The fervor of election season this year took hold in the Northeast for both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Left-wingers gathered in Boston to nominate their candidate John Kerry, while right-wing delegates in New York selected George W. Bush to run for a second term. Since the campaigns kicked off, both candidates have focused their attention on swing states like Florida and Ohio, while Texas has already been marked red on the maps. But twice upon a time, the Lone Star State did steal the spotlight—at least for convention week.
1984 Republican National Convention, Dallas
In August of 1984 the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to Dallas to present the Greatest Show on Earth, but before the acrobats, clowns, and animals left town, the elephants had to perform an important duty—christen the newly expanded Dallas Convention Center for the upcoming Republican National Convention. These thunderous mammals paved the way for their political counterparts, and Ronald Reagan and his supporters stomped into Big D the following week.
The 1984 election pitted Republican president Ronald Reagan and vice president George H.W. Bush against Democratic candidate Walter Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, and the economy, foreign policy, and religion dominated the issues addressed at the convention. Reagan, the incumbent, ran on a platform of less complicated tax rates, more take-home personal income, voluntary prayer in schools, and smaller government. His party opposed abortion, pornography, and rent control. And not unexpectedly, the Republican Party portrayed its challengers as supporters of all things opposite, including big government and weak defense policies. Despite their different styles, featured speakers tended to stay on message and focus on specific themes.
Introduced by an eighteen-minute movie, Reagan used his acceptance speech to argue that his economic policies over the past four years had been effective. He also touched upon many other aspects of political life, including defense policy and prayer in school. He said the misery index, a summation of inflation and unemployment rates, was more than 20 percent under Democratic leadership but had been reduced to 11.6 percent under his administration. And while he boasted that the spread of Communism had been contained in recent years, he urged the Soviet Union to engage in negotiations to reduce its stock of nuclear weapons. He explained that his administration had shrunk the size of the U.S. government and implemented an “across the board” tax cut in 1983. He also expressed his support for a balanced-budget amendment and a line-item veto.
Bush talked about similar themes in his own address. He blasted the Democrats for their insistence on raising taxes, while describing the president’s accomplishments in bringing down inflation, reducing unemployment, and raising personal savings. Like the commander in chief, he referred to the invasion of Grenada as necessary and successful, and he, too, urged the passage of constitutional amendments regarding budgetary and veto powers. He emphasized the need to keep drugs out of schools and reiterated his view that local government should run its education facilities.
Of course, as with any political convention, other distinguished speakers also endorsed their candidates and discussed the advantages they’d bring to office. Former president Gerald Ford said Mondale was trying to look to the future to divert attention from his past record as Jimmy Carter’s vice president. Ford also touted Reagan’s bipartisan proposal to “save the Social Security System from bankruptcy.” Senator Barry Goldwater talked about the importance of a strong, well-funded military and claimed that the Democrats lacked the strength to handle foreign policy. And first lady Nancy Reagan expressed her gratitude for the support of the American people and urged citizens to “make it one more for the Gipper.”
But not everyone had intentions for such Republican success. Approximately four hundred union workers donned Mondale-Ferraro paraphernalia at the Kennedy Memorial. Just as this year’s Democratic convention featured a “free-speech zone” for those in disagreement with the party, a fence around the Dallas Convention Center kept demonstrators from getting too close. Some protestors put small wooden crosses in the fence to call attention to the suffering caused by El Salvador’s civil war. But despite the precautions to keep the convention center secure, the building itself wasn’t the target of the Youth International Party, or “Yippies.” This organization embarked on a “corporate war chest tour” that included spitting on people at Neiman Marcus, spray-painting curse words on buildings, and burning an American flag. It resulted in about one hundred arrests when group members jumped into the City Hall fountain.
Such disorder, however, did little to detract from Dallas society and its chance to revel in the national attention. Neiman Marcus department store set up a Republican boutique on an upper level. An elephant named Kenya posed at the Galleria each day. And following Reagan’s view that religion and politics were not mutually exclusive, churches participated in an “adopt-a-delegation” program.
The fanfare also included “Bush in ’88” buttons, indicating the faith the party had in its candidates for that election and in the future. Reagan expressed similar optimism in his acceptance speech, “In 75 days, I hope we enjoy a victory that is the size of the heart of Texas.” His wish came true when he was reelected with a majority in 49 states.
