But in Bill Clinton’s case, a prominent convention slot didn’t turn out to be the jumping-off point for a presidential run. In fact, it nearly destroyed his chances. As the former president prepares to address the Democratic convention as a party elder statesman Tuesday, it is worth remembering that his first major convention speech was a disaster. And given the possibility that a future presidential hopeful could bomb this week, thanks to the difficulties presented by the pandemic-altered convention, this history reminds us that politicians can survive the fallout from a poor convention speech — if they are savvy enough.
In 1988, Clinton was the 41-year-old governor of Arkansas, having served for eight of the previous 10 years, his tenure interrupted only when he lost his first bid for reelection in 1980. But he had little name recognition beyond the Razorback State.
In the summer of 1988, Michael Dukakis’s campaign tasked him with delivering the nominating speech for the presidential candidate, which would serve as Clinton’s introduction to the nation. “He wants to run for president when the opportunity presents itself,” observed David Brinkley on ABC as the Arkansas governor came onstage. “He’s a very bright, talented young man … much admired in the Democratic Party.” Peter Jennings chimed in that Clinton was “said to be a good speaker.”
This introduction proved to be the high point for Clinton, who couldn’t get the attention of the crowd as they repeatedly chanted “We want Mike.” He tried to quiet them by telling them he needed to explain to the rest of the nation why they should want Dukakis as well. “They weren’t listening to what I was saying, or trying to say. All they were responding to was the governor’s name,” Clinton later said.
As he ticked off Dukakis’s accomplishments like balanced budgets and welfare reform, and critiqued Reaganomics, Clinton lost the audience’s interest. Both ABC and NBC cut away from his speech, as he went well over his allotted 15 minutes. The Dukakis campaign, concerned that his verbosity would push the roll call officially nominating the candidate out of prime time, entered “Please finish” onto Clinton’s teleprompter screen.
But the Arkansas governor wasn’t using the teleprompter, and more dramatic steps had to be taken. Having first come up behind Clinton out of camera range to signal him to stop, House Speaker Jim Wright made a “slicing gesture across his throat.” When Clinton finally said, “In closing,” after more than half an hour, the audience cheered.
A promising political career appeared to be stillborn as journalists and comedians came down on Clinton with a vengeance. “With so many lawyers in one room, you’d think that someone would have told Clinton that he had the right to remain silent,” went one quip. Johnny Carson told the nation on “The Tonight Show” that “the surgeon general has just approved Bill Clinton as an over-the-counter sleep aid.”
It was less than a laughing matter to Clinton, who said, “It was the worst hour of my life — make that worst hour and a half” — as the most important newspaper in his state, the Arkansas Gazette, called it an “unmitigated disaster.” Newsweek’s Conventional Wisdom (CW) Watch analyzed the fallout: “Old CW: president in ’96,” followed by “New CW: he’s finished.”
Salvaging Clinton’s viability for higher office required quick action, and in the wee hours of the morning his friends and allies, television producers Linda and Harry Thomason, hit on the key: appearing on Carson’s show. Harry Thomason contacted Hollywood publicist David Horowitz, who in turn spoke to Fred de Cordova, the comic legend’s longtime producer. De Cordova told him that Carson had never had a politician on the show and “he’s not going to now” — a sharp contrast with today, when appearances on late-night talk shows are practically mandatory for politicians. Later that day, Thomason had another idea, calling de Cordova himself and asking, “Okay, you’ve never had a politician on, but what if he comes on and plays the saxophone?” — making him a musician. De Cordova laughed and spoke to Carson, who agreed to have Clinton on the show.
At the time, the host reigned as the unrivaled king of late-night television, having easily pushed aside multiple competitors over almost three decades. His first successful challenger, “The Arsenio Hall Show,” would not premiere until six months later. With little counterprogramming except Ted Koppel’s ABC news program “Nightline,” a massive audience tuned into “The Tonight Show,” providing Clinton with a golden opportunity.
The Arkansas governor came out onstage, and Carson asked, “How are you?” humorously putting an hourglass on the table to time Clinton’s response. Asked what happened, Clinton said: “It just didn’t work. I mean, what can I tell you?”
He joked: “My sole goal was achieved, however. I wanted so badly to make Michael Dukakis look great, and I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations,” one of many self-deprecating quips Clinton made.
Crediting the governor for his sense of humor, Carson praised him for coming on the show despite the zingers the comedian had aimed at him. Asked whether he would run for president in the future, Clinton said that “I’d like to do it sometime” but that he hadn’t run in 1988 because he thought he hadn’t “fulfilled my commitment to my state,” and because his daughter, Chelsea, was too young then, at age 7. Clinton concluded by playing the saxophone with the show’s band.
In a remarkable turnaround, the reviews for Clinton’s performance on “The Tonight Show” were as rapturous as they had been negative for the convention speech. “Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has gone from the media doghouse to media darling in one short week,” the AP reported the next day. “And all it took was a smile, a few self-deprecating jokes and a song.” Newsweek’s CW Watch did a 180: “Old CW: Finished! New CW: Famous! Plays sax on Carson! Al Gore, eat your heart out.” It was the “Comeback Kid’s” first comeback on the national stage.
Clinton’s gambit helped push along a significant change in American politics that would only accelerate in the years to come, as traditional media gatekeepers like the big three network evening news programs and major mainstream newspapers declined in influence. In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot launched one of the most successful third-party campaigns in American history on cable on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” and Clinton again went on late-night television to play the saxophone — this time on “Arsenio” — and conducted a town hall with young voters on MTV.
Capping his recovery at the 1992 Democratic convention, Clinton joked in his acceptance speech that the only reason he ran was “to come back to this convention and finish that speech I started four years ago.” This political resurrection might not have been possible without his bravura appearance on “The Tonight Show,” and eventually candidate visits to “The Daily Show” and other talk shows that blend information and entertainment became as commonplace as an interview on “60 Minutes.”
This year’s virtual Democratic convention will feature a dramatically truncated program and no in-person audience, saving speakers from a potentially unruly crowd like the one that helped doom Clinton. But given the wooden responses to presidents’ State of the Union addresses in these types of settings, an aspiring politician given a key speaking slot could still face a similar fate. Clinton’s experience shows that how a politician handles a disappointing convention speech can be as important as the speech itself. Indeed, President Clinton might not be speaking Tuesday if Gov. Clinton hadn’t adroitly done so 32 years ago.