Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

In convention speeches, history is made

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
August 20, 2012 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
After losing the nomination to Gerald Ford, left, Ronald Reagan delivered an impromptu speech at the 1976 GOP convention.
After losing the nomination to Gerald Ford, left, Ronald Reagan delivered an impromptu speech at the 1976 GOP convention.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Speeches are the highlight of each party's political convention, says Julian Zelizer
  • Some speeches put forth ideas that shape the next generation of candidates, he says
  • Others eviscerate the opposition, permanently defining candidates and parties, he says
  • Zelizer: Some speeches inspire, others make instant stars, and others flop resoundingly

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Now the party is really starting. Democrats and Republicans are preparing to gather to hold their conventions, each using this precious time to tell the nation what its presidential candidate is all about.

Republicans are hoping that Gov. Chris Christie can tear down the Democrats, New Jersey style, in his keynote address, and that Condoleezza Rice can add some foreign policy heft to a ticket remarkably thin on international affairs. Democrats are depending on former President Bill Clinton to tap into the rhetoric he used against Republicans in the budget battles of 1995 to cut into Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's vision for Medicare. They hope that San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the keynote speaker, can send a message to Latinos about which party is on their side.

Without any more deal-making in smoke-filled rooms, speeches are the highlight of the convention. Even when speeches are made at conventions whose candidate winds up losing, they can offer ideas and rhetoric that become integral to the party for decades to come. A look back at history reveals that there are different types of speeches that we might see in the coming weeks, each with very different purposes and effect.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Ideological Agenda-Setters: There are some speeches that are notable because they lay out a set of principles for the party to embrace in the coming election and thereafter. As opposed to focusing on the particularities of a specific campaign, these speeches put forth ideas that shape the next generation of candidates.

In 1948, the Minnesota candidate for senator, Hubert Humphrey, delivered a thunderous address in which he called on Southern Democrats to embrace the cause of civil rights or leave the party. "To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement of states' rights," Humphrey said, "I say this: The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." The speech put the party on the side of racial liberalism and accelerated the path toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The same year that Congress passed the civil rights legislation, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater gave his most famous address, when he told Republicans to embrace conservatism and avoid the lure of centrism. He ardently defended a right-wing agenda. Even though Goldwater lost the presidential election, the speech signaled the future of the party.

In 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy, who lost the nomination to President Jimmy Carter, energized delegates by talking about the party's traditions and defense of the common man. "Our commitment has been, since the days of Andrew Jackson, to all those he called 'the humble members of society -- the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.' On this foundation we have defined our values, refined our policies, and refreshed our faith." He warned against the creeping conservatism of the Carter administration and reminded the Democrats to stay true to their core values. His rhetoric continues to offer inspiration for Democrats to this day.

Opposition Attacks: Other speeches are effective primarily because they eviscerate the opposition, defining candidates, and defining parties, in ways that stick. When Franklin Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination in 1932, he introduced Americans to his vision of a New Deal -- a program of government assistance that would include help to farmers, workers and small business owners. FDR pushed back against the economic orthodoxies of the time, telling delegates, "Our Republican leaders tell us economic laws --sacred, inviolable, unchangeable -- cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving."

In 1984, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo offered a powerful challenge to President Reagan's argument that it was "morning in America" again, and that the country was a "shining city on a hill." Cuomo distinguished between an economic recovery that benefited the wealthy and one that affected all Americans. "There is despair, Mr. President," Cuomo said, "in the facts that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city."

Cuomo's speech became a powerful narrative for talking about the impact of Republican economic policies. That same year, Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., ripped into the foreign policy of "San Francisco Democrats," castigating her former party, charging, "They always blame America first."

Inspirational: Sometimes speeches are able to inspire delegates. In 1960, John F. Kennedy said that "We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus." For many Americans, this speech was the moment they fell in love with the charismatic senator and started to believe that he could help the country to do great things

The Star is Born: Convention speeches can put politicians on the map. In 1976, Ronald Reagan won the hearts of Republicans, even if he didn't win enough of their votes to become the party's presidential nominee that year. In unplanned remarks, he spoke to them about the need to stand firm against communism so that the country would protect the world from nuclear destruction. At the Democratic convention in 1976, African-American Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas introduced herself and a new generation of African-American politicians. In 2004, Sen. Barack Obama's powerful oratory at the Boston convention, about the need to unify the nation, propelled him onto the national stage.

Coalitional: Like the rest of the campaign, a convention speech can help bring broad coalitions together, outlining points of commonality amid significant difference. In 1980, Ronald Reagan displayed his formidable skills with an acceptance speech that reached out to the conservative base, fiscal conservatives, neoconservative hawks, and centrist voters all in one swoop.

The Flop: Sometimes speeches are so bad they are good. When candidates deliver really poor speeches, they can attract considerable attention and, occasionally, they don't end up sidetracking their careers. In 1988, the rising star Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton delivered a long-winded speech that ended with delegates cheering when he finally said "in conclusion." Although he would later improve his style, going on to win the presidency, the failure of the speech actually gave him even more of the national spotlight.

These are some of the kinds of speeches that we might see in the coming weeks. Each has a very different value and, other than the flop, each can be helpful in energizing the party for the battle that is ahead.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT