Published January 14, 2015
Being a keynote speaker at a political convention may not be the kiss of death for a political career, but it hasn't been the smooch of success, either.
In the more than 60 years since Democrats and Republicans began picking keynoters to kick convention oratory into gear, none has gone on to become a presidential nominee and few even tried. For some, the speech was their peak.
This, despite the cachet of up-and-comer that comes with the keynoter's job. Now the flickering torch is passed to Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama (search), who gives the keynote address Tuesday at the Democratic National Convention.
The list going back to 1940 has many familiar names in both parties, but few household names. Reubin Askew (search)? The former Florida governor was Democratic keynoter of 1972.
Susan Molinari (search)? The GOP showcased a female New York representative congresswoman in 1996 to illustrate its inclusiveness. But Molinari excluded herself from politics altogether a year later to pursue a TV career.
Mario Cuomo gave a still-talked-about stem-winder for Democrats in 1984, called "A Tale of Two Cities," which raised his national prospects. Later that year, he was defeated as New York governor. After that, he slow-danced with the idea of running for president but never did.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur's 1952 keynote to the Republican convention was remembered as a listless swansong, paling next to his speech to Congress a year earlier when he evoked old soldiers fading away.
Then there's Zell Miller, iconoclastic Democratic senator from Georgia. There he was in 1992, delighting Democrats with his "Zell zingers" lacerating the GOP.
And there he will be next month, at the Republican convention in New York, taking shots at his own party's nominee.
Not the kind of springboard Democrats had in mind when they made him one of three keynote speakers at Madison Square Garden -- one of the few times in the modern era that Democrats picked more than one keynoter. New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who challenged Al Gore for the nomination in 2000, and the master orator Barbara Jordan were the others.
"I can't say it's a curse, but sometimes you just keep picking the wrong guy," said Eugene Alpert, an authority on conventions. "Sometimes you have to be at the right place at the right time and these people designated as keynoters were given a chance. But it depends on how history plays itself out and also what their own ambitions are."
The expectation of a bright career is not the only qualification for choosing a keynoter. Sometimes a party wants to highlight someone who is good at attracting voters from the other party. Or they want to give a lift to a candidate running for Congress in an important seat.
Sixteen years before his sober work as GOP co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, keynoter Thomas Kean stood before the 1988 Republican convention as New Jersey governor and accused Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of acting "like Pee Wee Herman."
He spoke even longer than Bill Clinton, who became the butt of jokes for speaking so long at the Democratic convention that year.
The 1988 Democratic keynoter, Texas Treasurer Ann Richards, became an instant celebrity after her speech accusing the elder George Bush of being "born with a silver foot in his mouth." She went on to become Texas governor until the younger George W. Bush beat her in 1994.