The upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions will be unprecedented in their formats, as both parties transition to mostly digital means amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the 2020 conventions will merely be the latest in a decades-long history of historic gatherings featuring political stars, soaring rhetoric and even violent clashes.
Here are a few of the most memorable moments from recent conventions:
‘You have sacrificed nothing and no one’
If you know the story of Khizr Khan, you might recall the famous image of the Gold Star father pulling a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution from the inside of his suit and offering it to then-Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“Let me ask you: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy,” Khan said, speaking onstage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Khan’s son, a U.S. Army captain, was killed in Iraq. Given a spotlight in 2016, Khan told the country how much his Pakistani-American family had sacrificed for the U.S., only to have Trump “consistently smear the character of Muslims” and vow to “ban us from this country.”
“You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” Khan said of Trump.
“Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with our future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words “liberty” and “equal protection of law,” Khan said.
“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities,” Khan said to overwhelming applause from the audience of Democratic delegates in attendance.
Trump later responded in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos by saying, “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard.” In the months that followed, the feud grew uglier. Trump, a sitting president by that point, continued to attack Khan and his wife, Gold Star parents.
In 2018, a post office located in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Khan’s son went to college, was named the Captain Humayun Khan Post Office.
‘You know what they say the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!’
Sarah Palin’s confident, quick-witted and pointed speech at the Republican National Convention in 2008 rocketed her from an unknown, somewhat confusing pick for vice president to a rising star in the party and idol for Republican moms.
For a look straight into the mood that night, here’s an outtake from ABC News’ coverage in 2008: “Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin brought the Republican National Convention to its feet Wednesday night in a highly anticipated acceptance speech, skewering Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, slamming the news media, painting herself as the ultimate Washington outsider and touting the military service and reformer record of her ticket-mate, Sen. John McCain,” wrote ABC News’ Jennifer Parker at the time.
“By the end of the night, delegates — representing the base of the Republican Party — were chanting her name, a long way from less than a week ago when the little-known governor of one of the least populous states in the nation was introduced as McCain’s running mate.”
There was one line, in particular, that captured the night: “You know what they say the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick!” Palin joked, knocking down sexist questions about her ability to do the job of vice president while raising children.
Notably, a lot has changed since 2008. Palin quickly fell from grace after her speech that night, often committing gaffes that tripped up her and McCain’s chances at the election they eventually lost to former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden (who told reporters in 2008 he was impressed by Palin’s speech). But in a way, it all comes full circle. Fast forward to 2020, and Biden is on the ticket as a presidential nominee, along with Sen. Kamala Harris — only the third woman to be named vice president for a major presidential party, following in the footsteps of Palin and Geraldine Ferraro.
‘The audacity of hope’
In 2004, a little-known Illinois state senator burst on the national political scene with a keynote address that set the bar for future convention speakers.
Barack Obama, then in the midst of a campaign for his first (and only) U.S. Senate term, electrified the crowd at Boston’s Fleet Center with an address in which he introduced himself and detailed his unique upbringing, described the “genius of America” and the freedoms guaranteed to its residents, and issued an urgent call for unity amid political divisions.
“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America,” Obama said. “There is not a Black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.
“The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats,” he continued. “But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”
Praise for the keynote was immediate and nearly universal, with some pundits predicting that night he’d be the nation’s first Black president. Hillary Clinton, later his 2008 primary rival, said it was “one of the most electrifying moments that I can remember at any convention.”
Just four years later, some of those forecasts would become true as Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination before a crowd of over 80,000 people in Denver.
A moment of passion mixed with politics
Kissing is not often on display at Washington functions, which may have been the point of Al and Tipper Gore’s deep, seconds-long, very public display of affection onstage at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
Some said it was planned, an attempt at loosening up Gore’s robotic image in the public eye; others said it was par for the course in the passionate relationship between Tipper and Al Gore. Still others said it telegraphed to the country that this was a man and wife whose long commitment to each other could restore to the White House a sense of propriety lost during former President Bill Clinton’s tenure.
