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?

Shifting Tides: The Midterms of 1966

By Kaleena Fraga

In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.

Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.

No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.

Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.

Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.

In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.

Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.

“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.

Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”

In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.

From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.

The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?

 

After the Storm: Ford’s First Week as President

By Kaleena Fraga

When Richard Nixon departed the White House on August 9th, 1974, becoming the first president to resign from the office, he made Gerald Ford the first unelected president in American history.

As Nixon took off in his helicopter, Ford took the oath of office. After taking the oath, Ford gave a short speech which he said was not “an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech–just a little straight talk among friends.” Ford went onto say that he was well aware that he had not been elected by American ballots, but he hoped he would be confirmed through American prayers.

Then Ford uttered the words that became enshrined in American memory.

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

He continued:

Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.

As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.

Ford entered the White House with a list of issues to tackle. There was the Cold War, the end of the war in Vietnam, unrest in the Middle East, and inflation, among other things. Not to mention he had to define his presidency as independent from Nixon’s, while serving out the rest of Nixon’s second term.

Ford had to move his family into the White House; he had to address a divided and bitter nation; and he had to deal with the question that had been born even before he took the oath of office, of whether or not he should pardon Richard Nixon for any crimes associated with Watergate.

grf_leaves_home_a0180-07aFord and his family would not move to the White House until 10 days into his term, and in the meantime Ford would continue to commute from his home in Alexandria, Virginia. The images of Ford leaving his home, looking very much like a regular businessman on his way to work, and not the leader of the free world, obscures the reality of the heavy burden which had fallen on his shoulders. Betty Ford, who had remarked at the beginning of Ford’s political career that she was “unprepared to be a political wife” but was unworried because she “didn’t think he was going to win” would leave her own mark on the presidency and the role of First Lady. Only a month into the role she held her first press conference and answered questions about women in politics, abortions, and the Equal Rights Amendment. She would also bring awareness to breast cancer and addiction, acknowledging her struggles with both.

As the question of a Nixon pardon floated in the air–Alexander Haig, the chief of staff under Nixon and Ford had first broached the issue with the new president 10 days before Nixon’s resignation–one of Ford’s first acts as president was to address Congress. He did so three days after taking the oath of office.

“I am not here to make an inaugural address,” Ford said. “The nation needs action, not ford congresswords…my fellow Americans, we have a lot of work to do.” To Congress he said, “I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.” Ford, who had climbed the ropes in Washington as a member of Congress, seemed uniquely able to build such a relationship. Yet he would veto 66 bills passed by the Democratic Congress, many of which were then overridden by Congress–the largest percentage of overrides since Congress overrode Andrew Johnson’s vetoes following his unexpected ascension to the presidency.

Ford later reflected: “When I was in the Congress myself, I thought it fulfilled its constitutional obligations in a very responsible way, but after I became president, my perspective changed.”

The decision to pardon Nixon came about a month after Ford took office, and was initially met with outrage and opposition from the country and from many of Watergate’s main players. Although Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein initially met the news of the pardon with dismay, they much later acknowledged that Ford had made the right choice. Woodward called the pardon “an act of political courage”, with Bernstein agreeing that the pardon took “great courage.”

Despite the retrospective, Ford erased any good will he may have had in his first weeks in the presidency by pardoning Nixon. He set himself up for a tough reelection, in which he would be challenged by a right-leaning upstart named Ronald Reagan, and would eventually lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter.