A look back at ’96 convention: Clinton, gun control & ‘American people want their country back’

The Republican party platform mission clearly stated “the American people want their country back” (sound familiar?)

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SiriusXM Editor
July 16, 2016

Things have changed since 1996, right? Back then, the internet was the World Wide Web, the country only had one Bush president and Facebook wasn’t yet a thought in 12-year-old Mark Zuckerberg’s mind.

President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole were matched up for the country’s last presidential election of the 20th century.

“Laptop computers, cellular phones and digital cameras will be passed around the floor of the Republican National Convention this week to capture delegates’ views and beliefs for instant posting on the party’s World Wide Web site,” Mike Allen wrote on Aug. 12, 1996 for the New York Times.

Sound familiar?

The parties held their conventions: Republicans in San Diego, Democrats in Chicago. It was the dawn of a new era of political coverage, and a time where many, especially network news outlets, felt the importance of the conventions were diminishing.

“We’re heading directly to cable,”  NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw told the New York Times. “Do not pass go.”

NBC and Microsoft launched a new cable news network, MSNBC, in July 1996 to cover the election. (Fox News Channel didn’t debut until October 1996.)

chicago dncNetworks invested into their websites: CBS News’ site carried live audio and video content, ABC News teamed up with The Washington Post and National Journal for Politics Now, NBC News used its MSNBC site to create content exclusively for the web, and CNN and Time Magazine created a special section, All Politics.

Twenty years later, here we are. Another Clinton on the ballot and the media landscape is (still) in flux.

This year’s conventions will feature spotlights from all the major broadcast networks, along with their cable counterparts. At the RNC, Radio Row has been renamed Media Row to include new online entities that no longer neatly fit into the categories of years past. Live streaming is a focal point for many outlets (including this one). There will be Snapchatting, Tweeting, Periscoping, Facebooking, Instagramming – you name it.

While social media is new and the 24-hour news cycle somehow continues to grow, much has stayed the same over the past two decades. Many of the party platforms hit on the same issues – gun control, abortion, immigration, gay rights. Have we mentioned there’s a Clinton on the ballot? The importance of the women’s vote is front and center. And you can bet we’ll see displays of choreographed party unity at both conventions.

“The Republican Party is broad and inclusive.”

bob dole

Dole formally accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president on August 15, 1996 at the San Diego Convention Center.

“This is a big night for me, and I’m ready,” Dole told the enthusiastic crowd. “We’re ready to go.”

All three living former Republican presidents offered their support to Dole. Due to his Alzheimer’s disease, Ronald Reagan was unable to attend the convention. First Lady Nancy Reagan spoke on his behalf and a video tribute to the 40th president played in the arena. Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush praised the presidential hopeful. Bush’s son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush served as the convention co-chairman.

The platform at the convention created a contrast between the Republican party and the policy adopted during Clinton’s first term. In the preamble, the party’s mission clearly stated “the American people want their country back” (sound familiar?). The platform highlighted tax cuts, reducing spending, promoting trade (without the Department of Commerce) and protecting small businesses. It also emphasized the party’s support of the Defense of Marriage Act, as well as the rights of unborn children (in the appendix, the party welcomed individuals on both side of the abortion rights to join them). Themes of changing Washington from the ground up resonated throughout, including calls to modify the federal legal system to prevent overstepping of authority.

The keynote address delivered by New York Rep. Susan Molinari, spoke to the theme of family values and Republican optimism. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson addressed the crowds. Gen. Colin Powell delivered a commanding and well received speech promoting party unity. It resonated with the theme of Dole’s acceptance speech.

“I call on every American to rise above all that may divide us,” Dole told the delegates. “And to defend the unity of the nation for the honor of generations past, and the sake of those to come.”

“Four more years! Four more years!”

bill clinton

After an unopposed primary season, incumbent President Clinton accepted the Democratic party’s nomination for president on August 29, 1996 at the United Center in Chicago. Clinton joked with the crowd, “I don’t know if I can find a fancy way to say this, but I accept.”

Noticeably absent from the 1996 convention was the only living former Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Aides insisted that the decision was not reflective of his often strained relationship with the current president.

The Democratic platform focused heavily on gun control and criminal justice reform. Instead of asking elected officials to speak on the first night of the convention, individuals were selected who could speak to the party’s message based on personal experience. Reagan’s White House press secretary James Brady spoke about strengthening gun laws. Mike Robbins, a Chicago police office who had been shot on duty, spoke about his gun control advocacy. Christopher Reeve addressed the need to improve the rights of the disabled.

Campaign finance reform, ending discrimination – including for gay men and lesbians – and a need to improve environmental protection were key components to the Democratic plan. The party platform also called for changes to the immigration system: “As we work to stop illegal immigration, we call on all Americans to avoid the temptation to use this issue to divide people from each other. We deplore those who use the need to stop illegal immigration as a pretext for discrimination.”

First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke to the crowd about education, families and the need “meet our challenges and protect our values.” Tipper Gore also addressed the crowd. Five female senators took to the stage to help re-elect Clinton and, as Barbara Boxer said, “give our children the opportunity they deserve to live up to their potential.”

“Let us commit ourselves this night to rise up and build the bridge we know we ought to build all the way to the 21st century,” President Clinton told the crowds in Chicago. “After these four good, hard years I still believe in the place called Hope — a place called America.”

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