But while Trump has shown little respect for norms, he would not be the first president to use the White House — or even the Oval Office — as the backdrop for a signature campaign event.
In December 1979, Jimmy Carter deemed that a more lavish announcement would not be appropriate amid a crisis in which 50 Americans were being held hostage in Tehran — so he declared that he was running for reelection in a somber nine-minute ceremony in the East Room. “As president and as a candidate, I will continue to ask you to join me in looking squarely at the truth,” he said. “Only by facing up to the world as it is can we lift ourselves towards a better future.”
Carter’s campaign even made ads from the Oval Office. In the fall of 1980, during an intense race against former California governor Ronald Reagan, Carter’s campaign broadcast a four-minute spot that showed him in a darkened presidential office. A beam of overhead light angled onto Carter’s face as he warned about the dangers of nuclear war. “In this office, I’ve worked in the arms-control tradition of seven presidents, Democrat and Republican," he said. "Before you vote, please look carefully into this deep chasm that divides Governor Reagan and myself on this issue.”
The ad was a flop, as was Carter’s campaign. He lost in a landslide. A little more than four years later, Reagan himself used the Oval Office as the backdrop for his reelection announcement on Jan. 29, 1984. Seated behind the Resolute Desk, Reagan said that “our work is not finished.”
“This historic room and the presidency belong to you. It is your right and responsibility every four years to give someone temporary custody of this office and of the institution of the presidency. You so honored me, and I’m grateful — grateful and proud of what, together, we have accomplished,” Reagan said. “We have made a new beginning. Vice President Bush and I would like to have your continued support and cooperation in completing what we began three years ago. I am, therefore, announcing that I am a candidate and will seek reelection to the office I presently hold.”
So would it be all that much of a break with precedent for Trump to accept his party’s nomination somewhere on the White House grounds? I, for one, think the White House makes more sense than anywhere else and would nod to the fact that caution should be keeping everyone at home during the covid-19 pandemic.
The convention acceptance speech itself was once considered unthinkable. For more than a century, it was deemed unseemly for a presidential nominee to show up at his party’s convention at all. New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt shattered that tradition in 1932, amid the ravages of the Great Depression, when he accepted the Democratic nomination in Chicago with a speech pledging a “new deal for the American people.” Since then, the convention acceptance speech has been a landmark event for major-party candidates, though in truth few of these addresses have been all that memorable.
Trump’s speech four years ago in Cleveland was more notable than most. “I alone can fix it,” he claimed. And that is why there could be peril in delivering a reprise from the White House. The trappings of the office to which he has been given, in Reagan’s words, “temporary custody” will only remind Americans of how badly he has failed there.