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.
7) The rockets’ red glare. Democrats, 1980. It’s a pretty bad convention when they can’t even script the national anthem properly. But that was New York for Carter. Democrats asked one of the president’s best-known backers, Willie Nelson, to open the convention. But, as the nation watched, Nelson forgot the words. First, he left out the “rockets’ red glare” section. Then he ended the anthem much earlier than it should have ended. The producers tried to claim that Willie just wanted to drop the violence (“bombs bursting”). But he later told Rolling Stone, “The teleprompter wasn’t rolling at the same speed that I was.”
8) Where are the balloons? Democrats, 1980 and 2004. At two conventions, Democrats have bungled the balloon drop. First, there was 1980, where the balloons dribbled down one at a time. But, more colorfully, there was 2004, when the whole country heard convention producer Rob Mischer react angrily when the balloons failed to drop on cue after Sen. John Kerry’s acceptance address in Boston. “Go balloons. Go balloons. More balloons. All balloons. All balloons. C’mon, guys, let’s move it. We need more balloons,” Mischer ordered, unaware that CNN was broadcasting his orders live. Finally, in exasperation, he barked, “What happened to the balloons? What the f--- are you guys doing up there?” Not the message the Democrats wanted. Needless to say, CNN apologized for eavesdropping.
9) “Ohio passes.” Democrats, 1972. Back in the days when roll-call votes mattered and the outcomes on procedural votes affected the nomination, the folks who spoke for state delegations became known to the public. But, unfortunately for him, Frank King, the president of the Ohio AFL-CIO became famous for his befuddlement. Then, as now, Ohio was a key state. But every time it was Ohio’s turn to vote at the Miami Beach convention, a confused-looking King came to the microphone and, over and over again, intoned, “Ohio passes.” It became the iconic slogan of a badly run convention that communicated this party did not have its act together.
10) A McGovern-Mao ticket? Democrats, 1972. The Democrats were less interested in scripting in 1972 than in letting everybody have their say. But they started liking the idea a lot better when the nomination of a vice president dragged on and on, with multiple speeches and 70 candidates getting votes. Archie Bunker got a vote. Chinese leader Mao Zedong got a vote. And the presidential nominee finally started his acceptance speech at 3 a.m.—another sign that this party was not ready for prime time.
This article appears in the September 6, 2012 edition of NJ Convention Daily.