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 two candidates arrived in Kansas City, where the convention was being held, three days early to lobby delegates. Ford ultimately won the nomination after a tough floor fight.

After he had given his acceptance speech, Ford aimed for a unity moment by inviting Reagan to appear on the platform with him and say a few words. Walking from his skybox through the labyrinthine passages of the convention hall, Reagan asked aide Mike Deaver what he should say. Governor, Deaver replied, you'll think of something.

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He did. "I believe the Republican Party has a platform that is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors, with no pastel shades," Reagan told the crowd in very brief, off-the-cuff remarks. "We have just heard a call to arms based on that platform." He went on to recount how he had been asked to write a letter for a time capsule to be opened in 2076. It dawned on him, he said, that those reading the letter "will know whether we met our challenge" to avoid nuclear war and preserve liberty. "Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here."

What Reagan didn't do was explicitly endorse Ford, whom he "utterly and completely" overshadowed, says Reagan biographer Craig Shirley.

Ted Kennedy's "Dream" That Never Died, 1980

Four years after the Reagan-Ford fight, the Democrats had their own knock-down, drag-out primary battle as Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy sought to unseat President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy took the fight to the convention in Madison Square Garden in New York even though the president had enough delegates to win. Kennedy hoped to overturn a rule requiring that delegates vote for the candidate to whom they were pledged during the primaries. After winning the rules fight, the Carter team gave Kennedy a speaking slot as part of the deal to get him to concede.

Kennedy's conclusion is probably the best-remembered sound bite of his career: "For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end," he said. "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

[See a slide show of the dozen most memorable political convention speeches.]

Sitting at his desk, working on Carter's acceptance address, chief speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg watched the dramatic conclusion and muttered allowed, "Uh-oh." Hertzberg, now at the New Yorker, recalls that the Carter people were not annoyed by the speech as much as by Kennedy's running in the first place when Chappaquiddick had made him unelectable. "As for the convention, the speech was OK," he says. "What was not was Ted's petulant, unpleasant demeanor during the closing 'unity' tableau."

The speech had lasted for 33 minutes and provoked a floor demonstration that lasted for 40 more, with some delegates literally dancing in the aisles. "Finally, [Kennedy delegates] felt, the last of the Kennedy brothers had delivered 'a Kennedy speech,' well-paced, well-written, with the humor and sense of history worthy of a candidate still in the fray," the New York Times reported the next day.

Mario Cuomo's "Tale of Two Cities," 1984

Democrats gathering in San Francisco in 1984 had a tough test. In addition to having to unite after a tough primary season that had produced an uninspiring nominee (former Vice President Walter Mondale), they faced a president who was enjoying an expanding economy and rising approval ratings. To keynote their quadrennial convocation, Democrats selected Mario Cuomo, the first-term governor of New York. Cuomo was known as eloquent, but he had not been tested nationally.

Cuomo seized on one of Reagan's favorite similes—the United States as a shining city on a hill—and eloquently reworked it into an indictment of Reaganism.

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"The hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory," Cuomo said. "A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining city … There are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city."