10 Most Memorable TV Moments From Presidential Conventions

Well, it looks as if those of us who’d so ardently hoped for a “contested convention” this summer will be denied again.  And if this wasn’t the year that a party convention ended up choosing the presidential candidate, then maybe we should come to grips with the fact that it’s just not going to happen again in our lifetimes.

But that doesn’t mean these quadrennial events won’t provide good television.  Some of the most exciting television moments have occurred at a presidential nominating convention.  Here are my nominations for the 10 most memorable:

1. Riots in Chicago (Dem 1968) – With the country in shock over the Kennedy and King assassinations and the party convulsed over the Vietnam War, the Democrats met in Chicago to nominate Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey.  The result: The Chicago police beat up anti-war demonstrators as a civil war broke out inside the convention.  The footage is still shocking.



2. Reagan speech (GOP 1976) – The 1976 Republican convention was the last real contested convention, with Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford nearly tied heading into the voting.  As the sitting president, Ford prevailed, and in a gesture of unity, invited Reagan to the podium. For most party regulars, who had, in this pre-Internet, pre-cable era, never heard Reagan speak, this emotional oration generated significant buyers’ remorse, as they realized they’d backed the wrong horse. Four years later they nominated Reagan, and he went on to be elected.  

3. First Obama speech (Dem 2004) – Barack Obama was a little-known Illinois state legislator when he delivered an electrifying keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, the one that nominated John Kerry.  This speech, with its message of hope and inclusion, eventually powered Obama’s own drive to become President just four years later.   

4. Cuomo and Jackson excoriate Reagan (Dem 1984) – With Ronald Reagan riding high in 1984, two of the most gifted orators of the 20th Century -- Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson -- rose to assail him as heartless and too beholden to the rich.  Throughout history, most of the most memorable convention speeches have been delivered for losing causes, as was the case that year, but Cuomo laid the groundwork for “Occupy” rhetoric 27 years later, while Jackson inspired the Rainbow Coalition that ultimately elected Barack Obama.       

5. Clint Eastwood interviews a chair (GOP 2012) – In 2012 the Romney campaign was so eager for any hint of star power that they didn’t insist that Clint Eastwood clear his convention remarks beforehand.  Instead of a standard convention speech, though, what they got was a bizarre piece of performance art in which Eastwood used the rhetorical device of asking questions to someone who wasn’t there (in this case, President Obama). Nice try, Clint. Stick to acting.

6. Reagan picks Bush as VP (GOP 1980) – The choice of a Vice President isn’t usually very exciting, unless it mobilizes part of the base, as it did with Geraldine Ferraro (1984) or Sarah Palin (2008).  But in 1980, there were serious discussions about Ronald Regan choosing former President Gerry Ford as his VP.  That seemed to be the operating assumption until suddenly it wasn’t, to the shock of Walter Cronkite and Leslie Stahl.  

7. Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the “San Francisco Democrats” (GOP 1984) – Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador was a former Democrat and university professor, and her foreign address in 1984 was little more than a lecture on the evils of Communism.  Denouncing the “San Francisco Democrats” who were prone to “blame America first,” she managed to rouse the GOP convention through the sheer power of her analysis.    

8. Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech (GOP 1964) – Goldwater was the Donald Trump of his day, considered too erratic and extreme to be allowed anyway near the nuclear codes.  Like Trump, Goldwater doubled down, and to the howls of the convention, declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” He then went on to receive 38% of the popular vote.   

9. The Al and Tipper Gore lip lock (Dem 2000) – What do you do when you are perceived as a nerd and a stiff?  If you’re Al Gore, you go on national television and give your wife a long and ostensibly passionate kiss right after being nominated for president.  Ick. 

10. Sarah Palin’s “Lipstick” speech (GOP 2008) -- Before there was the Tea Party and its disdain of intellectualism and elites, there was Sarah Palin.  What is forgotten now is how she revived the moribund McCain campaign and injected energy into his convention.  The speech itself, obviously not written by Palin, blistered Barack Obama with disdain while presenting herself as a just-folks representative of traditional America.   (“You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”) 

As she spoke, the camera focused on her family: her pregnant teenage daughter Bristol and Bristol’s “fiancé,” her infant daughter with Down Syndrome being cradled by another daughter, and her military son about to be deployed. This was one of the first acknowledgments that political families need not be perfect.

Will something bizarre and exciting happen at the conventions this year?  My money is on the Trump coronation, with riots in the streets and the possibility of Trump extemporizing the biggest speech of his life.  But then again, who knows how the Sanders supporters will react at the Democratic convention?  Either way, it will be worth tuning in to see history made again.

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