Democrats Launch Emotional Show

CHICAGO -- Their sights set on reelecting President Bill Clinton and regaining control of Congress, Democrats opened their national convention with an unconventional evening long on emotion and short on politicians, designed to show that the administration's policies have worked for ordinary people.

After a procession of elected officials warmed up the delegates by criticizing the Republican Congress on Monday night, Democrats turned over the prime time stage to actor Christopher Reeve, the star of the "Superman" movies who was paralyzed in a riding accident in 1995, and Sarah Brady, wife of former White House press secretary James Brady, wounded in the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Brady himself, still partially disabled from his wounds, provided a poignant moment when he walked slowly and with great effort across the carpeted stage to the lectern, a cane in his right hand and his wife guiding him on his left.

Sarah Brady then went on to attack the gun lobby for its seven-year campaign to defeat the Brady Bill and praise Clinton for leading the fight and signing the bill into law. "Mr. President, you deserve our thanks," she said.

Reeve invoked the memory of former president Franklin Roosevelt, who was also in a wheelchair, to praise the administration's commitment to those in need. "I believe, and so does this administration, in the most important principle FDR taught us," Reeve said. "America does not let its needy citizens fend for themselves. America is stronger when all of us take care of all of us."

Strapped in his own wheelchair, his figure bathed in a spotlight, Reeve paid tribute to the human spirit and spoke of balancing scarce resources and human suffering.

Clinton himself closed out Monday night's program in Chicago, appearing by satellite during a rally in Toledo, Ohio. "We're bringing the 21st Century Express to Chicago because America is back on track," Clinton said. As the delegates rose to applaud the image of Clinton on the big video screen in the arena, Clinton added, "Stay with us, and we'll be there."

The four-day Democratic convention opened exactly 28 years after the beginning of the 1968 convention here, when police clashed violently with anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, turning Chicago into an armed camp and leaving the city with a stain on its reputation that local leaders hope this week will finally wash away. While convention managers stressed that they would stage a largely positive convention this week, the top Democrats here -- Vice President Gore, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt -- all described the Republicans as dangerous to the country's future.

It took Daschle only a few minutes at a breakfast Monday morning to use the "E" word -- "extremist" -- to criticize the Republicans, while Gephardt laid into "the radical, extreme, Gingrich agenda," referring to the Democrats' favorite target, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But the most powerful moments featured the Bradys and Reeve. James Brady served as Reagan's first press secretary and was shot in the head and critically wounded in the attempt on Reagan's life. He fought back from near-death and his appearance here marked a significant milestone in the party's effort to neutralize a long-held Republican advantage on the crime issue.

The opening night program also featured a filmed tribute to the late Ron Brown, the former party chairman who as commerce secretary was killed in an airplane crash earlier this year while visiting Bosnia.