There is an art to a good convention speech. The best of them live for years after the convention, cemented in the political memory as an encapsulation of a moment in time. They create catchphrases that become the rallying cry or the main narrative line for the fall campaigns that follow. And even when the campaign fails, a good convention speech lives on. So here I give you 9 good convention speeches, and a couple of very bad ones.
1. Defining the opposition -
- 1988 - Governor Ann Richards - "Silver Foot in His Mouth" - There were a few things significant about this address. Richards was a woman, a southerner, and a governor. The southerner and governor parts are significant because Democrats were losing the south (it's now a given that we will have to fight tooth and nail for any southern wins, but then people like Richards and Carter and Nunn were still successful Southern Democrats). The Texan part was big because Bush claimed to be Texan, and he just didn't have that feel, he felt New England Rich to most people. Richards could make that distinction by the end of the third sentence (done by 40 seconds in). She also delivered the "attack lines" with the grace of a southern lady (nobody can deliver a rebuke more deftly than a smart southern woman). The letter she reads about 6 minutes in is particularly powerful. But the speech is remembered for a certain catch phrase. At 18:12 she starts the part that is most remembered. And while the catch phrase lives on, the very skillful, yet largely divisive ad campaign that Bush put forth in the fall - coupled with some large and prominent Dukakis gaffes - led to the now seemingly inevitable continuation of the Reagan-Bush Era.
"And for 8 straight years George Bush hasn't displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about. And now that he's after a job that he can't get appointed to... he's like Columbus discovering America. He's found child care. He's found education. Poor George. He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
- 2004 - Reverend Al Sharpton - "Answering the President's Questions" - This was the single best speech in the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I know, Obama made his first really big speech that year (see below). But this speech was exactly what was needed to counter W in 2004. We weren't ready to move on and be one people in 2004. We were friggin' angry in 2004. And John Kerry was just not good at explaining that fact. W had made a speech the week before the convention asking why African Americans would support the Democratic Party. This was the response. It was also the response to why people should vote against Bush - though maybe not so much why people should vote FOR Kerry, which is one of the reasons why Kerry didn't win - nobody was really voting FOR him. But this was the thing that Al Sharpton had going for him the entire time that he ran for president in 2004: he always said what we were thinking, what needed to be said... while everybody else was just talking. If you listen to nothing else, listen to the part that starts at 11:55 and ends at 16:00. Or just go on listening until the end. That's a speech right there.
"Mr. President, I heard you say Friday that you had questions for voters, particularly African-American voters. And you [asked] the question: Did the Democratic Party take us for granted? Well, I have raised questions. But let me answer your question... Mr. President, you said would we have more leverage if both parties got our votes, but we didn't come this far playing political games. It was those that earned our vote that got our vote. We got the Civil Rights Act under a Democrat. We got the Voting Rights Act under a Democrat. We got the right to organize under Democrats. Mr. President, the reason we are fighting so hard, the reason we took Florida so seriously, is our right to vote wasn't gained because of our age. Our vote was soaked in the blood of martyrs, soaked in the blood of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, soaked in the blood of four little girls in Birmingham. This vote is sacred to us. This vote can't be bargained away. This vote can't be given away. Mr. President, in all due respect, Mr. President, read my lips: Our vote is not for sale... Mr. President, we love America, not because of all of us have seen the beauty all the time. But we believed if we kept on working, if we kept on marching, if we kept on voting, if we kept on believing, we would make America beautiful for everybody. Starting November, let's make America beautiful again."
2. Moving the National Conversation Forward -
- 1976 - Representative Barbara Jordan - On National Community and the Common Good - First of all, Barbara Jordan was an awesome lady. She was just sort of beyond everybody else as far as the level of her rhetoric. She always called to a higher level of discourse, and with incredible intelligence and eloquence. The context of her speech, after the Watergate scandal and the resignation and pardon of President Nixon, gave it a level of common purpose and gravitas that otherwise might have verged on obviousness or pomposity. There was an extent to which it was important to redefine democracy and our common ideals in the face of a president who seemed to have had no respect whatsoever for those concepts (or for the rule of law). This line of reasoning actually fit right in with the campaign that Jimmy Carter was running. And it helped continue the narrative that brought him to the White House.
- 2004 - State Senator Barack Obama - Our American Values - Like Barbara Jordan's, this speech starts out with a statement of how unlikely this speech - by this speaker - is. The strength of Obama's speech is the fact that after about three years of divisiveness on the order of calling the opposite party terrorists for disagreeing with the president, it called to our common history and common goals once again. This speech became, naturally, the basis for the general election run by Obama four years later. It is a story about commonality. Sadly for John Kerry, he had neither the ability to connect nor the clarity of vision and rhetoric that Obama possessed, and that lack, coupled with the general and superficial (though not specific or in-depth) likability of W, led to defeat.
3. Creating a Brand -
- 1980 - Governor Ronald Reagan - "A New Consensus: Family, Work, Neighborhood, Peace, and Freedom" - Yes, he had been building up to this for years, but the 1980 Republican National Convention acceptance was Reagan's coming-out party as the Gipper in many ways. It's no coincidence that Reagan has one of only 2 speeches on this list actually given by a candidate for president in the year he accepted the nomination. Reagan was that kind of speaker. Hey, did you know he started out with talk about ending discrimination against women? And community-building. Of course, then he spent most of the rest of the speech attacking Democrats. Dude was a master. It's a speech that makes me angry, but it is definitely a brand-making, definitive speech, and one that cemented the narrative that The Great Communicator wanted to tell, skillfully.
