How Bill Clinton Turned a Dreadful Convention Speech into Political StardomRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, political history, Democratic Party, presidential history, Party Conventions
Robert Fleegler is instructional associate professor at the University of Mississippi.
From William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896 to Barack Obama’s keynote speech in 2004, major addresses at political conventions have launched the presidential aspirations of previously unknown politicians. In other cases, like Ronald Reagan’s concession remarks after his unsuccessful Republican primary challenge to Gerald Ford in 1976, they have laid the groundwork for future presidential triumphs.
But in Bill Clinton’s case, a prominent convention slot didn’t turn out to be the jumping-off point for a presidential run. In fact, it nearly destroyed his chances. As the former president prepares to address the Democratic convention as a party elder statesman Tuesday, it is worth remembering that his first major convention speech was a disaster. And given the possibility that a future presidential hopeful could bomb this week, thanks to the difficulties presented by the pandemic-altered convention, this history reminds us that politicians can survive the fallout from a poor convention speech — if they are savvy enough.
In 1988, Clinton was the 41-year-old governor of Arkansas, having served for eight of the previous 10 years, his tenure interrupted only when he lost his first bid for reelection in 1980. But he had little name recognition beyond the Razorback State.
In the summer of 1988, Michael Dukakis’s campaign tasked him with delivering the nominating speech for the presidential candidate, which would serve as Clinton’s introduction to the nation. “He wants to run for president when the opportunity presents itself,” observed David Brinkley on ABC as the Arkansas governor came onstage. “He’s a very bright, talented young man … much admired in the Democratic Party.” Peter Jennings chimed in that Clinton was “said to be a good speaker.”
This introduction proved to be the high point for Clinton, who couldn’t get the attention of the crowd as they repeatedly chanted “We want Mike.” He tried to quiet them by telling them he needed to explain to the rest of the nation why they should want Dukakis as well. “They weren’t listening to what I was saying, or trying to say. All they were responding to was the governor’s name,” Clinton later said.
As he ticked off Dukakis’s accomplishments like balanced budgets and welfare reform, and critiqued Reaganomics, Clinton lost the audience’s interest. Both ABC and NBC cut away from his speech, as he went well over his allotted 15 minutes. The Dukakis campaign, concerned that his verbosity would push the roll call officially nominating the candidate out of prime time, entered “Please finish” onto Clinton’s teleprompter screen.
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