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Why conventions still matter (+video)

Yes, they have become costly infomercials. But political conventions can clarify – and sometimes even electrify. 

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Suddenly, even Democrats see him, not as the Terminator, not as a Republican, but as a scared little kid in the back seat.

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And no matter what your views, when it comes to sheer emotion, few speeches rival the one little-known Mary Fisher gave at the 1992 Republican convention.

It was still a time when mentioning AIDS was the third rail of American politics. Politicians pretended it didn't exist, or came from immoral acts. Ms. Fisher was the mother of two kids. She had tested positive for HIV, having gotten it from her ex-husband.

Republicans allowed Fisher a few minutes at the podium. "I have come tonight to bring our silence to an end," she began. "I want your attention, not your applause."

Obediently, most delegates fell silent. After a few minutes came the first, small smattering of applause. It grew louder when she told the delegates she felt blessed by her supportive family. Then she spoke directly to those who weren't that blessed.

"You are HIV positive, but dare not say it. You have lost loved ones, but you dare not whisper the word AIDS. You weep silently. You grieve alone. I have a message for you. It is not you who should feel shame. It is we."

When she finished, there were no waving signs. No whoops. But the delegates rose to their feet, including a somber Gerald and Betty Ford. The applause was loud – and long.

Like Fisher, who, happily, survived, speakers sometimes provide something unexpected. That's what happened in 1948.

If you watch the black-and-white film that survives of Truman's address, you can tell from the way he repeats himself ("As I said before") that he is following an outline. But he's full of energy, merrily uttering things no aide would allow today.

Today, you don't admit your own voters might do something stupid. Truman says Democrats have helped farmers so much that "if they don't do their duty by the Democratic Party, they are the most ungrateful people in the world!" Today, a president leaves vitriol to surrogates. Truman says the "rotten" GOP tax bill "sticks a knife into the back of the poor."

Then, with pigeons still circling overhead, to the amazement of his aides, Truman ad-libs something. On what Missouri calls "Turnip Day," he says, he will call a special session of Congress – the Turnip Session. He'll see if Republicans will do what people need.

Republicans were flummoxed. What was Turnip Day? It turned out that's when Missouri farmers had to plant the turnips no matter what – a sanitized version of a saying that ends with "get off the pot."

"I'm not going to give that fellow anything," fumed a leader of the opposition, GOP Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio.

Republicans decided to sit on their hands during the special session. It turned out to be a colossal mistake. Truman had turned disaster into triumph in Philadelphia. He ran against a "do-nothing Congress" and pulled out a victory no one thought possible.

More than a century after Bryan stepped to the podium, and 64 years after Truman, speeches still matter. At the upcoming conventions, some speeches will offer clichés and distortions. Some will bring insight to issues. Some will show us a politician articulate enough to become memorable even when speaking from a teleprompter. Some will offer us only a single memorable phrase.

But, then again, we might hear something that will stay with us for a lifetime – even if it isn't in the script.

• Robert A. Lehrman is a novelist and former chief White House speech writer for Vice President Al Gore. Author of 'The Political Speechwriter's Companion,' he teaches at American University and co-runs a blog, PunditWire.

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