As the Democrats gather in Charlotte, Convention Daily takes a look back at five of the most pivotal moments in both parties’ national convention history.
1. Bryan 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 a cross. Bryan got the nomination.
2. The Nominee 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 Depression that he was a different kind of candidate, FDR broke with tradition and flew there 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.”
3. 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 language. Some disgruntled Southerners later met in Alabama to nominate their own candidate: segregationist Strom Thurmond, who ran as a States Rights Democrat, or Dixiecrat.
4. Veep Shockers. Even as Republicans were nominating 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 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. Democrats have had their share of vice presidential drama, too. But arguably their most shocking moment came in 1956, when nominee Adlai Stevenson let delegates select his running mate for him. (They chose Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.)
5. A Star Is Born. The hero of the 2004 Democratic National Convention was little-known Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. With one address, he catapulted himself to the rank of contender for the next cycle, 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.
This article appears in the September 3, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.