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The Convention Speeches that Changed America

Sometimes, of course, these speeches are misleading: George H.W. Bush’s speech in 1988 offered eloquence seldom heard before or after from the famously inarticulate candidate. And all the stagecraft can create its own diversion: CBS’s Lesley Stahl remembers that in 1988 in Atlanta, “When Michael Dukakis was introduced onto the floor—was that the music from Rocky?—I thought: He cannot lose.” (Spoiler alert: He did.)

The more intriguing role of speeches in history, though—and the part that could really mark a loss this year—has come during the convention, in moments from other speakers, often up-and-comers, that have radically altered a party’s destiny.

These moments go way back. In 1896, the Democrats were divided over whether dollars would be backed by gold or silver. This seeming detail of monetary policy was really shorthand for a bigger argument between America’s creditors and debtors, between Eastern financial interests and the farmers of the Middle West. A former congressman from Nebraska, 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan, spoke for the free silver movement of the Westerners with a speech that thundered: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” (He recorded the speech for Thomas Edison a dozen years later).

The speech was so powerful that the convention nominated the young Bryan that year for president, and nominated him twice more in years to come. It also infused the party with a populist message that has remained a significant element ever since.

In 1924, Franklin D. Roosevelt painfully made his way to the podium at Madison Square Garden to nominate Al Smith, “The happy warrior,” for president. Smith lost the nomination that year, and lost the presidential race four years later—but for Roosevelt, and for America, it was a pivotal moment. It marked the return to political life of the party’s 1920 vice presidential nominee, whose career had seemed doomed after polio left him without the use of his legs.

In 1948, when platforms still mattered, Democrats adopted a strong civil rights plank after a speech by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, who argued that it was time for the party “to move out of the shadow of states’ rights, into the bright sunshine of human rights.” (The speech is online here.) Back then such a stand marked a breaking point: After the plank was passed, with Humphrey’s speech providing strong momentum, dozens of Southern delegates walked out and formed a States’ Rights Democratic Party—the Dixiecrats—led by South Carolina Governor and future Senator Strom Thurmond. It marked the end of the “solid South” that had voted almost unanimously for Democratic candidates from 1868 to 1944; in the decades since, the South would reliably deliver thumping electoral majorities to the GOP.

It doesn’t take a platform fight for a speech to be powerfully influential. In 1952, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson welcomed the delegates to Chicago as host governor. He was at his rhetorical best. (“What counts now is not just what we are against, but what we are for. Who leads us is less important than what leads us—what convictions, what courage, what faith—win or lose.”). So when he finally agreed to the urging of President Harry S. Truman and Chicago boss Jake Arvey to permit himself to be drafted, the delegates were in a receptive mood to support the previously obscure governor. Stevenson won the nomination on the third ballot, the last time any Presidential contest has gone past a first ballot.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan gave a speech after President Ford’s acceptance address, the first time a defeated primary candidate had followed the victor. He spoke of future generations, and asked: “Will they look back with appreciation and say, ‘Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom? Who kept us now a hundred years later free? Who kept our world from nuclear destruction?’”

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