It occurred to me this week—as several dozen congressional Republicans feted Fred Thompson, as more journalists gushed over Barack Obama's fundraising—that both of these presidential candidates (Thompson will become one soon) might well violate an obscure but heretofore pretty reliable law of politics: success as a national convention speaker ≠ success as a national candidate.
Barack Obama impressed almost everyone—and moved many to tears—with his "Audacity of Hope" address to the 2004 Democratic convention. Fred Thompson, less famously but no less successfully, wowed the crowd by lending his fabulous, gravelly voice to "The Pitch," George W. Bush's tribute video at that year's Republican convention. But before Thompson or Obama start planning their triumphant returns to the convention stage, this time as their party's nominee, they should remember all the Convention Candidates who came before them—and how rarely one great speech, or one bad speech, leads to another.
In 1984, New York Governor Mario Cuomo hushed the halls of San Francisco's Democratic National Convention with his powerful keynote address about "the family of America." It's just a matter of time, the commentators prophesized, before party poobahs draft Cuomo for president. Never happened—and Cuomo would never lower himself to actually campaigning for the job.
In 1988, a little known governor got asked by Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis to give a major convention speech. Bill Clinton practically had the phrase "rising star" super-glued to his name—until that speech. "A disaster," the pundits proclaimed, "the end of Clinton's career." Well, no.
In 1996, the parties hosted well-received keynote addressers: New York Republican mom Susan Molinari for Bob Dole, and Indiana Democratic dad Evan Bayh for Bill Clinton (both featured their young children as prominently as any policy proposal). And then...Molinari resigned from Congress less than a year later to accept an ill-fated gig as a TV anchor (for CBS), and Bayh, having gotten elected to the Senate, abandoned his long-planned 2008 campaign amidst whispers that he is just too boring to be president.
A couple Convention Candidates have gone on to greater glory—Ronald Reagan followed a mesmerizing off-the-cuff 1976 concession address with an acceptance speech four years later—but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
And yet: perhaps that bit of political history offers presidential contenders another reason to try so hard to seem Reaganesque.