Online Newshour Interview with Historian Michael Beschloss
Great Speeches and Platform Fights
Topics covered include: the effects of television, great floor speeches by John F. Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Herbert Humphrey, Anne Richards, Ronald Reagan (1976), and Governor Bill Clinton (1988). Also, memorable acceptance speeches by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford. Finally, Beschloss tells the amusing story of Jimmy Carter's unsuccessful attempt at a show of party unity in 1980.
LEAH CLAPMAN, Online Newshour: Let's shift topics and talk about platform fights. Ever since conventions began, there have been issues that threatened to disrupt the procedures. Slavery is one, prohibition, the Vietnam War. What are some of the great platform fights in history?
The origins of the convention process
The role of third parties in Presidential elections
Bob Dole and the Presidential election of 1980
June 4, 1979:
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report profiles Senator Bob Dole
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: 1860, within the Democratic Party there was a big platform fight over slavery. The result of the fight was the Democrats decided to let the Supreme Court of the United States decide what would be the fate of slavery. The result of this was that southern Democrats walked out of the convention, and this ultimately hastened the war between the states.
1932, there was a big controversy on the floor of the Republican convention over whether you would repeal prohibition and restore the right to drink liquor. Finally, the Republicans felt that there should be no repeal. That was a very divisive issue. 1948, there was an enormous fracas in the Democratic Party in Philadelphia over whether the Democrats would support an aggressive stand to extend civil rights to black Americans. They did take that aggressive stand. But the result was that there was a walk-out by southern delegates led by Strom Thurmond, who at that point was the governor of South Carolina. Thurmond started his own party, which he called the Dixiecrats, which ran in the general election that fall. There was a very great feeling that by dislodging the rather large number of southern Democrats that Thurmond could cost Harry Truman the election. That, as it turned out, did not happen. Then 1968, that was a convention in Chicago that took place two months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy against the backdrop of Lyndon Johnson withdrawing from the race because he was embroiled in the war in Vietnam. The Democratic Party was absolutely divided over whether he would press on with the War in Vietnam or whether he would try to negotiate withdrawal and a coalition government, especially the Robert Kennedy delegates, who lost their leader, were passionately in favor of an anti-war platform plank. Lyndon Johnson, although he was not running, was in control of that convention. He managed to swat that down. The result was that a platform was passed supporting LBJ on the war in Vietnam but in a way, it sowed the seeds of defeat for Hubert Humphrey that fall.
LEAH CLAPMAN: The Republicans are facing the abortion issue in San Diego. Are there any history lessons to be learned? Were there any conventions where the party handled the platform fight well?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In a way, platforms demonstrate the paradox of conventions because one thing that conventions still do even in 1996 is they do write platforms, and they do commit the party, and the party's nominees to a certain kind of behavior if those nominees win the presidency and the vice-presidency. That's a good thing. The bad part of that is that the process by which that platform is hammered out may be so contentious and divisive as to make those nominees unelectable. So you have situations in the past where you had really excellent debates, such as over civil rights among the Democrats in '48, over Vietnam among the Democrats in 1968. In Chicago, these were debates where the oratory was actually of very high quality, and you saw these differences really exposed and argued about. The problem is that, particularly in the television age, when Americans see a bloody battle taking place on the convention floor, even if it's over very high-minded principles, they tend to think that this is a party that is divided and not really ready to govern. One of the most powerful arguments that Richard Nixon made in 1968 running against Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats was to say, as he said in his--in many of his speeches--a party divided against itself cannot govern America. And many people we now know from the polls agreed and actually voted for Nixon not because they loved Nixon but because they felt that the Democrats couldn't get their act together.
LEAH CLAPMAN: How has television changed the convention process?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Nowadays, the planners of a political convention are very motivated to make the convention as television-friendly as possible: short speeches by exciting speakers, a minimum of conflict, and to sort of use the four days as a big pageant to sort of present your party to the viewers almost as if it's a four-day infomercial. And that leads planners to try to control and package the convention beforehand as much as possible. So the result is that you see a convention that is much more bloodless and devoid of life than the conventions before the television age. Planners of conventions, for instance, in 1996, would look back on Democrats in Chicago in 1968 with horror because not only did you see these big differences among Democrats over Vietnam being aired on the convention floor, you also remembered a lot of anti-war protesters having their heads beaten in on the streets of Chicago by Chicago police, all of which was on television. All of this suggested that the Democrats had a problem that year and were not equipped to be a governing party. The result is that you see planners looking a year like 1968 and saying, let's do the opposite, let's have a convention that is perfectly organized, with short speeches, perfectly planned, so that Americans will look at this pageant on TV and say that this is the united party, this is a pageant that is not boring, and this is something that really appeals to me. That doesn't lead to really a very spontaneous political event.
