The 2008 Republican National Convention starts tonight. As with the Democratic one, the first Republican National Convention that I watched was in 1988. I watched it on NBC, and I enjoyed the way that the network played dramatic music while showing the past Republican nominees for President. To be honest, I was a little lukewarm during much of it, until I watched Pat Robertson’s speech. Pat Robertson had just gone head-to-head with Vice-President George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination, and he had demonstrated the power of Christian conservatives as a constituency. When Robertson started talking about limited government, I enthusiastically cheered, to the point of hitting my hand on a lamp.
Here are my top ten favorite moments from the Republican National Convention. One of them is actually from a movie.
1. In 1964, there was conflict between the Republican conservatives and the Republican “moderates” (if Nelson Rockefeller could be called that). The conservatives favored Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, while the moderates liked Rockefeller, Scranton, maybe others. The keynote address was delivered by Senator Mark Hatfield, and his speech criticized “the bigots in this nation who spew forth the venom of hate…including the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birch Society.” The reaction in the audience was applause, which was then drowned out by loud boos. In an interview years later, Hatfield said that about a third of the delegates were members of the John Birch Society!
2. In Oliver Stone’s movie, Nixon, there is a scene in which Nixon gives his acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention (see here). I’m not sure if Stone is presenting Nixon as positive or negative in that scene, but it’s a rousing speech. Nixon challenges the violence in America and the no-win war in Vietnam, as we watch a scene of LBJ’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara chuckling. While Nixon talks about speaking the truth and living the truth, we see Martin Luther King giving his “I have a dream speech.” Nixon then speaks glowingly about the “great silent majority,” with scenes of anti-war protesters, Black Panthers, George Wallace, and white cops with bayonets confronting us on the screen. Finally, he says that we can help the natural environment and make health care affordable to all Americans.
Here, Oliver Stone’s portrayal is probably positive, for he does present Nixon as somewhat of a reformer. There are scenes in which Nixon ends the war in Vietnam as well as upsets J.R. Ewing with his environmental and civil rights policies. In the convention scene, Nixon speaks to troubling times, and he seeks to accomplish something good for his country.
3. In 1992, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination. Not surprisingly, he didn’t do too well in the primaries, but he still got to give a speech at the convention (see here). In my opinion, it is probably the best speech ever given in convention history. Pat hit the Clintons hard on abortion, school choice, gay marriage, and environmental extremism. You really don’t see that kind of red-meat conservatism at conventions anymore! And you couldn’t beat his solemn acknowledgement of a cultural war: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side…”
But you could really hear a pin drop when he talked about the need for the Republican Party to reach out to blue-collar workers, particularly those who were losing their jobs. He said: “My friends, even in tough times, these people are with us. They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they came from the same schoolyards and playgrounds and towns as we did. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people. And we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know they’re hurting. They don’t expect miracles, but they need to know we care.”
Pat Buchanan hasn’t spoken at a convention since. But you hear some of this populist rhetoric from Barack Obama, who talks often about American traditionalism and the faith, family, and hard-work of everyday Americans.
4. Buchanan’s speech was awesome, but 1992 also had some “just okay” moments. Reagan gave an upbeat speech in which he said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Dan Quayle told Bill Clinton he was no Woodrow Wilson, in reference to Lloyd Bentsen’s put-down of Quayle in the 1988 Vice-Presidential debate. Quayle also joked about his spelling. It’s good he was able to laugh at himself. But his whiny book kind of dispelled his image as someone who doesn’t take himself all that seriously.
5. 1996 was all right. It was ideologically tame, compared to the one in 1992. I watched much of it on the Family Channel, where it was hosted by (now Mississippi Governor) Haley Barbour and (now President) George W. Bush. Susan Molinari was cute, as was Elizabeth Dole. And I kind of liked it when Bob Dole characterized Clinton’s Administration as “a core of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned” (see here). The video that commemorated Reagan supposedly brought tears to people’s eyes, but I thought it was rather corny. At this moment, my impression is that the Democrats make better videos. Of course, that may be because they have the entertainment industry on their side! And Dole was further alienating that sector in his rants against Hollywood, in his attempt to appeal to my people (the Christian conservative crowd).
