Barack Obama tours the convention floor at the FleetCenter in Boston, Sunday, July 25, 2004, a day before the start of the Democratic National Convention and his big career-changing keynote address.
At this year's Republican convention, the speeches were largely competent but uninspiring. Do you remember anything Marco Rubio said? It was only a week ago. No, none of their speeches will stand for the ages. The Democrats seem to be faring better, with Michelle Obama's terrific speech on Tuesday night and former President Bill Clinton's wonktastic 90s throwback address on Wednesday. In advance of President Obama's speech tonight, here's a review of some of the most notable speeches (for better and, occasionally, for worse) of the last 80 years.
Until 1932, the nominee himself wouldn't come to the convention to formally accept his party's nomination. Franklin Roosevelt broke with that tradition, travelling to Chicago to tell the delegates, "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms."
In 1948, the Democratic party was deeply divided on the issue of civil rights. Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, gave an impassioned speech supporting the adoption of a strong pro-civil rights plank in the party platform, rebuking "states' rights" advocates and saying the move was "172 years late." Humphrey's argument won the day, and in response, members of the Mississippi and Alabama delegations walked out of the convention, leaving to form the "Dixiecrat" pro-segregation party under Strom Thurmond.
In 1964, incumbent Lyndon Johnson did everything he could to convince voters that Barry Goldwater was a reckless extremist, and Goldwater did everything he could to help Johnson make the case. In the Cow Palace outside San Francisco, Goldwater uttered the words that would come to define his entire career. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," he said to raucous applause. "Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
In 1976, Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan became the first African-American woman to keynote a party convention. At a time when there were still few female politicians and inspiring rhetoric was thought to be the exclusive property of male speakers, Jordan's eloquence and extraordinary tone of command made her speech notable not just for being a first, but for what people actually saw and heard.
After Ted Kennedy ran unsuccessfully to unseat incumbent president Jimmy Carter in the 1980 primaries, there was no love lost between them. Kennedy gave a speech highlighting the country's economic hardship (not what Carter wanted), grudgingly congratulated the president, and told his supporters, "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."
The Democrats' keynote speaker in 1984 was New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who delivered a passionate indictment of President Reagan, a forceful restatement of the party's principles, and a moving story of his own family history. As soon as it ended, people began talking about a potential Cuomo presidential campaign.
Few Americans outside of Texas knew Ann Richards, the state's treasurer, before she delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention. But from the first moments, when she said, "after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like," the audience was mesmerized. Her merciless skewering of Bush ("He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.") didn't keep him from winning that election, but it forever linked the two figures together.
George H. W. Bush
As good as many of these speeches are, most of the acceptance speeches from the candidates themselves have been forgettable. Perhaps the greatest exception is George H.W. Bush's in 1988, in which he made the pledge that would come back to haunt him later when he decided to tackle the budget deficit: "Read my lips: No new taxes!"
After challenging President Bush in the 1992 primaries, former Nixon speechwriter and TV pundit Pat Buchanan came to the Republican convention and delivered a speech that managed both to be a full-throated endorsement of Bush and to undermine him terribly, by proclaiming a "culture war" and showing America its snarling face.
There have been many keynote speakers at conventions who were made into national figures by a well-delivered speech, but only one was made a president by it. It is fair to say that had the Democrats chosen someone other than Barack Obama to deliver their 2004 keynote, someone else would be president right now. And if there's one thing a look back at this speech makes clear, it's that a person can age an awful lot in eight years.
It may be hard to remember given everything that happened after, but when Sarah Palin stepped out on the stage of the Republican convention four years ago, she absolutely electrified her party and much of the country. There were stumbles and embarrassments aplenty to come, but there has probably never been a speech by a vice-presidential candidate that was as well-received as Palin's was. Watching it again serves as a reminder of what made her seem to John McCain and so many others—for a brief moment, anyway—to be such a great pick.
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