4 Memorable Moments from US Political Conventions

By Kaleena Fraga

Last week, the Democrats rolled out the country’s first virtual political convention. This week, the Republicans will follow suit. It was weird—but sometimes charming—to see the DNC move online.

Conventions are historically pretty wild. (This has changed in the last several election cycles…they’ve become much more predictable). We look back at four memorable convention moments from the 20th-century—from the battle of Bull Moose in 1912, to a moment of Hollywood oddity in 2008.

#1: The Battle of Bull Moose (1912)

Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft | Getty Images

Today’s politics may feel unprecedented, but Americans in 1912 faced a truly unusual situation as they barreled toward Election Day.

Following William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president. He finished McKinley’s term and won one of his own before deciding to leave the White House in 1909. Roosevelt, although he loved the spotlight, was happy to see power transferred to his hand-picked successor and friend, William Howard Taft.

But as he watched Taft govern from afar, Roosevelt became increasingly unhappy with his friend’s performance. Roosevelt—who had eagerly promoted his “Square Deal” policies as president—believed in the importance of active government. Taft disagreed. The tension between their two outlooks burst into the open, and Roosevelt declared that he would run against his old friend—for an unprecedented third term in office.

At the convention, the two men went head-to-head. Things became bitter—even violent—with Taft supporters wielding clubs, and one Roosevelt supporter threatening a Taft man with a gun. Taft called Roosevelt “the greatest menace to our institutions we’ve had in a long time.” Roosevelt called Taft an agent of “political crookedness.” (He also referred to his former friend as a “fathead”.)

One Republican operator groaned: “The only question now is which corpse gets the most flowers.”

Indeed, the aftermath of the convention—during which Taft won the nomination—saw Roosevelt bolt from the Republicans to run under the Progressive Party. (The party would also be called the Bull Moose Party after a failed attempt on Roosevelt’s life during the campaign. Surviving a shot to the chest, Roosevelt declared: “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!”)

Facing Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt, and Eugene V. Debs, Taft won only eight electoral votes—the worst performance of an incumbent president ever. Wilson became the second Democrat elected to the White House since the Civil War.

#2: Could it be a Co-Presidency? (1980)

Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan | Hulton Archive-Getty Images

Gerald Ford was not a candidate in 1980. He had assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and lost the election of 1976 to Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Ford—like the rest of the country—watched Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush battle it out.

Yet the former president loomed large over the 1980 campaign.

Having won the nomination, Reagan began to search for his running mate. Although it seemed to many that picking Bush might make sense, Reagan didn’t get along well with his campaign rival. His people looked elsewhere, and found that Ford polled well with voters. Better, in fact, than Bush.

Ford wasn’t interested. He turned down Reagan multiple times. Yet, Ford lavished praise on the nominee during his convention speech, telling the audience:

“I don’t mind telling you all that I am not ready to quit yet. This Republican is going to do everything in his power to elect our nominee to the presidency. … So when this convention fields the team for Governor Reagan, count me in.”

Gerald Ford

Ford also noted in a subsequent interview that pride was not an issue for him when it came to the vice presidency. Reagan’s people thought Ford could be sending signals. Reagan asked Ford again; again, Ford said no.

At this point, Ford began to feel like returning to the vice presidency could be inevitable—despite his desire to avoid doing so. Looking to dampen speculation about the Reagan-Ford “dream ticket”, Ford sat down for an interview with Walter Cronkite. The former president later noted: “I tried to balance it out so there wouldn’t be any misunderstanding.”

But as Cronkite tried to work through Ford’s decision-making, he asked whether being vice president for Reagan would have “to be something like a co-presidency.” Ford did not contradict this. He told Cronkite that there would need to be a mutual understanding between the president and vice-president. “I would not go to Washington and be a figurehead,” he said.

Reagan, watching the interview, was “appalled” at the term of co-presidency. “Did you hear what he just said?” The future president exclaimed.

Any talk of Ford on the ticket quickly turned to dust. Reagan reached out to his old campaign rival, George H.W. Bush, and asked him to become his running mate.

#3: “It was f— ’em. To be blunt about it.” (1980)

Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy | Associated Press

To be sure, 1980 brought drama to the Republican convention. But the Democrats pulled a “hold my beer” moment when their turn came.

With echoes of 1912, their campaign pitted an incumbent—Jimmy Carter—against a member of his own party, Senator Ted Kennedy.

Even as the incumbent, Carter appeared a weak candidate. High unemployment and rising gas prices pummeled the country during his term. Issues like the Iran hostage crisis and the 1980 Olympic boycott did not help. The president himself noted a “crisis of confidence” among Americans. Kennedy—although he initially stumbled—saw an opportunity to win the White House.

Ted Kennedy brought with him the star-power of his political family. He ran to the left of Carter and generated support among voters. But on the eve of the convention, Kennedy had fewer delegates than Carter did.

The Kennedy people tried to get all delegates released from their prior commitments—they failed to do so. Still, they sought to embarrass Carter. They pushed a liberal platform far to the left of the president’s.

Harold Ickes, who ran the floor operation for Kennedy, manipulated convention rules to delay the proceedings. He sought to ruin the carefully planned prime-time speeches. “We just said, ‘F—‘ em,” Ickes recounted. “We weren’t thinking about the country…[or] the general election. It was ‘F—‘ em…To be blunt about it.”

Although Carter secured the nomination, things got worse. Kennedy gave a soaring speech—The Dream Shall Never Die, with clear invocations of his family’s political past—which awed the convention hall. Carter fumbled his own speech, mixing up Hubert Humphrey with Hubert Horatio Hornblower, a character from fiction.

Then, the balloons would not fall. “Forget the hostages, he can’t get the balloons down,” muttered someone on the floor within hearing distance of Dan Rather.

And, worst of all, Kennedy continued to avoid Carter on stage. Carter tried again and again to corner his campaign rival so that they could be photographed hand-in-hand, arms aloft, representative of the united Democratic party. It wouldn’t be—although the two men shared a stiff handshake. “Well, this is slightly awkward,” NBC’s David Brinkley said.

Carter would lose the election to Reagan, proving once more the lesson from 1912: infighting is rarely beneficial to political parties.

#4: The Problem with Props (2004, 2008)

We’ll finish with two lighter moments in convention history—albeit, ones that caused some drama at the time.

First, in 2004. As John Kerry accepted his nomination at the DNC, CNN caught the hot mic of the balloon operator. For several excruciating minutes, the operator screamed on live TV to drop the balloons—not the confetti!!—eventually breaking into a string of curse words as balloons trickled down from the ceiling.

Second, 2008. This infamous moment represents the importance of choosing your convention speakers wisely—and that bringing in Hollywood actors can come with its risks.

At the RNC in 2008, Clint Eastwood pretended to speak to Barack Obama—using an empty chair as a prop. Although the convention hall cheered and jeered, many at home found the performance odd and rambling. It also overshadowed a speech by (then) up-and-comer Marco Rubio.

We could go on. There are so many dramatic campaign moments, especially if you look at the 19th-century. (In 1860, Abe Lincoln won the day as a compromise candidate at his convention!). What are some of your favorite convention moments?

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