And now for the 20th century Democratic VP nomination acceptance speeches, also ranked in order of best to worst.
Similar to the GOP candidates, there is no footage that I could find for the 1952 election. Also, the 1948 speech only exists in fragments. Needless to say, I think it’s very sad as always that this stuff was not recorded in full and/or not preserved for public consumption. It boggles my mind, in hindsight, why Truman was so lucky that his convention speech survived while all 3 of the others from that year didn’t. And I guess the media made the collective decision that the VP speeches weren’t worth recording the next cycle. As you’ll see, Kefauver’s address in 1956 only seemed to survive in full because it’s so short, while Nixon’s merely survives in a 6 minute fragment—I guess that was all the time the news allotted for them or some nonsense. Only once the 1960s began did the media apparently get their act together, and even then we’re missing primary debates left and right until 1976 and convention speeches into the 80s.
Alben Barkley (1948)
“I am not an expert in cobwebs, but it seems to me if my memory does not betray me, that when the Democrats took over the government 16 years ago, the spiders in DC were too weak with starvation to even weave or spin.” This is Barkley’s interesting line in rebuttal to his GOP competitor, who promised to clean the cobwebs out of Washington. And that’s just about all we get, unfortunately.
Joe Biden (2012)
There’s an unintentionally funny moment at the beginning when Biden’s wife remains standing as he addresses her, then as he starts droning on, she eventually realizes “oh this is gonna be awhile” and sits back down. And it looks like here, Biden kinda forgot what (in my opinion) made his original opener work—he got the family stuff over quick and then moved on. This might sound crass, but listening to him say over and over again how much he loves his wife, it makes me groan. Yeah, it’s touching how much they love each other and I’m sure these moments are done to show the voters how the nominees are human beings too. But I just think it makes the speeches drag, and I want to hear about the issues, not the obvious. (I kind of assumed the candidates already loved their wives, you know?)
This speech feels somewhat different from his first. It’s a lot louder, a lot more commanding, and a lot more reverent of Obama as a man. It’s pretty cool seeing Biden tackle this speech from a different angle. He does a lot more yelling—the warmth and excitement from 2008 is gone and in came a man who’s a fighter and who’s fed up with the way things are. I think its an interesting and sound strategy—you’ve got to keep the people fired up and eager to stand in line and vote for you. Especially in 2012 when a good number of people, myself included, were disappointed in Obama. Just saying “things are going pretty good already, right?” and not offering any fire was the losing strategy of 2016. Obama and Biden knew better than that. [At least until Biden ran again in 2020 and said “nothing will fundamentally change” that is. Sigh.]
Biden’s take down of Romney here is masterful. Like with his attacks towards McCain the previous cycle, he’s able to do this without being petty or nasty, as the GOP and less experienced Democrats often are. Biden really makes you believe he respects Romney as a person while still being confounded by his (Romney’s) positions. Biden is either the most genuinely emotional political speaker I’ve ever seen, or the best actor. He delivers these lines in a way that I don’t think anyone else could have. It still would have been effective if others said it, but not nearly as genuine. He’s able to go from heartfelt, kindly old Grandpa to angry experienced fighter throughout the speech without missing a beat.
Not much else to say. Another fantastic speech, and definitely one aspiring politicians or political speechwriters ought to take notes from. I think Biden is the only person who’s delivered two nomination acceptance speeches to completely knock it out of the park both times, and the only one besides Spiro Agnew who improved in the second outing. [I’m not a huge fan of Biden’s run in 2020, nor am I thrilled with his positions and actions on the campaign trail but back during the Obama years he was quite the oratory force to be reckoned with.]
Joe Biden (2008)
Biden was another really great VP pick, and he should have been the successor to the Obama legacy as the nominee in 2016 (if it couldn’t be Bernie or another progressive that is). From what I’ve read, he was seriously considering a run even despite his son’s death, but Obama talked him out of it. If so, this was a huge mistake, and I bet both men are kicking themselves about it now. Personally, this is a small but significant action which furthers my loss of respect for Obama as well. When someone is your #2 for 8 years, and just lost their son, you support them in what they feel they need to do. Period.
