Political conventions have provided a few enduring moments of rhetoric, from William Jennings Bryan's 1896 "cross of gold" speech to Sarah Palin's lipstick-on-a-pit bull acceptance address in 2008. (And if that sentence isn't an illustration of the decline of political discourse I don't know what is.) Here is my list of lessons from the most memorable convention speeches:
Have a flair for the dramatic. Upon securing the 1932 Democratic nomination, Franklin Roosevelt announced that he would fly from Albany to Chicago to accept the honor in person, breaking with a long tradition. The move entranced the nation because air travel was still a novelty and because it vividly demonstrated both the vigor he would use to tackle the Great Depression and that he was not an invalid. Inaugurating the tradition of the acceptance speech, he said that while his appearance "is unprecedented and unusual…these are unprecedented and unusual times," and went on to pledge "a new deal for the American people."
Harry Truman, too, had a sense of drama. When he addressed a 1948 convention enshrouded with what one aide called "the depressing feeling of coming defeat," he immediately fired up his dispirited party. "Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it—don't you forget that!" he said, referring to his running mate, Alben Barkley of Kentucky. He galvanized the crowd by announcing that he was calling the GOP Congress back into session to vote on the various planks of the platform it had just endorsed but had refused to act on.
National spotlight. Convention speeches can provide an unparalleled national introduction for rising politicians. Hubert H. Humphrey was mayor of Minneapolis in 1948 when he spoke on behalf of the Democratic Party adopting a strong civil rights plank in its platform. "He spoke," biographer Albert Eisele later wrote, "with a fervor that brought sweat pouring from his face and spattering on the pages of his speech." His exhortation for the "Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights" moved the convention to adopt the plank, prompting the entire delegation from Mississippi and half the group from Alabama to walk out of the convention. It made him an instant national figure.
And while Mario Cuomo was a national figure in 1984 as governor of New York, his "Tale of Two Cities" keynote address to the Democratic convention elevated him to iconic status in the party. Palin's 2008 speech—"You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."—was her political high point, electrifying a GOP which had soured on George W. Bush and never loved John McCain. But the classic example was the 2004 Democratic keynote address by little-known Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, which started his rise to the White House. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," he told a thrilled nation.
Beware frenemies. The spotlight has a dark side: Sometimes undercard speakers can overshadow nominees. After he had accepted the 1976 Republican nomination, incumbent President Gerald Ford invited primary challenger Ronald Reagan to say a few words. Speaking off the cuff and without endorsing Ford, Reagan gave what biographer Craig Shirley calls "a battle cry for conservatives" that electrified the crowd while "utterly and completely overshadowing Ford." In 1980, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy's eloquence—"the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die"—overshadowed incumbent President Jimmy Carter, whom he didn't endorse in his speech.
In 1992, President George H. W. Bush had the opposite problem when Pat Buchanan embraced him too tightly. "There is a religious war going on in this country," Buchanan said. "It is a cultural war…[a war] for the soul of America." Buchanan, not Bush, became the enduring face of what is remembered as an angry, divisive convention. (The speech, columnist Molly Ivins said, "probably sounded better in the original German.")
Words matter. Believe it or not, voters listen. So when Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican nomination in 1964 with the assertion that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," it thrilled conservatives but repelled moderates. One reporter summed up the moment's surprise by saying, "My God, he's going to run as Goldwater!" (Is there anything Mitt Romney could say which would prompt an exclamation of "My God, he's going to run as Mitt Romney!"?) And while George H. W. Bush's challenge that Democrats should "read my lips: no new taxes" helped him win in 1988, it cost him dearly in 1992—after he had raised taxes.
Introduce yourself. Especially for a non-incumbent, an acceptance speech is a critical opportunity to situate oneself in the American story. "There ought to be some kind of unity between your story and America's story," says former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol. "It is very much about positing yourself as the man of the moment." In 1960, John F. Kennedy used his acceptance address to sketch out "a new frontier" and explain why he represented the new leadership needed to take America into it. Likewise George H. W. Bush's '88 speech effectively painted the nominee as being "symbolic" of the postwar American era—and in doing so neatly reintroduced an incumbent vice president to voters.
Know when to shut up. When Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton placed Michael Dukakis's name into nomination in 1988, it took "33 minutes that seemed about five times as long," Time later recounted. That he got his loudest cheers with "in conclusion" was a pretty sure sign that he had droned on for far too long.
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