For Chris Christie: The Best and Worst of Past Convention Speeches

Speculation is rampant as to whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will be designated as the keynote speaker for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida on August 27-30.  In my view, it really doesn’t matter whether the governor is designated as the keynote speaker per se.  He will certainly be chosen to give a speech in prime time at the convention, where he will have the opportunity to display his considerable oratorical talents before a national audience.


Most prospective convention speakers will review past convention speeches to get a sense of what has been effective in communicating with both the delegates and the national television audience.  To paraphrase the late, legendary New York sportswriter, Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but I offer to Governor Christie my following list of best and worst convention speeches:


Best Convention Speech Ever:  Ronald Reagan, Republican Convention, Kansas City, 1976:  This choice is easy.  Reagan had challenged the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, and the contest was neck-and-neck with a month to go.  Reagan then made the mistake of announcing that moderate Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweicker would be his running mate.   This resulted in Mississippi GOP Chair Clark Reed throwing his support to Ford, giving the incumbent president a first ballot victory.  Reagan’s speech was given right before Ford’s acceptance speech.  The former California governor had lost the 1976 convention, but his speech, given without a note, won him the adulation of the delegates in the hall and television viewers nationwide.  His speech was, in truth, the beginning of his long march to election as president in 1980.


Best Keynote Speech:  Mario Cuomo, Democratic Convention, San Francisco, 1984:  I am a Reaganite, and as such, I certainly remain in virtual complete disagreement with this speech.  Yet I cannot deny that this keynote address was a tour de force.   The former New York governor sharply criticized the Reagan administration without displaying any personal disrespect to the then incumbent president.  He also conveyed a strong sense of commitment, combined with first rate intellect.

 Someday, Chris Christie may be the Republican nominee for president, opposing Democratic nominee and current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.   In giving his 2012 convention speech, whether keynote or otherwise, Christie would be well advised to emulate the 1984 convention address of Andrew’s father, Mario Cuomo, a man with whom the current New Jersey governor has some definite stylistic similarities, namely, passion and a strong sense of family values.  


Best Convention Speech in an Uncomfortable Role:  Tom Kean, Republican Convention, New Orleans, 1988   The George H.W. Bush campaign selected the highly popular then governor of New Jersey to give the keynote speech, hoping that he would deliver a stemwinder excoriating the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.  As Kean biographer Al Felzenberg and Kean press secretary Carl Golden have related to me, Kean was never comfortable in the partisan attack mode.  Plus, he held no animus against Michael Dukakis, a fellow governor.  Accordingly, Kean handled his assignment in exquisitely effective fashion, criticizing the Dukakis position on taxes in a non ad hominem tone.  Tom Kean is a class act of whom New Jersey can always be proud.


Worst Convention Speech Ever: Bill Clinton’s Speech Nominating Michael Dukakis, Democratic Convention, Atlanta, 1988   This long, meandering speech qualified as a national cure for insomnia.  In retrospect, it is amazing that four years later, Clinton was elected president.


Most Hypocritical Convention Speech:  Al Gore’s Vice Presidential Acceptance Speech, Democratic Convention, Chicago, 1996   Al Gore’s sister, Nancy Gore Hunger, died tragically of lung cancer due to smoking in 1984.  Yet four years after her death, Gore boasted in the 1988 North Carolina Democratic presidential primary of his experiences in the tobacco fields and curing barns of his native Tennessee.  Two years later, in 1990, he was still accepting campaign contributions from tobacco interests.  Yet in accepting the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1996, Gore had the gall to say the following:


”I knelt by her bed and held her hand.    And in a very short time, her breathing became labored and then she breathed her last breath.  And that is why until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.”


Politics is hardly an area of human endeavor immune to hypocrisy.  In all my years of political involvement, however, I never saw a display of hypocrisy more offensive than Al Gore’s 1996 vice presidential acceptance speech.


The William Jennings Bryan Imitation Award:  Frank Clement, Governor of Tennessee, Democratic Convention, Chicago, 1956   This was the first convention I watched on television.  I was a precocious six years old, an early reader who loved reading books about baseball and presidents.  My parents thought it would be a good experience for me to watch the Democratic National Convention on television.  Accordingly, they brought me downstairs to watch then Governor Clement give the keynote speech.  I can still remember his constant repetition of the words, “How long, O how long”, a first class imitation of the style of William Jennings Bryan.


Best Speech on Behalf of a Lost Cause: Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, Democratic Convention, Los Angeles, 1960   Jack Kennedy came into the convention with a huge delegate lead..  Still, there were liberal Democrats, including some high members of the Democratic liberal establishment, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, who dreamed of an Adlai Stevenson nomination if the convention deadlocked.  Gene McCarthy gave an eloquent nomination speech for Adlai in which he continuously used the phrase, “Do not reject this man…”  A wildly enthusiastic demonstration followed the speech – in those days, candidates were permitted to bring outsiders to demonstrate on the convention floor.  All this was for nought – JFK was nominated on the first ballot.


The Happy Warrior Speech:  Hubert Humphrey’s Vice Presidential Acceptance Speech, Democratic Convention, Atlantic City, 1964   I am a conservative, and Hubert Humphrey was the archetypal liberal.  Yet I loved the man and will always cherish his memory.  His accomplishments in the field of civil rights were monumental.  In his 1964 vice presidential acceptance speech, he pointed out numerous examples where Democrats and Republicans agreed on key issues, then followed up each example with the words, “…but not Senator Goldwater!”  Former New York Governor and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith was the original Happy Warrior.   Hubert Humphrey, a man of goodness and greatness, equally deserves this title as well.


The Turn on the Delegates – Turn off the Nation Speech:  Barry Goldwater’s Presidential Acceptance Speech, Republican Convention, San Francisco, 1964    Remember those immortal words Barry Goldwater spoke in his presidential nomination acceptance speech at San Francisco’s Cow Palace:  “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!  Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”  The delegates heard these words and cheered enthusiastically.  The national television audience overwhelmingly determined not to even consider voting for Barry Goldwater.  His fate of defeat by Lyndon Johnson was sealed.


I actually saw either in person or on television all the speeches on the above list.  I attended the last five Republican National Conventions, but I will not be attending this one.  Still, like millions of other Republicans throughout the nation, I will be watching Governor Christie’s speech with considerable interest.  For him, it is an opportunity to both make history and enhance his future national prospects.  The moment is there for him to seize.


Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University. 



  For Chris Christie:  The Best and Worst of Past Convention Speeches