Anyway, Biden represents the kind of dynamic I recommended elsewhere, with a younger “exciting!” half of the ticket who’s seen as ideologically pure coupled with an experienced party insider with some accomplishments under their belt. I lived through 2008 and remember Biden assuaging a lot of fears that Obama was too inexperienced and wouldn’t know what he was doing in office. Now that I look back on the 1988 primary, I see that Biden was decently left leaning in comparison to his competitors from back in the day as well. This was probably the single best person Obama could have chosen from the options available to him. Biden’s only weakness that I can really see is he’s often prone to gaffes. However, I think he has the kind of personality where they don’t damage him as much as they would someone else. Similar to how Trump could shoot someone on 5th avenue because he’s “tough” and “tells it like it is” I think Biden’s misspoken moments are endearing in a “that’s just Grandpa Joe” kind of way.
This speech starts off on a really heartbreaking note watching in hindsight, as Biden was apparently just introduced by his now-deceased son and says that when he looks at Beau, he knows he’s a success. Poor guy =(
The shout outs to Bill and Hillary are a little eye-rolling but expected, especially after the vicious primary that year. There’s a moment here that reminds me of Ford’s convention in 1976, when he called out to Reagan and the camera cut to Ronald, showing the briefest flash of a “fuck this guy” face before realizing he was being recorded and then standing up with a phony grin of “ya, Ford! I support you!” Here Biden calls to Hillary, everyone stands and applauds except her, so there’s just a weird moment of everyone clapping to a gap in the crowd. After it becomes awkward that Hillary’s not reacting to this olive branch, she owns the moment right at the end, but only for the briefest instant. She rises but only as everyone else is beginning to sit down, makes some awkward gesture towards Biden and then sits down again in one second. Great example of what an unnatural politician Hillary is. Unless she’s briefed on what to do and given a script, she’s lost when it comes to charisma or “natural-ness” and it turns people off. She just has no sense of suavity, charm or how to play to a crowd.
Biden also seems to have utilized a strategy I suggested in another post, that a candidate ought to accept the nomination not right at the beginning or end, but partway through after a good solid opener. When Biden starts talking about his parents, I find that I’m not rolling my eyes as I usually do. I think it’s a combination of things. The cuts to his mom in the audience makes it hit home a lot more. The stories he’s telling feel genuine while the usual platitudes like “my dad was [working class job]. And he worked hard. And now here I am. #AmericanDream” feel more like going through the motions and even almost exploiting your ancestors’ struggles to appear sympathetic and in touch with the working class even as you enjoy healthcare most of us will never have access to and a great salary paid on our dime. Anyway, Biden talking about how his mom helped him get over a stutter and told him to bloody the noses of his bullies is a lot more real and therefore appealing to me. Also, there is a genuine warmth in Joe himself as an orator. He doesn’t feel rehearsed, overly intellectual to the point of pretentious, or like a sociopathic cut-throat politician. He just sounds a lot more natural, and when he talks about those closest to him you can feel a sincerity to it that isn’t there with many other politicians.
Around 8 or 9 minutes in is my favorite part of the speech, and what I most remember all these years later from when I first saw this in high school. Joe speaks from the perspective of Americans today struggling to make ends meet in a way that you can tell he understands. He doesn’t just rattle off “you wanna pay less for gas, you want healthcare” he pantomimes the conversations many Americans were having at that time. Again, it feels real here where another politician trying this would come off as though they’re running through shallow talking points. We also see a great example of gaffes not hurting Biden as well as how to rebound from a gaffe, when he accidentally calls the opposing nominee “George Bush,” and then owns the moment with “sorry—Freudian slip.” I do believe, based on his reaction, that the moment and recovery were genuine, but it did a good job emphasizing how McCain was the successor to a disastrous legacy. This might possibly be the greatest improvised line in a political speech…if there were any way to quantify such a statement. (And if I’m wrong and that line was planned, then Joe is a fantastic actor.)
When Biden goes into hammering away at McCain, he’s able to do so in a way that feels respectful and not mean-spirited. I believe him when calls John a friend, and speaks of him jovially. This is a good counterpoint to Lieberman, with someone embodying bipartisanship while still coming off as a genuine member of their own party. Biden’s chorus is “that’s not change, that’s more of the same” when speaking of McCain’s positions. He does a great job keeping it fresh though by saying it with a different inflection every single time. It doesn’t come off as annoying or forced because of this.
Like Edwards, Biden wisely keeps the war on terror and Iraq until the end. This was the Obama campaign’s biggest trump card, though being brutally honest it’s ironic hearing Biden continuously hammer in that John McCain was wrong and Barrack Obama was right. We all know now that in fact it was wrong to leave Iraq so soon—it helped lead to ISIS. While I’m glad he lost, the fact is McCain was right about this; you have to fix the countries you break before pulling out wholesale.