6. I didn’t watch much of the 2000 Republican National Convention, but I do remember Cheney’s speech. Cheney is a plain-speaking man, but what he says can pack a punch. He said “It’s time for them to go” to people who were tired of the Clintons–with their attacks, their spin, their talk without action, their posturing, their immorality. If I’m not mistaken, he got that line from Al Gore’s convention speech in 1992.
7. I didn’t have a TV during the RNC in 2004, so I listened to it on NPR. At first, I tried to get it on 550 AM, my local right-wing station, but I quickly grew tired of Michael Savage’s bitter commentary. Consequently, I switched to a liberal station, which was actually playing the speeches. One that really moved me to tears was that of Elaine Chao, Bush’s Secretary of Labor, who is also the wife of Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (see here). It was touching to hear her talk about her experience as an immigrant from Asia, as her family struggled to adapt to American culture and make a good life for themselves through hard work. She also said that Bush appointed numerous Asian-Pacific Americans to his Administration and extended Pell Grants to thousands of American students. This was pretty refreshing, after hearing Bush presented as the devil incarnate at the Democratic National Convention! At another point, another immigrant, the Governator, spoke to the convention. These speeches really drove home the G.O.P.’s historical role as a party of opportunity.
8. Zell Miller gave the keynote address (see here), and he was a Democratic Senator! He was also the very same guy who gave the keynote speech at Bill Clinton’s 1992 convention. And his 2004 speech was awesome. He said, “My family is more important than my party,” as he expressed his concern for America’s national security and the ways that the Democrats (except for FDR and Truman) had compromised it. He boldly declared that America was a liberator, not an occupier, in its relationship with the world. And, in an honest but politically incorrect statement, he asserted: “Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide.” I loved this speech! Too bad he had to challenge Chris Matthews to a duel.
9. Michael Moore made a movie called Fahrenheit 911, which was a humorous-yet-serious critique of the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq. In the same way that Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were at the Democratic Convention in 2004, Michael Moore was at the Republican one. And John McCain took the opportunity to jab Michael Moore (see here), saying: “Our choice wasn’t between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our critics abroad. Not our political opponents. And certainly not a disingenuous film maker who would have us believe that Saddam’s Iraq was an oasis of peace when in fact it was a place of indescribable cruelty, torture chambers, mass graves and prisons that destroyed the lives of the small children held inside their walls.”
The quote doesn’t do justice to what actually happened. After McCain said “disingenuous film-maker,” the crowd roared. Michael Moore raised his hands, waved, and applauded. The crowd chanted “four more years” as they looked up at Moore sitting in the bleachers. Then, McCain used the line again. Moore later said that he didn’t think McCain knew he was there, since he used the line twice. But McCain seemed to look in his direction, so he might have been aware of his presence.
10. I really don’t remember anything Bush said in his 2004 speech. I recall that protesters managed to break in on at least two occasions. That wasn’t a surprise to me, since I knew people who were planning to protest at the RNC. I lived in New York not long before. I do remember some of Cheney’s speech, since he added a touch of dry humor (see here). Here are my favorite lines:
“And I may say a word or two about his opponent. I am also mindful that I have an opponent of my own. People tell me that Senator Edwards got picked for his good looks, his sex appeal, and his great hair. I say to them — how do you think I got the job?”
“Senator Kerry’s liveliest disagreement is with himself. His back-and-forth reflects a habit of indecision, and sends a message of confusion. And it is all part of a pattern. He has, in the last several years, been for the No Child Left Behind Act–and against it. He has spoken in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement–and against it. He is for the Patriot Act–and against it. Senator Kerry says he sees two Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual–America sees two John Kerrys.”
Well, we’re at another convention! Time sure flies, doesn’t it?