With President Clinton keeping up a steady political drumbeat as his whistle-stop campaign train speeds toward Chicago, the Democrats opened their national convention Monday with calls for tighter gun control and a return to the humanistic values that defined the party in its glory years.
To the moving rhythms of gospel and Latin music, a stream of officeholders and celebrities marched to the United Center podium to underline the differences between Clinton and Republican hopeful Bob Dole.
There was a cameo appearance from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, introduced by baseball legend Ernie Banks. She stood in front of the statue of Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan in front of the United Center and welcomed the Democrats to her hometown before venturing inside the hall for a quick greeting that electrified the delegates.
Traveling through Ohio, the president sounded one of the main themes of the convention’s opening session, pledging that he would back legislation to make it illegal for people convicted of spousal abuse to buy guns, an extension of the Brady gun-control bill that Clinton signed into law earlier in his administration.
Clinton was careful in crafting the anti-gun message, saying he endorses the right to own firearms, but not for all Americans - and especially not for Americans who would use them in violent crimes.
“Under current law, thousands of people who are wife-beaters or child-abusers, even those who have wielded weapons in their assault but were convicted of misdemeanors, can still buy handguns with potentially deadly consequences,” said Clinton as his 21st Century Express train made a campaign stop in Arlington, Ohio.
The president also launched a head-on attack on the National Rifle Association, long connected to Republican and conservative causes, accusing the group of helping block legislation designed to protect police officers and members of the public from “copkiller” ammunition that could penetrate bulletproof vests. No one makes such ammunition, but the technology exists.
“I have never seen a deer in a Kevlar vest,” Clinton said, referring to the material bulletproof police vests are made from. “If somebody can show me a picture of one out there hiding from our hunters, I’ll be glad to reassess my position.”
Even as Clinton was hitting at his anti-gun message, Dole, vacationing in California, unleashed his own attack on the president on another crime theme: drug abuse by young people. The Republicans began airing a TV commercial, an echo of the strong anti-nuclear TV ad that aired in 1964 showing a little girl picking petals from a daisy as the specter of nuclear war loomed in a ghostly background.
The message in the new Dole ad is that drug abuse is the threat that has replaced nuclear war for the children of America and that Clinton has let down the nation’s guard by cutting money for drug interdiction programs during the past few years.
Both candidates are likely to continue talking about crime as the Democratic convention progresses. Even though the incidence of violent crime is dropping, the perception measured in public opinion polls is that the problem is getting worse. Republicans traditionally have controlled the issue, but Clinton and the Democrats have seized it, largely by pushing gun-control themes and by increasing support for police.
The opening of the Democrats’ first convention in Chicago since the debacle of 1968 looked for all the world like an event scripted in Hollywood. Between speeches, a mammoth wall of televisions behind the podium ticked off the number of jobs created during Clinton’s three years in office.
“Superman” film star and quadriplegic Christopher Reeve, actor Edward James Olmos and a woman more commonly associated with the Republicans of the Reagan era - Sarah Brady, now an ardent supporter of gun control - were the main speakers addressing delegates on the convention’s opening day.
James Brady, President Reagan’s White House press secretary, was seriously injured in a gunman’s attack on Reagan 15 years ago. He and his wife have been at the forefront of an organization called Handgun Control Inc. since 1989.
Sarah Brady, whose brain-damaged husband walked slowly alongside her to the podium and then sat in his wheelchair as the delegates cheered, picked up the theme Clinton had raised earlier in the day.
She drew roars of laughter when she opened with a quip: “Jim, we must have made a wrong turn. This isn’t San Diego (where the Republicans held their convention).” Republicans strongly have opposed gun control.
“Every year in this country, nearly 40,000 Americans are killed with firearms. More than 100,000 are wounded. Every two hours, another child is killed with a gun, and with each death and with each wound, another American dream, another American family, is shattered,” she said.
“After seven long years, Congress finally passed the Brady bill and President Clinton kept his promise: He signed it into law. … But we need to do more. We should, as President Clinton proposed today, stop people convicted of domestic violence from buying a handgun.”
The welcoming address from Mayor Richard Daley probably was the most challenging moment for a party that remembers only too well what happened when it came to Chicago 28 years ago to nominate Hubert H. Humphrey amid a national furor over the Vietnam War.
“The last time Democrats met in Chicago to nominate a candidate for president, America was at war, abroad and at home. Our party and our convention reflected the deep divisions of those difficult times,” said Daley, mindful of the role his late father, then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, had played during the brutal 1968 convention and its street battles between war protesters and police.
“This year, we gather under happier circumstances. America is at peace. The bitter confrontations of the past have been replaced by a healthy dialogue within our party,” Daley said. “Tonight, we gather in Chicago, not to revisit old battles, but to renominate a popular and successful president.”
Reeve, injured in a horseback-riding accident and undergoing intensive physical therapy as part of his recovery, invoked the memory of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt and said the nation has a responsibility to help its needy citizens.
“President Roosevelt showed us that a man who could barely lift himself out of a wheelchair could still lift a nation out of despair,” Reeve said. “And I believe - and so does this administration - in the most important principle FDR taught us: America does not let its needy fend for themselves. America is stronger when all of us take care of all of us.”
The party’s goal in Chicago is to present the image of a group firmly united behind Clinton - but not in the kind of lock step that was apparent when the Republicans met for their convention in San Diego, where not a discouraging word was allowed to be heard.
A top Daley administration insider who has been active in scripting the Democratic convention said party leaders were aware that presenting too unified a facade would not ring true with the television audience. So dissent, vented and loosely controlled within clearly set parameters, was permitted.
“The feeling is that it is smart to allow dissent to break through so that people don’t see this as sanitized,” the City Hall insider said. “Showing some divisiveness shows a difference of opinion and only adds to the credibility.”
But the parameters are important. “Of course, we’re managing the speakers in the context of the time frame and what the message of this campaign is and the themes we’ve set out on a day-to-day basis,” said one Democratic National Committee official.
“But there are a lot of strong personalities going up on that podium, people who are going to be speaking whom you don’t want to tell what they can say or can’t say.”