Convention watch: The speech's the thing

Begun as a reform movement in the 19th-century United States, political conventions do little real party business today. Their one redeeming virtue? They are a showcase for political speech.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
The US flag sits in a pocket at the 2008 Republican national convention in st. Paul, Minn.

If you have spent time inside a modern national political convention, you know that they are noisy, anachronistic affairs populated mostly by minor-league politicians, campaign advisers, journalists, and the same pundits you see every night on TV – all of whom mill around for most of the day and come alive for a few prime-time speeches. 

So what’s the purpose of a convention these days? We asked Robert Lehrman to take on that question (you can read his observations here).

Conventions began as a reform movement, designed to break the backroom dealmaking in Washington that determined candidates for president in the early 19th century. Instead of congressional insiders deciding, delegates from around the country would gather to choose a standard-bearer. It was a radical idea at the time.

Over the next 150 years, conventions developed into sprawling, backslapping reunions with balloon drops, brass bands, straw hats, and their own forms of backroom dealmaking. By the mid-20th century, they were no longer the solution but the problem. The low point came in 1968 with public outrage at the mayhem inside and outside Chicago’s International Amphitheatre during the Democratic National Convention

A new reform movement in the 1970s turned primaries and caucuses into the vehicle for selecting presidential candidates. So it’s worth repeating: What’s the purpose of a convention? Well, for one thing, you could see them as showcases for political speech. 

Political speech is an ancient rhetorical form that can seem fusty in the age of Twitter, texting, and TED talks. But from Pericles to Winston Churchill, Henry V to Nelson Mandela, a well-crafted speech has been able to stir hearts, rally support, and even bend the curve of history. Words delivered in just the right way at just the right moment can become a kind of secular hymn that we keep humming to ourselves long after the applause has faded. Here are a few politicians’ turns of phrase that have stayed with me over the years:

“A settler pushes west and sings his song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing air. It is the American sound: It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic – daring, decent, and fair.” (Ronald
 Reagan, 1985)

“Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.” (Barack Obama, 2004)

America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”  (George H.W. Bush, 1989)

Conventions are of fading importance in the mechanics of electoral politics. But if you appreciate the power of political speech, a convention can at least serve this purpose: It is where you can hear words that ennoble us and ideals that, if only for a moment, stir our hope for the future.

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