1992 Republican National Convention, Houston
Eight years after the first Texas Republican National Convention in Dallas, the party returned to the state to nominate an incumbent once again. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were vying for a second term in office against their Democratic opponents, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, and their party chose to hold its convention at the Astrodome. Republicans took the same stand on many of the issues of 1984—supporting a line-item veto, advocating voluntary prayer in school, and encouraging more individualism and less government intervention—but the cohesiveness and success of Dallas did not transfer smoothly to Houston. The president had been accused of using foreign affairs to his political advantage. And on the day of his acceptance speech, a governmental report announced the largest increase in Americans seeking first-time unemployment benefits in more than ten years, although a two-week General Motors shutdown was cited as a reason.
The Republican platform laid out the party’s goals for the future, but reaching harmonious accord proved somewhat difficult. The issue of abortion divided delegates into factions, as abortion-rights supporters struggled the first day to make their minority voices heard. The platform also advocated a constitutional amendment establishing congressional term limits. On an issue still prominent today, the Republicans espoused their opposition to legislation that would officially recognize same-sex marriages, and they condemned the right of such couples to serve as adoptive or foster parents. The platform went on to praise President Bush’s Council on Competitiveness for its role in cutting superfluous federal regulation.
These issues, of course, figured heavily into the convention-week speeches. Introduced by then-senator Bob Dole, President Bush defended his focus on foreign policy and cited as successes the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of South African apartheid, the demise of Communism, and the peace talks in the Middle East. On the domestic front, he said cocaine use among America’s youth was declining, he decried the presence of frivolous lawsuits in the U.S. legal system, and he reminded voters that he passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also admitted that he broke his promise to avoid new taxes but blamed the Democratic Congress for its gridlock in passing his proposals and its “addiction to taxes.”
Vice President Quayle also extolled the president’s achievements in foreign affairs, but he brought the discussion closer to home by emphasizing the importance of family. Introducing himself as a man with a small-town childhood, he advocated “low taxes, home ownership, parental choice in education, job training, safe streets, a clean environment, and affordable health care.” According to Quayle, the sitting administration had accelerated the procedure for drug approval in order to treat patients more quickly.
Mary Fisher, a woman infected with HIV, delivered an emotional speech on this theme. She said that those inflicted with the disease had been alienated and overlooked, and she urged Americans not to see the illness as someone else’s problem. She referred only once to the candidate—”My call to you, my party, is to take a public stand no less compassionate than that of President and Mrs. Bush”—but her overall message of hope and resolution caused some delegates to cry.
Other speeches may not have provoked tears, but their presenters were no less recognized. Former president Ronald Reagan urged his audience not to forget the Democrats’ poor record of the past as he promoted Bush as the more experienced, capable leader. Pat Buchanan and Senator Alan K. Simpson reminded voters that Clinton attended the University of Oxford instead of serving in Vietnam, but Bush had represented his country in the military during World War II. Keynote speaker Phil Gramm compared Clinton with a “used-car salesman” who masked the failed programs of Jimmy Carter with a shiny exterior, and he attacked the Arkansas governor for his state’s poor rankings for household income, law enforcement funding, and the environment.
Not every convention spectacle went off without a hitch, however. The balloons malfunctioned on opening night when white ones didn’t drop with the red and blue ones. (History seemed to repeat itself at this year’s Democratic convention when all of the balloons refused to fall after Kerry’s acceptance speech.) But regardless of the defects within the Astrodome, Houston rolled out its welcome mat with margaritas for the Texas, California, and Florida delegations; barbecue for the representatives from Missouri; an English garden tea party for the National Federation of Republican Women; and a closing-night celebration at the River Oaks Country Club.
The hoopla throughout the week focused on Bush and Quayle, but that didn’t stop speculation about future elections. In U.S. News & World Report, Steven V. Roberts referred to eight men as potential candidates for the 1996 election. None of his predictions came true per se, as these Republicans didn’t fill the top slot on the ballot. But after his discussion of politicians like Jack Kemp and James Baker, he commented on the then-secretary of defense, Dick Cheney: “The Cheneys are clearly replacing Bob and Liddy Dole as the GOP’s power couple.”
Bush lost to his Democratic challenger that November, but Roberts’s forecast for future party leaders materialized eight years later. When Bush’s son George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore in the election of 2000, Cheney took his place as second in command.
Information for this article was gathered from the archives of the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, U.S. News & World Report, and the Houston Chronicle.