Overall, this was a really great speech. This could be shown as a point by point example of what a VP speech ought to be. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I also like how it’s relatively short. There’s no padding, no filler, just stating your case and ending on a high note. Joe is very natural and animated—possibly the most charismatic VP nominee yet seen, and even more so than a good number of *presidential* nominees. Similar to Clinton/Gore in ’92, the Obama ticket brought the house down in terms of their rhetoric and oration. Both tickets seemed to give America a sense of purpose again with two back to back classic addresses. (How they governed is another story, but I digress.)
Al Gore (1992)
This was an inspired VP pick, even though it ignored conventional wisdom that Presidential tickets must present a balance of different regional personalities. Gore and Clinton were both southerners, but their charisma was enough to make up for that supposed shortcoming. Mario Cuomo also would have been a good choice since realistically Clinton was never going to choose Jerry Brown or Larry Agran (both of whom ran against him in the primary.) It’s hard to imagine now, since his 2000 run was so poor and stiff, but in the late ’80s and through the ’90s, Gore was a commanding figure and a no-nonsense guy. His two VP debate performances, especially the ’92 cycle against Quayle, were among the most impassioned I’ve seen. At the ’88 primary, he was actually really intimidating as well if you can believe it. I think if Gore ran in the ’90s he would have won. He sat out in ’92 because the conventional wisdom was that Bush was unbeatable, so many of the top dogs in the party did not bother. Clinton jumped in the race, and even then he wasn’t supposed to win the primary—Tsongas was. Ironically, if Gore had thrown his hat in the ring that year, I think he would have beaten Bill and we’d all be better off today. Imagine a Democratic Party without the Third Way, action on climate change when it might have mattered, and no Hillary riding in on Bill’s coattails in a gift-wrapped Senate seat and two disastrous Presidential runs.
I love hearing young-Gore talk. He’s handsome, charming, and charismatic in contrast to 2000. This particular speech reminds me a lot of Cuomo’s “A Tale of Two Cities” speech from two conventions ago. It’s a tour de force condemnation of Reaganism, accurately sums up the fear and danger many Americans are in, but provides a lot of hope as well. He has a repeated chorus which is “and it is time for them to go” (in reference, obviously, to Bush and Quayle.) I love how he even gets the audience to repeat it along with him, without it sounding forced. That’s some effective branding if I’ve ever seen it in a speech. I also love the shoutout to AIDS which the Reagan and Bush administration’s callously ignored as well as the choice to focus on the opposition first and get the negative out of the way before focusing on the positives of Clinton and the issues ahead. I think that’s a really smart idea to leave people on a positive, empowered note. Going too negative risks alienating people, and again you need to give people a reason to vote FOR you, not just against someone else.
There’s an extended metaphor of Gore’s son on the verge of death, then coming back and this recovery is then compared to America itself. It was pretty good if a little heavy handed. He gives Ross Perot a shout out too, by calling his supporters to keep fighting for change and congratulating them for what they’ve accomplished. Smart move, cozying up to the third party/progressive candidate rather than demonizing him. (Again, something Hillary and her supporters could have taken note of.)
You can really see what a breath of fresh air the Clinton/Gore ticket must have been in 1992, before the scandals, the entrenched dynasty, and the betrayal of liberalism under their administration. But back in the beginning here, they were fresh-faced, energetic young men who delivered great speeches and seemed to represent a return to the Kennedy gravitas and charisma long missing from the Democrats. After decades of stuffy, boring old coots like Carter, Mondale and Dukakis this was a huge step up. Again, Democrats today need to analyze their past if they want to bounce back after this year. You don’t win with old out of touch insiders whose “turn” it is, you win by embracing the breath of fresh air darkhorse candidates who earn it by campaigning. Both Clinton and Gore’s 1992 speeches are the best the Democrats offered in the 20th century. I say this as someone who hates the Clintons and their legacy.
John Edwards (2004)
This actually wasn’t too bad of a pick at the time, though in hindsight it looks pretty embarrassing with the ’07-’08 sex scandal. I would have preferred Howard Dean but Edwards did better in the primaries and was actually decently more progressive than Kerry at least. This may even be another example (along with Dukakis-Bentsen and Mondale-Ferraro) where if the ticket had been reversed it would have been more successful due to the VP being more charismatic than their running mate. Kerry made a lot of bad mistakes and handed us a second term of the worst President yet, but unlike Gore I don’t think his VP selection was one of them. Edwards had a sort of likable way about him, a cross between RFK and Bill Clinton in his mannerisms though not quite as charming as either. He looks incredibly young and handsome considering his age.
