If you tune out the endless convention speeches, you might miss a moment when history is made.
So you want to get terror suspects screaming for mercy? Make them sit through every last speech that will issue forth, like so many gusts of steam, from the two major party conventions. Better yet, make them leap up with a whoop and wave signs after every third sentence. Call it rhetorical torture.
By my count, 45 speakers were given their moment on the stage at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Not to be outdone, the Democrats showcased 61 speakers at their convention that year. One hundred and six speeches over a total of eight days … more than enough evidence that these conventions should be held at Guantanamo, if anywhere.
Yes, most of the speeches will be utterly forgettable—wooden to the core, and blandly delivered. And yes, your index finger will get the workout of its life mashing down on that mute button.
But—and I would say this even if I wasn’t editor of a magazine called Politics—don’t make the dumb mistake of tuning out completely. History shows us that sprinkled amid the relentless yammering are some speeches of real consequence. To miss them is to miss moments of true revelation.
Some of these speeches are remembered because they were uniquely and powerfully inspiring. The granddaddy of them all has to be the “Cross of Gold” speech delivered in Chicago on July 9, 1896, by the Democratic nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan (who, then 36, remains the youngest person ever nominated for president). If anyone needs proof that Jennings was an orator for the ages, consider that his scintillating theme was the wickedness of the gold standard. The Great Commoner, as the populist Jennings was called, thundered his case for bimetallism—a currency backed by gold and silver—as the necessary salvation of Americans still reeling from the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1893. After delivering his now-immortal kicker—”You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns! You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”—Bryan was lifted up onto the shoulders of the fired-up delegates and paraded around the convention hall.
It’s true that Bryan lost the election to William McKinley, but his fiery defense of the working man became a touchstone for Democrats, one given voice in later years by such presidents as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
In July 1960, the Democrats heard from another young nominee, John F. Kennedy, whose rhetoric had the similar effect of energizing a tired party. Kennedy’s brilliant inaugural address has overshadowed his acceptance speech at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but it was at the convention that he coined a phrase that has defined his presidency ever since. “The problems are not all solved, and the battles are not all won,” he said, “and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier, the frontier of the 1960s. … Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But 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 them.”
“This theme of a ‘New Frontier’ emerged for the first time in his acceptance speech,” says Ted Sorensen, a special assistant to Kennedy who worked on many of JFK’s speeches. “It was his way of pledging that Democrats weren’t going to engage in the usual politics. Instead, he pushed the themes of service, sacrifice and self-discipline, all consistent with the idea of a frontier.” Those listening to the young Massachusetts senator were hearing the first echoes of his famous lines six months later, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
And, according to Sorensen, Kennedy’s appeal to Americans to join him in braving the New Frontier—beyond which, he said in his convention speech, “are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus”—portended everything from his launch of the Peace Corps to his pledge to land a man on the moon to his efforts promoting civil rights.
In some cases, if you paid close attention to every line in a convention speech you might have detected an “uh-oh” moment … as in, uh-oh, that’s something he’s going to regret saying.
It happened to Barry Goldwater in his July 1964 acceptance of the Republican nomination in San Francisco. His words, on the whole, were an eloquent presentation of his libertarian values, and the audience was enthralled by the man they admiringly referred to as Mr. Conservative. But toward the end of his talk, after stirring phrases extolling the rights of individuals and promising protection of their freedoms against big government and communist imperialism, he added this: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
The delegates cheered wildly, but outside that convention bubble a different reaction set in. It was as if Goldwater’s foe, Lyndon Johnson, had managed to plant a mole inside the Republican speechwriting team. LBJ was pushing hard to present Goldwater as dangerously extreme in his views, portraying him as someone whose bellicose rhetoric would risk nuclear war with the Soviets. The seminal political ad that election year showed a young girl pulling petals off a daisy, followed by an ominous countdown that culminated in a nuclear explosion. Goldwater didn’t help his cause when he joked at one point that he’d like to lob a nuke into the men’s room at the Kremlin.