LEAH CLAPMAN: And when the proceedings were not scripted and more spontaneous, a politician could come up and make a speech and wow the floor, and make a career for himself or herself. Do conventions have long-term effects on political careers?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In the pre-television age, convention speakers were, if anything, inclined to speak long because if you gave a short speech, that was a sign of lack of respect for the delegates. So you saw a lot of speakers who would speak at great length, the delegates would listen, and this was a scene that, needless to say, you don't see nowadays. Alvin Barkley, for instance, was the keynote speaker in 1948. He was the Democratic minority leader, Senator from Kentucky. He gave a speech that began, "What is a bureaucrat?". He said, "What is a bureaucrat? A bureaucrat is a Democrat who has a job that some Republican wants." And he spoke in this vein and spoke in such an appealing way that by the end of the convention Harry Truman decided to make him vice-president. One thing to look at in these conventions is you will see the stars in both parties of the future. You will probably see some possible future presidents giving speech at both of these conventions. A number of examples from the past: John Kennedy in 1956 ran for the vice-presidency in an open ballot. Stevenson, the nominee for president, for the first and last time, said, rather than dictate the nominee, I'm going to let the delegates choose who will be vice-president from the floor. Kennedy ran and lost but he gave a very graceful speech that really made him a national figure for the first time, set him up to run for president in 1960.
You saw other cases in which political leaders have really made their futures. 1984, Mario Cuomo had been governor of New York for only a year and a half, was not terribly well known outside of New York State, he gave a keynote address that had such an impact that instantly made him a presidential candidate of the future. That was the year in which Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. He was wildly popular. Many Democrats felt that it would be almost impossible to make a cogent case against Reagan. Cuomo did that in a very liberal speech, and he set himself up for a decade of national leadership thereafter.
Ann Richards, 1988, was the treasurer of the state of Texas, completely unknown outside of the state of Texas, but gave a funny, very memorable speech lampooning George Bush saying, "Poor George, he can't help it; he was born with a silver foot in his mouth." And a result of this was that she became a national figure. It also allowed her to be poised to run for governor of Texas two years later.
LEAH CLAPMAN: What about acceptance speeches, have any either won or lost an election?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Almost every acceptance speech is important. The first acceptance speech most Americans would be surprised to hear was in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt in Chicago. Conventions had taken place for a whole century, but in the old days, it was the style that if you were nominated for president at a convention, it was considered much too aggressive for you to show up at the convention and accept the nomination in person. Instead, you would stay at your home and office and a committee of delegates would be appointed to come to see you and officially notify you of your nomination, and you would say, thank you.
FDR by 1932 thought that that was a little bit unfair. On his nomination in Chicago, he got into an airplane in Albany, New York--he was governor at the time--flew to Chicago, and appeared on the convention floor. He said, "I know that this is breaking precedent to appear before you on this floor, but we're in a middle of a Great Depression, and I intend to break a lot of precedents this year and also as President." And that was really a forerunner of the entire 12 years of the Roosevelt presidency, where throughout you saw what Roosevelt called--in 1936, Roosevelt accepted renomination by the Democrats at Philadelphia. He said that "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." That was a very memorable line. But in a way, looking back, that event was more important for something else. One of the braces on his crippled legs buckled, and he fell to the ground. Now, if this had taken place in the modern day, that would have been seen on television, and that would have been probably the memorable event of that convention. In 1936, photographers did not take pictures of the President in a wheelchair or on crutches, or anything that would suggest that Roosevelt was crippled. Even the fact that he fell to the ground before delivering this perhaps most important speech of that campaign went entirely unreported and is only known now by historians.
In 1948, Democrats in Philadelphia assumed that Harry Truman was going to lose. This was before the Republicans seized back control of Congress for the first time in 16 years. And so Truman came to a convention that was very demoralized. He stepped up to the lectern, and he said about himself and his running mate, "Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make those Republicans like it. Don't you forget that. We'll do that because they're wrong, and we're right, and I'm going to prove that to you in just a few minutes." With those lines and with the speech that followed, Truman was able to communicate a sense that he was up for winning and that this was an election that could be won. It really dispelled the feeling of depression that was in that convention hall, and just in terms of morale, it sent Democrats out of that hall back to all areas of the country, determined that this was a campaign that could be win. And finally, Truman did win it.
In 1952, the Democrats were divided over whom to choose. Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois, had many times said that he didn't want the Democratic nomination that year but was a little bit ambivalent. And he showed that ambivalence in the welcoming address he gave to Democrats in Chicago, giving that speech as governor of Illinois. He gave a speech that was so eloquent that it actually refueled the Stevenson boom. And the result was that Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot.
John Kennedy gave a speech on the final night of the 1960 convention in Los Angeles in the open air Los Angeles forum. He was thought to be very effective, but not so much on television. We nowadays think of Kennedy as this great orator, but in those days people really didn't. He tended to speak too fast, his hands were very choppy, and he also had an accent from Massachusetts that we all remember now, but in 1960, American ears were not very used to. One of the people who watched Kennedy giving his acceptance speech on television was Richard Nixon, his opponent. Nixon thought that Kennedy gave such a bad speech, spoke so fast, with an accent that people couldn't understand, that the best thing that Nixon could do for himself was to join Kennedy in a presidential debate on television, the first in history, because he thought that Kennedy spoke so badly that Nixon would surely win. In retrospect, we now know that perhaps the decisive or one of the decisive factors in this very close election in 1960 in Nixon losing was the fact that Nixon was thought to have lost that first debate on television. Had he not had such a low judgment of Kennedy's acceptance speech, he would not have chosen to debate and he might have become President.
