The 12 Most Memorable Convention Speeches

From William Jennings Bryan to Clint Eastwood, here are the 12 most memorable convention speeches.

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The speech and the convention's adoption of the civil rights plank also marked the beginning of the fracturing of the New Deal coalition, which had included the Democrats' "solid South." The entire Mississippi delegation walked out, as did half the Alabama delegates.

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JFK's "New Frontier," 1960

John F. Kennedy ran for president with a campaign message that he would "get this country moving again" after a torpid near decade of Republican control. "After eight years of drugged and fitful sleep, this nation needs strong, creative Democratic leadership in the White House," Kennedy said in his acceptance speech.

He also laid out where he wanted to get the country moving to. "We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats," he said, addressing a crowd of 80,000 in Los Angeles's Memorial Coliseum. He went on that, "the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook—it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security."

The idea of sacrifice as well as the declaration that it was time "for a new generation of leadership" foreshadowed JFK's inaugural address declaration that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans" and its injunction that citizens should "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."

The acceptance address "set the tone for the campaign," says former Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer, who has edited a collection of memorable political speeches. "And it was a good coinage." That coinage became the theme of the Kennedy years.

[Read about the 6 secrets to a memorable convention speech.]

Barry Goldwater's "Extremism in the Defense of Liberty," 1964

By the time he was ready to accept the Republican nomination, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater was fed up with being labeled by his primary campaign opponents as an extremist. "I had been branded as a fascist, a racist, a trigger-happy warmonger, a nuclear madman and the candidate who couldn't win," he wrote in his memoirs. During the campaign he had dismissed the charges of extremism as representing a "sour grapes attitude," but by the time he gave his speech he had decided to embrace it.

The speech was closely held—even Goldwater's running mate, New York Rep. William Miller, didn't see an advance copy. Goldwater's aides knew that "this wasn't a political speech," biographer Rick Perlstein later wrote. "It was a cultural call to arms."

It was a clarion call, and a politically toxic one: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," he said. "And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

The line had come from conservative historian Harry Jaffa, who was working on the campaign. Though Goldwater later credited it to Cicero, Jaffa said that it was an allusion to Thomas Paine. Goldwater had had it double underlined in his reading text, for emphasis. "In their campaign for Lyndon Johnson, Democratic speakers underlined it as well," Safire wrote in Political Dictionary. They drove the "extremism" theme relentlessly, even suggesting in the aired-once "Daisy" ad that a Goldwater presidency would lead to nuclear oblivion.

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While LBJ won 44 states and more than 60 percent of the vote, Goldwater's conservatism would find victorious expression in both the 1980 Reagan Revolution and today's Tea Party. In fact his famous speech is striking for how, with a few tweaks, it could come from a contemporary conservative without raising eyebrows.

Ronald Reagan's "Challenge," 1976

The last Republican presidential nomination to be decided at the convention was the 1976 battle between President Gerald Ford and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Their primary had been brutal: Reagan charged Ford was soft on the Soviets while the incumbent painted his challenger as dangerous. "When you vote Tuesday, remember, Governor Ronald Reagan couldn't start a war. President Ronald Reagan could," one Ford ad intoned.