It happens every four years: A parade of political theater so piquant, it dominates airwaves and conversations. It’s political convention season, and it kicks off today in Cleveland with the start of this year’s Republican National Convention.
While there’s no telling what might happen on the floor of either party gathering, one thing is nearly certain: It will produce memorable and even historic moments, the likes of which have been captured by moving pictures for posterity since the advent of newsreel. Thanks to the newsreel archive British Pathé, which uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 historic films onto its YouTube channel in 2014, many candid moments of conventions past can be easily viewed today.
It's hard not to feel a little vertigo watching these snippets from national conventions from decades ago, from the cheering crowds seen at the Democratic National Convention of 1920, to a baby being hoisted up at the third-party Progressive Party National Convention in 1948 to the homemade candidate paraphernalia displayed at brokered Republican National Convention of that same year. In celebration of what could be some of 2016’s strangest two weeks, here’s a tour through seven noteworthy—and cringeworthy—moments caught on camera during national conventions.
FDR Ushers in a “New Deal” (Democratic National Convention, Chicago, 1932)
1932 was a bleak year in America—as the Great Depression raged, Americans experienced everything from food riots to collapsing banks and bloody strikes. Enter Franklin Delano Roosevelt, New York’s governor. Roosevelt clinched the Democratic nomination with a pledge to undo Herbert Hoover’s disastrous economic policies, breaking tradition in the process.
At the time, presidential candidates were expected to stay home during conventions, but FDR chartered a flight to Chicago and delivered the first-ever acceptance speech given in person. The speech included a term that would stick with FDR for decades: “new deal.” His unconventional move is thought to have built up his reputation as a mover and shaker—and to have assuaged public fears about the fitness of a disabled man (he had suffered from polio and was largely wheelchair-bound) to serve as president.
“Dixiecrats” Revolt (Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, 1948)
Civil rights were a hot topic at the 1948 convention, and controversy over Jim Crow and the rights of black Americans came to a head when Hubert Humphrey delivered a famous speech that exhorted the party to move away from states’ rights arguments and toward what he called “the bright sunshine of human rights.”
Incensed by the Democratic party’s adoption of a civil rights platform, 35 “Dixiecrat” delegates headed by South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond walked out of the convention and held their own anti-convention in Birmingham instead. The States’ Rights Democratic Party convention recommended Thurmond for president and ended up carrying four states and 38 electoral votes with their segregationist platform.
Dan Rather Gets Roughed Up on the Convention Floor (Democratic National Convention, Chicago, 1968)
The pressure cooker that was 1968 came to a boil at both party conventions, but the Chicago Democratic convention proved the most violent when protests turned into a full-blown riot marked with bloody battles between protesters and militarized police.
Things got heated on the convention floor, too, when CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather was roughed up by security guards on camera while trying to report on the exit of a Georgia delegate. Rather then told anchor Walter Cronkite he was punched in the stomach, to which Cronkite replied, “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here.”
A Triumphant Balloon Drop Is Anything But (Democratic National Convention, New York, 1980)
Theatrics are all part of the show at conventions, but sometimes things don’t go as planned. Take 1980, when Jimmy Carter waited for balloons to drop in celebration of his nomination for President. (Spoiler alert: They didn’t.) History has a way of repeating itself: In 2004, a producer’s angry tirade was broadcast live when a similar balloon drop fail occurred.
Punk Rock Meets Supreme Court (Republican National Convention, Dallas, 1984)
There’s nothing more punk rock than protesting at a national convention, but many thought that Gregory “Joey” Johnson took things a bit too far when he burned an American flag during a protest outside of the Dallas convention center where Republicans were choosing their next nominee. Johnson, who described his act as “exposing the flag as a symbol of American imperialism,” was arrested and charged $2,000 for desecrating the flag.
The Revolutionary Communist Party Youth Brigade member took his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that burning the flag was within his rights. For his part, Johnson was unimpressed: In an interview with People after the verdict, he said that the decision “does not in any way indicate the government is backing off from forcing the flag on people….I’m not going to say truth and justice prevailed here.”
We Read His Lips (Republican National Convention, New Orleans, 1988)
Political conventions are known for their one-liners and soundbites, and nominee George Bush gave one of the most famous in 1988. During a speech in which he compared America’s diverse population to “a thousand points of light,” he uttered an even more famous phrase: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” The soundbite is credited with helping Bush clinch the election—but was turned against him over and over again throughout his presidency.
Rendezvous With a Chair (Republican National Convention, Tampa, 2012)
Candidates are usually convention stars, but every once in a while they can be upstaged by inanimate objects. Take 2012: When Clint Eastwood was invited to give a speech endorsing Mitt Romney, he used his prime time slot to improvise a long conversation with an empty chair. The chair immediately became a cultural icon, to the dismay of Romney strategists. (Fun fact: The history of debating empty chairs dates back to at least 1924, as Colin Schultz reported for Smithsonian.com.) Eastwood's chair now resides in the office of Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus.