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Greatest Hits in the Modern History of Republican Conventions

Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing,” October 27, 1964

As the Republican Party convenes in Tampa (albeit a day late), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on past gatherings.  Here are my nominations for greatest hits of GOP conventions in the modern era:

1. Barry Goldwater, acceptance of 1964 presidential nomination

A touchstone in the history of the Republican Party and the American conservative movement, the Arizona Senator’s unapologetic speech rallied the faithful and exacerbated the GOP’s internal ideological split.  It also diverged from the standard acceptance speech formula.  Goldwater’s address pulled no punches and was devoid of the customary vapid overtures to one’s political opponents.  Instead, “Mr. Conservative” reminded the country that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

2. Pat Buchanan, 1992 Keynote Address

In a now-infamous speech delivered after Buchanan’s failed attempt to wrest the GOP nomination from sitting President George H.W. Bush, the former Reagan staffer alleged a “culture war” was on.  The enemy was clear: “the malcontents” at the Democratic convention, “environmental extremists,” the media, “radical feminism,” and the Clinton agenda calling for “abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, [and] women in combat.”  Many Republicans argued that Buchanan should never have been given such a prominent speaking role and were convinced his nationally televised remarks cost the Bush-Quayle ticket independent votes in November.

3. Zell Miller, 2004 Keynote Address

The Georgia Senator filled the unofficial Disillusioned Democrat slot at the Republican Convention eight years ago.  With the Iraq War in full swing, Miller’s scathing address focused on foreign policy and his party’s alleged abandonment of national security and capitulation to terrorists:  “I can remember when Democrats believed it was the duty of America to fight for freedom over tyranny…Time after time in our history, in the face of great danger, Democrats and Republicans worked together to ensure that freedom would not falter.  But not today.  Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator.  And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators!”

4. Sarah Palin, acceptance of 2008 vice-presidential nomination

It’s easy to forget that there were several days when John McCain’s running mate selection appeared to be the stuff of political genius.  The high point for the Alaska Governor—and perhaps for the 2008 McCain campaign—was her riveting convention speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination.  Even those who didn’t like the message were impressed with the delivery, and the Obama-Biden campaign was reportedly concerned that they’d been outmaneuvered by her surprise addition to the GOP ticket.  Despite Code Pink protesters in the audience and a broken teleprompter, she didn’t miss a beat.  Of course, the wheels came off shortly after the Straight Talk Express pulled out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Palin never fully recovered from her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson and her discussion of newspapers with Katie Couric.  But for one night at least, Palin appeared to be just the game changer McCain was looking for.

Honorable Mention: Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing” aka “The Speech,” 1964

Technically, the most legendary Republican convention speech wasn’t a convention speech at all.  It’s a common misconception that this Reagan classic was delivered at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.  In fact, the Democrat-turned-Republican and future president actually gave his most famous address in a made-for-TV special in the campaign’s closing days.  And while “The Speech” may not have been enough to save Barry Goldwater from an historic landslide defeat at the hands of President Lyndon Johnson, it made Reagan a GOP star and became a manifesto for the conservative movement.

Will there be any additions to the list this week?  We’ll know soon enough.  The best bets: “Hurricane” Chris Christie’s Keynote Address tonight and Paul Ryan’s Vice Presidential acceptance speech tomorrow.

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