CLEVELAND – A trick trivia question, now that the Republican National Convention is on the cusp of concluding with Donald Trump’s climatic speech: Who delivered the keynote address?
No demerits for forgetting who, among the exhaustive roster of five dozen speech makers during the first three nights, claimed the job so often awarded to one of the party’s fastest rising stars. No one got the call this year.
And probably no one cares, at least not among the GOP’s most ambitious leaders. For decades the keynoter was coveted by people with plans to run for president the next time around. Not any more, partly because conventions aren’t marketing opportunities for politicians they were in the days of gavel to gavel network coverage — but mainly because these one-night-stand national political celebrities have rarely gone on to sustained roles on the national stage.
Getting tapped to present the authorized vision statement for the party and its candidate, it turns out, is no predictor of future success. And precious few of the speeches have stood out, even in the moments after delivery.
On top of all that are the unique realities for the GOP year — dominated by a nominee with boundless confidence in his power to rhetorically dominate whatever venue he’s in and an eagerness to disrupt the regular political order wherever he goes. In that context it makes sense for Trump’s speech, and to a much lesser extent the address Wednesday night from his running mate Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana , to share no spotlight at all.
Instead, the speaker’s list has been populated with an at times randomly-ordered collection of mostly brief speeches by his vanquished rivals, family members , elected officials, B List pop culture figures , conservative advocates and little-known business people.
Barack Obama is, of course, the exception that proves the rule that keynoting is not a reliable path to stardom. He was an Illinois state senator with Senate aspirations when he delivered his genuinely mesmerizing “One America ” speech in Boston in 2004, and just one convention later he was the “Hope and Change” nominee in Denver.
Only one other keynoter ever became president, Republican Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio four years after his 1916 speech. Three time keynoter (1932, 1936 and 1948) Alben Barkley, a Democratic senator from Kentucky, eventually got to be vice president under Harry Truman, while two other Republicans attained national office of a sort: Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee (1976) failed to gain presidential traction next time but eventually secured a West Wing office as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Gov. Earl Warren of California (1944) put his electoral ambition aside to become chief justice seven years later.
Some of the most passionate rhetoric at the podium this week has come from a pair of past GOP keynoters whose own presidential dreams have been denied, but who now see a Trump presidency as providing another shot at federal leadership:
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (2008) is mentioned as a possible Homeland Security secretary. And Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who’s become palpably interested in being attorney general since he got passed over for vice president, did his chances no harm by making sure to mention Trump in the first sentence of his speech.
In 2012, Christie spoke almost entirely about himself for 16 minutes before mentioning Mitt Romney — thumbing his nose at a fundamental requirement, which hasn’t changed this year, that extolling the nominee’s virtues or at least castigating the opponent is Job One for everyone who makes televised remarks at the convention.
None of the other living GOP keynoters have a role at the Quicken Loans Arena, echoing the widely reported reality that only two of the party’s living nominees for national office are on hand: Speaker Paul D. Ryan , the previous vice-presidential candidate, and Bob Dole, the standard-bearer in 1996.
Zell Miller, the governor of Georgia who’s the only Democrat to keynote a GOP convention (2004) and Katherine D. Ortega, who had the largely symbolic job of treasurer of the United States under Reagan (1984), were chosen to emphasize versions of the party’s cross-over appeal and were never expected to push for more power.
Not so the others. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas (1992) and Rep. Susan Molinari of New York (1996) attained subsequent congressional power but their national momentum never materialized and they both went on to becoming power lobbyists instead.
Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey (1988), who likewise never caught on as ticket-topping material, attained a spot in history as chairman of the independent 9/11 Commission but otherwise settled into life as a small college president. (For those keeping track, the GOP convention also skipped a formal keynote speech in 2000.)
The situation across the partisan divide is similar. The Democrats have not announced a keynoter for next week’s convention in Philadelphia, but they have set a roster of top prime time speakers almost guaranteed to bump whoever it ends up being from featuring in the coverage.
The party’s 2012 speaker, Julian Castro , was mayor of San Antonio and now housing secretary and at only 41, still has a rising star trajectory. But he appears to be off the Hillary Clinton vice-presidential roster since federal investigators said this week that he violated Hatch Act restrictions on partisan political activity by federal employees by praising Clinton during an interview in his office. And Mark Warner, the 2008 keynoter, has ceded the national limelight to Virginia’s other senator, running mate short-lister Tim Kaine .
Tennessee’s Harold Ford Jr. (2000) has spent most of his time on Wall Street since failing to move a step up the electoral ladder, from the House to the Senate, a decade ago. Indiana’s Gov. Evan Bayh (1996), who made the running mate finals for Obama in 2008, left the Senate in public despair six years ago but now wants the job back . New Jersey’s Sen. Bill Bradley (1992) left the Capitol soon thereafter and didn’t last long as a presidential candidate in 2000.
And the orator of the last truly memorable keynote, Ann Richards, who pitied 1988 GOP nominee George Bush for being “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” went on to a single term as governor of Texas before being ousted by the son of the man she’d ridiculed.