To any savvy adviser, Goldwater’s greatest need was to reassure the public that he was no trigger-happy cowboy—that he wasn’t too extreme to be president. Yet there in his convention speech are those incendiary words, gift-wrapped and delivered to the Johnson campaign: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
Goldwater got slaughtered in the general election, though he is credited with igniting the conservative movement that flourished with the later election of Ronald Reagan.
At the Republican Convention in August 1988, George H. W. Bush faced a different sort of dilemma. He had to establish his own identity after eight years as Reagan’s vice president, and simultaneously shift the view that he was not only ineloquent but rather geeky, and that his professed Reaganesque conservatism was just cover to secure the nomination.
In fact, his acceptance speech in New Orleans was a wholly unexpected tour de force. He used self-deprecation to brilliant effect, saying that he would “try to hold my charisma in check,” and later in the speech added, “I may sometimes be a little awkward, but there’s nothing self-conscious in my love of country. And I am a quiet man, but I hear the quiet people others don’t.”
He spoke other memorable phrases that, while ridiculed later by some, were marvelously effective at the time, including “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler nation.” But the moment came when he needed to seal the deal with the conservative delegates, and he said this:
“My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no. And they’ll push, and I’ll say no. And they’ll push again and I’ll say to them, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.'”
The phrase had its intended effect. The delegates ate it up, and much of the public came to view Bush as protection against “tax-and-spend” Democrats. Yet the “no new taxes” line was one that several of Bush’s advisers urged him to take out of the speech. They knew that a candidate’s rhetoric could be a self-imposed trap.
They were right to worry, because Bush’s commitment to resist tax hikes was not ironclad, after all. When he did raise taxes as president, in a budget compromise with Democrats, he lost the firm support of the GOP’s conservative base. And that, in turn, helped seal his defeat in 1992.
Among the most potent convention speeches have been verbal lashings that defined the rival candidate and party in devastating terms. Jeane Kirkpatrick and Mario Cuomo both performed this task masterfully in 1984.
Cuomo’s speech in San Francisco wasn’t in the service of a winning candidate (Walter Mondale), but his biting denunciations of the GOP under Ronald Reagan so electrified the crowd that Democrats were hungry for the New York governor to run for president himself—which, of course, never quite happened. Playing off Reagan’s attachment to depicting America as “a shining city on a hill,” Cuomo said: “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. In fact, Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more ‘a tale of two cities’ than it is just ‘a shining city on a hill.'” He went on to say, “Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail.” He then invoked FDR to argue that Democrats are about caring for the whole family, and for every ethnic group, “lifting them up into the wagon.” It was an appeal tailor-made to move Democrats by portraying them as the true guardians of the people.
Jeane Kirkpatrick wanted Americans to think something else, though, when they thought of Democrats. The U.N. ambassador, a registered Democrat herself, coined two phrases at the GOP convention in Dallas that stuck like hot wax to Democrats for years to come. In her view, unlike the proudly patriotic Democrats of previous generations who “were not afraid to be resolute nor ashamed to speak of America as a great nation,” the “San Francisco Democrats … blame America first.” After her speech, Republicans were able to use the simple phrase “San Francisco Democrat” as devastating shorthand for the ills of liberalism.
Convention speeches are most fascinating, though, when they provide an unexpected window into the speaker’s heart and soul. Ronald Reagan wowed delegates with both of his acceptance speeches, in 1980 and 1984, but his revealing remarks at the 1976 convention in Kansas City are all-too-forgotten—even though they presaged dramatic developments in his presidency.
