The quadrennial spectacle of a presidential convention is now more symbol than substance. But conventions still offer a unique showcase for speechifying and honing party platforms. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center has scoured its presidential oral-history archives, from Gerald Ford to George H.W. Bush, to produce a list of do’s and don’ts for nominees and their parties.

— Barbara A. Perry

Put the best speakers in prime time

“You take a popular, outgoing president, Ronald Reagan, who is one of the more articulate men in our lifetime, and relegate him to a place where no one watches him, and you put Pat Buchanan, who still lives in the far-right world of Genghis Khan, and you put him in prime time. It was outrageous. It was among the worst things we did, and it hurt us. It made our convention look like we were unprincipled. It forced the president to run in part on a platform of extremism, and we never quite shook the label, and they took advantage of it.”

Sigmund Rogich, assistant to President George H.W. Bush,
on the 1992 Republican convention

Check the sound system

“When [Nelson] Rockefeller was giving his speech as the outgoing vice president, the microphone shut off in the middle of his speech. He was convinced that I had arranged to have the microphone turned off while he was giving his speech to the delegates in Kansas City, his swan song as vice president. I didn’t; I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was a technical problem. But all this led to a confrontation underneath the speaker’s platform, a lot of yelling and screaming by Nelson Rockefeller at me personally.”

Dick Cheney, chief of staff to President Gerald Ford,
on the 1976 Republican convention

Don’t announce the vice presidential pick

“I think the way we announced [Dan Quayle’s] selection was a mistake. Nobody should ever do that again, where you spring it on the press at the convention, because then that’s all they’ve got to write about is anything they can find. And that wasn’t Dan’s fault. It was really our fault, but we couldn’t do it any other way. We didn’t know who it was until the day of the convention, because that’s the way the vice president [George H.W. Bush] wanted to make the selection. He wanted to keep it really close hold. So that was the news at the convention. Some people say: ‘Well, you’ve got a dull convention. We want the news to be the selection of the vice president.’ And I’ve had this conversation already with Governor [George W.] Bush’s people: ‘Don’t do it that way. Don’t worry about a dull convention. Whatever you do, don’t announce your vice presidential pick at the convention. You see what can happen.’ ”

James Baker, campaign chairman for George H.W. Bush,
on the 1988 and 2000 Republican conventions

If you do announce the VP nominee,do it in a surprising way

“We decided — or recommended to Reagan, and he agreed — that he take the unprecedented step of going down to the convention. You know historically, at least in modern times, the candidate only appears on the floor for his acceptance speech. We recommended that he go down to the convention floor and break the news, and I drove down with him. He came out on the platform and announced it, and the place goes wild. They thought it was terrific.”

Peter Hannaford, a campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan, on the 1980 Republican convention

Make party unity a high priority

“So many interest groups go there. All are well-meaning and attractive in their own way. But what the press plays up at a convention is issues like abortion and gun control and homosexual rights and things like that. That’s the impression and that’s the public’s awareness, and the element of harmony or common purpose is lost in the impressions that people carry away from the convention site. I think now with an increased attendance of mayors and governors and members of Congress and so forth who have an investment in the Democratic Party, we will have a better aftermath of the national conventions. I didn’t change that beneficially, although I put in motion what has occurred and will take place in 1984. My relationship with the Democratic Party was not particularly good, and I could have done more had I made it a higher priority. It was not a burning commitment or interest of mine, and I think in the long run it was costly.”

Former president Jimmy Carter on the 1980 Democratic

If it’s not your convention, go on vacation

“Vice President Bush and I went up to Wyoming to get away from the Democratic convention. We went on a pack trip on the north fork of the Shoshone River in the Absaroka mountains in northwest Wyoming. We spent about three or four days up there fishing, so we didn’t have to listen to Ann Richards talking about silver foot in the mouth and all that. It was really a very good thing to have done.”

Baker, Bush’s campaign chairman, on the 1988 Democratic convention

Barbara A. Perry is a senior fellow in the Miller Center’s
Presidential Oral History Program. Its interviews are available

Read more from Outlook:

Five myths about political conventions

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