The speech shattered the custom of nominees giving acceptance speeches weeks after a convention upon receiving formal notification of their nomination.
Even more startling was that the 50-year-old Roosevelt traveled by airplane to Chicago for the Democratic convention inside Chicago Stadium. Flying was considered to be risky. “Yet here was a man nominated for the highest position” in the land, who “demonstrated his complete faith in the modern system of swift transportation,” one columnist wrote. (Roosevelt would later become the first president to fly overseas to visit American troops during World War II.)
This election year marks another startling departure from the customs of nominating conventions. With a large traditional gathering impossible because of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump plans to speak every night of a mostly virtual Republican National Convention.
Before 1932, personally accepting a nomination at a presidential convention had been considered downright unseemly since the quadrennial gatherings began in 1832. FDR’s decision to break a 100-year tradition was strategic. The governor was paralyzed from the waist down by polio. This was a chance to show both his vigor and his up-to-date interest in modern transportation.
Back at his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., Roosevelt listened to the Democratic convention on radio just like most Americans. With the news that he had won the nomination on the fourth ballot, Roosevelt asked the party to remain in session an extra day. An American Airways Ford tri-motor plane had been standing by at the nearby Albany airport for several days ready to go.
Early on the morning of July 2, Roosevelt arrived at the airport with his entourage including his wife, Eleanor, and their sons Elliott and John. “It’s a perfect day for the trip,” he commented to cheering onlookers. It wasn't.
The silver and blue metallic plane took off and followed the mail route to Chicago, with stops in Buffalo and Cleveland. The plane ran into strong winds and rain storms. The pilot’s granddaughter later wrote:
“White-knuckled passengers could only cling to the upholstered arms of the aluminum chairs. In the turbulence, acceptance speech sheets slid off the desk, and the typewriter came close to pitching off the table.”
The flight took eight hours. The plane arrived two hours late at Chicago’s municipal airport at 4:30 p.m. local time. The motorcade to the convention through Chicago streets took another hour and 20 minutes. Meanwhile, at the convention hall a local singer entertained delegates with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and other songs.
Finally, Roosevelt approached the speaker’s stand walking with his cane and holding on to two temporary handrails as the delegates cheered.
“Roosevelt gripped the reading table with both hands, threw back his head and smiled,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. “He was a big, erect, personable figure dressed in a blue suit and a red carnation in his buttonhole.”
“I regret that I am late,” Roosevelt began, “but I have no control over the winds of heaven.”
He noted that a presidential nominee speaking at the convention broke “the absurd tradition that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance” until he is officially notified weeks later. “You have nominated me, and I know it, and I am here to thank you for the honor.”
From now on, he said, “We will break foolish traditions and leave it to the Republican leadership, far more skilled in that art, to break promises.”
In his 30-minute speech, Roosevelt never mentioned Hoover’s name while attacking Republican Party policies.
“There are two ways of viewing the government’s duty in matters affecting economic and social life,” he said. “The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small-business man.”
But that “is not and never will be the theory of the Democratic Party. This is no time for fear, for reaction or for timidity.”
Near the end of his speech, Roosevelt pledged a new deal, though this was simply a lead-up to the climax of his talk. The phrase New Deal later would later catch on to cover his federal relief programs.
Where the phrase came from is still debated. One source may have been a then-current series in the New Republic magazine headlined, “A New Deal For America.” Roosevelt’s distant cousin President Theodore Roosevelt had called his domestic policy a “square deal.”
When FDR finished his speech, the crowd roared its approval as the band played “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Humorist Will Rogers, who on the second ballot had received 22 votes for the nomination from his home state of Oklahoma, praised Roosevelt’s call for economic change. He joked that times were so hard that at the convention “some of the delegates had started eating their alternates.”
Rogers, an early advocate of flying, added that Roosevelt “did aviation the biggest boost it ever had” by taking an airplane to the convention. “That will stop those big shots from thinking their lives are too important to the country to take a chance on flying.” (Three years later Rogers died in a plane crash.)
Hoover didn’t hear the speech because he had been on his way from the White House to his summer retreat on the Rapidan River near Luray, Va. The next day a Marine airplane flew over the camp and dropped a bundle of newspapers with reports on the speech.
Hoover was preparing a traditional notification acceptance speech in mid-August after being nominated at the Republican convention in Chicago in June. He considered an evening speech from the White House. Instead, he decided to speak at Constitution Hall.
Hoover’s speech was broadcast nationwide. “It is not the function of the government to relieve individuals of their responsibilities to their neighbors,” said the 58-year-old president who expressed “increasing confidence for the future.”
With the economy in shambles, Roosevelt was a heavy favorite. His running mate, House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas, told the nominee: “All you have got to do is stay alive until Election Day.”
Sure enough, Roosevelt swept to a landslide victory.
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