There are those who say it’s a waste of time watching political conventions on television.
We say they couldn’t be more wrong.
Yes, yes, the conventions -- which were first broadcast on the newfangled medium in shaky black-and-white, back in 1948 -- are notoriously scripted and choreographed now.
Which only makes the unchoreographed moments that occur on live TV that much better.
With the Republican National Convention kicking off on Monday in Cleveland -- to be followed a week later by the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia -- here are seven moments when the best laid plans of convention organizers, candidates or members of the media went deliciously off the rails.
1. Southern delegates toss their credentials in disgust on live TV at the 1948 Democratic Convention: This was the first year of televised conventions, with both the Democrats and Republicans meeting in Philadelphia. The Democrats met first, with four networks sending the goings-on out to 18 stations in nine cities. As temperatures soared inside Convention Hall from the huge TV lights, a similarly heated battle arose over efforts to strengthen the civil rights plank in the party platform. If it passed, a pair of Alabama delegates warned, the South would “walk.” It did pass, and hours later, during the roll call of states to nominate sitting President Harry Truman, the Mississippi delegation and half the Alabama contingent walked out. In an upstairs room, as the TV cameras rolled, they threw off their credentials in protest. Then, proving that savvy pols understood the power of the made-for-TV moment right from the start, they retrieved their credentials and pinned them back on as soon as the cameras had gone back to capturing the action on the convention floor. The Newseum has posted clips on YouTube of both the 1948 Democratic convention (including parts of Truman’s acceptance speech) and the Republican convention (Thomas Dewey is declared the party’s nominee).
2. NBC reporter John Chancellor is arrested on the floor of the 1964 Republican National Convention: The supposed liberal bias of the press had already become a campaign issue by the time delegates gathered in San Francisco to nominate Barry Goldwater. With the ire building daily towards television in general and NBC in particular (the network extensively covered efforts by anti-Goldwater forces to tone down the platform language), reporters’ access on the floor became increasingly restricted. It all culminated in efforts to remove them entirely after Goldwater’s formal nomination, and Chancellor’s refusal to go. He was arrested and hustled off the floor while uttering the now famous line on live TV, “This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody!” NBC’s nearly four minute video tribute to Chancellor when he died in 1996 features that famous moment, including a dumbstruck anchor David Brinkley monitoring the scene via binoculars from the NBC News booth high above the convention floor. The video is posted on YouTube.
3. Massive balloon drop "fails" plague both the 1980 and 2004 Democratic conventions: By the time President Jimmy Carter arrived at New York’s Madison Square Garden to accept his party’s nomination for a second term on Aug. 14, 1980, he was already a battered candidate. The ongoing Iran Hostage Crisis had engulfed much of the last year of his presidency and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy had waged a long, bruising campaign to wrest the nomination away from him. The final insult came during the signature post-nomination balloon drop: As seen in a video C-Span posted on its website live TV kept cutting back and forth between shots of the ceiling, where the balloons remained stuck, and an increasingly bewildered looking Carter.
But that was nothing compared to the 2004 Democratic Convention, when, thanks to a CNN blunder, the audio room feed of the balloon-and-confetti drop went out live over the air. For several minutes as presidential nominee John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, waved from the stage and the drop failed to work as well as planned, viewers got to hear running commentary like this from convention producer Don Mischer:
“Jesus, we need more balloons … No confetti. No confetti. No confetti. I want more balloons. What’s happening to the balloons? All balloons -- where the hell -- there’s nothing falling…. What the (expletive) are you guys doing up there?”
He even dropped an F-bomb at one point. Afterwards, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and others scrambled to apologize and explain what had happened to viewers, including referring back to the 1980 balloon “fail.” There’s a clip of the whole hilariously painful episode posted on YouTube.
4. “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel bolts early from the 1996 Republican convention: By 1996, both parties had figured out the key to successful conventions was to tightly script every moment – and the TV networks responded accordingly, carrying only about eight hours of live convention coverage apiece, compared to the 60 hours they’d averaged back in 1952. But even that turned out to be too much for Koppel. He’d planned to broadcast “Nightline” every night from San Diego, but midway through the convention he told ABC and his viewers, “I’m outta here.”
Actually, the veteran newsman told them, there was no news for him to cover.
“This convention is more of an infomercial than a news event,” Koppel said at the end of “Nightline” on the convention’s second night. “Nothing surprising has happened. Nothing surprising is anticipated.”
5. Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller essentially challenges an interviewer to a duel on live TV: First the lifelong Democrat knocked everyone back on their heels by delivering an absolutely en fuego keynote address to the Republican National Convention as it prepared to renominate President George W. Bush for a second term. Introduced as “the conscience of the Democratic Party,” Miller, then serving in the U.S. Senate, spent some 11 minutes blistering Kerry’s decision-making ability when it came to matters of national defense.
“This is the man who wants to be the commander in chief of our U.S. Armed Forces?” Miller thundered near the end of the speech, which C-span posted in its entirety on its website, “U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?”
Afterwards, Miller did a live remote interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who challenged some of the Georgian’s assertions about Kerry. Miller went even more en fuego, angrily telling Matthews to “Get out of my face!” and snapping, “I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel.” Accuracy in Media has posted a video of that remarkable back-and-forth on YouTube.
6. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s speech takes the 2008 Republican convention by storm. With Hurricane Gustav still raging in the Southeastern U.S., some early parties were scrapped at the convention in St. Paul and outgoing President George W. Bush wound up delivering his speech via satellite. On Day 3, though, Palin brought the convention roaring back to life with a speech that included a three minute standing ovation before she even opened her mouth. The Alaska governor then proceeded to deliver what many experts consider one of the best convention speeches ever, verbally filleting the Democratic nominee Barack Obama as a mere “community organizer” and introducing many Americans to what would become one of her signature lines, about the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom such as herself (“Lipstick”). The Palin Lovefest would prove short-lived in some quarters, but C-span’s video of the full speech lives on on YouTube.
7. Clint Eastwood interviews an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention: Supposedly the chair was a stand-in for President Barack Obama (“I’m not going to shut up. It’s my turn,” Eastwood told President Empty Chair at one point). It was supposed to be symbolic … or amusing … or something, it’s kind of hard to say. All we know is that it was darned near impossible to tear your eyes away from the live TV spectacle of “Dirty Harry” going on and on about this and other things for 11-plus rambling minutes on the final night of the convention. Unless, maybe, you were Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney waiting (and waiting) backstage to make your acceptance speech. A video of the speech is posted on YouTube.