It seems that the days of the spontaneous, sometimes turbulent convention are over. Elizabeth Farnsworth talks to White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta about the lineup this week in Chicago.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Leon Panetta, thank you very much for being with us.
LEON PANETTA, White House Chief of Staff: Nice to be with you, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Former Democratic Party chairman Robert Strauss was quoted today as referring to both of the conventions, Republican and the Democratic conventions, so far as sterile TV shows. Conventions used to be full of debate, big ideas, inspiring ideas. Why has that approach been dropped at this convention?
MR. PANETTA: Well, it hasn't been dropped to the extent that we want to talk about the issues, we want to talk about the platform, we want to have a debate about the future and what policies we're going to put in place to get to the future, and we want to talk about real people. I think the--what we did last night with Jim Brady and Sarah Brady, what we did with Christopher Reeve, I think was very unusual in terms of allowing real people to kind of speak to the issues instead of just having politicians.
To the larger issue, I think Bob Strauss is talking about a day when frankly before the presidential primaries when the conventions were the place where you really nominated the President and the Vice President, and there was a real give and take, it was a lot of battleground that went on as far as what the--who the candidates were going to be for the party. A lot of that has been resolved through the primary process, so conventions are basically a rallying point for the party to kind of gather around, set its direction for the November election, and to some extent, the Republicans tried to do it by painting a very different picture than what they, what their Congress had done, and what their platform said. What this convention is all about is about what Democrats are really about.
I think we're proud of our platform. The President has read our platform, as opposed to Bob Dole not reading his platform. And we're going to debate those issues, and I think we're going to set the course for the future. That's what this is going to be about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There's no attempt to avoid substance and talking about substantive issues at this platform. There was a quote in the “New York Times” today from a convention stage manager. It was--nobody was named, saying, we really don't want to talk about substance at this, at this convention.
MR. PANETTA: I can't imagine who that person was. I haven't spent a lot of time in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is a big party. There are a lot of diverse views. You have to make room under that big tent for people to kind of express those views, and you'll hear that tonight. With regards to platform issues, you're going to hear from people who are pro-life, rather than pro-choice, Tony Hall will be speaking, there will be those who will disagree with the welfare reform position that the President had.
But they're going to be able to say their peace, and I think that's healthy; that's what you want to do. You want to be able to have people express themselves as part of the platform. But in the end, we will unify as a party behind Bill Clinton and Al Gore and behind the platform, and that's what really counts.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said that Christopher Reeve speaking was a way of bringing in real people. Is that the main reason you spoke? I mean, he is a very famous movie star, not exactly an ordinary American? What does he have to do with the reelection of President Clinton?
MR. PANETTA: This, this whole campaign and this whole election is really about how do you affect the lives of people in this country. I think if there was a frustration for people in the Republican convention, it's that a lot of it was obviously to try to develop the definition of who Bob Dole was and what the party was, as opposed to what are the steps we're going to take in terms of moving to the future. What we wanted to do was to try to focus on the issues, and people were quoted as saying, you know, we didn't get enough about what are they going to really do about my life and about how it's going to affect my kids and my future.
What we wanted to do, on the contrary, was to show that this is about real people, it is about issues like what do you do about disability, what kind of research do we provide for the kind of problems that Christopher Reeve had, what kind of--what do we do about the gun laws in this country, and that's what Sarah and Jim Brady addressed, what do we about education, what do you about health care , what do we do about jobs, I mean, those are the fundamental issues that people really care about, and having a Christopher Reeve speak to that, what happens is the American people really tune in to that.
You know, they listen to politicians; they listen to their Congressmen and their Senators, and listen to the President and the Vice President, but when it's Christopher Reeve, they suddenly tune in. They say, yeah, this--we understand what this guy's talking about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, I wondered about that. It's interesting you mentioned that. Some people have suggested that the reason that Christopher Reeve or Colin Powell speaks or people that are not well known politicians is that Americans don't really want to listen to politicians. Are you concerned about that?
MR. PANETTA: Yes, I am. I think there is--you know, I think there is a certain turn off produced probably by the politics of the last few years, which has gotten pretty mean in Washington. And a party, the party attacks, the character attacks, personality attacks, I think have, have hurt in terms of people's trust in our system of government, and so to some extent you want to try to restore that trust. That's what the President's trying to do. That's what the Vice President is trying to do. That's what we're trying to do. And one of the ways to do that is to show policies we're putting in place that affect lives.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tonight is--there's an emphasis on strengthening the family, and there have been a series of measures in the past months or year to do this. I'm thinking, of, umm, oh, the Family Medical Leave Act, the V chip, tobacco ads, some people call this kitchen table issues. What is the, the political reason for stressing these kinds of issues?
MR. PANETTA: Well, there's--there's a couple of things that are involved here. One are obviously what we can do in Washington to try to be a partner with states and families and businesses to try to deal with the issues that affect families. Uh, obviously, the role of government is much more limited, and the President basically wants it to be much more efficient, but there's still a role here. And so programs like minimum wage, family leave, what we do on education funding are programs that go directly to trying to provide resources to help families, working families, in particular, face those needs.
The President also recognizes that some of this can be accomplished without necessarily going to the Congress to seek legislation, that, in fact, as President, speaking to the values issue, urging things like the V chip, urging parents to deal with things like school uniforms, truancy, that there's a whole other part of our society in which while we can provide opportunity through resources, people also have to accept some responsibility in terms of raising their families themselves. And that combination of opportunity and responsibility and obviously the community that's necessary to pull it together are the themes that this convention is on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Republicans for a long time said that they were the pro-family party and painted the Democrats as not being pro-family. Are you--do you think you've succeed in neutralizing that charge?
MR. PANETTA: I don't think there's any question that--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Any polls on this, for example?
MR. PANETTA: Well, there are polls and there are polls. I have to tell you kind of a gut feeling here. I think if you--if you look at the needs of a working family in this country, what they really want to see addressed are how are they going to educate their kids, both parents working in a time when obviously it takes more to be able to raise a family. They worry about how they educate their kids; they worry about how they're going to pay--make their house payments, they worry about health care for themselves and for their parents.
They worry about crime in the streets and how they protect their neighborhoods. These are the fundamental things that people worry about as working families, and if you look at those issues, what we have done, what the President has done has made an effort to address those issues, and I think that's, that's what's happening. The Republicans used to do a very good job about talking about it. It's interesting that while Republicans will talk about these issues, I mean, what they envision government doing is much more intrusive into the family.
I mean, they basically want government to tell a woman what choices to make. They want to tell children how to pray. They want to tell people what kind of language they ought to use. They don't mind government telling families what they ought to do, but they don't want to deal with education and health care and the fundamentals. And that, I think, is the big difference here. People know when they hear the President that he really is speaking to their needs.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is this the sort of thing that Hillary Clinton will address tonight?
MR. PANETTA: That's exactly what Hillary Clinton is going to address, the whole idea of raising families, raising children, and how we are trying to respond to that, particularly in the education area.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Leon Panetta, thank you very much for being with us.
MR. PANETTA: Thank you very much, Elizabeth.