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?

Harry Truman & the Creation of NATO: A Brief History

By Kaleena Fraga

President Trump is in Europe this week, stirring up animosity among European allies as he rages on Twitter about their contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Trump has taken a decidedly different approach to NATO than his predecessors, and many European leaders seem to be at a loss when it comes to dealing with the new American policy. The European Council president, Donald Tusk, even went as far as to say, “Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many.”

TRUMP NATO
Photo Credit: Politico.com (Matt Wuerker)

For many Americans of a certain generation, NATO has always existed. So where did it come from? To answer this, we must look to Harry Truman.

Following WWII, many European and American leaders were alarmed by Soviet aggression. This led to several alliances and pacts among European countries, seeking to combine Western European defenses with the United States’ policy of containment. NATO, then, was born in part from Harry Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” which pledged support to nations threatened by communism and sought to counter Soviet expansion.

The twelve original countries (the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Great Britain) signed an agreement that stated “an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” President Truman called NATO “a shield against HST NATO 2aggression.”

NATO wasn’t a universally accepted idea in the United States. Just as isolationists had opposed President Wilson’s League of Nations, they rejected the idea of involving the United States in a multinational alliance. This push was led by Robert Taft, the son of the former president William Howard Taft, who said that NATO “was not a peace program, but a war program.” The Soviet Union felt threaten by the alliance, and created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 as their own version of NATO.

After a lengthy confirmation process in the Senate, the NATO treaty was confirmed.

When Harry Truman signed the treaty on August 24, 1949 he declared:

“By this treaty, we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world.”

Since it’s founding, NATO has fought ISIS and helped to broker peace in Bosnia. After the two world wars of the 20th century, it has maintained relative peace among European nations. In the aftermath of 9/11, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and only time–this being the clause that declares that an attack on one nation is an attack on them all–in order to deliver assistance to the United States.

The world is very different than the 1940s and 1950s when NATO was born. And so is the man in the White House. Whether or not Trump continues to engage with NATO or removes the United States from the alliance all together has yet to be seen.

William Howard Taft & the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president. He was driven to the White House on the crest of his wife’s ambitions–she had wanted to be First Lady since childhood. Taft’s enduring goal was to join the Supreme Court.

When Taft became president in 1909, he noted to a friend that “if I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I just feel a bit like a fish out of water.”

Taft had harbored this ambition since he became a superior court judge in his late twenties. Several times he got close–President McKinley promised him an appointment if Taft would accept his order to serve as Governor General of the Philippines. And President Roosevelt had similarly (twice) offered an appointment. But Taft found himself consistently answering to other callings outside of the Supreme Court–he felt he could not leave his work in the Philippines and his wife, Nellie, convinced him pursue the presidency instead.

Taft didn’t especially enjoy being president–he once remarked that he hardly remembered his one term in office–and the end of his presidency was clouded by his former friend Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to throw his hat in the ring, effectively denying either of them a chance of reelection. But Taft did leave his mark on American jurisprudence–as president, he had the opportunity to appoint six justices to the Supreme Court.

taft sworn inOn October 3rd, 1921, Taft finally realized his ultimate goal and was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding. “This is,” Taft declared, “the greatest day of my life.”

As Chief Justice, Taft would oversee a court that expanded federal power, leaned conservative, and approved of Prohibition.

Many of Taft’s decisions–including a controversial ruling that allowed warrantless wiretaps of telephone conversations to be used against defendants in court–were overturned once he retired from the bench. Antonin Scalia noted that Taft, “had a quite accurate ‘vision of things to come,’ did not like them, and did his best, with consummate skill but ultimate lack of success, to alter the outcome.”

Perhaps Taft’s greatest legacy on the Supreme Court was to increase its power and prestige. Taft convinced Congress to pass the Judges’ Bill of 1925, which gave the Supreme Court more control over the cases in its docket and took away the automatic right of appeal. Taft often pushed for unanimity among his fellow justices, believing that such a statement would increase the court’s authority.

Taft’s wife, Nellie, left a tangible mark on Washington D.C. As First Lady, she set about theSCOTUS beautify the city, and ordered 2,000 cherry trees from Japan as part of this effort. Taft too forever changed the landscape of the capitol. He lobbied Congress to put aside funds for a new Supreme Court building–the one we know today–moving the justices out of the old Senate Chamber and into a building of their own. Taft instructed the architect, Cass Gilbert, to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Of his presidency, Taft once remarked “I don’t remember that I ever was president.” He served nine years on the bench as opposed to four years as president, presiding over 250 decisions. Taft only left the Supreme Court once his health required that he do so.

