Planning to watch President Obama’s acceptance speech tonight? According to The Associated Press, which got an advance look, he’ll say that “the choice voters face won’t be just between two candidates but between two different paths for the nation. He says he wouldn’t pretend the path he is offering is quick or easy. Obama will also spell out clear goals, including 1 million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016 and reducing the deficit by more than $4 trillion over the next decade.”
Will it be a speech to be remembered? Houston Chronicle writer Richard S. Dunham offers his top 10 acceptance speeches by Democratic presidential nominees. That list includes Obama’s 2008 speech.
1. William Jennings Bryan, 1896.
The Boy Orator of the Platte became a populist hero by delivering the famous “Cross of Gold” speech, widely considered the greatest political speech of the 19th century. It cemented the 36-year-old Nebraska lawyer – who had failed to win a Senate seat two years earlier and was compared by critics to the French revolutionary Robespierre – as the dominant Democratic politician for a generation. “In this land of the free,” he told the Chicago convention, “you need fear no tyrant who will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of aggregated wealth.” Great speech, great speaker, poor presidential candidate. Three losses in three tries.
Highlight: “We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932
In the midst of the Great Depression, New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt broke with tradition and became the first Democrat to speak to his national convention since William Jennings Bryan. At the convention in Chicago, he offered a lengthy address discussing the causes of the nation’s crisis and his proposed solutions. He portrayed himself as the leader who could guide the nation away from radical solutions offered by Communists or populists such as Louisiana demagogue Huey Long, on the one hand, and laissez faire Republicans who “tell us economic laws —sacred, inviolable, unchangeable – cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving.”
Highlight: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.”
3. Barack Obama, 2008
The first candidate of African ancestry to win a presidential nomination delivered an emotional acceptance speech that was a tribute to the American Dream. Speaking to the delegates at the convention in Denver, he described the “brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.” The sense of history was palpable, and Obama embraced it, declaring, “It’s time for us to change America.”
Highlight: “This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.
“Instead, it is that American spirit – that American promise – that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.”
4. Bill Clinton, 1992
After decades of the Depression-era standard song “Happy Days Are Here Again,” the Democrats turned to modern pop music and Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow.” Clinton’s speech at Madison Square Garden in New York, and his selection of fellow forty-something Al Gore, set up a generational choice between the young Democrats and a 68-year-old Republican incumbent, George Bush.
Highlight: “Somewhere at this very moment a child is being born in America … Let it be our cause to see that child grow up strong and secure, braced by her challenges but never struggling alone, with family and friends and a faith that in America, no one is left out; no one is left behind … My fellow Americans, I end tonight where it all began for me: I still believe in a place called Hope.”
5. John F. Kennedy, 1960
The young Massachusetts senator delivered what is widely considered the best acceptance speech of the past half-century. He spoke in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the last one to be held in a football stadium until Barack Obama’s 2008 speech at Denver’s Invesco Field. JFK’s address included visionary “New Frontier” rhetoric and sharp-edged attacks, like describing opponent Richard Nixon as the un-Lincoln: “His political career has often seemed to show charity towards none and malice for all.”
Highlight: “We are not here to curse the darkness; we are here to light a candle. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some 20 years ago: If we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future. Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.”
6. Bill Clinton, 1996
“The bridge to the 21st century” was the theme of Clinton’s acceptance speech at the United Center in Chicago during his 1996 re-election bid. It brilliantly created a stark contrast with the 72-year-old Republican nominee, Bob Dole, who, according to the Democrats, represented the past.
Highlight: “I want to build a bridge to the 21st century with a strong American community beginning with strong families, an America where all children are cherished and protected from destructive forces, where parents can succeed at home and at work. Everywhere I’ve gone in America, people come up and talk to me about their struggle with the demands of work and their desire to do a better job with their children. The very first person I ever saw fight that battle was here with me four years ago. And tonight, I miss her very, very much. My irrepressible, hard-working, always optimistic mother did the best she could for my brother and me, often against very stiff odds.”
7. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936
Three and a half years into Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, the nation was still mired in Depression. Unemployment had fallen but was still at 14 percent. Republicans were blaming the president for growing the size of government and running up massive deficits. Speaking to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, Roosevelt delivered a ringing defense of his economic policies and warned against “economic royalists” in the Republican Party whose “economic tyranny” had brought the nation to ruin.
Highlight: “Here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world. I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war.”
8. Jimmy Carter, 1976.
In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, Democrats turned to a peanut farmer from rural Georgia. Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor and state senator considered the embodiment of the post-segregation “New South,” delivered a moralistic oration calling for “new voices and new ideas and new leaders” to unify a country “shaken by a tragic war abroad and by scandals and broken promises at home.” Carter left the Madison Square Garden convention in New York with a lead of more than 20 percentage points over Gerald Ford, a lead the incumbent Republican could never overcome.
Highlight: “Our country has lived through a time of torment. It is now a time for healing. We want to have faith again. We want to be proud again. We just want the truth again.”
9. Lyndon Johnson, 1964
By the time the Democrats met in Atlantic City, victory seemed assured over a divided Republican Party led by Barry Goldwater. So President Johnson, who had become president just nine months earlier following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, asked voters for a mandate to implement his ambitious “Great Society” programs. He got it.
Highlight: “Let me make this clear. I ask the American people for a mandate – not to preside over a finished program – not just to keep things going, I ask the American people for a mandate to begin. This nation, this generation, in this hour, has man’s first chance to build the Great Society – a place where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labor.”
10. Harry Truman, 1948
Republicans seized control of Congress in 1946 for the first time since the Great Depression, and most pundits were predicting that Tom Dewey would oust President Harry Truman two years later. The 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia devolved into chaos, with Southern Democrats walking out because the party favored integration. At 2 a.m., a tired and cranky Truman took to the microphones for an acceptance speech carried live on radio. It became famous – the beginning of his battle against a Do-Nothing Republican Congress. Using blunt language – “poppycock” was among his tamer words – he accused the GOP of hurting the nation by foiling his proposals for everything from universal health care to an expanded Social Security System.
Highlight: “I called a special session of the Congress in November 1947 – November 17, 1947 – and I set out a 10-point program for the welfare and benefit of this country… I got nothing. Congress has still done nothing.”
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