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1996: Toe Sucking and Burning Mylar Confetti 1996: Toe Sucking and Burning Mylar Confetti 1996: Toe Sucking and Burning Mylar Confetti 1996: Toe Sucking and Bur...

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NJ Daily

1996: Toe Sucking and Burning Mylar Confetti

The crowd celebrates the end of the Democratic National Convention at Chicago's United Center Thursday, Aug. 29, 1996.(Mark Humphrey/AP)

September 4, 2012

President Clinton’s triumphant train ride into Chicago and Dick Morris’s toe-licking scandal on the morning of the president’s acceptance speech were a few of the hallmarks of Convention ’96. Following are edited excerpts from interviews with participants over the past 12 years.


Michael Waldman

Clinton speechwriter


Clinton had a few tasks he wanted to accomplish with his speech. He wanted to convey optimism. He wanted to lay out a full agenda so that people wouldn’t say, “What have you done for me lately?” Senator [Bob] Dole had a distinctly different speech. He wanted a bridge to the past. Clinton had been playing with the “Bridge to the 21st Century.” It became clear that was going to be the focus of the speech. The line was something that he had been using on the stump and was similar to something that he used during his famous speech for Michael Dukakis. Pundits sneered at it, but it appealed to voters. Clinton always said it was the most effective slogan he had.

As of five days before the speech, the president hadn’t really focused on the speech. But he was going to the convention by train. We were very proud of having secured a private office on the train, but when we got there, we discovered it was a bathroom. We moved out of there quickly. We hoped he would be cooped up on the train, but of course, he was so engaged and talking to voters that he didn’t do much work on the speech.

As the train went to Chicago, I gave him a draft every day. When we got to Chicago, he line-edited it and dictated massive changes. The night before the speech, he slept. I didn’t. In the back seat of the limousine [on the way to the convention hall], he was making changes, and I was typing them in. After a number of teleprompter mishaps, I had vowed to stand next to the operator during the speech. The teleprompter operators were private contractors. I think they were roadies for rock concerts.


Diana Walker

Time magazine photographer

The White House granted Time some behind-the-scenes access at different times during the campaign, and one of the times was the train trip leading into the convention. A train isn’t the easiest place to shoot, especially in the caboose. One night, the president was watching Hillary make her speech at the convention. This was a picture I needed, because this was sort of unique. When I got into the compartment, it was teeny. The train was just rumbling along. There was no light except one lamp. I remember holding on for dear life because the last thing I wanted to do was fall on my face when I was supposed to be a fly on the wall. I held on to my Leica as tight as I could and steadied myself and shot. He was watching the television, and all of a sudden she said something that he loved, and he put his fist up in the air and said, “Yes!” And I thought, “God, if this doesn’t work, I’m finished.” With President Clinton, because he is so animated, and because he is a pro, usually something happened in those few moments [of access] that would capture something, that would make you think I’d been there for hours.

At the convention itself, I remember vividly the night of the president’s speech, backstage. They played a biographical film, and when it was almost over, which was his cue, the president turned toward the door. He was completely oblivious that I was there in the wings. And he suddenly put his hands in his belt, and he took this huge intake of breath, and then blew it out and walked toward the stage. When I saw that picture, my thought was, “People should know that even the most polished person, the person most well-acclimated to public speaking as the president, even he takes a deep breath before he goes onstage.”

That, to me, said that these behind-the-scenes pictures are important, because they show these are truly human beings. Sometimes we forget that.


Don Foley

Convention manager

On the third night of the convention, we heard from the fire marshals that since there had not been fire tests, we were not going to be able to fire our Mylar-confetti cannons. Before that Wednesday night, we were quite confident we were going to fire off the cannons on Thursday. We had 10,000 pounds of the stuff that was ready to fall. I don’t recall exactly how we learned of the fire marshals’ decision, but I remember it sounded quite final and irrevocable.

That’s when I learned the value of having Bill Daley on your host committee. I think Bill reached an understanding with the fire department overnight that this was an essential part of the atmospherics. Now, I didn’t see the actual tests, but I just assumed Bill had a very diplomatic way to make sure they got the materials tested and we could proceed.

Well, the Mylar went off, the place was erupting in pandemonium on cue, and I turned to somebody and said, “I smell smoke.” What we were smelling was the Mylar burning on the lights. The president and the VP were out there accepting the cheers and accolades of the crowds, and I was thinking, “Oh, my goodness, if this produces enough smoke, the fire marshals are going to move in and ruin the [camera] shot.”

Fortunately, it didn’t.


Christopher Reeve

Advocate for the disabled

Vice President Gore offered me the opportunity to speak in prime time at the convention. I remember he called on a Friday, and I said, “Can I think about it and call you on Monday?” I think that took him by surprise, because obviously it’s a tremendous privilege to speak at the convention. I remember being very concerned that biomedical research not be perceived as the exclusive domain of either party. The imperative we have to ease human suffering—that’s not a political issue.

Many of my speeches are given without notes, and I remember taking about two weeks to write it with input from Gore’s main speechwriter. Then my wife, Dana, and I together spent a good 10 days really reviewing the choice of every word. We wanted to make it a speech of inclusion, about all of us taking care of all of us.

After the first few sentences, I was delighted but surprised to find that there was applause after almost every line. A speech that was supposed to run eight minutes actually took 18 minutes to deliver. I was afraid that the networks would cut away to the local news, and I thought that might be sort of embarrassing. But it didn’t happen. I came offstage—I think it was already a quarter past 11—and I went by the media pool, and suddenly there was this sea of television-camera light, and the correspondents all wanted a word. So, I figured if it had been a crashing bore, they would have let me go by.


Harold M. Ickes

White House deputy chief of staff

I didn’t find out [about the Dick Morris sex scandal] until the morning of the acceptance speech. The first thing to do was to verify. I think I talked to the president to find out what he knew. You’re always worried about some story like this. You never know what the facts are and who it was going to implicate. It was hard to see that it would be a big deal, but conventions are hothouses. What you don’t know is everyone who’s involved and what everyone knows about the story, and that’s always the big worry. Fortunately, it didn’t go anywhere beyond Dick Morris.

The story did take on a short life—it was not pretty to have a top aide to the president sucking toes in the off-hours. I think people wanted to get Dick out of circulation quickly, because his penchant for destroying others is a well-known quality when he himself is at risk. We found out about it, and we moved very quickly, getting him off the payroll, and getting him out of the campaign, and getting him out of Chicago. The Clinton operation was never known for cutting stuff off quick, but that’s one time we moved very quickly.

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