Feedback
News

From Clinton to Obama: Non-Nominee Convention Speeches That Made an Impact

Brokaw revisits past political conventions 6:43

As the dust settles -- and the balloons deflate -- from this week's RNC in Cleveland, pundits and voters are grappling with the substance of what they saw.

Will this convention be defined by its self-inflicted gaffes, like Melania Trump's apparently plagiarized speech? Will it be the launching pad of a new political family dynasty headlined by Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump -- all of whom gave well-received addresses? Did Donald Trump himself, a self-described billionaire who has a record of outsourcing jobs overseas, effectively cast himself as a champion for the American working man? Will Sen. Ted Cruz's controversial "vote your conscience" speech be retroactively viewed as prescient instead of an act of political self-destruction?

What is evident is that unless you count Rudy Giuliani's aggressive performance or Chris Christie's kangaroo-style court indictment of Hillary Clinton, this convention was surprisingly bereft of breakout stars or moments. Certainly, Trump's lengthy and tonally ominous acceptance speech has people talking, but historically there are usually non-nominee politicians who use the convention as launching pad, or at least try to.

Here are some famous examples from the past 40 years of convention speeches delivered by politicians who weren't even their party's nominee that had real impact.

History's most awkward convention moments 2:39

Barbara Jordan, 1976

The Texas lawmaker and breakout star of the Watergate hearings was the first African-American woman to give a keynote address at a national convention, and she made the most of her moment in the spotlight -- delivering a moving and acclaimed ode to the Democratic Party's ability to champion the cause of unity. Her speech was so well-received that her name was floated as a long-shot choice to be nominee Jimmy Carter's running mate, and she eventually did receive a single delegate's vote for president that year.

Ted Kennedy, 1980

After their bitter primary fight, the tension at the DNC in 1980 revolved around how and when then-President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Ted Kennedy would make up. At the convention, Kennedy delivered perhaps his most stirring and famous piece of oratory -- "the dream shall never die" speech -- but never offered a full-throated endorsement of Carter, only congratulating him on his victory. When his address was over, Kennedy tried to avoid physically embracing the president who trailed behind him awkwardly. Carter would later allege in his private journal that his primary opponent had been drinking that night. While the speech is remembered as one of the most inspirational in recent political history, Kennedy's tepid support for the incumbent helped doom him in November.

Mario Cuomo, 1984

The late New York governor significantly raised his national profile with his eloquent rebuttal to President Reagan's romanticized "city on a hill" remarks. Cuomo effectively disseminated what Democrats saw as the hollowness of the Reagan era's economic recovery in his keynote address in 1984. "A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well," he said. "But there's another city ... the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate." Cuomo's speech was so well-received it kicked off nearly a decade of speculation that he would seek the presidency, and infamous indecision on his part about whether he would. He ultimately would never mount a White House bid.

CLINTON
Then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton waves his fist during his nomination of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for Democratic presidential candidate on July 21, 1988 in Atlanta at the Democratic National Convention. RON EDMONDS / ASSOCIATED PRESS

A baby-faced, 41-year-old Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, flopped in his featured role at the 1988 DNC, where he was tasked with introducing nominee Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. The characteristically long-winded Clinton went on for a full 33 minutes, and drew uncomfortable cheers when he said "in closing." At the time, the perception was that Clinton had pre-emptively short-circuited his promising political career. But in an early glimpse of his dexterity, he had fun lampooning the poorly received address during a subsequent appearance on "The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson." Of course, Clinton would get the last laugh -- he would be the nominee and eventual victor himself in just four years.

Pat Buchanan, 1992

The former-speechwriter-turned-fiercely-conservative-commentator brought his insurgent campaign for the White House to the RNC in 1992, and delivered a polarizing speech, which provided red meat for the far right of the GOP, but appeared to be out of the step with the more moderate populace. Buchanan railed against the Democrats' -- and the Clintons' -- advocacy for "homosexual rights" and "women in combat units" in a speech that centered on what would be labeled the "culture wars." Buchanan's rhetoric would become more mainstream orthodoxy in the party in the ensuing years, his speech illustrated the growing gulf between the two major parties on social issues, and his "Make America First" ideology has a direct descendant in Trump.

Memorable convention moments: 1964-2008 3:35

Barack Obama, 2004

Prior to his iconic keynote address at the DNC in 2004, Obama was a little known, but promising, young state senator from Illinois. But after the "son of a goat herder" delivered his impassioned, unapologetically patriotic plea for a United States of America as opposed to a country split between red and blue political party lines, he became a household name and an overnight sensation. The speech would be credited with propelling Obama to the U.S. Senate and eventually the White House. And although his vision of a post-partisan utopia hasn't materialized, the speech suggested that there was a national appetite for consensus-building.

Zell Miller, 2004

That same year, the conservative Democratic senator from Georgia, Zell Miller, gave a speech that couldn't have been further removed from Obama's in terms of its tone and delivery. Ironically, Miller had been the keynote speaker for the Democrats in 1992, but in 2004 he crossed over to support the Republicans. In a furious, some would argue vicious, speech, he accused Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of wanting to arm the U.S. military with nothing more than "spitballs." Following his speech (which some Republicans quickly distanced themselves from), a still-incensed Miller would challenge MSNBC's Chris Matthews to a duel for questioning his rhetoric.

Martin O'Malley, 2012

The Maryland governor and former Baltimore mayor had long been a trendy pick for a future VP or presidential nomination when he spoke at the DNC in 2012, but his relatively uninspired speech and presence muted the hype that had once been attached to his name. Perhaps had he given a more memorable address, O'Malley's 2016 campaign would have generated more excitement in a race where the front-runner was decidedly unpopular and his other chief rival was a 74-year-old socialist.