Talking Points

Barack Obama's 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention contained sound-bite-worthy lines that would be replayed long after the ovation subsided. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America—there's the United States of America," he said. Despite his greenness—Obama had never before used a teleprompter—the reaction was titanic. Bill Clinton waited with throngs of other admirers to have his picture taken with Obama. Chris Matthews marveled on MSNBC: "I was shivering; it was so good." Outside Boston's Fleet Center, Obama had to beg a panting crowd: "Can y'all just give me a moment to use the Port-o-let?"

When Mark Warner takes the stage in Denver on Tuesday night, all eyes will be on the Virginia governor to see if he can successfully capture the razzle dazzle that all convention keynote speeches aspire to but only few fulfill. The job is in many ways easy. In nominating the chosen candidate, the keynoter is meant to convey the message and spirit of the party: that they – the party and the candidate - have more in common with most Americans and that they, alone, are the answer to the country's many ills. If the message is simple, the magic is much harder.

Not all convention keynote speeches are legendary. Remember Gov. Reubin Askew, in 1972? Exactly. Still, many have had lasting impact. Mario Cuomo's uplifting "two cities" speech in 1984 boosted his popularity as governor of New York and made him a favorite for the party nomination. In 1988, future Texas governor Ann Richards got in a now famous keynote jab at then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, for being "born with a silver foot in his mouth." Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan's historic speech at the 1976 Democratic Convention is regarded as a classic of modern political oratory.


But, says one speechwriter for the Clinton White House and the Gore-Lieberman campaign, "Obama took it to a whole other level. His message was fresh; his voice was new; his rhetoric was different…. Nobody has taken all that light and heat and energy and directed it toward a run as much as he has."

That is a bit overstated. Since 1940, 21 of the 34 keynoters at Republican and Democratic conventions have gone on to mount a presidential bid. John F. Kennedy did it in 1956, with his speech nominating Estes Kefauver, and by 1958 he was the front-runner for the nomination. Ronald Reagan left favorable impressions at both the 1968 and 1976 conventions, eventually winning the presidency in 1980. William Jennings Bryan did it instantly in 1896, with his "Cross of Gold" speech. He was a 36-year-old congressman from Nebraska who had served only two terms but made the first of three White House bids based on the strength of his oratory.

And the keynote speaker is just one in the overall line-up of crucial voices, each chosen to represent a certain aspect of the party's image and platform. With so much at stake, choosing the roster of speakers for the conventions is an intricate game.

Longtime strategists for both parties say everything is on the table when choosing speakers—race, gender, geography and speech-making ability; the political impact is calculated down to the smallest measure. Jack Corrigan, who oversaw the 2004 DNC speech-writing operation says: "You look for people who are interesting, you look for some geographic spread, you look for demographic diversity, and you look for big states or swing states."


From Barbara Jordan to Harold Ford to Bill Richardson to Obama himself, racial diversity has been a key concern of schedulers. A sea of white men doesn't look good for any party, which is why the GOP has several women and faces of color like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former California treasurer Rosario Marin scheduled to speak. With geographic picks, convention schedulers are often trying to appeal to two audiences. Speakers like Jennifer Granholm, governor of Michigan, or this year's Democratic keynoter, Mark Warner of Virginia, offer a twofer: a familiar face to voters back home and fresh voices for viewers just tuning in to the party's broad base of leadership. It doesn't hurt that both Granholm and Warner are from critical swing states in this year's election.

As for what the speakers say—well that's also careful stagecraft. The main task for most speakers is to offer a simple biographical introduction to a large national audience. The introduction is as much about introducing viewers to the party as it is to any one speaker. According to political historian Costas Panagopoulos, "For the 10 to 15 percent of Americans who casually pay attention to politics, this is when you put your best foot forward and your best argument."


The national convention committees review the speeches of all selected speakers, big names and small. This year's speakers range from Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth for the Democrats to Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman for the GOP. Each has a unique story to tell, but must also strike the overall themes of the convention. Speakers are to submit a draft of their planned remarks a week or more in advance. Then comes the hard part.

Leading up to the 2004 DNC, some 200 separate speeches were vetted in the speechwriting "boiler room," A similar process exists for the GOP. The speechwriters are looking for consistency with the overall message and a lack of repetition or overlap with other speakers or the nominee. Depending on the quality of the original text, speechwriters can edit liberally, adding rhetorical touches or specific information about the convention nominee, or (as with Obama's 2004 speech) they may leave the speeches largely untouched.


The message (for Democrats, themes like "One Nation" or "Securing America's Future;" for Republicans, "Reform" or "Prosperity") must come across loud and clear. Often, just the face at the podium sends a clear message. Tuesday's lineup for Democrats, for example, has Hillary Clinton headlining a full slate of female elected officials, from state houses to the Senate. The unpopular President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, however, will speak on the first night of the GOP convention and then leave town entirely. This kind of visual narrative is a huge part of convention organizing.

Some speakers are chosen to be attack dogs. While the 2004 Democratic convention was absent of any fierce criticism of George W. Bush, at the Republican convention a month later, then-Sen. Zell Miller, gave a keynote address that was a sustained, 20-minute attack on Sen. John Kerry. Expect the Obama-Biden ticket to depart from the Kerry-Edwards path of four years ago, and go after John McCain early.


Speakers throw elbows in different ways: Ann Richards' direct, wry wit was different from Cuomo's uplifting, if contrast-laden speech of 1984. Bill Clinton's acceptance speech in 1992 was a strong pushback against Bush, without seeming like an hour-long negative ad. Rudy Giuliani, this year's Republican keynoter, is a familiar face to many Americans and a political warrior who will happily fill Zell Miller's shoes this year.

Attack dogs may be running in packs at both conventions, however. Says Democratic speechwriter Corrigan: "I would be advising speakers to, you know, tell the truth; give them hell."


Dayo Olopade is a reporter at The New Republic.

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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