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First Lady Focuses on Family

Address: Hillary Clinton uses convention spotlight to defend party's social policies, lay out husband's goals.

August 28, 1996|JOHN M. BRODER and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CHICAGO — First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, portraying Democrats as the true guardians of family values, dominated the second night of the party's national convention with a polished, policy-laden address laying out the social agenda of the second term her husband hopes to win.

Using homespun images in a smoothly crafted speech, Mrs. Clinton sought to address the nation as if gathered around a kitchen table. She aimed her remarks at the anxieties of the typical middle-class family--running through a detailed litany of education, health care, job loss and the safety and security of children.

Mrs. Clinton's prime-time address--her first such appearance before a nation that has known her mostly through news clips and abbreviated television interviews--was the most extensive speech by a first lady at a national political convention in decades and sparked the first extended demonstration of this gathering--a three-minute ovation sprinkled with chants of "Hillary. Hillary. Hillary."

Repeatedly referring to her daughter, Chelsea, now 16 and about to enter her senior year of high school, Mrs. Clinton directly answered Republican nominee Bob Dole's mocking of her book on child-rearing, "It Takes a Village."

"We have learned that to raise a happy, healthy and hopeful child, it takes a family, it takes teachers, it takes clergy, it takes business people, it takes community leaders, it takes those who protect our health and safety, it takes all of us," she said.

"Yes, it takes a village," she added. "And it takes a president. . . . It takes a president who not only holds these beliefs but acts on them. It takes Bill Clinton."

Notably, however, Mrs. Clinton's speech mentioned the opposition party only once--and that time favorably, when she noted that a Democrat and a Republican together had sponsored the health care reform law President Clinton signed earlier this month.

Similarly, the convention's nominal keynote speaker, Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who followed Mrs. Clinton, did not mention the word Republican even once--a sharp departure from the usual practice at political conventions of attacking the opposition, but a continuation of an image of being above the political fray that the Democrats have carefully honed here.

Some Stabs at Opposition

The night did include some sharp jabs at the opposition, from liberal stalwarts such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. But those all came before the prime-time hour televised on the nation's broadcast networks.

All three, preferring victory over purity, endorsed President Clinton's reelection even as they repeated their disagreement with his decision to eliminate the federal government's welfare safety net for the nation's poorest citizens.

Cuomo, for example, said that he believed that "the risk to children was too great to justify signing that bill--no matter what its political benefits."

But Mrs. Clinton blew away whatever dissonant haze their criticisms might have introduced to the hall.

She was her usual earnest self, but absent was any hint of the strident absolutism that her critics ascribe to her.

Throughout her 20-minute talk, she presented herself as just another working mom, struggling with the same tensions and demands as the millions of families in suburbia that her husband is courting in his reelection bid.

"We all know that raising kids is a full-time job, and since most parents work, they are, we are, stretched thin," she said. "Just think about what many parents are responsible for on any given day: packing lunches, dropping the kids off at school, going to work, checking to make sure that the kids get home from school safely, shopping for groceries, making dinner, doing the laundry, helping with homework, paying the bills.

"And I didn't even mention taking the dog to the vet."

To answer those stresses, Mrs. Clinton said, the president--"my husband" as she repeatedly called him--has proposed a variety of family-friendly initiatives, from increased "flex time" at work to cope with family crises to longer hospital stays for new mothers.

Mrs. Clinton did not attempt to match Elizabeth Hanford Dole's floor-strolling talk at the Republican convention two weeks ago. She stayed fixed behind the bunting-draped podium to plead her husband's case.

Hundreds of pre-printed signs reading "Welcome Home Hillary" were sprinkled through the hall. One homemade sign in the Illinois delegation read, "Anything Elizabeth Can Do Hillary Can Do Better."

Her speech was rapturously received by most in the hall, faithful Democrats who have been appalled by what they consider the rough treatment Mrs. Clinton has received from Republicans and the media.

That treatment continued Tuesday as Republicans on Capitol Hill released a memo relating to the suicide of the late Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster.

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