I’m getting the impression that it was a tradition for awhile here for the VP’s wife to introduce them with a speech, since Lieberman referenced his wife introducing him and now so does Edwards. This would also explain the disagreeable trend of opening the speeches with family shout-outs. However, while it’s annoying seeing that cliché here too, Edwards does a far better job getting that over with quickly and moving on to what the VP is supposed to do—hype up the candidate and their values. The difference is stark coming right after Lieberman; notice how much more energy this speech has because Edwards gets right down to business rather than lingering on the awkward family anecdotes. In fact, he does exactly what I suggested earlier and saves the “my father was a ____, he worked hard…” stories until after a forceful opener. You can see for yourself if you watch them back to back how much better Edwards’ strategy is than what Lieberman did.
Edwards’ chorus is “it doesnt have to be that way” after mentioning a flaw of the current administration. He also talks a lot more to the audience directly, asking them questions and using the second person a lot more. He speaks a lot more conversationally as well. For example, he uses phrases like: “so let me tell you what we’re gonna do…”/ “well, let me tell ya how we’re gonna pay for it…” it’s an interesting and in my opinion very successful approach. I think this is as close to the “I could have a beer with him” appeal as the Democrats ever offered up, aside from maybe Bill Clinton or Joe Biden. Edwards talks like one of the people, not a snobbish coastal elite or an overly scripted and noticeably phony political robot.
I really hate 2004 in a Political studies standpoint for the 9/11 and war on terror emphasis. As the first election after the tragedy, the shift in tone to strengthening the surveillance state (in order to “keep American safe” of course!) is rampant and I consider this period the beginning of the end of domestic American freedoms. I appreciate how Edwards left this stuff to the last half of the speech at least. I recognize it was such a big deal that he had to talk about it, but it still just makes me sad seeing all these appeals to security, blind patriotism and military-worshiping used to support an unjust war and the destruction of the Bill of Rights. For me, this is when all of the excitement I was feeling earlier in the speech flew out the room, though it’s not totally the fault of Edwards personally. I think not taking a strong stand against this stuff really hurt the Democrats. Talking about building a new Iraq and the fear-mongering over terrorists getting a nuke or chemical weapons sounds like Republican/Neocon rhetoric. I’m sure many people saw all this in ’04 and felt “why bother? They’re the same” and they were not entirely wrong, so they did not vote. I will say though, I think pivoting to talking about how the Iraq war is affecting American families and the struggling women trying to make ends meet while their men-folk are away was a good rhetorical move on Edwards’ part. Almost instantly I felt the energy come back when he did so, and he launches into a new chorus (which the crowd instantly embraces and repeats along with him) “hope is on the way!”
Overall, a great speech. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to get the credit it deserves for how good it actually is. I personally think it’s superior to Obama’s 2004 convention speech which is hyped up all the time in Poli-Sci circles and considered a classic. I would imagine this is because of Edwards’ later reputation. I’m not making excuses for the guy’s cheating, womanizing ways but he could sure work a crowd is all I’m saying, and he deserves the accolades for that. He’s very similar to Bill Clinton in more ways than one, I guess.
ASIDE: And while I’m on the subject, it seems terribly unfair that Edwards should be dropped like a lead weight and made into persona non grata after his scandal while Bill is often excused for his own sexual assaults. I’d say the excuses regarding Bill are pure hypocrisy by Democrats and those on the left, as well as not wanting to de-legitimize the memory of their second most recent President. In short, if Edwards should be made such a shameful, forgotten figure, a historical laughingstock like Gary Hart for his consensual affair, then so should Bill for his rapes.
Geraldine Ferraro (1984)
Ooh. This is the other big one. I love Ferraro! She’s become one of my favorite US politicians since I started analyzing our history the past few years. I might even go as far as say she’s my favorite VP pick and maybe the best pick on a doomed ticket. For all his faults, I appreciate and respect Mondale for saying “you know what? I’m screwed either way, might as well do something cool with this nomination in the meantime and make history.” This is the only VP speech to be included on American rhetoric’s list of 100 best speeches of the 21st century. I think Ferraro is also the only VP nominee who absolutely, undeniably and completely overshadowed the head of the ticket as well. (Perhaps you could also say that for Palin in a bad way, but I don’t consider that the same thing.)
