National Democratic Convention , United Center, Chicago,1996 Report by V. Yinka Vidal
Freedom and Liberty
The Moments of Great Democracy!
Jubilation exploded inside me from the moment I knew I was going to the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A week in the Windy City reporting for a magazine at a political convention? I felt I was going to a paradise! Describing the great feelings inside me was more than I could have expressed in words. Watching the processes of democracy was not enough. This time, I was about to take a bite out of the apple pie of "the government of the people, by the people, for the people."
The weekend before the convention, the welcoming parties were in progress. I could not go because my other job would not let me off. On Monday afternoon, my plane arrived in Chicago. All over the city and suburbs were decorations, especially in the downtown, which made what was about to start very obvious. Needless to say, I could not get in on Monday because I was late getting my press pass. I went to the hotel and watched the first day of the convention on the television. I got up at 5 am. on Tuesday to be sure I was able to get my pass as quickly as possible. I received my press pass at Marriot Hotel in downtown and headed for the United Center. I was going to record history. Dressed in one of my best navy blue suits, equipped with my camera and ten rolls of film, a reporter's note-book and a few pens, I walked enthusiastically with delegates and other reporters. We approached the entrance of the convention center; I was about to discover America.
The outside of the convention hall was decorated with balloons, flags, Democratic National Convention emblems and many other colorful decorations. At the gates, some delegates already in line to get inside the building, were checking their bags at the security centers, at the entrance. Television cameras, trucks, and satellite dishes were everywhere. As I enjoyed the scenery, I got carried away, I had forgotten I came to a convention, everything was very exciting.
I went through three levels of security checks. The first level checked my badge and press pass, the second checked bags and cameras, and the third one I had to go through an Xray machine. Security was tight, but it was worth it, because of this occasion of national political convention. Many of the security men were very cordial, nice and friendly.
Once I entered the convention, I went straight to the floor before it was crowded. Speeches had not started at this time, but I wanted to examine the place before more people arrived. I have never in my life seen a collection of television cameras mounted on the floor facing the podium. All major television and radio network stations had their positions marked by their signs, illuminated by powerful lights that could have been seen even by the blind. The seat arrangements were divided into states marked by giant, colorful signs, hanging by the front or to the side of the delegate seats. The lights inside the hall made it looked like day-time.
In the hallways around the convention were all kinds of souvenir shops, press stands, news room, food stands, telephone companies and many more. Security people were everywhere and so were the conventioneers. Food was expensive at the convention. I quickly learned to eat at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, down the street. It was a hassle passing through the elaborate security, but when hunger hits, forget it. I just passed on through.
Highlights of the Democratic Convention
We had to listen to different speeches, with the prime time reserved for big shots. Some of those speeches in the morning were very boring, while those at prime time were very exciting. Throughout the convention week, there were press meetings in different hotels and parties all over the city at night. One of the first interesting things I observed was the macarena dance. Once the music hit without warning, people got up and started dancing. Those who did not know how quickly learned to dance. I was in front of the podium when the music started, and Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois was standing there, smiling. She was being a little shy. I went closer to the podium and made a sign to her to start dancing. She bursted into a laughter, responded with hands sign like she did not know the dance. I pointed to a Black lady dancing closer to her. Senator Braun looked at the lady and started laughing, few minutes later, the Senator started moving to the waves and the music, and Boy O boy! When the Sister started moving, Lord have mercy! I quickly got hold of my camera and recorded this historical moment. With all the waves, the movements, it was so beautiful! Everybody was doing it- - Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, men, women, name it, they were all getting down on the macarena!
Next were the great moments of the speeches that shook the hall, some with excitement, others with great inspiration, and some brought us to tears. Christopher Reeves, the disabled "Super Man" gave an emotional speech in support for the disable people. Sara Brady and her husband, Jim Brady (Teddy Bear); former press secretary to President Reagan, had quite a show for the audience. They have been fighting to ban assault weapons after Mr. Brady was shot in an attempt on President Reagan's life. They succeeded in passing the Brady Bill. Jesse Jackson gave a tearful speech about his mother sending his father to war and inadvertently, to his death. Senator Ted Kennedy did a good job bashing Rush Limbaugh and Vice President Al Gore's version of the macarena dance was funny. Former New York Governor Mario Kuomo gave an appealing speech, pointing out some of the things needed to be done by the Democratic Party to avoid stepping back from compassion. His speech differed a little from the Clinton administration's policies of moving closer to the right, but was not divisive. The convention was able to accommodate differences of opinions without disunity.
