Why you should care
Because it takes a special — even gifted — person to toast himself at someone else’s party.
Learn more about Barack Obama’s and Pat Buchanan’s candidacies by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.
As we learned again from Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump at this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, it’s important to remember one of the cardinal rules of convention speechmaking: Toast your party’s candidate.
One of the beautiful things about politics, however, as OZY explores in The Contenders: 16 for ’16 Tuesday night at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, is that no politician worth his salt is going to step onto a stage before a television audience in the tens of millions without also championing his own cause. The trick is getting away with it: to trumpet your own personal accomplishments and appeal while lauding the nominee’s — and to do so without coming across as a humble braggart or a disloyal party soldier. Of course, not every convention speaker — including some of the most seasoned political orators — can pull it off. Here’s a quick look at some of the most self-advancing convention speeches, and how well they went over.
A truly phenomenal speech can make us overlook a speaker’s self-serving purposes.
It’s been only four years, but many are still waiting for Chris Christie’s 2012 keynote speech to mention that year’s GOP nominee, Mitt Romney. It took the New Jersey governor 16 minutes of telling his biography and promoting his record before he got around to talking about Romney. Add to that his pre-speech threat to drop an F-bomb on live television if his three-minute introductory video was cut for time, and you can understand some of the caustic reactions his performance engendered. “This speech … was one of the most remarkable acts of political selfishness I have ever seen,” observed MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace agreed, calling it “the most curious keynote speech I have ever heard. … For a moment, I forgot who was the nominee of the party.”
Touted, like Christie, as a rising star in his party, 41-year-old Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s 1988 nominating speech for Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis similarly crashed and burned. Clinton deftly praised his friend and fellow governor (a guy “so clean he squeaks when he walks”) early on, but then fell into a self-indulgent oratorical morass when his speech, scheduled for 20 minutes, carried on for 33 minutes, as he ignored flashing red lights and shouts of “Wrap it up!” from the convention floor. “We’re going to be here; we have to be here,” NBC anchor Tom Brokaw lamented to viewers, “until this whole proceeding is over.” Clinton garnered his biggest applause of the evening when he said “in closing” near the end. “It was a real dud of a speech,” says Northeastern University professor Daniel Urman, “but Clinton was so smart about the fallout.” When the future president later appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the host asked him “How are you?” before turning over an hourglass.
Sometimes it is not the speaker who takes the greatest hit from a poorly received or off-message speech. Pat Buchanan’s 1992 “culture war speech” rocked the GOP convention hall; it was a diatribe against the Democratic Party that electrified conservatives with gems like the claim that Clinton’s foreign policy experience was “pretty much confined to having had breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes.” The speech praised GOP nominee George H.W. Bush, but its divisive message was far more about achieving Buchanan’s political ends than Bush’s, and it alienated many moderates in the party. As Republican Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar put it afterward: “You don’t have to be nasty to be conservative.”
Similarly, New York governor Mario Cuomo’s 1984 keynote speech dazzled convention attendees with its damning portrayal of Ronald Reagan’s America, but it arguably did a lot more to bolster Cuomo’s profile than the election chances of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale — whom Cuomo failed to mention in his speech. No one really seemed to notice, though, and it just goes to show that a truly phenomenal speech can make us overlook a speaker’s self-serving purposes.
Finally, look no further than Barack Obama’s 2004 convention keynote, a speech that helped launch the young politico from Illinois state senator to presidential nominee in just four years. The novelty of Obama’s personal story, and the eloquence with which he told it, makes it easy to forget how much better it was at advancing his own trajectory than that of Democratic nominee John Kerry, whose name was not uttered until eight minutes into a 17-minute speech.
The moral of these convention tales? If you’re going to endorse yourself as a (future) candidate, make sure you do a damn good job. But for those speakers who miss the mark, serving up a Christie- or Clinton-esque flop, the fallout will likely be short-lived. As Urman puts it, “Convention speeches can make you, but they don’t really break you.”