This is what a woman in national politics ought to be: intelligent, warm, down to earth, resonates with the people, and someone who got there purely on her own merits rather than riding in on her husbands coattails, carpet-bagging and backroom deals. I’m glad the first woman President will not be Hillary who is none of that and so much worse. One of the few silver linings of 2016 is how it gives us the opportunity to make the first woman President someone more deserving, and their election something genuine and special, like this moment in 1984 with Geraldine.
The amount of applause she gets just for standing there, and later saying her name, is surpassed only by RFK in the convention 20 years earlier. I think it’s interesting that Ferraro did what I recommended in my analyses of GOP VP speeches—she gave a little introductory paragraph and then accepted the nomination, rather than doing so immediately or at the end, which is more common. She had the perfect context to take full advantage of that impact too, by highlighting the historical element, calling it a dream come true and then cementing her place in history.
Ferraro then goes on to introduce herself for awhile, being the daughter of an immigrant, a teacher, a district attorney, and running for Congress. This does a good job of assuring us that she’s just as qualified as any man, and that this was not merely some publicity stunt. By mentioning she’s put criminals behind bars, I believe she was trying to play against the perception that women are soft and weak, so even though I’m usually against “tough on crime” posturing, I will excuse it in this instance. I like how she attacks the Reagan trickle down economics and debt without dragging it on too long or making it too personal as Mondale himself did the previous cycle. I’m disappointed she brings up the wage gap myth, however I’ll cut her the benefit of the doubt and assume that the statistic was not debunked yet and that sexism actually did have more to do with it back then as opposed to now.
Ferraro’s speech has a chorus as well, where she says “it isn’t right that…” and then lists a problem with America today. Unlike Mondale or Humphrey, she recognizes that you only do this 4ish times max and no more (and you certainly don’t try to have 3 different choruses in one speech.) She also expertly quotes JFK’s inaugural address but in the context of women. I think this quote is even more relevant today when so many Third Wave feminists expect all the good jobs and this or that to be handed to them as some kind of twisted reparations rather than actually earning it.
ASIDE: I’m not saying equality itself has to be earned, I’m saying don’t expect society to wave a magic wand and make 100 women CEOs or President or whatever if all you’re doing is sitting on Tumblr whining about the patriarchy and how “oppressed” you are because there are scantily clad women in a video game. Equality means equal opportunity, not necessarily equal outcome.
Needless to say, this is great speech, and a wonderfully historic moment. One of the last times we could be proud of our country (as far as national politics were concerned) and feel like anything was possible. This is what the Democratic Party ought to be—empowering the little people and giving a voice to the poor, women or minorities who traditionally are left out, yet not forcing it either. This is when the Democrats do the best in elections and these are the people they put forth who are remembered the most fondly. The bottom and top of this ticket could not have been more different, both in terms of excitement and what they represented. To the Democratic Party: we need more Bernies and Ferraros, not more Mondales and Clintons.
Lloyd Bentsen (1988)
I’ve heard a lot of people on the political subreddits say that the ’88 ticket ought to have been reversed as well. While there were far worthier candidates than Bentsen for the top spot, it’d be hard to do worse than Dukakis either. Dukakis was a godawful candidate and campaigner where Bentsen would not have made those mistakes or carried a lot of his baggage. But Bentsen was also old and looked/sounded it. Bush himself wasn’t very charismatic, so this might not have mattered too much, but ultimately I just think the whole goddamned ticket was wrong. Focusing solely on the VP, if it had to be Dukakis at the top of the ticket than it should have been Jackson as his number 2. Jackson was charismatic and represented the progressive wing of the party. It would have been another historical moment like 1984, with the first black VP nominee, but it wouldn’t have felt forced (as 2016 did following 2008) since Jackson campaigned and came in second. It would have been doing what I’ve always recommended for the Democrats: take the person who comes in second in the primary and make them the VP. It’s so simple, it would heal any divisions in the party caused by a tough race, and since that person did well on their own merits it insures they will be a strong presence on the campaign trail. The only reason to forgo this strategy is if they come from the same part of the country as you (gotta appeal to different regional demographics) or if there’s some looming scandal that makes them more trouble than they’re worth.
