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Colbert I. King

Origins of a Vitriolic Keynote Speaker

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, September 11, 2004; Page A21

The first and only time I was in the same room with Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) was a few years ago when he dropped by for coffee with The Post's editorial board. Even then the Georgia Democrat was in a royal snit over his party's direction, especially in the hands of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Miller said he had supported a fellow Georgian and former Atlanta mayor, the late Maynard Jackson, for the top party post. Among his many complaints, Miller groused that McAuliffe couldn't match Jackson's political prowess or knowledge of the South.

But it wasn't until recently that I discovered that in addition to our mutual admiration of Jackson, Atlanta's first African American mayor, Miller and I shared another experience. For that, let's back up several decades.

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The convention's keynote speaker accused the administration in power of being the "party of privilege and pillage," charged that it had a "sordid record of broken promises and unredeemed pledges," described its standard-bearer, the president of the United States, as "the most available front . . . for a discredited, defunct party" and denounced the vice president as the "Vice Hatchet Man" and the "most intemperate political individual in the history of modern American politics." The angry speaker, Frank G. Clement, governor of Tennessee and temporary chairman of the 1956 Democratic National Convention, was just getting warmed up.

It was my first national convention, beamed into the King family living room by way of a black-and-white TV console. After Clement's oration, I went to bed thinking there was no way on earth that Democrats Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois and Estes Kefauver of Tennessee could lose in November to Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard M. Nixon. I was 17 years old at the time. Little did I know how inconsequential a keynote address can be to the outcome of a presidential election.

Clement, however, electrified the Democratic convention as much as he disgusted Republicans. His give 'em hell stump speech got the crowd pumped with lines such as:

• "The Vice Hatchet Man slinging slander and spreading half-truths while the Top Man peers down the green fairways of indifference."

• "The Republican Party is guilty of . . . aggravated assault and battery upon the political and economic bodies of the forgotten farm folk of America [and] corruption in high places involving an unprecedented spree of giveaways, grab and greed."

• "The secretary of state himself . . . [was] unquestionably the greatest unguided missile in the history of American diplomacy."

• "These money changers . . . have invaded and violated the people's temple of justice on Capitol Hill."

• "Your lands are studded with the white skulls and crossbones of broken Republican promises."

• "How long, O how long, America, shall we continue to condone the conduct of an administration that cuts back the strength and size of our military establishment . . . a cutback so severe that an army chief of staff has reported to us that he felt he had been called on to destroy rather than build a military establishment."

Clement accused Eisenhower of "sitting nonchalantly by for four years . . . while a multitude of millions of citizens the world over were being beguiled by the smiles from Moscow and embraced by the godlessness of communism."

Nearly 50 years later, Clement's speech is remembered with mixed feelings. Some recall it as the greatest in the history of Democratic conventions. But Ken Rudin of National Public Radio wrote in his June 16 online column that others think of the address as having been over the top and one of the worst in history, noting that "Red Smith, a New York sports writer, described Clement's speech as 'slaying the Republicans with the jawbone of an ass.' "

So, to those who have taken to their beds with a case of the vapors because of Zell Miller's vitriolic GOP convention keynote address: Just remember Frank Clement's and rest assured that it only hurts for a little while.

That said, Clement did have a profound impact on another viewer besides yours truly.

In a 1998 feature by Sharron Hannon at the University of Georgia, Miller recounted the day his second son was born.

"I was eaten up with politics, fascinated by it," he recalls, especially Southern orators. "Frank Clement, who was known as the 'boy governor' of Tennessee, was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that summer. The speech was to be at 8 p.m. and I couldn't wait to watch it on our little black-and-white TV."

At 4 p.m. that day, as luck would have it, Shirley [Miller's wife] went into labor, wrote Hannon. Miller paced the hospital waiting room watching anxiously as the clock ticked past 5, 6 and 7 p.m. "Finally, I couldn't stand it and I slipped back to the apartment to watch the speech," Miller said. "When I got back to the hospital, Matthew had been born."

The reasons for Miller's desertion of his own party's presidential nominee are another story. But oratorically speaking, see how Ol' Zell came by it?

kingc@washpost.com


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