Bill who?

With the centrist in charge now a distant memory, the Democratic Party's left flank enjoys a night out -- on prime-time television.

By Kerry Lauerman
Published August 16, 2000 7:50AM (EDT)

Tuesday night, only a day after saying goodbye to the man who won two presidential races and brought it back to America's center, the Democratic Party set about forgetting President Clinton.

Even Kate Michelman, longtime president of the National Abortion Rights Action League -- who should be nothing if not giddily grateful for the Clinton years -- seemed to take an unintended swipe, asking the convention crowd, "Are you ready to elect the first pro-choice president of the 21st century?" apparently forgetting the pro-choice president who will technically hold office until the end of the year.

Other speakers followed in kind: There was former Sen. Bill Bradley (who mentioned Clinton once), the Rev. Jesse Jackson (zero times), Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (zip) and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (zilch). Sen. Ted Kennedy not only didn't mention Clinton but seemed to take a subtle swipe at him in saying, "There have been only three times in my life that I have supported candidates for president as early and as enthusiastically as I have supported Al Gore. Two of them were my brothers." None of them, apparently, was Clinton.

Without reference to Clinton, it was suddenly difficult to bring up the party's whole "prosperity" theme. So what did that leave the speakers to talk about? Problems.

Bradley (unlike another also-ran at another convention) didn't shy away from explicitly addressing the cultural and political problems he had vowed to solve during the primaries. He toed a fine line, repeatedly endorsing Gore without stepping away from his stances on the issues he attempted to tackle during his initially promising, but ultimately listless, primary campaign.

Bradley talked about the need to create affordable medical care for the 44 million uninsured Americans and decried poverty figures that show that "nearly one-fifth of the children in this country are ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-educated." He even espoused campaign finance reform. And he did so with a fire and grace that he often seemed to lack during the waning days of his own presidential campaign.

The former New Jersey senator was followed by the night's keynote speaker, 30-year-old Rep. Ford of Tennessee, who delivered a good speech exceptionally well, impressively deleting from and embellishing his script as he went along to play to his audience. Sadly for this "second-generation congressman" and his party, Ford spoke to a floor already emptied of many delegates, who were heading for the doors -- and the lavish after parties that were to begin following Bradley's speech.

The evening was dedicated to championing the party's left wing, with predictably rousing speeches from Jackson, who urged a moratorium on the death penalty, and Ted Kennedy, who roused the crowd to "fight for Al Gore," to which they responded, "because he's fighting for you."

Kennedy's predecessor at the dais and niece, Caroline, was lovely and crisp, if somewhat chilly. (Predictions of a "three-hanky" remembrance of Camelot were way off.) Both Kennedys followed short, stock speeches from NARAL's Michelman, Elizabeth Birch of the pro-gay lobby Human Rights Campaign and two union bosses (AFSCME president Gerald McEntee and, earlier, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka).

Meanwhile, young party stars of the future seemed relegated to the early slots, such as rumored vice presidential candidates Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Erstwhile veep candidate Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana got stuck playing talk show host for a panel discussing the "promise of tomorrow," which included asking a schoolteacher named Mary Jo West what it was like to have Gore stay with her during one of his "School Days" trips ("I still can't believe Al Gore was in our beds!") and talking to a former Phoenix news anchor about her problems with depression ("How do you tell your bosses you have a broken brain?" [Answer: Don't]).

But Ford's rousing performance as keynote speaker excepted, Tuesday night wasn't much about the future, or the present, really. It was about the past, and a romanticized idealism from a segment of the party surely left disenfranchised by Clinton's years of negotiating the center. Tuesday, this group had its moment. Wednesday night, when a new ticket of centrist politics is sealed as political pragmatist Joe Lieberman takes center stage, it will officially end.

Kerry Lauerman

Kerry Lauerman is Salon's Editor in Chief. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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