Now to the speech itself. I like it. Again, Bentsen’s old, so a little slow and soft in his oration, but it actually comes off like a positive here. He’s like that authoritative grandpa who’s seen some shit in his day, and is so fed up that he now has to speak out against it. He attacks the Republicans as being the party of privilege and frames the Democrats as the Party that’s not afraid of a fight. This is far more effective than Mondale’s “Reagan will lower taxes!!” crap. His repetitious phrase is “Democrats agree that ______” and just as that starts to get old, he switches it up to “Democrats want ________.” It’s an interesting turn of phrase to call the Reagan years “an eight year coma.”
There’s not a whole lot to say. As you listen to a lot of these kinds of speeches back to back, they all start blending together in a sense. I think this is one of the better ones, though. Good oration, good rhetoric, and coming after Mondale himself, it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s really sad and ironic that the ’80s as a whole (Mondale and Dukakis themselves excluded) were such a great time for Democratic rhetoric at the primaries and conventions, even though they got so thoroughly trounced. You have the well known classic speeches like Ferraro’s, Jackson’s at both ’84 and ’88, Mario Cuomo…and then there are some unappreciated buried gems like this one. What’s maddening is, the Democrats gave the top nomination to the worst speakers by far in every ’80s election. Compare the speeches I just listed to Carter’s, Mondale’s or Dukakis from their respective nominating conventions. These were supposed to be the best of the best and instead they were overshadowed by their own backup band.
Al Gore (1996)
This speech seems to suffer from the same drop off in quality that Clinton himself did in ’96. The Democrats knew they had it in the bag, plus they weren’t introducing themselves to the public anymore, so they were just kinda like “hey…here we go again!” Like, here we have Gore talking about the macarena and it’s like what? You’ll notice how much more Gore talks up his own administration—because things were actually going well under Clinton/Gore. Gore does a good job framing Dole as a man from the past who’s out of step with the change America needs. There is also a good deal of attacking the Congressional Republicans, who definitely deserved it for all they had done, with the shutdown and everything else. There’s yet another chorus here, with “that’s why they want to replace Bill Clinton but we won’t let them.” Personally, I think this phrase is a little too long to really be an effective repetitious call to arms.
Gore tries to repeat the success of the metaphor about his dying son from last time with a story about a woman who had a lung removed from smoking. It…doesn’t work as well. It just goes on too long, he pauses too much between words and sentences, and I’m left wondering what’s the point. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I just think there’s a time and a place and this was not it. It would be like if George McGovern used his daughter Terry’s alcoholism and death in a big political speech. The situation itself is heartbreaking and tender, but using it in what’s essentially a pep rally is not effective or appropriate. If you want to tackle smoking, do it as its own speech—not here. Besides these concerns, it just takes up too much time, detracts from the main purpose of the speech (drum up support for the party) and even though Gore ties it into Clinton by mentioning how Bill fought against tobacco advertising to children, I still just feel like this was an ill advised tangent. You see a lot of annoyed faces in the crowd which seems to support my conclusion.
Overall, a good speech despite its shortcomings. Bill’s own convention address this cycle was very good too. However coming off both men’s once-in-a-lifetime addresses from 1992 I cannot help but feel a little disappointed.
Thomas Eagleton (1972)
Oh boy. This is the big one. I first watched this when I started reading “The 18 Day Running Mate” so I’m not coming at this one fresh. Since finishing the book, and seeing later materials like McGovern being introduced by Eagleton in his book tour for Terry, I’ve softened on Tom a lot. I initially viewed him as almost a Judas-esque traitor for both concealing his condition and the “acid, abortion, amnesty” remark. Now, I still think he fucked up big time by not mentioning his condition when directly asked on the phone, but I can understand why under the circumstances it didn’t come up until it was too late. I also think his “acid, abortion and amnesty” comment to the press was deeply uncalled for and hurtful, though I now do not believe it was said with malicious intent at least. I think history has proven the medical experts who contacted McGovern wrong—Tom could have handled the responsibility of being (Vice) President just fine, and should have been given the chance to do so. Even George himself admitted this mistake decades later, though to be brutally fair he also went through a period of resentment towards Tom for years before softening on his opinion.
