Actually, up until 1932 it wasn’t accepted practice for a nominee to even appear at a convention to accept in person. Instead, after the votes were counted, a delegation would travel to the candidate’s hometown to notify him. This, for example, was the case with Republican Warren Harding, who accepted the nod in 1920 on his front porch.
Franklin D. Roosevelt changed all that. He broke with tradition and flew from New York to Chicago in 1932. The next time he was nominated (1936), he told that audience about America’s “rendezvous with destiny.” But that was only after some high drama. As he approached the podium that night, one of his leg braces broke and the polio-stricken president fell to the floor as thousands watched in horrified silence. But not a single flashbulb burst – nor did the radio audience hear about it. It was a different world, one without cellphone cameras, bloggers, YouTube or TMZ.
John F. Kennedy accepted the 1960 Democratic nomination speaking at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. What is seldom noted these days, however, is that the speech didn’t play well on television. JFK would make up for that with a better tube moment a few months later.
Very few remember what Lyndon Johnson had to say in Atlantic City as he accepted his party’s nomination in 1964. But Robert Kennedy’s moment, complete with a twenty-two minute ovation, has not been forgotten. And RFK’s contempt for his brother’s successor could not be completely disguised, in spite of the surface appearance of party unity. He shared a quote from Romeo and Juliet that referenced the “garish sun.” Some, including LBJ, saw this as a thinly veiled reference to the president.
Though he won re-nomination in 1980, Jimmy Carter came in second to Ted Kennedy on the rhetoric meter at that year’s Democratic convention. Not only did the seriously flawed heir of all things Camelot outshine Carter on the platform, he wouldn’t do that thing all good losers are supposed to do—he almost comically avoided joining hands with the President and raising arms in victory. As Jimmy chased the senator all around the stage, Teddy did the old stay-away-from-Jimmy shuffle.
Mr. Carter’s performance was so bad that night that he botched what should have been a great applause line. Democratic icon Hubert Humphrey had died a couple of years earlier and Jimmy wanted to say something gracious about the former vice president. But he butchered the line, calling the late liberal “Hubert Horatio Hornblower…er…Humphrey.”
Perhaps Mitt Romney would do well to examine a couple of great acceptance speeches delivered by men who were not known for their oratory and had been given little chance of ultimate victory.
In the summer of 1976, Gerald Ford, who had assumed the presidency upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, was nearly thirty percentage points behind Jimmy Carter in many polls. He was not a great speaker; nor was he known for his quick wit. But he managed to pull off the greatest speech of his career at just the right time.
Ford practiced the speech on videotape. He watched the video over and over again - even up to the beginning of the nomination roll call. The reviews were nearly universally favorable with Time Magazine calling the address “the best of his presidency and perhaps of his career.” Though he would lose to Mr. Carter in November, his convention appearance sparked a surge that moved him to within striking distance.
The gold standard, however, for come-from-behind acceptance speeches, not to mention campaigns, has to be that of Harry S. Truman in 1948. By the time of the convention, he was being dismissed as irrelevant and the election of Thomas Dewey of New York was widely considered to be inevitable.
Even Bess Truman didn’t think her husband could win.
The party was divided several ways, the Republicans had won big in the off-year elections two years earlier, and Truman didn’t seem to inspire anyone. The Democrats gathered in Philadelphia where the Republicans had met three weeks earlier. The city of brotherly love was strategically located along the path of a new coaxial cable, thus conducive to television coverage.
Something happened to the Man from Missouri the night he addressed a fractious convention and weary television viewers. He reached down deep into himself conjured a spark that would soon become a flame. The great Methodist preacher, John Wesley, once revealed the secret to his success as a speaker: “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” That’s what Mr. Truman did that night – and for the rest of the campaign.
His nomination wasn’t secured until 1:48 a.m. and some wanted him to wait a day to deliver the speech. But Harry was ready and didn’t want to delay at all. The convention hall was overheated and the convention agenda far behind schedule – yet he was able to maintain his edge and couldn’t wait to come out fighting.
Then, just as he was ready to come to the platform and during Sam Rayburn’s introduction, a woman carrying a large Liberty Bell made of flowers seized the microphone. She had a point to make. The flowers were accompanied by four dozen “doves of peace”—and she set them free. The birds went crazy. One publication reported that, “the dignitaries on the platform cringed and shrank away like troops before a strafing attack.” That was a tough act to follow, but Mr. Truman ignored the distractions, as well as the problems in his party, and gave the speech of his life.
Aides had recently noticed a tremendous difference in how their boss connected with audiences when he departed from a prepared text. It set him free and, as one biographer said, “he was suddenly a very interesting man of great candor who discussed the problems of American leadership with men as neighbors.” About forty percent of Truman’s words that morning were actually written in his notes. It was a technique he would further develop to perfection during his whistle-stop campaign that fall.
It is doubtful that Mr. Romney will stray far, if at all, from the teleprompter, but this will be his moment to seize or squander—stay tuned.
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