If you've ever watched a political convention on television, I'm sure you've thought it looks like a circus. People are running around, wearing funny hats and yelling at each other. And, yes, there are clowns.
And that's exactly what's it like when you're there. In the summer of 1972, I was there -- I had been elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. That year, the party gathering was a special one, with all-night debate sessions about the explosive social issues of the day, and political activists joining elected officials as part of the delegation. They called it "The People's Convention," and it was an honor to be among citizens of all stripes -- from all across the country -- occupying one of the delegation's coveted seats.
I'll never forget one particular fellow delegate. She was in her 70s and a farmwoman from Sacramento, who'd sold two cows in order to finance her trip. Talk about your American dream story.
For all the fireworks and partisan posturing of campaign season in this nation, our electoral process remains a thing of brilliance -- a living, breathing embodiment of the Founders' vision of representative government. But to my mind, nothing illustrates the true magic of that singularly American process than those quadrennial gatherings of the party faithful -- the conventions -- which begin this week with the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida.
Sure, there's lots of screaming at each other on the convention floor during those first heady days -- not to mention trash-talking the "enemy" from the podium throughout the week. But political conventions are also places where dreams are born, hopes are realized, and careers are made. As messy as the proceedings can be, American electoral conventions are the shining model of democracy in action, and I know of no other country on earth that celebrates them with such noisy pride.
Like most conventions, the one I attended in 1972 had a little bit of everything. There was drama in the back room debates, as Democrats of varying shades of blue fought over whether to include a women's right to choose in the party platform. (The measure was defeated -- Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and all of the women there were crushed.) There was excitement, as delegates rallied behind our presidential nominee, candidate George McGovern, convinced he was the one to evict Richard Nixon from the White House. (Despite our enthusiasm, McGovern would go on to lose the general election in a humiliating landslide.)
There was certainly no shortage of drama and excitement at the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when William Jennings Bryan, congressman from Nebraska, made his passionate Cross of Gold Speech. By decrying the gold standard and urging his party to support "free silver," Bryan's address catapulted him to the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, and his speech has remained one of the greatest in American history.
A more thrilling drama couldn't have been written than the 1932 Democratic National Convention, where the convention was historically deadlocked for days. After three ballots had been cast, not one delegate had earned the two-thirds vote needed to secure the nomination. Then, after some last-minute wrangling by heavyweights like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the convention nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt, Governor of New York. And in a sensational end to the convention, FDR made the last-minute decision to fly from New York to Chicago to accept his nomination in person, breaking tradition and establishing a new precedent.
At the 1948 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey had paved the way to winning the Republican Party's presidential nomination after sailing through the primaries. However, in Philadelphia, the first two ballots cast were a stalemate, then on the third, Dewey overcame the opposition from die-hard conservatives and landed the nomination, but he still went on to lose the general election to incumbent Harry S. Truman. The convention is also notable for the drama that took place when delegates from Alabama and Mississippi walked out in protest of a newly passed civil rights plank. They would eventually form the short-lived Dixiecrat party, which held its own convention, choosing South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond as its presidential candidate.
Conventions are a place where the hearts and minds of a political party are won by championing delegates. And there's certainly no doubt that John F. Kennedy captured the dreams of a new generation of Democrats at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Not only did Kennedy score the nomination, but he went on to triumph in the general election, taking his place in history as one of the nation's most beloved presidents.
Who could forget the 1964 Democratic Convention, which came less than a year after the devastating assassination of President John F. Kennedy? While incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson was nominated to run for a second term, there's no doubt that the most moving moment of the convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's memorial speech in dedication to his deceased brother. At its conclusion, delegates at the convention erupted into 22 minutes of unstoppable applause that brought Robert to tears.
If ever there was a time for the political process to encounter chaos, it was 1968. It had been a particularly violent year, one that saw the tragic murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential hopeful, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Set against this backdrop, the Democratic Convention in Chicago was a scene of riots and protest. While the convention proceeded as usual inside the International Amphitheatre, news cameras continually cut to the violence outside, where mobs of demonstrators faced off with police in riot gear. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey would ultimately secure his party's nomination, but lose in the general election.
That same year, the Republican National Convention proceeded as usual in Miami, Florida, where there was little argument among delegates as to whom would lead the ticket. Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon sailed to the front of the pack, winning the nomination by a landslide, and tapping Spiro T. Agnew as his vice presidential running mate.
I'll never forget the thrilling experience of my first convention in 1972, where Democrats fought over whether or not to include a women's right to choose in the party platform. (The measure was defeated -- Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and all of the women there were crushed.) A few days later, delegates rallied behind our presidential nominee, candidate George McGovern. We roared our approval when he tapped Missouri senator, Thomas Eagleton, as his running mate, only to be shocked when, less than a month later, Eagleton dropped off the ticket after coming under fire for having received psychiatric treatment and electroshock therapy. McGovern would eventually lose the general election by one of the largest landslides in election history.
