A surprise party at the GOP convention: Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan ensured that 1988 was the last of its kind

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

T.S. Eliot (or, at least, his J. Alfred Prufrock) “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” For me, the seasons of a working life have been measured in political conventions.

Over four decades, I have seen conventions go from deciding the fate of candidates and parties to becoming the political equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg, a replica village where everyone pretends to follow the traditions of yesteryear. Maybe we should be grateful that conventions survive at all instead of being replaced by nomination by tweet with the acceptance speech coming via an iPhone app.

I started attending conventions at a very young age. Covering the 1968 Republicans in Miami Beach for my college newspaper, I had no awareness that I was witnessing the last gasp of the era when conventions were more than a prime-time TV show with a live audience. For all the funny hats and actual cigar smoke, for all the windbag nominating speeches for favorite-son candidates and protracted roll-call votes (“Alabama casts 26 votes for the next president of the United States...”), conventions still possessed an air of dangerous spontaneity.

Tanned, rested and ready, Richard Nixon came to Miami Beach as the unquestioned favorite. That is, if he could hold the South against a last-minute challenge from first-term California Governor Ronald Reagan. Joining a pincer movement with liberal Nelson Rockefeller (yes, the L-word was used in Republican circles back in those Paleozoic days), Reagan tried to prevent Nixon from winning a first-ballot victory. The theory was that if Nixon fell short of a 667-vote majority, his institutional support would drift away on later ballots.

It didn’t happen, of course. But Rockefeller and Reagan came surprisingly close. What stays with me is the memory of seeing Reagan make his pitch in a hotel ballroom to the wavering North Carolina delegation, listening as the Gipper at the height of his rhetorical powers almost closed the deal. It was all out there in public, with only a few stray TV cameras, as delegates wrestled with an internal battle between their hearts (all Reagan) and their heads (don’t rock the boat, Nixon looks like a winner). 

My next GOP Convention was 20 years later in New Orleans – and, by then, the imagemakers had dictated that a convention was nothing more than an advertorial, a glossy prime-time package promoting a political brand. The only problem was that the Republican nominee, Vice President George Bush, aroused all the passions of ... well ... a Mitt Romney. So to artificially interject a bit of drama into the convention (and give GOP politics a fair shot of competing against New Orleans’ restaurants and bars), Bush successfully kept his vice-presidential choice shrouded in secrecy until the Tuesday of the convention.

A nifty idea, if only Bush had tapped someone more substantive than Dan Quayle. All a reporter had to do was to walk across a hotel lobby in New Orleans to find GOP Senate aides eager to grouse that Quayle was a lightweight and Bush should have chosen their boss instead. The first baby boomer on a national ticket, Quayle also became a casualty of the what-did-you-do-during-Vietnam question. With Republicans ill-prepared to defend the Quayle choice because they had not been supplied with talking points in advance, New Orleans permanently quashed the idea of a convention surprise more dramatic than the color of the balloons and confetti that will rain down on the nominee.

There still was the tradition that a defeated candidate for the nomination – even a failed regicide who went after an incumbent president – was entitled to his moment in the sun. So despite his challenge to Bush in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Pat Buchanan was rewarded with a prime-time speaking slot at the Houston convention. And Buchanan, a speechwriter and adviser to three Republican presidents, knew how to seize the moment and find words that still reverberate 20 years later.

I can recall exactly where I was sitting in the press gallery as Buchanan thundered: “There is a religious war going on in this country. A culture war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself.” It was a splenetic speech designed to make the faithful cheer and any undecided voter recoil in horror.

The liberal columnist Molly Ivins joked at the time, “It probably sounded better in its original German.” Buchanan was the last of a line of sore-loser convention speakers who managed to get to say what they wanted without complete script approval from the staff of the winning candidate. All conventions in both parties since Buchanan have followed the dictum, Bland is better.  

Sure--presidential nominees aside--there have been memorable convention speeches since then, from Barack Obama’s launching-pad keynote address in 2004 to Sarah Palin’s 2008 explanation of the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom: “Lipstick.” And maybe Chris Christie, Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan will offer rhetoric that will make the rafters ring.

But, far more likely, most prime-time speeches in Tampa and Charlotte will be as forgettable as the 2008 keynote addresses at both conventions. (They were delivered by--surely you know ... the memories must be so vivid--Rudy Giuliani in Minneapolis and Mark Warner in Denver).

It is easy to romanticize the old days at political conventions. I am not sure I could have endured all 103 steamy ballots that stretched over 16 days at the July 1924 Democratic convention at the old decidedly un-air-conditioned Madison Square Garden in New York. But I do know that politics was more vivid and the stakes far higher back in Miami Beach in 1968. As Joni Mitchell sang back in those days, in a completely different context, “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”