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  Nominating a presidential candidate isn't what it used to be. Before the advent of the primary system in the 1960s, when conventions were actually suspenseful, the name of the game at these quadrennial party gatherings was courting wealthy backers,  
  appeasing special interests and exciting the crowds with grandiose but empty proclamations.

Now, of course, things are much different.

What really is unique in this era of stage-managed conventions is the obsessive search for the "defining moment" -- the crack in the façade, the moment when one of the actors forgets his lines and has to improvise. Reporters and commentators swarm over these moments like fireants on a wounded dragonfly, for they

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supposedly provide a window into the actual heart of a candidate or a platform. If the moment happens to square with a pre-existing image within the meta-narrative (i.e., Bush is a dolt, Kerry is a toff) so much the better.

Goofs, missteps, flashes of anger, unscripted embarrassments -- all of these qualify as the prized "defining moments" that have the power to turn elections and influence world history. Here is the Black Table's list of Defining Moments in Convention History.


  1820 -- Almost nobody bothered to show up at the nominating caucus in Baltimore. Organizers decided to blow off the vote and simply let incumbent president James Monroe drift onto the ballot by inertia.

1840 -- Van Buren was re-nominated in Baltimore, but his Veep was so widely disliked that not a single delegate could be found who would vote for him. Richard M. Johnson made it onto the ballot anyway.

1848 -- Whigs in Philadelphia send a letter to war hero Zachary Taylor informing him that he has won their nomination. Taylor is so cheap that he refuses to pay for the postage-due letter and thus doesn't realize that he is a candidate for president until several weeks later.

1872 -- An all-time lame showing for the Democrats, who couldn't even nominate their own candidate. They threw their support to liberal Republican Horace Greeley against Ulysses S. Grant. One historian commented: "Never in American history have two more unfit men been offered to the country for highest office." Oh, really?

1876 -- Republican in Chicago discover the power of demagoguery and demand an immediate end to Mormon polygamy and Asian immigration. They got neither, but that was never the point.

1884 -- William T. Sherman delivers the ultimate diss to desperate Republicans in Chicago: "If nominated, I will not accept. If elected, I will not serve."

1912 -- Woodrow Wilson almost loses the Democratic nomination in Baltimore after publication of one of his letters plotting against party icon William Jennings Bryan. "Would that we could do something, at once discreet and effective, to punch Mr. Bryan once and for all into a cocked hat." Ever the mensch, Bryan forgave the slam and endorsed Wilson.

1920 -- In the original "smoke-filled room" (for the record, suite 404 of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago) Republican bosses nominate the amiable oaf Warren Harding.

1924 -- Democrats honor a deceased president by proposing a resolution stating: "Our party stands uncovered at the bier of Warren G. Harding." But Prohibitionists objected to the word 'bier,' and it had to be changed to 'grave.' True story.

1928 -- Herbert Hoover delivers this stirring line in Kansas City: "We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation." Oops.

1936 -- FDR stumbles off his braces on the way to the podium in Philadelphia. It is the first time that many realize the extent of his disability.

1944 -- Harry Truman initially refuses the vice presidential nomination in Chicago, but changes his mind after getting a Presidential Ass Kicking. "Tell him if he wants to break up the Democratic Party in the middle of a war, that's his responsibility," groused FDR from his hotel room. If this exchange had turned out differently, Hiroshima might never have been bombed and Israel might not exist.

1964 -- Department store heir and ham radio buff Barry Goldwater makes a convincing appeal to moderates: "I would remind you that that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Less-widely quoted is the softer end of the couplet ("And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue") but the damage was done.

1968 -- Republicans put forth the vaguest platform in GOP history in Miami Beach while police in Chicago joyfully put the whup-ass on hippies. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, D-Conn., denounces police "gestapo tactics" from the podium. Television cameras swing to Mayor Richard Daley for a reaction shot, and while the audio is turned off, he can clearly be seen screaming the words: "Fuck you, you Jew bastard."

1980 -- From the podium in New York, Jimmy Carter lets the nation know what he really thinks of a loquacious party stalwart, when he tries to pay tribute to a man "who would have been one of the greatest Presidents in history- Hubert Horatio Hornblower! Uh, Humphrey!"

1984 -- In San Francisco, Walter Mondale decides he really isn't into this running-for-president stuff by declaring: "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

1992 -- Pat Buchanan pulls a Goldwater by claiming the upcoming election is "a religious war … for the soul of America." The Republicans also distinguish themselves by adding a plank in the platform denouncing the tax increase of 1990 -- the one signed by their own nominee, President George Bush.

1996 -- Bill Clinton's nomination in Chicago is overshadowed by the sudden embarrassment of one of his top advisers. A prostitute hired by Dick Morris told the Star tabloid that he paid her $200 an hour to suck on her toes, and allowed her to listen in on several of his phone calls with the Commander-in-Chief.

2004 -- Teresa Heinz Kerry, a woman who has the potential to become the most entertaining first lady since Betty Ford, tells a conservative editorial-page editor in Boston to "shove it."



Sources: The Washington Post, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, by William A. DeGregorio, Presidential Anecdotes, by Paul Boller.