One thing you always look forward to in the acceptance speech on the final night is the nominee trying to resolve a lot of the differences in his party that may have arisen that week, especially over issues in the platform. That happened in 1964. Barry Goldwater, a very conservative Senator from Arizona, was nominated. They thought Goldwater, who was far to the right, would come at least to the center of the Republican Party. He didn't. Instead he said, "I must remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." He then went on to say essentially that people who are not conservatives in the Republican Party should essentially get out. And the result was that Goldwater was defeated by the largest landslide in history, which went for Lyndon Johnson that fall largely because Americans decided that Goldwater was someone who was too divisive and too far to the right, at least in the spectrum of those times, to seriously serve as President.
Herbert Humphrey hoped to use the final night of the convention to unify Democrats after the enormous divisions over Vietnam on the convention floor and in the battle in the streets of Chicago. The problem was that so overpowering were those television images of kids getting their heads beaten by the night sticks of Chicago cops that people did not listen very much to what Humphrey had to say, and he lost an enormous opportunity. In 1972, George McGovern delivered perhaps the best speech of his life. The theme of the speech was "come home America," and the idea was that after a decade of division over the Kennedy assassination in Vietnam, it was time to come home to old American ideals. The problem was that battles among Democrats on the convention floor even on the final night of the convention took such a long time that McGovern did not get to deliver his speech until almost before dawn Eastern Time, and the result was he gave this great speech but the only Americans who heard it in prime time were Americans who lived in Guam.
In 1976, Gerald Ford, nominated for President in his own right by Republicans in Kansas City, gave probably the best speech of his career. The problem was he gave it at the end of a convention that was almost equally divided between Ford and his chief opponent, Ronald Reagan. The result was on the final night Ford gave this great speech, but then there was a big demonstration for Reagan. Ford had to call Reagan down to the platform. And this was fascinating, because Reagan gave what was essentially to be the acceptance speech that he had intended to give if he had been nominated in 1976. And Reagan was such a better speaker than Ford that the address that everyone remembered that evening was not Ford's, the nominee, but Reagan's, and he tended to overshadow the person who had just gotten the Republican's nomination.
LEAH CLAPMAN: And it helped him get the nomination in 1980.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Reagan's speech that evening really set the stage for him to come back and win the new Republican nomination overwhelmingly four years later. Nominees like to use that closing night as a tableau to show that all of their opponents have fallen in line and decided to support the nominee--perhaps none more so than Jimmy Carter renominated for President in New York in 1980. He had been given a big run for his money by Ted Kennedy, in the spring of 1980; Kennedy brought his fight to the convention, did not pull out until that second night at New York. And so the result was that there were a lot of Kennedy delegates on the floor, support Carter wanted for the fall. He wanted that picture on closing night after his speech of himself holding up Kennedy's hand in the air. Kennedy had pulled out, but he was not very happy with Carter and not very enthusiastic about supporting him. He did come to the hall. He did come up on the podium, but he refused to hold Carter's hand in the air, much as Carter tried, and the result was that on all networks you saw this image of Carter almost chasing Kennedy around the podium trying to get him to hold up his arm, and Kennedy politely shaking hands and trying to leave.
LEAH CLAPMAN: Did Carter catch him?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He did not catch him, and the result was there was a dramatic display of Democratic disunity that caused a lot of Kennedy supporters to sit on their hands that fall.
LEAH CLAPMAN: You mention Reagan's speech in 1976 and how it projected him into the 1980 race. There was a similar situation in 1988 when Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton gave a speech that some called the most boring speech in convention history. And he, again, was nominated four years later. How did he overcome that? Do people forget the boring speeches?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas in 1988, was chosen by the nominee, Michael Dukakis, Governor of Massachusetts, to deliver the nominating speech for Dukakis, which is usually considered to be a great honor. There are different stories about what happened next. Bill Clinton says that the Dukakis people gave him this long speech to read that bored the convention; the Dukakis people say that Clinton, not wanting to waste his big opportunity, wrote his own speech, which lasted about a half hour and did not achieve a very enthusiastic reception, so much that Democrats wanted him off the podium by the end of this thing that when Clinton said--it just destroyed his political career on national television. Clinton shrewdly later by appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, playing his saxophone and making fun of his appearance in Atlanta, Americans saw that Clinton had a sense of humor, and that tended to neutralize the damage.
In 1988, George Bush in New Orleans was thought of as not a very good speaker but delivered what, in retrospect, was probably the most powerful speech of his career, remembered, above all, for the statement, "Read my lips." The push to turn around a deficit against Mike Dukakis with 17 points helped to win the election, but that acceptance speech which was considered to be so successfully timed in a way doomed the Bush presidency. Two years later, Bush had to raised taxes. He infuriated conservatives and other Americans who said he made a sacred promise in that speech that he could not keep.
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