Every now and then, the convention would show the position of President Clinton on the "21st Century Express" train heading for Chicago, and the hall cheered. When Mrs. Clinton took over the podium, I was with the Arkansas delegation, where everybody was carrying, the blue-on-white sign, "Welcome Home Hillary" when the hall roared with an applause. For a while people will not sit down, delegations all over the big hall were waving the signs in the air and dancing. The "Welcome Home Hillary" signs temporarily replacing the "Clinton-Gore '96" signs. The First Lady seemed surprised at the thundering She gave a very warm speech about family, raising children, and other political issues central to the Clinton's administration policies.
The biggest moment was when President Clinton took over the podium. Prior to that time, security was extra tight everywhere in the United Center. More people must have been invited especially for that day; the hall was full to the highest level. When the President was talking, his voice started to fade, and I remembered the last election, when he ran out of voice towards the end, and Mrs. Clinton had to speak for him at some campaign stops. I started praying that his voice could carry him through. It was around 9 pm. prime-time, and I knew the whole nation was watching. Later, his voice started to fade, and he hard a rather long speech. But, when he finished, the hall roared into a loud applause with standing ovation, the balloons and other shinning stuff came down for what seemed like forever. For this glorious moment, the world stood still and nothing could be seen clearly in the air except balloons all over the place.
At the O'Hare Airport the following morning, many people were carrying different signs: "Clinton/Gore," "Welcome Hillary," "Gore," and many more. I never thought I was going to make my flight because the airport was jammed with people going home from the convention. Then, my plane finally took off from Chicago, and landed back in St. Louis on Friday after the convention.
Senator Bob Dole & Republican Convention
Although OUTCRY did not support Senator Dole's campaign, I learned a lot from the man. Although I disagreed with much of the conservative agenda as echoed by Rush Limbaugh on his daily radio show, there were some aspects of Senator Dole I admired. He was desperate to be the president, but he never allowed his desire to over-shadow human decency. Many had encouraged him to attack President Clinton personally, but he did not and in effect, stayed with issues about governing the people. When he fell, I was very upset, thinking, what were these security people doing? All steps, podiums, and other leaning supports should have been checked before his arrival. And the television exploited the incident by playing it over and over until I got disgusted with the press. But he wasted no time getting up, saying, "I was doing my own version of the Democratic macarena dance." He laughed about the whole incident. What unbelievable stamina!
The Republican Convention was interesting to watch, although I did not care too much for the Clinton bashing which took place. Unfortunately, General Colin Powell went to the wrong convention. He was probably going to Chicago, and by miraculous events, his plane landed in California! He might not have planned to attend the Republican Convention, but destiny is sometimes funny.
The most remarkable event of the Republican campaign was Senator Bob Dole's concession speech on the evening of the election, Tuesday, November 5th, 1996. He was a very different Bob Dole, the one I had never seen before. It was his moment of great humility! He was neither angry nor bitter, and even said he would support President Clinton. I was very impressed with such humility. What a remarkable man! I believe President Clinton owes him a retirement party from the Senate. One of his remarkable statements was, "I've told you time and time again, President Clinton is not my enemy but my political opponent." Such a statement is not only very patriotic, it brings everybody under the great umbrella of democracy.
Caution For American Democracy
The sweetness of democracy can easily be contaminated if the government of the people is disrupted by strategies of vindictiveness and animosity by any opposition group. People were very angry last time when party politics dominated the government, leading to a shut-down instead of the compromise of ideologies. Jim White, the "Big Bumper" a talk show host on KMOX in St. Louis (who taught Rush Limbaugh about radio journalism, but not all of it) summed it up very well. "Although, I'm a Republican and my ideas are geared towards that of the Republican Party, I do support President Clinton's re-election and wish him good success as a president of this nation." What an outstanding position by a person who not only believes in democracy but attributes much respect and faith to the whole process.
Lessons For African Nations
With great sadness, we are watching many African countries go gradually into political chaos and decay while many are still searching for democracy or a workable government. The problems are in Somalia, Rwanda, Zaire, Liberia, Sudan, Nigeria, and many other African countries where innocent people are now the victims of political unrest and instability, crime and violence, war and famine, and many more evils besieging these people. While Africans are suffering and struggling to eat and survive, the ruling elites are struggling for power. It appears that the old colonial oppression was replaced by the oppression of the people by their own leaders. Some of these leaders have embezzled the country's money to live affluent lives in European countries while their fellow country-people and children are starving and living in abject poverty. "Tribal-Racism" is one of the biggest evils destroying African countries as different factions find it difficult to compromise.
