A Brief History of Democratic Convention Keynoters

With his selection as the keynote speaker at this month’s Democratic convention, Mark Warner is stepping into an opportunity to significantly raise his political profile. Traditionally, the keynote slot has served to promote a rising or overlooked star in the party, and the past six keynote speakers all saw their political fortunes improve – sometimes radically – after their turns in the spotlight. They include:

2004

Barack Obama: You know how this one turned out.

2000

Harold Ford, Jr.: Then a 30-year-old from Memphis, Ford was fellow Tennessean Al Gore’s handpicked choice to keynote the Los Angeles convention. Ford has been elected to the House in 1996, succeeding his father, Harold Ford Sr. The younger Ford plainly had (and has) statewide and national ambitions, and his speech provided an ideal platform to project a moderate image somewhat at odds with the politics (strident liberalism) of his predominantly black, Memphis-area district. Ford mulled and ultimately passed on a Senate run in 2002 when Fred Thompson retired and the waged a late-starting, ill-advised and ill-fated leadership challenge to Nancy Pelosi in December ’02. Finally, he gave up his seat to run for the Senate in 2006, very narrowly losing to Republican Bob Corker in an open seat contest. Ford won mostly positive reviews as a candidate and should have another chance to run for statewide office.

1996

Evan Bayh: Then 40, Bayh was completing his second and last term as Indiana’s governor when he keynoted the Chicago convention that renominated Bill Clinton. Because of his pedigree – the son of liberal lion Birch Bayh – and his remarkable success in a deeply Republican state (at such a young age, too), it was already clear that Bayh’s future was bright and that he’d from in the years to come. In that sense, his selection as the keynote speaker merely served as affirmation of what was already known. His speech wasn’t particularly memorable (perhaps fitting, given his reputation for blandness), but two years later he won a Senate seat (his popularity scared incumbent Republican Dan Coats out of the race) and in 2000 he was one of Gore’s V.P. finalists. Bayh then passed on V.P. bid in 2004 and 2008 but has emerged – once again – as a serious V.P. contender. But if Barack Obama passes on him and goes on to win in November (thereby taking the 2012 presidential nomination out of play), Bayh could become the new Sam Nunn – that is, the red state-friendly senator who is perpetually mentioned for the V.P. slot but never chosen.

1992

Zell Miller: Yes, that’s right, the angry Georgia firebrand who seemed to ridicule the entire Democratic Party as a bunch of terrorist-coddling pinkos in 2004 actually keynoted their gathering in ’92. Then the popular and moderately-liberal governor of Georgia, Miller had played a crucial role in Bill Clinton’s primary campaign by helping to deliver his home state – the first primary Clinton won that year. As a fellow moderate Southerner, Miller’s presence at the convention underscored Clinton’s efforts to convince voters that he had moved the party away from the northern liberalism of Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale. But while the speech won Miller some attention, he largely avoided the national stage after it, serving six more years as governor. He left office in 1999 at the age of 66, pronouncing himself retired, but the sudden death of Senator Paul Coverdell in the summer of 2000 put an end to that, with Miller winning an appointment to the seat. It was in the Senate where he veered sharply to the right, a course change that ultimately led him to Madison Square Garden in the summer of ’04.

1988

Ann Richards: “Poor George,” her famous put-down of George H.W. Bush at the Democrats’ ‘88 convention went, “he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Richard was the rather obscure 55-year-old Texas state Treasurer when those words made her famous – and earned her the undying enmity of the Bush family. At the time, her Bush-baiting rhetoric was seen (by conventional wisdom) as a mistake that would come back to haunt her in Bush-friendly Texas, where she planned to run for governor in 1990. But she ended up winning that race, becoming the first female governor of the Lone Star State – and something of a folk hero to liberals across the country. She racked up high approval ratings (60 percent on Election Day ’94), but the Bushes nonetheless got their revenge: With Bill Clinton’s poisonous approval ratings sinking Democrats everywhere (and especially in the South), Richards fell victim to the Republican Revolution – and an opponent named George W. Bush –  in her ’94 re-election bid.

1984

Mario Cuomo: New Yorkers probably don’t need to be reminded of the most successful keynote address ever delivered at either party’s convention. With one mesmerizing speech, Cuomo, then the second-year governor of New York, established himself as the most compelling and passionate voice in the Democratic Party. Had the delegates at that San Francisco convention not been bound to vote for Walter Mondale, there might have been a stampede on the spot to nominate Cuomo. As it was, Cuomo’s speech alone vaulted him to top tier status among the party’s ’88 prospects. Once Gary Hart dropped out of that race in May ’87, Cuomo very likely would have emerged as the front-runner had he entered (which he refused to). And he was the runaway favorite within the party in 1991, especially after every big name (like Bill Bradley, Lloyd Bentsen and Dick Gephardt) declined the chance to run against George H.W. Bush and his post-Gulf War popularity. Polls showed Cuomo trouncing the B-list Democratic field (names like Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey and Bill Clinton) in December 1991, when he chartered a plane from Albany to New Hampshire on the day of the filing deadline for the lead-off primary. The plane sat on the runway all day, but Cuomo never climbed aboard.