Reagan had just lost a razor-close battle with Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination and, in an attempt at party unity, Ford asked Reagan up onto the stage at the convention. Without notes, Reagan gave a six-minute speech that, according to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, was not at all the political speech that the delegates expected. Rather than hit hard at Jimmy Carter, and after only a brief mention of Democratic encroachments on “private rights,” Reagan turned to a matter that preyed on his mind. He said that he’d been asked to write a letter for a time capsule to be opened at the Tricentennial in 2076, and that the task had focused his thoughts on the greatest threat to mankind: “We live in a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive at each other’s country and destroy, virtually, the civilized world we live in. And suddenly it dawned on me, those who would read this letter in a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.”
In 1976, and even more in 1980, Reagan was caricatured by opponents as so virulently anti-communist that he was a threat to peace. But those paying close attention to his remarks in Kansas City were not so surprised when, as president, Reagan developed a rapport with Mikhail Gorbachev and, at the U.S.-Soviet summit in Reykjavik, threatened the orthodoxy of “mutual assured destruction” by attempting to negotiate a total elimination of nuclear arsenals with the Soviet president. The foreign policy establishment was equally alarmed when Reagan not only pushed for an SDI “shield” against nuclear attack, but offered to share the technology with the Soviets. “The Soviets thought it had to be some sort of ploy,” says Lou Cannon. “But Reagan meant it.”
Plenty of conservatives worried that Reagan had gone off the deep end by cozying up to Gorbachev. But in reality, he was attempting to fulfill his great dream—ending the threat of nuclear annihilation. “Will they look back with appreciation and say, ‘Thank God for those people in 1976 … who kept us now 100 years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction’?” In those six minutes in Kansas City, Ronald Reagan revealed his innermost core.
Finally, the most noble and uplifting convention speech may have been delivered in Philadelphia back in 1948. That year the Democrats were bitterly divided over civil rights initiatives proposed by President Harry Truman, and Southern Democrats were adamantly opposed to including them in the party platform. The issue was so toxic that even Truman favored a watered-down version of his civil rights proposals for the platform.
But a handful of liberals were deeply troubled by this capitulation and wanted the party platform to include a “minority plank” that aggressively opposed racial segregation. On July 14, a proponent of this plank, the 37-year-old mayor of Minneapolis, stepped to the microphone and addressed a charged crowd.
Hubert Humphrey, a candidate for the U.S. Senate that year, couldn’t know whether this moment in the spotlight, before so many hostile delegates, would undermine his standing in the party. Yet Humphrey was unwilling to be silent. “I realize that there are here today friends and colleagues of mine, many of them, who feel just as deeply and keenly as I do about this issue and who are yet in complete disagreement with me. … I ask you for a calm consideration of our historic opportunity.”
He was also unwilling to pull any punches. “Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantees of the civil rights which we have mentioned in the minority report,” he said. “In spite of my desire to see everybody here in honest and unanimous agreement, there are some matters which I think must be stated clearly and without qualification.”
The atmosphere became only more tense when he spoke the most stirring lines of his speech: “To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: 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.”
Humphrey’s eloquent plea had the desired effect—the civil rights plank was narrowly endorsed—as well as the feared effect of infuriating the Southern delegates. The entire Mississippi delegation and half of the Alabama delegation walked out of the hall after the convention accepted the plank. Shortly after, a number of Southerners split off to form the Dixiecrat party, which ran South Carolina’s Gov. Strom Thurmond as its candidate for president.
Humphrey went on to pay a steep price for his convention speech during the early part of his Senate career, as the Southern Democrats who ruled major committees froze him out. But he also established a reputation for honest conviction that eventually won him admirers even among the Southerners in his party.
Most of us tend to recall Hubert Humphrey as a vice president who suffered for his subservience to LBJ; and afterwards, as a nominee for president who closed fast but nonetheless failed to win the prize. Others remember him more fondly as the “Happy Warrior” for his perpetually upbeat demeanor.
Those are not the legacies that he most deserves, however. In his convention speech, says Ted Sorensen, “Humphrey demonstrated grandeur, eloquence and boldness.” Winston Churchill could have had Humphrey in mind when he famously said, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all others.” That trait was never more vividly displayed by a politician than on a July evening in 1948.