A Momentous Day, a Crowded Stage: The Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

By Kaleena Fraga

Ninety-six years ago today a crowd gathered in Washington D.C. to witness the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. Present were former president William Howard Taft, presiding as Chief Justice, current president Warren G. Harding, and Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. And, of course, Abraham Lincoln himself, immortalized in stone and looming almost 100 feet over the three men.

Between the three of them, the men comprised over fifty years of presidential history, and a resume nearly as tall as the memorial itself. Robert Lincoln had been twenty-two when his father was assassinated. Although he didn’t follow in his footsteps to the presidency, Robert Lincoln had served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, as the Secretary of War under two presidents, and as the chairman and president of the Pullman Railroad Company. He held the dubious honor of being present for two other presidential assassinations–those of Presidents Garfield and McKinley–which made him acknowledge “a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present.” Still, no one at the dedication that day seemed nervous about his presence.

moton at memorialDr. Robert Moton, a civil rights activist, gave the keynote address. Although he spoke to a largely segregated audience, Moton pushed for equality for all races. The previous year, Moton had written President Harding a letter with suggestions on how to improve race-relations. His crusade to hire an all-black staff at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital for African-American WWI veterans had provoked death threats from white supremacists, although Harding endorsed the idea. Moton’s presence on stage, then, seemed to be both an explicit realization of Lincoln’s promise, and an implicit nod of support from the current administration. Yet he also represented the work to be done–despite giving the keynote, Moton was not allowed to sit on the speaker’s platform.

(As for Taft and Harding, curious readers can learn more about them here and here).

The architect Henry Bacon designed the memorial, which he modeled after the Pantheon. Bacon felt that the man who had saved democracy deserved a memorial reminiscent of the birthplace of democracy. It featured 36 pillars to represent the 36 states that Lincoln had reunited; texts of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address; and, of course, the looming figure of Lincoln, designed by David Chester French.

Harding, the child of abolitionists, accepted the dedication from Taft. He closed the ceremony by saying:

“This Memorial is less for Abraham Lincoln than those of us today, and for those who follow after.”

They were prescient words–the Lincoln Memorial would go on to be a gathering place for people seeking equality and justice.

First Lady Feature: Nellie Herron Taft

By Kaleena Fraga

If William Howard Taft’s hold on the collective American memory is that he got stuck in a White House bathtub (likely false), his wife Nellie’s grip is weaker still. Yet Nellie played a crucial role in propelling her husband to the White House, and her subsequent stroke during his term in office irrevocably changed his presidency for the worse.

Née Helen Louise Herron, Nellie grew up immersed in American politics. Her father was a college friend of future president Benjamin Harrison, and shared an office with another future president, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes and Nellie’s father were especially close. When she was sixteen, Nellie was invited to accompany her parents to the Hayes White House for the president and his wife’s silver anniversary. Later in life, Nellie told journalists that, “Nothing in my life reaches the climax of human bliss, which I felt as a girl of sixteen, when I was entertained at the White House.”

Indeed, she told President Hayes that the visit had convinced her that she would marry “a man who will be president.” Hayes is reported to have responded, “I hope you may, and be sure you marry an Ohio man.” Hayes, Harrison, and the Herrons were all proud Ohioans (as was Nellie’s future husband).

nellie taftNellie herself was bright–she had a gift for languages, and studied French, German, Latin and Greek. She wrote in her diary that, “A book has more fascination for me than anything else.” Nellie wanted to continue her education–her brothers went to Yale and Harvard–but her father told her he could not afford to send her to college. Anyway, she was expected to find herself a husband, instead.

But this sort of lifestyle didn’t suit Nellie at all. Out of school, unable to take as many music lessons as she wanted because her father didn’t think they were worth the money, Nellie found herself “blue as indigo.” She wrote in her journal that, “I am sick and tired of my life. I am only nineteen. I feel as I were fifty.” The solution, she thought, was to find a job. “I read a good deal to be sure…but I should have some occupation that would require active work moving around–and I don’t know where to find it…I do so want to be independent.”

One has to wonder what Nellie could have accomplished if her father had coughed up the money for her to pursue her own education–although in the 1880s, neither Harvard nor Yale admitted female students.

