Clinton Assails Bush as Democrats Open Convention

By ADAM NAGOURNEY

The New York Times

July 27, 2004

President Bush's leadership, using humor and a piercing attack to argue that Mr. Bush had unraveled a prosperous and well-respected nation that Mr. Clinton left him four years ago.

For nearly 30 minutes, Mr. Clinton held command over an arena packed with Democratic delegates, prompting laughter, cheers and finally roars of approval with a speech that attacked the wisdom of Mr. Bush's tax cuts, how he had managed the war in Iraq, and his attempt to portray John Kerry as a weak leader who would not protect the nation against terrorism. He said Mr. Bush's policies had lost him respect abroad, and produced an economy imperiled by tax cuts that had forced ruinous cuts in spending on education, health care and spending on police.

"We tried it their way for 12 years, we tried it our way for eight, and then we tried it their way for four more," Mr. Clinton said, a grin breaking out across his face. "By the only test that matters - whether people were better off when we were finished than when we started - our way worked better."

Drawing one of his biggest ovations of the night, Mr. Clinton mocked what he said was Mr. Bush's attempt to say that "we should be afraid of John Kerry and John Edwards because they won't stand up to the terror."

"Don't you believe it.'' he said. "Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.''

Mr. Clinton's prime-time speech instantly dominated a convention that featured two ex-presidents and an almost-president. And for all of Mr. Kerry's expressed desires that the convention downplay attacks on Mr. Bush, delegates by the end of the night had in the three speeches heard a full-throated case against Mr. Bush's policies - though one often leavened by unthreatening language and expressions of respect for a sitting president.

Al Gore, who archly said he had hoped to be here to accept his party's nomination for a second term, urged Democrats to remember his defeat of 2000, but focus their anger "on putting John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House."

Former President Jimmy Carter, invoking his foreign policy triumph of 25 years ago, harshly attacked President Bush as he declared the "achievements of Camp David a quarter-century ago and the more recent progress made by President Bill Clinton are now in peril" because of policies of Mr. Bush that allowed the Middle East to be "swept by anti-American passions."

Taken together, the speeches spanned more than a quarter-century of Democratic Party history, and offered Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore and Mr. Carter an opportunity to contrast their records with President Bush. The prominence of their positions - on the opening night of the convention - signaled the extent to which Mr. Kerry, unlike the men who appeared here on Monday, intends to embrace the records of past Democratic presidents.

All three Democrats appeared to take care not to offer what might be seen as personal attacks on Mr. Bush - no jokes, for example, about this President Bush being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. And Mr. Clinton, in particular, used self-deprecating humor in making the case against Mr. Bush, as when he referred to his own efforts to avoid service in Vietnam as he compared Mr. Kerry's war service with Mr. Bush's time in the National Guard.

"During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current president, the vice president and me, could have gone to Vietnam and didn't,'' Mr. Clinton said. "John Kerry came from a privileged background. He could have avoided going, too. But instead he said, 'Send me.' "

"When they sent those Swift boats up the river in Vietnam, and they told them their job was to draw hostile fire, to wave the American flag and bait the enemy to come out and fight, John Kerry said, 'Send me,' " he continued. By this point, the crowd had picked up the refrain and was shouting "Send me" along with Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Clinton's appearance on Monday did not include the dramatics of his speech to the Democratic convention in 2000, when he strode on stage after a long theatrical walk through the tunnels of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was also less problematic; Mr. Gore had until the last moment been unsure whether he wanted Mr. Clinton there, and that speech started 25 minutes late, went long and was criticized by even some Democrats as showy.

But an unusually disciplined Mr. Clinton, notwithstanding that he worked on his address until the very last minute, spoke for less than 30 minutes , finishing precisely at 11:01, just one minute past the schedule.

Again and again, Mr. Clinton said that he had no doubt that Mr. Bush genuinely believed in what he was trying to do, before proceeding to describe Mr. Bush's policies as bad for the nation.