There's no better example of just how a convention can make a politician's career than Ronald Reagan's ascension at the 1976 Republican Convention. After being narrowly defeated by incumbent Gerald Ford for the nomination, the California Governor delivered an impromptu concession speech that was so passionate and moving that he just about upstaged the nominee, solidifying his place in convention history and setting the stage for a successful presidential run four years later.
That same year, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Democrats had come together under the leadership of Georgia Governor and peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter. Before the convention had even begun, Carter had already collected enough delegates to land the nomination, so he focused on uniting the party. By the end of the week, he had officially secured the nomination and ultimately soared to victory in the general election with running mate, Walter Mondale.
Although there may be a lot of yelling and screaming over party politics and jockeying for the coveted nomination, political conventions are ultimately about pushing forward the party's agenda, win or lose. And I can't think of a candidate who better showed his support for the cause than Senator Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. Although he narrowly lost the nomination to incumbent President Jimmy Carter earlier in the day, that night Kennedy took the stage and gave a rousing and unforgettable speech in support of his president and the Democratic Party.
Needless to say, political conventions can get pretty heated, especially when it comes to trash-talking the opposing party -- and 1988 was no exception. Vice President George H. W. Bush won the nomination at the Republican National Convention and delivered his historic "Thousand Points Of Light" speech that would later help propel him to presidential victory. Meanwhile, at the Democratic National Convention, Ann Richards delivered a fiery keynote address, attacking her fellow Texan with sass and humor. "Poor George, he can't help it," Richards said. "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
While careers have been made and broken at political conventions over the years, no one has made a comeback from a political gaffe quite like Bill Clinton. On the opening night of the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Clinton made his first big appearance on the national stage, delivering an unusually long and rambling speech in support of candidate Michael Dukakis. (Delegates actually began to applaud when Clinton said the words, "In conclusion.") Political pundits predicted the incident would end the young governor's career before it had even begun. But the charismatic Clinton did damage control just days later by appearing on "The Johnny Carson Show," playing the sax and profusely apologizing for his blunder. The appearance earned him the name "The Comeback Kid," and he went on to win the presidency four years later.
Rallying the party is what it's all about at conventions, and that's exactly what Pat Buchanan was trying to do at the 1992 Republican National Convention. With the GOP lagging behind the Democrats in polls, Buchanan opened the convention with his controversial "culture war" speech, in which he argued that a greater war of values was being waged in America. But not everyone agreed. Liberal columnist Molly Ivins famously wrote that Buchanan's speech "probably sounded better in the original German."
Historically, the keynote address at an electoral convention has been a huge springboard for the careers of many politicians, but none moreso than the passionate speech given by Illinois Senatorial candidate Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Virtually unknown at the time, Obama delivered a rousing address about the common ground shared by citizens in both blue and red states. The speech not only galvanized delegates, but set the stage for Obama's own successful run for the presidency just four years later.
In 2008, the Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, made her mark at the Republican Convention, wowing delegates and securing her vice-presidential nomination alongside Arizona Senator John McCain. On the third day of the convention, Palin took the stage and charmed convention delegates by portraying herself as an average -- though tough-as-nails -- wife and mother. "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull," she famously asked? "Lipstick." The crowd loved her.
And, of course, like in any thriller, there was a surprise twist when McGovern nominated
Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton as his vice presidential running mate to roars of approval from the delegate floor. Little did any of us know that, less than one month later, Eagleton would be under siege when reporters revealed he had been seeing psychotherapists for emotional problems and had even received electroshock therapy. McGovern vowed to stand behind his running mate "one thousand percent" (I'll never forget those words), and the next day Eagleton was off the ticket. Hardball politics.
But the 1972 Democratic convention was just one in a long list of historic weeks in American politics that were at once dramatic and historic. Who can forget the 1960 Democratic convention, when a handsome young senator named John Kennedy rose to the lectern and vowed to lead a new generation of Americans across a new frontier? Or the 1976 Republican Convention, when California Governor Ronald Reagan delivered a speech so energizing to those in the stands that he ended up upstaging the nominee himself, President Gerald Ford? Or both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1988 -- the former starring Vice President George H. W. Bush, who likened the nation's future to "a thousand points of light;" the latter featuring an Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton, whose nominating speech went on for so long that weary delegates actually broke into applause when he said the words, "In conclusion...?"
And, of course, there was the 2004 Democratic convention, whose partisan pyrotechnics came to standstill when a young, black Senator from Illinois delivered a keynote speech so galvanizing and pulsing with hope that it would catapult him to his party's nomination -- and the presidency itself -- just four years later.
So whatever your party, wherever your loyalty, I hope you'll tune in to the Republican convention this week and witness history as it happens. And I hope you'll do the same in September, when the Democrats don red, white and blue for their gathering in Charlotte, NC. Both lineups promise to be lively this year -- so keep your eyes peeled. You never know who may be warming up in the wings, preparing to make his -- or her -- big entrance!
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