When I was at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, I thought I was going to observe the process of democracy and liberty. It was a journey which started in Nigeria 24 years ago when I first arrived in Chicago as a foreign student. Many Africans left home to be educated overseas in the late 1960s and 1970s. These people did not plan to stay in European countries, but the political situations in respective African countries made it difficult for people to return. Many of them, therefore waited and waited for democracy and peace to evolve at home. Presently, we seem to be lost in transit. So, the greatest moment of democracy that I experienced came when President Clinton was giving his acceptance speech.
During the colorful time of falling balloons and music, I started to think about home. My journey to Chicago was more than a journalist's assignment, I wanted to witness democracy in the making. I started to think about the political struggles in African countries, the suffering natives and the senseless blood shed. Just at that time, I heard a male voice saying, "God bless the Democratic Party." I turned around and saw the happy face of this blonde-haired young man, among many, expressing the pride and joy in his heart. At that moment, as I was standing in the United Center in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention with all those happy people, the tears which had earlier collected at the edges of my eyes started to drip on both sides. At that time I knew for sure, that I was no longer an observer of democracy, I was tasting the sweet fruits of democracy and liberty. I was no longer an observer, I became a participant. Standing in the middle of all that excitements, I was momentarily transported into a different world. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around facing a brown-haired female reporter from New York whom I had met earlier. She whispered, "I've been watching you standing still. Are you okay?" I responded, wiping off tears, "Yes I'm fine, I'm just happy." If I had to tell her all I was thinking about, it would have taken days. We walked out of the convention hall, making our way through the big crowd as most people were leaving. On a long walk to the taxi stand she asked, "Did you have fun?" I turned to her smiling and responded, "Probably had too much fun!" At the taxicab stand, there was a long row of taxicabs, lining up as far as two blocks to pick up passengers. Shortly before my reporter-friend got in the taxicab, she turned to me and said, "I hope one day, your country too will receive the gift of democracy and liberty." "Thanks!" I said, we hugged and shook hands. She entered the taxicab and waved while the cab drove away. Then, I got into a taxicab and headed for my hotel. Interestingly, my cab driver for that night was from Nigeria. Except where I was going, I said nothing throughout the long ride back to my hotel, I was too tired. when I arrived at my destination, I called the driver by his Nigerian name which was visibly displayed in his cab. He was surprised, turned around and said, "I thought you are an American?" I smiled, paid my cab-fare and said, "Yes, I am! And goodnight, my Brother." I was in no mood for any more political discussion that night.
President Clinton's Position on Nigeria
On the evening of the election while I was putting a finishing touch on this article, I remembered that I had not returned the call from the National Security Council. I had been inquiring about President Clinton's position on Nigeria while working on this story. It seemed like it was the right time to make the call and find out more information. A young lady who answered the phone said everybody had left and were in Little Rock, Arkansas with the President, watching election returns. But she promised to get someone for me from the Clinton administration. Few minutes after hanging up, I received a call from a White House spokesperson in regards to Nigeria.
According to the White House spokesman, "The goal of the United States in Nigeria under President Clinton is to promote credible transfer to civilian democratic rule with respect for human rights and to advance counter-narcotic and anti-crime efforts of the Nigerian government. We believe that a combination of pressure and dialogue is required to achieve these objectives. We remain available for meaningful dialogue on these issues of concern." He went further to explain the United States sanctions against Nigeria, and the opposition to Abacha's regime and even to Nigeria seeking international monetary funding. The United States joined the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Nigerian government.
After the taste of democracy and liberty, how many Africans would like to live in a dictatorship government of any kind? A physician friend called from home a few days earlier and said, "Things continue to get worse, people are suffering and the Pretty Woman (the country) is dying very slowly, if not already dead." That was very depressing!
Like Patrick Henry (1736-1799), the Virginia patriot, once said, "Give me liberty or give me death!" He and many others embraced, cherished and protected democracy and the rights of the individual as protected by the United States Constitution. The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson says: "We now hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And so reigns "Democracy" --- the government of the people by the people for the people, with liberty and justice for all.
V. 'Yinka Vidal, reporting from United Center, at the 1996 National Democratic Convention, Chicago.