- 1984 - Governor Mario Cuomo - "A Tale of Two Cities" - There was a time when almost every Democrat wanted desperately for Mario Cuomo to run for president, and this speech was the epitome of why people wanted that to happen. Impassioned. Eloquent. Pointed. The speech of a Defender of the People. At a time when the other Democrats were just not all that inspiring, and they were up against an incredibly charismatic guy who loved to simply ignore what did not fit into his theory of the world and America, Cuomo was a voice for the other side. The 99% of its day, if you will. Cuomo may not have wanted to make us love him (eh, he's a politician, he probably did), and there are all kinds of theories on why he wouldn't run, but this speech made everybody want him to run all the more.
"It's an old story. It's as old as our history. The difference between Democrats and Republicans has always been measured in courage and confidence. The Republicans -- The 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. 'The strong' -- 'The strong,' they tell us, 'will inherit the land.' We Democrats believe in something else. We democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once."
- 1992 - Governor Bill Clinton - "A Place Called Hope" - Like the Gipper, Bill Clinton was a great communicator. Unlike Reagan, it took Clinton some work to get there (see below). But in 1992 he redeemed himself, and created a real story for the American people, one that managed to be about the populism and fighting for middle class and poor people like many of the other speeches on this list, but also managed to borrow the positive spirit that Reagan so embodied even in speeches that contained a great deal of criticism and polemics. That story - based in series of individual stories skillfully and empathetically told, and including a positive set of policies for change - helped Clinton win the presidency as a Democrat at a time when people weren't sure that could happen again.
- 2008 - Governor Sarah Palin - "Lipstick" - Now, before you go judging, place yourself back in time - at a time before the Couric interviews and SNL lampoons, when nobody thought that Palin was stupid and nobody really knew much about her at all. At that time, Palin's speech was a coming-out party, and one that placed an indelible image in our minds about what kind of Republican, what kind of candidate, what kind of woman Palin was. And she hit every pitch. She managed to be likable and tough at the same time, without anybody accusing her (as commentators often do with women who are tough) of being shrill or a harpy. The speech was the embodiment of the theory of the Modern American Republican Woman (the part about the lipstick starts at 11:00). Then there were the Couric interviews, and what had seemed fiesty and smart ended up seeming shallow and willfully uninformed. But for a moment, Mama Grizzly shone.
4. Closing One Chapter and Starting a New One -
- 2008 - Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton - "No Way, No How, No McCain" - This speech was a masterful balance - and it had to accomplish a lot of things in order to successfully turn the page for many very angry Hillary supporters to a general election. The first few lines she speaks are her distillation of the reasons why the many women who were threatening to stay home or vote for McCain should not do those things. And the overwhelming majority of them did not, in the end. The rest of the speech moves Hillary past the many acrimonious things she said about Obama (and he said about her) in the primary election. She didn't wave a magic wand, lots of us were still mad. But she moved the ball as far down the field as could have been expected, and then some. Side note: Michele Obama spends most of the speech looking angry, which kind of undercuts the feeling of love. Presumably they made up at some later point. And the successful portrayal of McCain as having changed into a Bush clone continued up through the fall election.
- 1988 - Governor Bill Clinton - Bubba Part One: the Anti-Obama - It was 1988, and Bill Clinton was the young, promising Governor of Arkansas and the head of the National Governors Association. He was chosen to introduce Dukakis, and he did a simply awful job. I can't embed the whole speech, but should you want to hear the saddest version of the Chariots of Fire theme ever performed, as well as a now-great-speech-maker (you know, this guy - see above) giving a really bad, WAY too-long speech, feel free to click here. In the meantime, some enterprising person has excerpted just the very end and booing portion of the speech, here (yes, he was actually booed by the delegates - it was that bad):
And the Ugly:
- 1992 - Pat Buchanan - The Culture War Speech - This is pretty much the opposite of the Obama's 2004 speech. It's mean, it parses the public into sections and then proceeds to alienate larges swaths of those sections - and it takes the political dialogue in a decidedly negative direction. What's interesting is that Buchanan manages to do that while paying heavy homage to Ronald Reagan, who was known largely for his positivity (but see: "welfare mothers," communists). The difference is about tone. This speech materially hurt George H.W. Bush's chances because Bush was inextricably linked to Buchanan's words, and yet afraid to denounce them harshly for fear of losing a base that already doubted his conservative bona fides. This was a speech that was so bad, pundits pointed to it as a turning point in the election. Between Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot's third-party candidacy, Bill Clinton had a couple of assists into the presidency.
"Like many of you last month, I watched that giant masquerade ball at Madison Square Garden [at the DNC] –where 20,000 radicals and liberals came dressed up as moderates and centrists–in the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history... The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America–abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat–that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country... My friends, even in tough times, these people are with us. They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they came from the same schoolyards and playgrounds and towns as we did. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart..."
So what will this year bring? It will be interesting to see, especially with the shortening of the Republican Convention, whether we see the divisive speeches that Senator Rick Santorum and Governor Mike Huckabee could deliver; and whether we will see a true positive branding opportunity for either/both of Representative Paul Ryan and Governor Mitt Romney. Then we'll need to watch to see whether President Obama will go with the unification theme or the populist one (or a hybrid?) and whom the Democrats will use to define Romney further going into the fall election.