Being stuck with Tom was hardly the ideal scenario, and yet another example of how George was betrayed by his fellow Democrats (all of whom turned down the offer of the VP.) But sometimes in life you can’t pick who’s in it. You can’t always choose the people you’re in daily contact with, so you make the best of it. Since, in all honesty they were never going to win anyway, George should have stood by Tom and lost with dignity. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and medical experts were advising George’s decision. All that aside, purely in terms of the effect on a campaign, Eagleton is the most disastrous VP choice by far—even worse than Sarah Palin or Tim Kaine. But again considering what we know about depression and mental health in these days, it’s unfair to pin the loss itself, even the magnitude of it, entirely on Tom. He was a far more honorable and decent person than either of those two, and better than many other VP selections who didn’t tank a campaign.
Society in general has a nasty habit of being both judgmental and fickle, and there is no better example of this than how Tom was treated for a condition he could not control, and how George was then treated for doing exactly what the public seemed to want. When you add the power of incumbency, the fact that Nixon was still very popular pre-Watergate, that Nixon also supported the best parts of the McGovern platform (basic income and single payer) I don’t think you can pin this one on the voters either. They didn’t reject McGovern’s brilliant platform so much as the man himself, and considering how disorganized the campaign appeared, you cannot really blame them. It was just an unfortunate twist of fate that a great man should be caught in an unwinnable scenario and lose in such a landslide that his values are deemed poison in national politics for a generation. The only people I still hold any resentment for in this election are Humphrey, Carter, Muskie, Kennedy, Mondale and all the other bigwig Democrats who either outright threw George under the bus or were not there to help him in his time of need and just take the damn VP slot. Between spiteful non-endorsements, trying to steal California delegates after the race had been won, nominating joke VP candidates like Archie Bunker just to create trouble for George and forming the “Anybody But McGovern” coalition, the Democratic Party itself, not the Republicans, killed economic liberalism in America and don’t you forget it.
As far as the speech goes, I love the shout outs to fellow Missourians. After reading The 18 Day Running Mate, I saw the amount of state pride there was in Eagleton’s nomination and it broke my heart to know how things ultimately turned out. I do think Eagleton appears somewhat more nervous than any other VP speaker I’ve ever seen. But on a second viewing, I attribute his wide eyed appearance to shock that he got the nomination. You see in the book how desperately Tom wanted it, and of course what a longshot it was for him to even be chosen. I like Tom’s focus on the party, particularly the grassroots, rather than on himself. Eagleton was originally a Muskie supporter, and thought many McGovern ideas were a little too far out there. So it makes sense why he doesn’t focus too much on the nominee at the head of the ticket in this speech. However, he does say many kind things, and seems to have genuine respect for the achievement of George’s campaign, going from 5% in the polls to win the whole thing. There are criticisms of Nixon, but nothing over the top like Humphrey’s overly long chorus two cycles ago, nor Spiro’s own harsh words towards McGovern the same year.
There’s a lot of repetition, like other nomination speeches make use of, but I don’t think it’s done as well as it could have been. Eagleton keeps using the phrases “surprises” and “we’ve been stalled.” Ironically prophetic for the campaign, but not the kind of message you want to drill into people’s heads. Repetition ought to be positive. You want to drill hope and ideals into your audience, so when they think of you and your speech, they think “we can do it” (Bill Clinton), and “Come home, America” (McGovern himself.) I see it like Inception–positive emotion trumps negative emotions every time, when it comes to implanting subconscious suggestions into people.
Overall, upon listening to more VP speeches, I can now appreciate how good this one is, aside from the stiff and slightly nervous delivery. It has a good balance of all the key points, it’s direct yet speaks towards higher ideals, its positive but with a few biting words towards the opposition. I maintain that the closing lines of this speech are haunting. He says them around 12:50 in the video too if you watch for yourself. Without any context, or just hearing them at the time this was first delivered, its just a pretty generic closing remark. However when you look at how the election went, and the effect the election has had on our political landscape ever since, it adds a whole new unintended meaning. With that added weight, it becomes the most foreboding and ironic ending to a speech probably in all of US history.
“Let us conduct ourselves so that men in later years may say that 1972 was the year not when America lost its way but the year America found its conscience.”
Instead, 1972 ended up being the year we did, in fact, lose our way and proved we had no conscience. We chose a snake over a genuinely good man. We forced McGovern to unceremoniously dump Eagleton and then crucified him for doing exactly that. Our sitting President broke the law and would eventually resign over it, disillusioning an entire country in the process. Both party’s candidates this cycle were in favor of universal healthcare and basic income yet the bizarre sequence of events insured that neither came to pass and still haven’t for almost 50 years.