A messy struggle between nominee-to-be Michael Dukakis and his chief rival, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, over the direction of the party threatened to dominate the Atlanta convention. But the two men reached a détente hours before the opening gavel. Here’s what some participants interviewed by National Journal over the past 12 years remember about Atlanta. Edited excerpts follow.
The high was when the speech was over, and the low was when the speech was over. One was great exhilaration, and then the other was the total depletion of energy that you feel after that.
Walking out on the podium, looking at that enormous sea of delegates and knowing that I had to produce—I can still conjure that vision.
It was more, not what it looked like but what it felt like. What it felt like was one of the most daunting things I had ever undertaken.
I know that there were pieces of that speech that were memorable—the vision of talking about my granddaughter and what my involvement in politics really means. It isn’t so much about us, but it is about the generations that follow us. I loved the Ginger Rogers line—“If you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels”—because I wanted to say out loud that it was notable that only two women in 160 years had had this opportunity to be a keynote speaker and to put out there that something is askew and that we have had to work harder.
Certainly the line, “George Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth” is now part of the political history. It was a great line. Like all good lines, they’re only good if they hit the target. If it plugs into what the listener already thinks,
then it is a really good line, and that was true in this case.
Political conventions are avaricious, and they gobble talent and they feed on notoriety. All of it is very much a blur.
I was on the podium in the Omni. The fire marshals had already shut us down three or four times during the week. Bill Clinton had just started speaking, and I got a message that said these members of Congress, including Ted Kennedy, are locked out, and a 20-year-old kid wouldn’t let them in, Ted Kennedy be damned. I hustled down there and had to take a Secret Service guy with me. Most people, when they know what the circumstance is, don’t get bent out of shape about it.
So we got everybody in, and I got back up to the podium. By that time, the allotted 15 minutes was just about over, and under the rules, each person being nominated has 15 minutes to divide up any way they wanted. Fifteen minutes became 17 and 18, and we got one of the little pages to sort of crawl out and give him a message—time’s up. He kept going and going. So we got one guy to go out and pull on his pants leg.
As I remember, [Convention Executive Producer] Gary Smith called and said, “He’s over time.” I said, “I know, Gary.” He said something like, “Give him a notice.” I said, “We’ve done that.” He called back and said, “Is he ever going to stop?” I said, “I don’t know.” At one point in wringing our hands over how long Clinton was going on, [House Speaker] Jim Wright said, “If we had a shepherd’s hook, we could reach out there and jerk him back.” It was probably more colorful language than that.
The speech went on for something like 32 minutes. There was no great harm done, but the roll call is the second-most-popular event at the convention, the first-most being the acceptance speech. And that knocked the roll call deeper into the night, and I think some of the stations cut us off before the roll call was completed.
Dukakis floor manager
We wanted to orchestrate the roll call so that California would put Dukakis over the top. Our narrative for the night was that just as California put Dukakis over the top in the primaries, it would put him over the top for the nomination. Orchestrating that to happen required a lot of coordination with our forces on the floor. We had to figure out exactly what states we would move in the roll call to get California to put him over the top. We had to make sure the right states passed.
Early on, one or two states that we weren’t expecting to pass passed. So we called around on the floor. Some states wouldn’t pass. We had to do some jockeying. There was a lot of communication between the [command] trailer and the whips on the floor. We called New Jersey. They were reluctant to pass. We got through to our friends in Wisconsin. The head of that delegation thankfully agreed to pass. Marty Plissner was the political director for CBS News. He called me and said, “Do you realize that American Samoa is going to put Dukakis over the top?” Well, we made sure California had the honors instead of American Samoa.
On Tuesday night, we gave Jesse Jackson the floor. We made sure he had a great night. His signs were red. We had a sea of red out there for him on Tuesday night. But then on Wednesday night we wanted to have a Dukakis night. Unbeknownst to me, we had both red and blue Dukakis signs. In the trailer, we had three network televisions set up. I remember watching the televisions and seeing that half the signs were red and half the signs were blue, and thinking that people at home might think that half of the signs were Dukakis signs and half were Jackson signs, that we were divided at the convention. I had to bark out orders to our whip operation to get all the red signs down and all the blue signs up and to get some more blue signs out. Within a matter of two or three minutes, we completely transformed the floor of the convention so it was a sea of blue, so it was a Dukakis night.
When then-Governor Bill Clinton gave his Monday night speech, and he kept going on and on and on, we started getting into trouble. We had to hustle. Unfortunately for me, there was a Newsweek reporter in the trailer when I started to bark out orders to shut him down. The reporter put it in Newsweek. Unfortunately for me, the guy I was barking out orders against was the next [Democratic] president of the United States.
I remember looking across at the Massachusetts delegation. It was kind of like the story of my life—just looking at people who had been with me from the time I was a young state representative and had campaigned so hard at the grassroots, and suddenly here we are.
What a nominating speech gives you, ideally, is an opportunity to really lay
out why you’re there, why you want to be president, your vision of this country and where it’s going—and I think that was probably one of the best speeches I ever delivered.
The guy that nominated me used to kid around about his speech. Bill Clinton nominated me. I mean, he showed us his speech, and we thought it was fine. It turned out to be quite long, and the troops were getting very, very restless.
In the fall of ’91 when he announced that he was running, I think he was on Johnny Carson, and Carson said, “Why are you running?” Clinton said, “I want
to finish my speech for Dukakis.”
Certainly at that moment in time, I think all of us felt terrific. We were unified. My great regret is that it could and should have been the springboard to a very successful campaign. Unfortunately, the lesson of ’88 is: If the other guy is going to come after you with an attack campaign, you’ve got to be ready. You just can’t blow it off, as I tried to do. And nobody will ever, ever make that mistake again.
This article appears in the September 4, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.