To dramatize his attack on Mr. Bush's economic policies, Mr. Clinton talked about how he, as a wealthy ex-president, was benefiting from tax cuts that, Mr. Clinton argued, had produced ruinous cuts in spending on education, health care and crime prevention.

Mr. Clinton was introduced by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, after an emotional tribute by the convention to the Sept. 11 attacks, an issue that Democrats had complained Republicans had used inappropriately for political purposes. Mrs. Clinton, in her speech, which drew almost as hardy a reception as her husband, talked about her own visit to ground zero on the day after the attack as senator from New York.

"I visited ground zero the day after we were attacked, and I felt like I was standing at the gates of hell," she said.

At the same time, Mrs. Clinton was unstinting in her praise of Mr. Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards, presumably aware that many Democrats have suggested that Mrs. Clinton's own potential ambitions of running for president might make her less than anxious for a Democratic victory this year.

Mr. Gore framed his own speech against Mr. Bush in terms of the disputed election of 2000.

"I sincerely ask those watching at home tonight who supported President Bush four years ago: did you really get what you expected from the candidate you voted for?" Mr. Gore said, in a speech that mixed easy humor with poignant anger about his defeat.

"Is our country more united today? Or more divided?'' he said in a speech that lasted a scant 13 minutes. "Has the promise of compassionate conservatism been fulfilled? Or do those words now ring hollow? For that matter, are the economic policies really conservative at all?

"For example, did you expect the largest deficits in history?"

To roaring applause, he said: "To those of you who felt disappointed or angry with the outcome in 2000, I want you to remember all of those feelings. But then I want you to do with them what I have done: focus them fully and completely on putting John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House."

And Mr. Carter said: "Recent policies have cost our nation its reputation as the world's most admired champion of freedom and justice. The United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends, and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of 'pre-emptive' war."

The speeches came in a seven-hour opening session of the 44th Democratic National Convention here in Boston, a long procession of short speeches broken up by intermissions during which delegates danced to rock and old disco blaring from speakers around a sleek, high-tech stage of television screens, mock mahogany and mock marble.

For all the concentration of Democrats on the opening of the convention, the presidential campaign itself was chugging along in states and television stations far away from this city that Mr. Kerry calls home, a reminder of the diminishing importance of these nominating events.

Mr. Kerry, after a brief trip here on Sunday night to watch the Red Sox beat the New York Yankees, went back to Florida to continue his slow-moving swing across the nation that his aides said was intended to draw as much attention as anything that happens here. Vice President Dick Cheney, breaking from a tradition under which one party steps aside during the other party's nominating convention, campaigned through Washington State. Mr. Bush's campaign announced, in the midst of the convention, that the president would take a bus trip through Ohio next Saturday.

And Mr. Kerry was spending heavily on television advertisements that served to, in effect, reinforce the message that was being presented here, taking advantage of a fund-raising success that allowed him to do something that most of his recent opponents could not.

Mr. Carter offered a particularly harsh attack on Mr. Bush, notwithstanding what Democrats had said was their intention to minimize the attacks on the president here. He invoked questions about Mr. Bush's service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Carter, a former Naval officer, noted that he had served under two presidents, Truman and Eisenhower, "both of whom faced their active military responsibilities with honor."

"We had confidence that our leaders, military and civilian, would not put our soldiers and sailors in harm's way by initiating 'wars of choice' unless America's vital interests were endangered," he said. "We also were sure that these presidents would not mislead us when it came to issues involving our nation's security. Today, our Democratic Party is led by another former naval officer - one who volunteered for military service. He showed up when assigned to duty, and he served with honor and distinction."

The speakers chosen by Mr. Kerry's campaign to open his nominating convention were, in part, the obligatory tribute of a party to its history and leaders.

And - with Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore in particular - it was designed, on this first night, to stir up enthusiasm among the most partisan Democrats, in the unlikely event that they needed any stirring.

"I'm going to be candid with you - I had hoped to be back here this week under different circumstances, running for re-election," Mr. Gore said. "But you know the old saying: You win some, you lose some. And then there's that little-known third category."