Either way, it made headlines.
After Gore accepted his party’s presidential nomination at the DNC, which was in Los Angeles in 2000, red, white and blue confetti fell from the ceiling and Tipper came out to the stage to meet him. He met her, embracing her for a long, open-mouthed kiss before the cameras. His four children came out to join them, the whole family waving.
Gore would go on to lose to former President George W. Bush in a fraught election eventually decided by the Supreme Court. Over the course of the next decade, he transformed his career to focus on stopping climate change. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his environmental advocacy, largely due to the popularity of his 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Gore also went through personal transformations. In 2010, he announced his separation from Tipper Gore, which the couple said was mutual.
‘Read my lips’
It is remembered as the ultimate political promise.
“Read my lips,” then-Vice President George H.W. Bush declared at the 1988 Republican National Convention. “No new taxes.”
For voters — and particularly supporters of President Ronald Reagan — potentially wary of the lifelong federal servant’s second run at the presidency, it was a moment of reassurance. After several years of economic growth following the early 1980s recession, Bush promised to uphold a similar pledge made by Reagan four years prior, and used the moment to draw a contrast with his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis.
“My opponent now says he’ll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But when a politician talks like that, you know that’s one resort he’ll be checking into,” Bush said. “My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes. But I will.”
But as memorable as the statement is, so too is the fact that Bush couldn’t keep it. The economy slowed and rising budget deficits forced Congress to weigh making substantial cuts versus increasing rates. Forced into negotiations with the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, Bush ultimately acquiesced and signed a budget agreement in 1990 that raised several taxes.
Two years later, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton seized on the broken promise and asked voters to hold Bush liable. The 41st president would go on to lose the 1992 election to Clinton by over 200 electoral votes.
The first woman to make history on a vice presidential ticket: Geraldine Ferraro
The legacy of Geraldine Ferraro, who made history when she accepted her vice presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, has returned with new power in the wake of Biden choosing Harris as his running mate on the Democratic ticket. As the first-ever woman to be tapped as vice president on a major ticket, Ferraro in some ways paved the way for the 2020 race.
Of course, it’s been a long road: Ferraro was named as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate in 1984 on the Democratic Party ticket. It took over two decades for another woman to join her. Palin made history in 2008 as the first woman to be nominated for vice president on the Republican ticket and Hillary Clinton made history in 2016 as the first woman to ever be nominated for president of a major party.
Ferraro, who died in 2011 at the age of 75, told National Public Radio in 2008 that she was glad to see Palin on the GOP ticket with McCain.
“For 24 years I’ve been saying, ‘It’s great to be the first, but y’know, I don’t want to be the only,'” Ferraro said. “And so now it is wonderful to see a woman on a national ticket.”
Ferraro graduated from Fordham Law School, one of only three women in her class. She raised her children, passed the bar, served as an assistant district attorney in the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, and was first elected to Congress from New York’s 9th Congressional District in Queens in 1978. She served three terms in the House.
‘The whole world is watching’
Nearly a decade of social and political turmoil came to a head in August 1968 in Chicago when protestors advocating for civil rights, women’s rights and opposed to the Vietnam War, all converged outside the Democratic National Convention.
Inside the convention, Vice President Hubert Humphrey officially became the party’s presidential nominee after a controversial primary season in which he did not compete, but rather inherited delegates from President Lyndon Johnson, who withdrew from the race in March. Further casting a cloud over proceedings was the assassination of New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy less than three months prior, amid his own campaign for the nomination.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Chicago, despite pledges by Mayor Richard J. Daley that “law and order will be maintained,” protesters clashed violently with police in confrontations largely captured by television cameras and broadcast nationwide — leading some demonstrators to chant, “The whole world is watching.”
Protests and marches continued for a full week, even as hundreds were injured and arrested, and the Chicago Police Department’s tactics were criticized as heavy-handed by many, including prominent Democrats in attendance at the convention.