As the GOP gathers in Tampa and Democrats gear up for Charlotte, National Journal takes a look back at five of the most pivotal moments in the parties’ national convention history.
1. Bryan’s Speech Strikes Gold. William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago cemented his place in high school history books and ranks among the most memorable convention speeches of all time. Bryan favored taking the U.S. dollar off the gold standard and pegging it to the price of silver; weakening the dollar, he believed, would improve economic conditions for farmers and the poor. “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” Bryan cried, and stretched out his arms like a man on the cross. The crowd went wild, and Bryan got the party nomination. These days, the parties aren’t planning any convention fights over currency valuation — although a return to the gold standard has long been advocated by perennial Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
2. The Nominee Actually Shows Up. In 1932, it took hours of late-night balloting for New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt to clinch the presidential nomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Wanting to show a nation gripped by the Great Depression that he was a different kind of candidate, FDR broke with tradition and flew there from Albany to accept the nomination in person. “The appearance before a national convention of its nominee for president, to be formally notified of his selection, is unprecedented and unusual, but these are unprecedented and unusual times,” Roosevelt said. “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people,” FDR promised delegates, using a phrase foreshadowing would become his biggest legislative achievement.
3. The Democrats Adopt Civil Rights. The 1948 Democratic National Convention marked a post-Civil War turning point for the party. “There are those who say to you we are rushing this issue of civil rights. I say we are 172 years late,” then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey told delegates, arguing for the inclusion of a civil-rights plank in the party platform. Southern Democrats stormed out to protest the new civil-rights language. Some disgruntled Southerners later met in Alabama to nominate their own candidate: staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond, who ran as a States Rights Democrat, also known as a ‘Dixiecrat.’
4. Vice-Presidential Shockers. Even as Republicans were nominating California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1980 at their national convention in Detroit, a drama was playing out on television and behind the scenes: Would Reagan tap former President Gerald Ford as his running mate, creating an unprecedented “copresidency?” Very late at night, the deal to do just that fell apart, and Reagan turned to his top rival for the nomination, George H.W. Bush. He then thrilled the delegates by going to the convention hall to announce his pick of Bush. Democrats have had their share of vice-presidential selection drama, too. But arguably their most shocking moment came in 1956, when nominee Adlai Stevenson let convention delegates choose his running mate for him. (They chose Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.)
5. Obama Shoots to Stardom. The star of the 2004 Democratic national Convention wasn’t nominee John Kerry: it was little-known Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. With one address, Obama was catapulted to political stardom, propelled by his message of hope and post-racial unity. Four years later, Obama was back on a national convention stage speaking as the first African-American nominee for president of the United States from a major party. When Obama delivers his Charlotte convention speech in 2012, he’ll have a tough act to follow and will face a more challenging context. Rather than speaking as a fresh-faced newcomer, Obama will be speaking as an incumbent who has lived through a grueling 3½ years in office and whose reelection race against Republican Mitt Romney has become increasingly nasty.
George E. Condon Jr. contributed
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