In the end, Nellie enrolled in less expensive classes at the University of Cincinnati, where she studied Chemistry and German.

Although it horrified her mother, Nellie eventually decided to take a job teaching at a private school for boys. Nellie’s mother wrote her a letter detailing her alarm at this decision:  “Do you realize you will have to give up society, as you now enjoy it…it is quite the thing for a young girl in your position to teach in a boys school–and where there are no other ladies?” Nellie’s friends too questioned her “queer taste.” To this, Nellie wrote in her journal:

“Of course a woman is happier who marries, if she marries exactly right, but how many do? Otherwise I do think that she is much happier single, and doing some congenial work.”

At this point in her life, Nellie began to spend more time with William Howard Taft, a young lawyer whom she had had known as a girl and who had “[struck her] with awe.” Taft, for his part, started carrying books when he was around Nellie to gain her favor.

The first time he asked her to marry him, Nellie turned him down. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Nellie feared that marriage would “destroy her hard-won chance to accomplish something worthy in her own right.” Taft persisted. Perhaps he sensed that Nellie had ambitions beyond that of a wife and mother. Writing to try and convince her to change her mind, Taft said, “Oh how I will work and strive to be better and do better, how I will labor for our joint advancement if only you will let me.”

Nellie agreed and they were married in 1886.

When Taft became president in 1909, Nellie’s greatest dream had been realized. She had encouraged her husband to turn down President Roosevelt’s offers of a seat on the Supreme Court to keep his options open for the presidency (Roosevelt asked three times). Her great ambition of returning to the White House had become a reality. Although her husband admitted he felt “like a fish out of water” (indeed, Taft would later state that he hardly remembered his term in office–his true ambition, which he attained after his presidency, was to be the Supreme Court Justice), Nellie was right at home.

The New York Times noted that few had been so “well equipped” to be First Lady. Nellie had been a governor general’s wife during Taft’s tenure in the Philippines. She was social; she understood the ceremonies of the office; and she spoke Spanish, French and German, so she could hold conversations with diplomats from around the world. The new First Lady received accolades for her conversational skills, and her ability to converse on a variety of topics. She was quite a contrast to her predecessor, Edith Roosevelt, who believed, “a woman’s name should appear in print but twice–when she is married and when she is buried.”

As Taft began to take on the demands of the office, Nellie took on responsibilities of her own. She became an honorary chair of the Women’s Welfare Department of the National Civic Federation to advocate for workers in government and industry. Nellie refused the commonly accepted logic that college wasn’t for women, and publicly said so. Her own daughter eventually attended Bryn Mawr. When asked about women’s suffrage, Nellie stated:

“A woman’s voice is the voice of wisdom and I can see nothing unwomanly in her casting the ballot.”

cherry treesAlthough some muttered that Nellie should focus more on “the simple duties of First Lady,” Nellie was equally eager to expand this role. Upsetting many New Yorkers, Nellie stated that she wanted to make Washington D.C. a social hub for Americans. Nellie set out to beautify the city. From her time abroad, Nellie had fallen in love with Japanese cherry trees and brought one hundred to Washington. When the mayor of Tokyo heard of this project, he sent 2,000 more.

“In the ten weeks of her husband’s Administration,” wrote the New York Times, “Mrs. Taft has done more for society than any former mistress of the White House has undertaken in many months.”

It was only a few weeks into Taft’s term that tragedy struck. Nellie, only 48, suffered a debilitating stroke. The right side of her face was paralyzed. Although the public was kept in the dark, Nellie had lost the ability to speak or express her thoughts in any way. She went to the family’s summer home in Massachusetts to recover. Taft needed his wife–needed her social drive and partnership. Weeks into his presidency, he had lost her.

Although Nellie recovered much of her facilities, she wasn’t able to play the part she so taft silverdreamed of in Taft’s administration. It certainly wanted for her influence. Without her, Taft was not able to play the dynamic social role he needed to fill the shoes of his bombastic predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt.

Still, despite a second stroke in 1911, Nellie and Taft were able to celebrate their silver anniversary at the White House–the same event that Nellie had attended as a girl. One can only wonder what someone like Nellie could have accomplished if she’d had access to education; and if she’d lived in a world where women could pursue a career without judgement. Perhaps we’d be writing about her presidency, instead.

Special thanks to our girl Doris Kearns Goodwin & her wonderful Taft/Roosevelt biography: Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt & The Golden Age of Journalism.