A Few Convention Oddities, Pre-Clint Eastwood

Aug 31, 2012
Originally published on August 31, 2012 1:51 pm

From one angle, Clint Eastwood's dialogue with an imaginary President Obama — using a tall chair as a prop — at the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Thursday night was sharp-pointed and youthful and edgy and film-schoolish.

From another angle, it could be construed as the meanderings of an older man who is disenchanted by a shaky economy, an ongoing war and the perception of broken promises, but somehow can't put his disgruntlement into words.

In any case, it was for many observers a very odd occurrence. Eastwood's speech, says Stan M. Haynes, a Baltimore attorney who has written about the history of political conventions, "certainly had its strange moments and will likely strengthen the policy of the parties that all appearances from the podium must be tightly scripted, regardless of the status of the speaker."

But it was far from alone among odd moments at political conventions. A few recent examples spring to mind:

-- At the Republican convention in 2008, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, only eight years removed from being the Democratic candidate for vice president, rallied the party in Minneapolis. "What, after all, is a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this?" he asked. "I'm here to support John McCain because country matters more than party." Things got even weirder when Lieberman praised former President Bill Clinton. "Surreal is the best word," NPR's Ken Rudin observed at the time. "Given the fact that everybody in that hall were members of the vast right-wing conspiracy, and here they are cheering Bill Clinton's name and Bill Clinton's accomplishments."

— At the Democratic convention in 2008, Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, addressed the crowd in Denver and endorsed Barack Obama, whom she said "has the energy, but more importantly, the temperament, to run this country and provide the leadership we need."

-- At the Republican convention in 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., attacked people who were pessimistic about the economy as "girlie men" — a reference to a popular Saturday Night Live skit that parodied his bodybuilding past.

The Philadelphia Inquirer noted the oddness: First, Schwarzenegger "used a satire on his own muscle-bound inanity to mock others. Second, how many GOP delegates even got this reference to a late-night show that drips with New York hipness, sexual innuendo, and scorn for family values?"

Not A New Phenomenon

Haynes, author of The First American Political Conventions, Transforming Presidential Nominations, 1832-1872, notes there have been awkward moments in conventions throughout American history — not just in the television era.

He reaches deep into the history books for one memorable and very weird occasion. At the 1868 Democratic convention in New York, Haynes says, the convention was deadlocked ballot after ballot, and there was no obvious front-runner. Convention President Horatio Seymour, a former governor of New York, had vehemently told his party that he was not a candidate and would not accept the nomination. To break the deadlock, however, Seymour's name was introduced — much to his chagrin.

Seymour "took to the podium and pleaded to the delegates, 'God bless you for your kindness to me, but your candidate I cannot be,' " Haynes says.

The delegates ignored his pleas and spirited him out of the convention hall. "Some say he was, in effect, kidnapped," Haynes says, "and was kept away while the voting took place."

Seymour was unanimously nominated.

Known from then on as "The Great Decliner," Haynes adds, "Seymour was persuaded to accept the nomination. ... He ended up losing the 1868 election, to Ulysses Grant."

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