Historic moments from past political conventions

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August 18, 2020
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Historic moments from past political conventions

Political conventions can seem like old-timey, corny affairs with silly hats, endless enthusiasm, and no shortage of red, white, and blue balloons and bunting. In fact, they have provided the scenes for substantial dealmaking, strategic maneuvering, fundraising, and a fair share of backstabbing. More than a few careers have begun—and ended—at political conventions.

Conventions have heralded a host of firsts, from the first Black woman to address the floor to the first woman to be nominated for the highest office. Barack Obama made his first significant appearance at a political convention as a young state senator, telling the crowd in Boston that his was an unlikely American story and that his African name meant "blessed."

These forums have given us last looks, as well. A grieving nation paid a tearful tribute to a slain president at a convention in 1964, and venerable figures like Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan made poignant farewells on convention stages.

Conventions have been the gatherings for setting thought-provoking goals and advocating for political change. Jesse Jackson reminded delegates that the nation was a rainbow of citizens, and Mario Cuomo reminded them that the country was like two cities, one shining and rich, the other desperate and poor. The nation's division in 1968 was televised in American homes courtesy of the violence-torn Democratic convention in Chicago. Missteps and gaffes have had their roles to play, from Jimmy Carter's fumbled words to a speech by Melania Trump that raised accusations of plagiarism.

Whether they are meetings of power brokers and big-time donors or expensive infomercials bloated with delegate breakfasts and cocktail parties, conventions are milestones that usher in a frenzied season of politicking ahead of the November general election. Candidates introduce themselves, and campaigns strive for enthusiasm and momentum.

This year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, conventions will be dramatically different affairs, held virtually and thus without the crowds, the cheers, and the pageantry. The Democratic National Convention is set for Aug. 17–20, followed by the Republican National Convention from Aug. 24–27. Some say this could mark a lasting change in conventions, which might not return to former incarnations.

Stacker took a look back at 20 historic moments from the nation's political conventions over the years, consulting academic accounts, news reports, and the memories of those who were there.

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1948: Civil rights divide Democrats

At the Democratic Convention in 1948, where Harry Truman’s name was at the top of the ballot, dozens of delegates from Mississippi and Alabama walked out in opposition to the party’s civil rights platform, which included abolition of state poll taxes, an anti-lynching law, and desegregation of the military. The Southern delegates broke away and founded their own States’ Rights Democratic Party.

[Pictured: Members of the American Communications Association (CIO) set up picket lines in front of the Convention Hall before the 1948 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.]

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1964: A tearful tribute to JFK

Delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention were brought to tears by a moving video tribute to the late President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated less than a year earlier. The tribute was introduced by an emotional Robert Kennedy, then-attorney general, who himself would be slain four years later as he ran for president.

[Pictured: U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy gives a speech on Sept. 2, 1964, at the Democratic National Convention in New York.]

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1964: NBC reporter arrested on air

NBC television reporter John Chancellor was arrested at the Republican National Convention in 1964 in San Francisco. He had refused to leave when efforts were made to clear reporters from the convention floor following the nomination of Barry Goldwater. As he was escorted out by uniformed officers, he famously said on the air: "This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody!"

[Pictured: Crowds outside the Republican National Convention in Cow Palace, following the nomination of right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater,  July 16, 1964, in Daly City, California.]

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1968: Chicago mayor accused of ‘Gestapo tactics’

The 1968 Democratic National Convention was roiled by the hundreds of protestors who were arrested and injured outside on the streets of Chicago. Inside, Connecticut Sen. Abe Ribicoff accused Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of “Gestapo tactics.” The Chicago mayor can be seen, but not heard, angrily shouting and gesturing in response.

[Pictured: Illinois delegates holding a banner promoting Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley on the convention floor of the final day of the 1968 DNC, held at the International Amphitheater in Chicago.]

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1968: Television reporter Dan Rather punched on convention floor

At that same heated 1968 Democratic Convention, CBS television reporter Dan Rather scuffled with security guards on the floor and could be heard saying: "Take your hands off me, unless you're planning to arrest me." Still on air, he was knocked over and punched in the stomach. From the anchor booth, Walter Cronkite called the guards "thugs."

[Pictured: Reporting from the floor, CBS' Dan Rather (left with headset) is shoved by security agents at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.]


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1968: Julian Bond debuts as underage vice presidential pick

The 1968 Democratic Convention was infamously torn apart over issues of civil rights and the Vietnam War, and Julian Bond, a Georgia state legislator, was nominated to be vice president as a protest candidate. At 28 years old, Bond was seven years too young to be eligible. In 1986, Bond was defeated in his bid for a U.S. Congressional seat from Atlanta by John Lewis, a fellow civil rights champion who died in July 2020.

[Pictured: The Democratic Convention approved with unexpected speed a compromise splitting Georgia's votes between an Old Guard slate, and a Redel, biracial group. Here is rebel leader Julian Bond (L), along with other delegates, in Chicago.]

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1976: First Black woman makes keynote address to Democrats

In 1976, Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas became the first Black woman to deliver the keynote address to a Democratic National Convention. In moving words that echo today, she said: “We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community." Two years earlier, she had delivered a compelling statement about impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon before the House Judiciary Committee.

[Pictured: Barbara Jordan waves to the crowd before her keynote speech at the DNC.]

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1980: Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter

At the Democratic National Convention in 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy ended his challenge to unseat President Jimmy Carter, delivering a speech that did not throw wholehearted support to Carter. A fumbling, failed effort at posing the two rivals together with arms raised in unity followed. Kennedy’s performance was seen as taking steam out of Carter's reelection bid, and Republican Ronald Reagan won the White House that November.

