Actor Clint Eastwood’s rambling dialogue with an empty chair last week was that rarest of occurrences at the modern political convention—an unscripted moment. It is, of course, not the first in the long history of major-party conventions.
But it is the first in a very long time. And if there is one thing certain about this week’s gathering of Democrats in Charlotte, it is that President Obama’s team will do everything possible to prevent one from happening on its watch.
Here is a handful of those moments that have surprised convention producers in recent decades.
1) Dueling first ladies. Republicans, 1976. This was the last convention where the nomination was still in doubt. When delegates arrived in Kansas City, Mo., President Ford had only 14 delegates more than the 1,130 needed for the nomination and Ronald Reagan had 1,041. Passions were running high when Nancy Reagan entered the hall, triggering an eruption of cheers from Reagan supporters. Then first lady Betty Ford came in. For 10 minutes, Ford delegates cheered and Reagan delegates tried to drown them out with boos, one waving a sign stating “Dump Betty’s Puppet.” The “war of the queens” had been no secret during the campaign: Nancy did not really like Betty and resented efforts to portray her as the new model of a political wife. But convention organizers were embarrassed to have the spat play out in front of the national TV audience.
2) “Gestapo” and Hizzoner. Democrats, 1968. Convention organizers thought they knew what Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut was going to say when he took to the stage in Chicago. But Ribicoff was so angry at what he had seen outside the hall as police battled antiwar protesters that instead of giving his prepared nomination speech, he took aim at Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was on the floor just below the podium. “If George McGovern were president, we would not have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” he snarled. Infuriated, the mayor slashed a finger across his neck and shouted words that the microphones did not pick up. But no viewer had any doubt that Daley had used America’s favorite four-letter word. It was not the message Democrats had planned.
3) Singling out the last nominee. Republicans, 1952. It was becoming clear that Dwight Eisenhower was going to eke out a victory over Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio at the convention in Chicago. The biggest GOP worry was how to reconcile Taft’s conservative wing of the party with Ike’s Eastern establishment wing. All speakers were urged to avoid exacerbating the split. But Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois had other ideas. He still thought Taft could win. Arguing for the seating of a Georgia delegation pledged to Taft, Dirksen singled out for scorn one of Eisenhower’s most prominent backers. Wagging his finger accusingly at Thomas Dewey, the unsuccessful nominee in 1944 and 1948, Dirksen said, “We followed you before. And you took us down the road to defeat. And don’t do this to us.” Dirksen lost the fight over Georgia, and his fiery speech made it much harder to unite the party behind Ike.
4) Facts are what? Republicans, 1988. President Reagan rightfully earned his reputation as the Great Communicator. But even he could stumble in trying to scale the oratorical heights. In 1988, in his farewell address as president to the convention in New Orleans, Reagan was rattling off favorable economic statistics that he thought argued for a Republican victory. Finally, with a flourish, he concluded, “Facts are stupid things.” Catching himself, he corrected the quote to “stubborn things.”
5) Hubert who? Democrats, 1980. Not much went right for President Carter in 1980 in New York. His primary opponent stole the show with a great speech. And even after Carter defeated Sen. Edward Kennedy and rose to give his acceptance speech, he couldn’t even manage to get the names of the party’s icons right. He did OK with Roosevelt and Kennedy and Truman and Johnson. But then he faltered when talking about “a great man who should have been president”—“Hubert Horatio Hornblower.” The president had mixed up C.S. Forester’s Royal Navy hero, Horatio Hornblower, with the real life and beloved Democrat Hubert Horatio Humphrey. An embarrassing misstep by an incumbent headed to defeat.
6) The long chase. Democrats, 1980. Unfortunately for Carter, another unscripted embarrassment unfolded in New York. He had his victory over Kennedy, but he wanted the traditional signal from the defeated candidate to his backers; He wanted Kennedy to join him on stage so the two men could join and raise their arms for the country to see. But as the band kept playing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Kennedy would not come to the stage. As Roger Mudd later wrote, “Kennedy did finally arrive at Madison Square Garden. He gave Carter a perfunctory handshake and then seemed to turn his back on the president, skirting around the edges of the podium as party officials tried to arrange a victory photograph.” Rarely has a president seemed more a supplicant than that night.
This article appears in the September 6, 2012 edition of NJ Convention Daily.