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Memorable convention speeches

From William Jennings Bryan to FDR to Adlai Stevenson to Barack Obama — anchor Jeff Greenfield takes a look at the convention speeches that propelled some politicians into the limelight, and some even to their party’s nomination.

Finally, consider: what’s the most powerful, influential form of communication flowing from national conventions? TV? Print? (as we used to call it)? Blogs? Tweets? Livestreams?

For me, the answer is the same as it ever was: the oldest form of communication: the speech. Again and again, as a look back at conventions past shows, it has been the speech that has given us memorable moments—and even Presidential candidates.


At the Democratic convention in Chicago, in 1896, a former Congressman, 36 year old William Jennings Bryan, rises to attack the gold standard in Biblical terms:

“You shall not press down on labor this crown of thorns—you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

The speech so galvanized the convention that Bryan winds up winning the first of his three Presidential nominations.

{1932}—footage of FDR getting on airplane to fly to Chicago

In Chicago in 1932—FDR breaks with tradition and flies to Chicago—a first in itself—to accept the nomination. The gesture—and the speech—mark something new in politics:

{‘I pledge to you..a New Deal for the American people!”}


In 1948, President Harry Truman gives a middle-of-the-night acceptance speech that persuades gloomy Democrats that he just might have a chance to win:

{Senator Barkley and I will win this election, and make the Republicans like it!”—quote approximate}

{shot of Truman holding up “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN on election night}

And, much to the shock of just about everyone, he did.


And four years later, it was a welcoming speech by Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson that led to his surprise nomination for President—the first of his two.


Ancient history? Well, just eight years ago an unknown state Senator from Illinois spoke to the Democratic convention. You might recognize him:

{OBAMA: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.

“Four years later, he was accepting the nomination.

{Back to Greenfield o.c.}

There’s one more fascinating note about such speeches—not exactly encouraging about how politicians once regarded their audiences—us—and how they might regard us now. Listen to this excerpt from John Kennedy’s 1960 speech—where’s he’s tweaking Richard Nixon by comparing him to other Richards as an unworthy successor:

“For just as historians tell us that Richard the First was not fit to fill the shoes of the bold Henry the Second, and that Richard Cromwell was not fit to wear the mantle of his uncle, they might add in future years that Richard Nixon did not measure up to the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

{O.C close}

Can you imagine a Presidential nominee today trusting in his audience to understand these references to British history from the 12th and 17th centuries? I can almost hear his media advisors saying: “If you want to mention a Richard, try Little Richard.”