. And it has embraced the Clinton legacy in a major way besides.

From day one, this has been the Clinton convention. It paints a stark contrast to 2000, when then-Vice President Al Gore ’69 ran from Clinton, even picking a vice presidential candidate with Clinton-bashing credentials earned during the impeachment proceedings. Bill owned the hall Monday night, delivering by far the best speech of the convention, and perhaps one of the best in a career of distinguished speeches.

From the minute he stepped on stage, it was clear that his popularity—at least among the faithful—may have even surged since he left office. He seized on their support, rallying them with an appeal to the peace and prosperity over which he presided.

“We tried it their way for 12 years, our way for eight, and then their way for four more,” he told the crowd, referring to the Republican administrations surrounding his own. “Our way works better.”

Clinton’s reception by the crowd underscored the fact that the Democrats are still, in many ways, Bill’s party. That point has clearly not been lost on Kerry officials, who have tried to run on the Clinton-Gore legacy and emulate 1992.

The upshot has been that even since Bill skipped town Tuesday, the remainder of the convention has clearly been guided by his spirit. Vice presidential candidate Sen. John R. Edwards, D-N.C., made the upbeat, down-home populism of Clinton his own last night, urging listeners to adopt the “politics of hope” and reminding them that “hope is on the way.”

Sound familiar? Does anyone remember the presidential contender from Hope, Ark. who told Americans, “I still believe in a place called Hope”?

That wasn’t all Edwards had learned from Clinton. In fact, their acceptance speeches in ’92 and ’04 were remarkably similar, both in style and substance.

Both talked extensively about their working-class family histories, highlighting that their parents had taught them the value of hard work and the importance of treating all people with respect. They both expounded on the importance of racial equality and addressed the need to reach out to those who work full-time and still live in poverty.

Sure, there were some new themes, like Edwards’ “two Americas” (which borrowed from Mario Cuomo’s 1984 “Tale of Two Cities” Democratic convention address), but to sum up his speech, he might as well have said that he was “putting people first.”

The rest of the convention has followed in similar fashion. Organizers have tried to hard to make the proceedings positive and forward-looking, avoiding attacks on President Bush as much as possible.

As a result, while speakers have strong concern about the direction America is heading, most have steered clear of focusing too much on criticisms of Bush. Democratic officials say they hope the more optimistic strategy—employed with great success in 1992—can help propel Kerry to victory.

This works especially well given the limited air time the networks have given the convention this year, a mere three hours. This means that more liberal Democrats like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, D-Mass., can still be given their chance to speak, and speak critically of Bush, while being hidden from most national viewers, who will likely see little more than the speeches made by Clinton, Kerry, and vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

The convention is being run by a host of ex-Clintonites to boot, including convention chair, Clinton Secretary of Energy and current Arizona Gov. Bill Richardson and Democratic National Committee chair and close Clinton associate Terry McAuliffe.

Even in downtime, the spirit of Clinton still pervades the convention. One of the most frequent time-fillers between on-stage events features an image of Clinton displayed with the following quote on screen, along with a recording of him reciting it:“Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time. Well, my fellow citizens, this is our time. Let us embrace it.”

Convention organizers must only hope that they can emulate Clinton’s sweeping success in 1992 as well as they have appropriated that year’s convention themes.

—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at marks@fas.harvard.edu.