Words We Remember: If You Tune out the Endless Convention Speeches, You Might Miss a Moment When History Is Made

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So you want to get terror suspects screaming for mercy? Make them sit through every last speech that will issue forth, like so many gusts of steam, from the two major party conventions. Better yet, make them leap up with a whoop and wave signs after every third sentence. Call it rhetorical torture.


By my count, 45 speakers were given their moment on the stage at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Not to be outdone, the Democrats showcased 61 speakers at their convention that year. One hundred and six speeches over a total of eight days...more than enough evidence that these conventions should be held at Guantanamo, if anywhere.


Yes, most of the speeches will be utterly forgettable--wooden to the core, and blandly delivered. And yes, your index finger will get the workout of its life mashing down on that mute button.

But--and I would say this even if I wasn't editor of a magazine called Politics--don't make the dumb mistake of tuning out completely. History shows us that sprinkled amid the relentless yammering are some speeches of real consequence. To miss them is to miss moments of true revelation.

Some of these speeches are remembered because they were uniquely and powerfully inspiring. The granddaddy of them all has to be the "Cross of Gold" speech delivered in Chicago on July 9, 1896, by the Democratic nominee for president. William Jennings Bryan (who, then 36, remains the youngest person ever nominated for president). If anyone needs proof that Jennings was an orator for the ages, consider that his scintillating theme was the wickedness of the gold standard. The Great Commoner, as the populist Jennings was called, thundered his case for bimetallism--a currency backed by gold and silver--as the necessary salvation of Americans still reeling from the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1893. After delivering his now-immortal kicker--"You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns! You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!"--Bryan was lifted up onto the shoulders of the fired-up delegates and paraded around the convention hall.

It's true that Bryan lost the election to William McKinley, but his fiery defense of the working man became a touchstone for Democrats, one given voice in later years by such presidents as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

In July 1960, the Democrats heard from another young nominee, John F. Kennedy, whose rhetoric had the similar effect of energizing a tired party. Kennedy's brilliant inaugural address has overshadowed his acceptance speech at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but it was at the convention that he coined a phrase that has defined his presidency ever since. "The problems are not all solved, and the battles are not all won," he said, "and we stand today on the edge of a New- Frontier, the frontier of the 1960s. ... Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises--it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask them."

"This theme of a 'New Frontier' emerged for the first time in his acceptance speech," says Ted Sorensen, a special assistant to Kennedy who worked on many of JFK's speeches. "It was his way of pledging that Democrats weren't going to engage in the usual politics. Instead, he pushed the themes of service, sacrifice and self-discipline, all consistent with the idea of a frontier." Those listening to the young Massachusetts senator were hearing the first echoes of his famous lines six months later, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

And, according to Sorensen, Kennedy's appeal to Americans to join him in braving the New Frontier--beyond which, he said in his convention speech, "are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus"--portended everything from his launch of the Peace Corps to his pledge to land a man on the moon to his efforts promoting civil rights. …