[Pictured: President Carter and Sen. Edward Kennedy finally shake hands as Democratic Convention chairman Thomas "Tip" O'Neill and Carter campaign manager Robert Strauss bring them together on the podium at the conclusion of the Democratic Convention in New York.]

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1980: 'Hubert Horatio Hornblower Humphrey'

Jimmy Carter made an unfortunate gaffe at the Democrats’ 1980 convention with the words “Hubert Horatio Hornblower!... Humphrey!” in a tribute to the former vice president and presidential candidate who died in 1978. Carter mixed up the Minnesota politician’s name with the fictional character Horatio Hornblower, a British naval officer in books by C.S. Forester. Making matters worse, his speech was followed by a spectacular failure of the balloons to fall from the convention hall ceiling. Carter was defeated by Republican Ronald Reagan.

[Pictured: President Jimmy Carter at the 1980 DNC at Madison Square Garden in New York City.]

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1984: 'Tale of Two Cities'

In 1984, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered his "Tale of Two Cities" keynote address, taking aim at President Ronald Reagan's description of the nation as "a shining city upon a hill." Cuomo said, "There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city." It was considered one of the best speeches by Cuomo, a skilled orator, and fueled hopes and expectations that he would seek the presidency. Today, his son Andrew Cuomo has built a national, if not global following as governor of New York thanks to his widely viewed news briefings on the state's efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

[Pictured: New York Gov. Mario Cuomo delivers the keynote address to the DNC, July 16, in San Francisco.]

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1984: Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition

Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination with his Rainbow Coalition campaign in 1984, mesmerized the convention with a stirring speech in which he described his constituency as “the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised. They are restless and seek relief.” But in a call for unity, he said, “Even in our fractured state, all of us count, and all of us fit somewhere.”

[Pictured: Jesse Jackson at the 1984 DNC held at Moscone Center in San Francisco.]

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1984: 'My name is Geraldine Ferraro'

The first woman nominated to be the vice presidential candidate of a major U.S. party accepted her honor in 1984 at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco with the opening words, “My name is Geraldine Ferraro,” and the exuberant crowd went wild. “I stand before you to proclaim tonight: America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us,” she said. With many people in tears, the crowd chanted “Gerry! Gerry!” But she and presidential nominee Walter Mondale would lose 49 out of 50 states in the general election that swept President Ronald Reagan into his second term in office.

[Pictured: Geraldine Ferraro, vice-presidential nominee, speaks at the DNC, July 1984.]

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1988: 'Read my lips'

In 1988, George H.W. Bush promised supporters at the Republican National Convention, "Read my lips: no new taxes,” as he tried to paint his opponent Michael Dukakis as a tax-and-spend liberal Democrat. It was a campaign promise Bush failed to keep in office, when he agreed to tax increases including a hike in the personal tax rate ceiling to 31% from 28%.

[Pictured: George H.W. Bush gives a speech at the 1988 Republican Convention.]

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1988: George H.W. Bush and the 'silver foot in his mouth'

Ann Richards, Texas state treasurer and later governor with a famously sharp wit, delighted the audience at the Democratic National Convention in 1988 with her barbs at Republican George H.W. Bush. “Poor George. He can't help it,” she said. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

[Pictured: Ann Richards at the 1988 DNC.]

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1988: Ronald Reagan says goodbye

In 1988, before an emotional crowd, outgoing President Ronald Reagan bid farewell at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, where George H.W. Bush accepted the party's nomination. "I'll leave my phone number and address behind just in case you need a foot soldier," Reagan said as he headed into retirement. Six years later, he released a letter telling the American public he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

[Pictured: President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan waving to crowd as confetti falls on them.]

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2004: A young Barack Obama is noticed

Many Americans were introduced to Barack Obama in 2004 when the state senator from Illinois delivered a riveting keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Calling himself “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too,” he delivered the now-famous line: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America.”

[Pictured: DNC keynote speaker Barack Obama, U.S. Senate candidate for Illinois, is greeted by delegates July 27, 2004, in Boston.]

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2008: The lion’s last roar

In 2008, when Barack Obama was nominated as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Kennedy made his farewell appearance. He had been diagnosed with brain cancer three months earlier. Known as the “Lion of the Senate,” he was surrounded on stage by family, including his children, his nephews, and his nieces, among them Caroline Kennedy, who introduced him.

[Pictured: U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy speaks at the Democratic National Convention at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.]

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2008: Alaska hockey mom joins Republican ticket

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin accepted her nomination to be the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate at the 2008 convention. Chosen to run alongside Sen. John McCain, the largely unknown politician described herself as a small-town “hockey mom.” “You know [what] they say the difference [is] between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” she asked. “Lipstick."

[Pictured: Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. John McCain at the end of McCain's speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.]

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2012: Clint and the empty chair

One of the oddest moments occurred in 2012 at the Republican National Convention when actor and director Clint Eastwood stood on stage next to an empty chair and held what was meant to be an imaginary conversation with President Barack Obama. It made a sensation, but not in the way organizers would have hoped. It seemed nonsensical, and the aging Hollywood star looked dottering talking to an invisible character, but it gave late-night comedians plenty of material.

[Pictured: Actor Clint Eastwood talks to an empty chair during the 2012 Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Aug. 30, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.]

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2016: Melania Trump's familiar-sounding speech

At the Republican convention in 2016 nominating Donald Trump, his wife Melania Trump made a speech—and caused an uproar—with sections taken from a 2008 address by Michelle Obama. "Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them," Trump said. In 2008, Michelle Obama had said: "Because we want our children—and all children in this nation—to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them." A Trump speechwriter later said Melania Trump had cited passages of the earlier speech as inspirational that were inadvertently included in her own.

[Pictured: Melania Trump waves to the crowd after delivering a speech on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 ,at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.]

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