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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION | ANNALS

A New Frontier Through the Rearview Mirror

August 16, 2000|JOHN BALZAR

It was either a glorious summer week, "smogless and milk-blue, the skies stretched on day after day, as gentle and pure as they must have been a generation ago," as one writer described it. Or, as another reported, you couldn't see the mountains for the yellow fumes that cloaked Los Angeles 40 years ago.

For the record, The Times reported "moderate to heavy smog" that July week in 1960 when the Democrats last came to town.

Then, as always, Southern California allowed different views of itself.

The same with the Democrats and their first convention here. At that moment, events seemed clear in their significance. Then fate intervened, tugging and reshaping the obvious as if it were the half-ton of Texas taffy that presidential hopeful Lyndon B. Johnson brought to feed his supporters.

Johnson, we recall, represented the past. He was an insider from the segregated South, ready to accommodate the status quo. He lost. The old guard was trumped on the first ballot. Experts called it a watershed. Liberals cast their hopes with John F. Kennedy. The new guard. Youth. They threw the old boys a bone, and Johnson got the rump end of the ticket.

"Young men are coming to power," Kennedy said in accepting his nomination, "men who are not bound by the traditions of the past, men who are not blinded by the old fears and hates and rivalries."

Who could have guessed that Johnson, thrust into the presidency three years later, would end up making good on Kennedy's youthful promise of domestic reform and lead liberal activism to its high-water mark for the second half of the 20th century?

Too high, as it turned out. Undermined by Vietnam, Johnson's Great Society stirred a backlash against government that defines American politics all these years later--this week's convention being exhibit A.

*

Forty years ago in Los Angeles, Democrats had no inkling they were setting course for history's ambush. They believed they were reaching for something big, and it filled the old Sports Arena with wild bolts of electricity.

"Their pride, not their pocketbook"--that's where Kennedy promised to hit voters. "More sacrifice instead of more security. . . . The choice lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort."

The nation was swept up in the excitement. One woman telephoned the police: "Won't you please go down there on the convention floor and quiet those people milling around so we can hear?"

This week at their Southern California reprise, Democrats are grasping only to hold what they have. Instead of thrills, an undercurrent of nostalgia drifts through the convention hall. Delegates await Al Gore and his call to reinvent government, yearning for the alchemy of Kennedy who promised to re-energize it.

They stand ready to lead with their jaws, as partisans always do. But what is there to fight about? Those arguments are heard outside the Staples Center, along with discarded planks of past Democratic party platforms. Inside, Democrats march to the battle cry of fiscal restraint and economic growth.

Forty years ago, it was Kennedy who could taunt Republicans:

"Their platform, made up of leftover Democratic planks, has the courage of our old convictions. Their pledge is a pledge to the status quo. And today there can be no status quo."

Then Bill Clinton laid claim to that old Republican conviction: Grow business, not government. That's the status quo he proudly bequeathed Gore, to debate the details.

*

So far, we have heard little about a watershed for Democrats in the year 2000. The more the party argues that times are good, the less it can dare.

Kennedy had no administration to defend. He conjured up the frontier heritage of America, when people "gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. They were not captive of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. Their motto was not, "Every man for himself"--but "All for the common cause." '

And Lyndon Johnson? He reached to the sky over Southern California in search of a metaphor. Accepting the vice presidential nomination, he saw neither smog nor mountains:

"Let me say, since we are meeting where we are, the Republicans know as I know and you know--that a new star has been born in the leadership skies of the nation here in Los Angeles."

Forty years, 11 elections and seven presidents ago.

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