The two parties’ national conventions are (finally) in the political rearview mirror. But, before they drift entirely out of sight, we thought it was a worthwhile exercise to sift through the 8,000 (or so) speeches given by politicians (and non-politicians) in Tampa and Charlotte to find the five best.
These are speeches that will probably have some resonance beyond simply winning plaudits in the convention hall — addresses that we may look back on in two (or 20) years and say: “That was a/the moment.”
To be clear, not every speech — even among those who make the Fix’s top five — will have the same effect that President Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention did. But, still, showing up on the biggest stage in politics is harder than it looks, and all five people below did just that.
Without further ado, here are the Fix’s five best convention speeches — ranked in order of best-ness.
1. Bill Clinton: The competition for the top spot wasn’t even close. Watching Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention was like watching Usain Bolt run or Lionel Messi play soccer. You know you are watching pure genius, someone who was born to do exactly what he is doing. Clinton’s ability to take complicated arguments and boil them down to the simplest possible terms, his folksiness, his attacking with a smile — it was all on display during the speech. That Clinton added more than 2,000 words to the prepared speech through a series of ad-libs was the sort of cherry on top, an athlete at the highest level showing off because, well, he can. Had Clinton stopped his speech about 10 minutes before he did, we’d likely be talking about his address as one of the best convention addresses ever.
2. Marco Rubio: The expectations for the Florida senator heading into his speech introducing Mitt Romney at the Republican convention could hardly have been higher. Rubio is widely regarded within the Republican Party as the star among stars. In spite of all those expectations, Rubio soared — delivering a convincing case for why he was a Republican and why Romney was the right choice in November. In a Republican convention in which many of the party’s much-touted future stars failed to impress, Rubio stood out among the 2016/2020 class.
3. Michelle Obama: Speeches by first ladies tend to be boilerplate stuff: My husband is a good man, a good father, he cares about each and every one of you and so on and so forth. (Check out Ann Romney’s address for a very solid but very safe speech by a candidate’s spouse.) Not so with Michelle Obama’s address. Yes, the first lady did testify to the inherent goodness of her husband and did tell endearing stories about him before he was anywhere close to the White House. But, she also did something bigger and better — making the case for who we are as Americans and why her husband was the right person to lead the country to a better future. She also, without naming names, made the case against the Republican vision — a subtle but important part of her speech. What Michelle Obama showed in her convention speech is that if she ever wants to run for office in her own right, she has the skills (and then some) to do so.
4. Condi Rice: The former secretary of state’s speech was among the biggest surprises during the two convention weeks. (Other big surprises: How good Sen. John Kerry’s speech was, how not-good Gov. Martin O’Malley’s speech was.) Rice was pointed without being nasty, showed she could talk smartly about domestic policy (as opposed to solely foreign policy) and told her personal story of growing up black in segregated Birmingham, Ala., with poise and tenderness. Rice has never expressed interest in running for office in her own right, but her convention speech showed that she has the tools to be a very good politician if she wants to be.
5. Julian Castro: The competition for our final spot was fierce, but in the end it came down to the mayor of San Antonio and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. We went with Castro over Patrick because the step up to the massive national stage was bigger for the mayor than for the governor. (That said, Patrick did himself a world of good with his speech if he wants to run for president.) Castro’s re-telling of his personal story was moving and compelling, and he showed real political skills by attacking Romney without coming across as nasty or mean-spirited.