The national political conventions this month, including the July 25–28 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia where Hillary Rodham Clinton will be nominated, evoke the 1992 convention at which Bill Clinton became the Democratic nominee. That year, I was on the convention floor — at Madison Square Garden (MSG) in New York — as a volunteer staffer with the “broadcast liaison group.”
The group’s leader was Michael “Mike” Berman, who managed such operations for years. As delegates convened, businessman Ross Perot was — along with Bill Clinton and incumbent President George H.W. Bush — a contender. News outlets eagerly followed a rare, true three-way contest for the presidency. (Perot would proceed to win nearly one-fifth of the vote.)
In the summer of 1992, I was among the young adults serving as messengers in an era before cell phones, the Web, and social media. We helped link the broadcast news networks to the latest convention developments. During the event’s four days at MSG, speakers ranged from California Congressman Bob Matsui to Party Chairman Ron Brown, Texas Governor Ann Richards (who chaired the convention), New York Governor Mario Cuomo (who gave the nominating address), and Tennessee Senator and Vice Presidential nominee Al Gore. The appearance of New Jersey Senator (and former New York Knick) Bill Bradley prompted distribution of buttons noting that he was “back in the Garden.”
Other mementos included a hat.
Also memorable was an embargoed copy of Bill Clinton’s acceptance remarks, the paper now yellowed but the text still suggestive of optimism and rhetorical flourish.
Beyond that July 16 speech, the campaign video, based on Clinton’s rise from “A Place Called Hope” (his small hometown in Arkansas), and theme song — Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” — stoked the partisan crowd. Not only delegates but also bystanders were enthused.
When Bill and Hillary Clinton (and daughter Chelsea) — joined by Al and Tipper Gore — took the stage together, there was rhythmic clapping and cheering, amid balloons.
At the time, I was a recent college graduate on a brief vacation from my first full-time job, with first-term Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. She granted me a week off to volunteer at the convention. I stayed with my grandmother in New York, each morning reporting to a midtown hotel across from the Garden.
Months later, Bill Clinton would win the presidency, Congresswoman DeLauro would be decisively re-elected, and 1992 would roll into 1993. A generation had been launched.
Inevitably, our idealism is tempered with time and experience. As a teenager, I’d volunteered on the Michael Dukakis campaign during 1987 and 1988 in New Hampshire and Connecticut, including door-to-door canvassing in Church Street South during the fall of ’88.
There was a Dukakis visit to Connecticut, where he appeared with Senator Chris Dodd, among others.
In 1990 came Rosa DeLauro’s first campaign (against Milford’s Tom Scott), when incumbent U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison vacated his seat to run for governor in a three-way race vs. John Rowland (Republican) and Lowell Weicker, the Republican-turned-independent (from “A Connecticut Party”) who was elected.
After 1992, I volunteered for campaigns ranging from Bill Curry’s first gubernatorial race in Connecticut (he lost to Rowland in a four-way race that also included Tom Scott and Lieutenant Governor Eunice Groark in 1994), to Mayor David Dinkins’ 1993 New York re-election (he lost to Rudolph Giuliani), Mario Cuomo’s 1994 re-election (he lost to George Pataki), and Charles Schumer’s 1998 defeat of incumbent New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato. In 2000 came Al Gore’s campaign.
Barack Obama’s campaign followed in 2007 and 2008.
By then, certain volunteers were no longer so young; some had children of our own. This was a moment of resurgent idealism.
Now, in 2016, the youthful inspiration of 1992 is middle-aged. Let’s hope we haven’t settled for callous cynicism. Still, there is a sense of sober realism, in an election year that has seemed surreal.
In many areas, for example crime (at a two-decade low by various measures) and teen pregnancy, we have seen real progress over the years. The U.S. endured a “Great Recession” and avoided a depression. Yet numerous domestic and global challenges remain — from the economy and inequality to climate change, gun violence, and terrorism.
Now, the presidential nominee from the Clinton family will be Hillary Rodham Clinton.
She and Bernie Sanders are mobilizing a new generation of voters and volunteers, as are Donald Trump and others on the Republican side — not to mention smaller parties. The cycle of democracy, and demography, continues.
As Abraham Lincoln observed, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” He called himself “a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
Early in his first term, another president from Illinois — Barack Obama — said: “The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose.”
Beyond the theater of conventions, let’s find — and pursue — that greater purpose.
Josiah H. Brown lives in New Haven with his wife and their two children. Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT