Once Upon a Time, Hillary Clinton Saved a Convention

With all of the talk about what roles Hillary and Bill Clinton will play at the upcoming Democratic convention –

With all of the talk about what roles Hillary and Bill Clinton will play at the upcoming Democratic convention – and whether Clinton will allow her name to be placed in nomination for a roll call vote – it’s probably worth looking back to the 1992 convention, when the Clintons dealt with similar issues, but from a much different perspective.

Back then, they were the winners, with Bill emerging from the Democratic primaries with more than enough delegates to secure a first-ballot nomination. But as the July convention in New York approached, two of his primary-season opponents – Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown – each stubbornly clung to their large delegate blocs (more than 500 each), attempting to use threats of rules fights and roll call votes as leverage.

The Clintons took a hard line, telling Brown and Tsongas that they wouldn’t be allowed to speak unless they first endorsed Clinton and swore off placing their names in nomination.

Tsongas agreed to play along, delivering his endorsement the week before the convention and receiving a prime-time speaking slot on the convention’s third night – just before Mario Cuomo entered Clinton’s name into nomination. The former Massachusetts senator also acquiesced on the platform, abandoning most of his efforts to shape the party’s economic plank and settling for a symbolic public hearing on a few of his proposed planks in the early afternoon (read: not televised) hours of the convention’s second day.

Brown, not surprisingly, was a tougher customer. After waging a guerilla campaign in which he refused contributions over $100, he and his supporters had little interest in compromise. A last-minute pre-convention meeting between Brown and Clinton in Little Rock failed to produce any agreement and Brown was left off the roster of speakers. His supporters then threatened to make trouble by nominating him for vice president, but the Clinton campaign responded that any VP roll call would simply be relegated to an afternoon session, with almost no one watching, thus killing the idea.

This maneuvering kept Brown out of prime time, which was the Clintons’ main goal, but it couldn’t silence him completely, since convention rules provide that anyone whose name is placed in nomination be allowed to speak. So on Wednesday night – after three days of intermittent chants of "Let Jerry speak!" from his scattered delegates – Brown was formally nominated. Wearing a large red AIDS ribbon, he stepped to the podium – well before the three major networks picked up their live coverage – and declared: "My name is Jerry and I’m here to speak." Over the next 20 minutes, he excoriated the political and corporate establishments, demanded "power for the powerless," and even mentioned his ailing father, former California Governor Pat Brown – but never once mentioned Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, the Clinton forces had worked overtime to dissuade Tsongas’ delegates, who had latched onto his campaign as a moral cause and to Tsongas himself as something of a political prophet, to vote for Clinton on the first ballot as a show of unity. While Tsongas had refused to enter his name in nomination, delegates still had the right to vote for whomever they pleased.

Throughout the week, top Clinton backers – and even Hillary Clinton herself – appeared at various state delegation meetings to sing Tsongas’ praises and to personal appeals for unity on the Wednesday night roll call vote. Tsongas’ home-state delegation, for instance, was visited on Monday morning by Illinois Senator Paul Simon, a Clinton supporter viewed favorably by many Tsongas supporters. Simon framed the November election in dire terms – "the fate of this nation, the fate of civilization itself" was on the line, he said – and warned the Massachusetts delegates that any disunity could jeopardize the party’s fall chances.

When his appeal didn’t resonate, Hillary herself was dispatched, appearing at the delegation’s Wednesday breakfast. By all accounts, it was a tour de force performance. She spoke glowingly of Tsongas and the legacy of his campaign, soothing words to delegates who were still angry by the tactics the Clinton campaign had used to derail their man in the primary campaign.

"We are jumping into the future together," Hillary told the delegation, and that future will be determined by the contents of the campaigns that have been run, particularly the campaign of Paul Tsongas – because what Senator Tsongas did in this campaign cannot be in any way underestimated and will not be."

Later that night, after Brown’s fiery address, Tsongas delivered his prime-time speech. He stuck to his guns on his message of economic sacrifice and generational responsibility but also offered unambiguous support for Clinton. Cuomo then formally nominated Clinton and the roll call vote proceeded.

One hundred forty-one of the 142 members of the Massachusetts delegation sided with Clinton on the vote (the one exception was the delegation’s co-chairwoman, Thaleia Tsongas-Schlesinger), a clear sign that Hillary’s personal pitch had paid off. Overall, Tsongas ended up collecting 209 votes in the roll call, while Brown netted 594 – a far cry from Clinton’s 3,367.

After Ohio put Clinton over the top, the candidate, his wife, and his daughter made a perfectly choreographed walk from their hotel to Madison Square Garden, entering the hall to wild and ecstatic cheers. Clinton wouldn’t formally accept the nomination until the next night but, with the three major networks all airing his appearance live, he made his way to the foot of the stage, grabbed a handheld microphone and announced that "tomorrow night, you’re going to see the real comeback kid." No one was talking about Jerry Brown or Paul Tsongas or the primary campaign after that. Once Upon a Time, Hillary Clinton Saved a Convention