Convention Speeches that Have Made History

Roundup: Media's Take

Tom Zeller, Jr., and Hugh K. Truslow, in the NYT (July 25, 2004):

The nominee is a foregone conclusion and platform debates long ago gave way to choreographed displays of party unity. So what constitutes drama at a national political convention? For most Americans - and certainly for the news media, which will lean in most attentively during prime-time hours - the drama now resides almost exclusively in the speeches.

No, really.

Although there is no guarantee that the 2004 Democratic convention, which kicks off in Boston tomorrow and runs through Thursday, will produce oratory of historic proportions, a number of speeches from past conventions have been included in anthologies and elevated by lovers of language to hall-of-fame status.

A 1942 collection edited by Lewis Copeland, "The World's Great Speeches," included two convention speakers. The "Penguin Book of 20th Century Speeches" (1999 edition), transcribes six - five of them from Democrats. And Willam Safire's 1997 book "Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History" includes several convention speeches, from Willam Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" address in 1896 to George H. W. Bush's 1988 convention pledge: "Read my lips, no new taxes."

But do convention speeches really matter?

"In a day in which there are so many competing messages, these speeches may even be more important," says Professor Stephen E. Lucas, who teaches communication arts at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Even for those who have been following the campaign, he added, the speeches are probably the first opportunity to hear directly from the candidates at length.

Professor Lucas, along with Martin J. Medhurst of Baylor University, included a number of convention homilies in their 1999 list of "Top 100" speeches of the 20th century, which is available online at


  • William Jennings Bryan: Cross of Gold Speech (1896)
    ''Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.''
  • FDR (1936)
    ''There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.''
  • Hubert Humphrey (1948)
    "I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!''
  • Harry Truman (1948)
    ''The Republican Party, as I said a while ago, favors the privileged few and not the common everyday man. Ever since its inception, that party has been under the control of special privilege; and they have completely proved it in the 80th Congress. They proved it by the things they did to the people, and not for them. They proved it by the things they failed to do."
  • Adlai Stevenson (1952)
    "I have not sought the honor you have done me. I could not seek it, because I aspired to another office, which was the full measure of my ambition, and one does not treat the highest office within the gift of the people of Illinois as an alternative or as a consolation prize. I would not seek your nomination for the presidency, because the burdens of that office stagger the imagination. Its potential for good or evil, now and in the years of our lives, smothers exultation and converts vanity to prayer."
  • Barbara Jordan (1976)
    "It was 144 years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a presidential candidate. ... And our meeting this week is a continuation of that tradition. But there is something different about tonight. ... What is special? I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker. A lot of years passed since 1832, and during that time, it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask that Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight here I am. And I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred."

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