Party conventions were once raucous affairs where factions waged floor fights over the presidential nominee and the party platform. The decline of parties and the rise of television have left them more like carefully packaged infomercials than the rowdy meetings of yore. But the central role of speeches is unchanged. Most will be forgotten, but occasionally one ascends into history. Here are the 12 most memorable convention speeches:
William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold," 1896
When former Rep. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska addressed the Democratic convention, the major issue of the day was whether silver as well as gold should be minted as U.S. currency. Silver coinage would be inflationary and help, for example, debt-impoverished farmers. The 36-year-old Bryan was an avowed bimetallist who placed himself in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson against moneyed interests. His peroration has gone down in history: "Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
Those words, the New York Times reported the next day, were "the signal for an avalanche of cheers which speedily developed into a measureless outburst." This 14-minute demonstration, the paper added, was a "perfect Niagara of sound," and "struck terror to the hearts" of the pro-gold forces in the hall.
The Democrats nominated Bryan for the presidency the following day.
The Bryan speech has echoed in U.S. history. According to Safire's Political Dictionary by William Safire, it inspired 1930s Louisiana Gov. Huey Long's "every man a king" slogan, and included the earliest criticism of what is now known as "trickle-down economics," attacking the belief that "if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below."
FDR's "New Deal," 1932
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took to the podium at Chicago Stadium to address the Democratic Party as its nominee, he was doing something unprecedented: giving an acceptance speech. By tradition, presidential nominees waited in feigned ignorance for a convention delegation to inform them of their selection. But upon learning that he had secured the nomination, FDR announced that he would fly—then still a novel and risky way to travel—from Albany to Chicago to deliver the address, displaying "theatrics that he was going to show his physicality," says historian Robert Dallek, as well as illustrating the vigor with which he would tackle the Great Depression.
The speech itself was the subject of staff infighting, with longtime aide Louis Howe proffering an entirely rewritten draft on Roosevelt moments after he landed. FDR used the first page of the new speech but then transitioned to the one he had brought with him, which included the historic conclusion that, "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people." The phrase had come from the pen of FDR speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, but neither man realized that it would become a historic catchphrase.
Hubert Humphrey's "Bright Sunshine of Human Rights," 1948
At issue when Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey addressed the Democratic convention was whether the party should adopt a minority plank to the platform advocating for civil rights for black Americans—an issue Southern Democrats viewed as an affront. "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." He declared that "the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." The address lasted less than 10 minutes and prompted wild applause in the convention hall that lasted nearly as long.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
"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."
It was a masterly summation of the liberal governing philosophy and animating ideas of the Democratic Party.
George H.W. Bush's "1,000 Points of Light"—and His Lips, 1988
After eight years as Ronald Reagan's number two, Vice President George H.W. Bush was one of the best-known figures in American politics but he was indistinct, the sheriff's deputy rather than a leader in his own right.
An acceptance address, says Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, requires "some kind of unity between your story and America's story. It is very much about positing yourself as the man of the moment." In New Orleans, Bush did that effectively. "People don't see their experience as symbolic of an era—but, of course, we were," Bush told the crowd, recounting his postwar years as a Texas oilman.
While he was trying to carve out his own political identity, he had enlisted Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. During the summer of 1988, he sent her thoughts and notes for the big address. One was a list of words that had special meaning for him, including "kindness," "caring," and "decency." She wrote in a draft that he wanted a "kinder nation" and Bush himself added "gentler."
Some of Bush's top aides fought that phrase (they weren't alone: first lady Nancy Reagan reportedly commented, "kinder and gentler than whom?") as well as a passage describing American civic organizations as "a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky." It was, Noonan later wrote, her favorite line of the speech, though she bemoaned that "people around Bush" weakened it by "shoehorning in groups that were, well, interest groups" into the paragraph.
Along with those lines, Bush's admonition to congressional Democrats to "read my lips: no new taxes" is better remembered than virtually any utterance he made as president. Of course, the memory of that remark blew back on Bush four years later in the wake of his 1990 agreement to raise taxes.
Pat Buchanan's "Cultural War ... for the Soul of America," 1992
Pat Buchanan's long-shot presidential bid had given incumbent Bush the political equivalent of a near-death experience in the New Hampshire primary (where Buchanan won 38 percent of the vote). And while his speech at the 1992 convention in Houston was a much stronger embrace of the president (whom he called an "American patriot and war hero") than Reagan's in 1976 or Kennedy's in 1980, that proved to be a problem in and of itself.
Buchanan thundered against the Democrats as a party of "unrestricted abortion on demand" intent on "tearing America down" and on the wrong side of a "religious war going on in this country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war. … And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side and George Bush is on our side," he said, referring not only to Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, but also to his wife Hillary.
Buchanan has long disputed the idea that his speech helped drag Bush down. He points to polling data showing Bush got a boost after the night Buchanan spoke. But while the speech may have given the incumbent a lift, it also set the tenor for a gathering that seemed militantly out of touch. At a time when most Americans were worried about a soft economy, a declaration of a culture war seemed incongruous and discordant, and Buchanan became the face of that cumulative disconnect.
Barack Obama's United States of America, 2004
When state Sen. Barack Obama learned he would keynote the 2004 Democratic convention, "almost immediately, he said to me, 'I know what I want to do—I want to talk about my story as part of the American story.' He had a very clear concept in his head," aide David Axelrod later told Chicago magazine. Obama wrote it on a yellow legal pad in snatches of free time—sometimes ducking into the men's room to get some quiet—while legislating in Springfield, Ill. Other challenges included learning to read a speech from a Teleprompter.
In both speech and delivery, Obama rose to the occasion in a way that stunned and captivated the nation.
"Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us—the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of 'anything goes,' " he said. "Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America."
While he originally had a passage about all Americans standing together for the red, white, and blue, convention speechwriters took it out because Democratic nominee John Kerry had a similar line in his address, according to Chicago, prompting Obama to complain that the nominee—he used an earthier term—"is trying to steal a line from my speech."
In the end, the line was not missed. "On Tuesday, at about 9 p.m., Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator running for the Senate," the New York Times reported days later. "A half-hour later … he was the party's hot ticket. Pundits even predicted he would be the first black president."
Clint Eastwood's Empty Chair, 2012
Some might argue that actor Clint Eastwood's surprise appearance at the GOP convention wasn't a speech so much as a "performance"—to use the word favored by Republican nominee Mitt Romney's spin team—or a train wreck, as virtually every political commentator put it. Either way it became an instant classic, if for the wrong reasons.
Eastwood had made a surprise endorsement of Romney at a Sun Valley, Idaho fundraiser in early August, giving a "powerful and typically gruff/charming performance," according to Time's Mark Halperin. Romney campaign officials thought that having him appear at the convention as a surprise guest could bring some spontaneity to the highly scripted event. They gave him a five minute time slot at the top of the TV networks' hour of coverage and some talking points but, inexplicably, "did not conduct rehearsals or insist on a script or communicate guidelines for the style or format of his remarks," the New York Times reported. Shortly before going on, the actor asked to have a chair onstage with him; no one apparently thought to ask why.
Convention attendees gave him warm applause throughout, but his rambling, mumbled remarks, mostly directed at the empty chair, which was supposed to represent President Obama, prompted the Internet to light up with puzzlement and scorn. "What do you mean, shut up?" Eastwood asked the Obama only he could see and hear. And then later: "What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that—can't do that to himself. You're crazy. You're absolutely crazy."
By the time Eastwood was finished, he had—ignoring the blinking red light signaling that he was over his limit—stretched his five minutes into 12, spawned an Internet meme, "Eastwooding," and earned himself an unwanted place in convention history.