SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Political conventions used to be dramatic events that made history. They nominated candidates for president. They debated crucial issues under glaring lights. Now, not so much. Presidential candidates win or lose nominations in primaries, and parties tend to see - and use - conventions as what amounts to advertisements for themselves. Our apologies to Norman Mailer.
As this year's first convention is set to open, whatever the weather, we've asked NPR's Ron Elving to talk about the history of Republican conventions over the last couple of generations. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: What is the point of a convention these days?
ELVING: The point of a convention these days is advertising the ticket. This is the best opportunity a party gets to have four nights of primetime television. We carry it live on NPR for several hours a night. How many other times during a campaign is a candidate going to get that kind of visibility and exposure?
SIMON: Let's cast back to a few Republican conventions over the past couple of generations. 1964 is often cited as the last truly contested convention. It was Barry Goldwater; William Scranton was finally the one remaining candidate. He had already defeated Nelson Rockefeller in the primaries. And lots of clamor at that convention before Senator Goldwater gave his acceptance speech.
SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!
SIMON: Why did that set so many people off?
ELVING: Because the word extremism had already been in contention at the convention. There had been several attempts to condemn extremism in the guise of the John Birch Society, the Klu Klux Klan; some of the other forces in American politics at that time. And some of the people had tried to get these planks into the Republican platform. And they were rejected by two to one margins because the party, it wanted to make a stand, even if some of it seemed a little extreme to people on the other side.
SIMON: Lets jump ahead a bit, 1992 convention which renominated then President George Herbert Walker Bush. Pat Buchanan gave his speech, it was called the culture war speech.
PAT BUCHANAN: So here's a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. But this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side and George Bush is on our side.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)
SIMON: Ron, bring us back to that.
ELVING: Yes, I was on the floor for that particular speech. It was electrifying for the people who were in the ball park. The context, we should remember, is that this was just some weeks after the extraordinary rioting that had happened in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict. This was a racially charged moment, and Pat Buchanan was talking about National Guardsmen claiming back the streets of Los Angeles block by block. And he - I think - again, made a lot of people feel uneasy the way Barry Goldwater had in 1964.
SIMON: 2008, Republican convention, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska was introduced to America with a speech, a line that still is much quoted.
SARAH PALIN: I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull, lipstick.
SIMON: Sarah Palin, of course, electrified many people in this country in the weeks and months that followed. However, is there a tendency for the people at the convention to sometimes not think about what happens in the larger audience outside?
ELVING: The people in the convention want to be turned on. They want to get excited. And at that particular convention in St. Paul, not much had happened up to the Sarah Palin speech that would have had that effect. And when Sarah Palin gave that speech, it was transformed into one of the most raucous and emotional conventions that I've ever seen.
She also, I think, again, took the Republican Party just a little over the line into some territory, certainly not with that hockey mom's joke, which she had contributed to the speech herself, but with some of the other things that she was saying about people who did not follow her line or the Republican platform line on every issue.
SIMON: Ron, let's end with a general question about conventions. I've had politicians say to me, as perhaps they have to you, that whatever its endless demerits, when conventions pick presidential candidates, that's a system that produced Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. And they'll say have primaries really done any better than that?
ELVING: The old system was probably better at choosing candidates who would be the most competitive for the party in November. They would not be necessarily the choice of the heart for the people who were going to vote in state primaries and caucuses. When the primary system came in, well, no better example than Barry Goldwater himself. He was a great favorite of the party activists who dominate the primaries and the caucuses, but in November he carried only his home state of Arizona and five states in the deep South.
SIMON: And, of course, Democrats have their own stories, too, don't they?
ELVING: Yes. They've lost their 49 state elections as well.
SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.