Today, it's a must-do speech, so much so that it was lampooned this week by The Onion--but it turns out that the "wifely testimonial" is a recent addition to political conventions, pioneered by Barbara Bush at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Major speaking roles for the candidate's wife were non-existent at the conventions until then--except for one dramatic, last-minute, save-the-day speech given by Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1940 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
It was a tense convention. The country was on the brink of entering World War II. Her husband--who stayed away from this convention--had been nominated the night before for an unprecedented and controversial third term as president of the United States. FDR had been nominated on the first ballot, but then angered many delegates with his choice of liberal Henry Wallace as his vice-presidential candidate. Factions threatened withdrawal of their support, and FDR threatened his own withdrawal from the candidacy. Eleanor was dispatched to speak on behalf of the ticket, with less than a day's notice. Unlike today's testimonials, this speech was not full of FDR's better qualities, nor insights about his personal life. This was all about getting and keeping the delegates' votes. First, she dealt with the unusual circumstances of the convention:
You cannot treat it as you would treat an ordinary nomination in an ordinary time. We people in the United States have got to realize today that we face a grave and serious situation. Therefore, this year the candidate who is the President of the United States cannot make a campaign in the usual sense of the word. He must be on his job.She connected that situation to the larger world situation, in the most famous words of the speech:
We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.Eleanor had long played a role as FDR's eyes, ears and presence as an emissary in public appearances he could not manage with his disability, giving frequent speeches. But none had as direct and dramatic effect as this impromptu assignment. This post on the speech from the FDR Library notes, "The effect of her words was transformative. A silence marked by respect and admiration followed her message, somberly and palpably shifting the atmosphere. Balloting began immediately after she sat down and the Convention went on to nominate Henry A. Wallace to run alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election."
Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
- Focus on your call to action: Those of us who advise speakers talk about the call to action, but it comes into sharp focus at an event like this one. Roosevelt had just one purpose, to stay the revolt and turn it toward voting the nominees forward. So she kept her remarks single-minded, and they worked, ending with "No man who is a candidate or who is President can carry this situation alone," and the important task before the convention.
- Respect the roles and speak for yourself: Roosevelt mentions just three people specifically in her remarks, honoring and delineating their roles. She thanks the party chairman in almost a full paragraph at the outset. She makes clear she is not speaking for the President, saying "I cannot possibly bring you a message from the President because he will give you his own message," in words that make it clear she is not usurping authority, but speaking for herself. And she reminds the listeners of the role of the President at an uncertain time.
- Reflect the tension: Rather than shy away from the tension, Roosevelt reflected it back so the delegates knew she understood the situation of the day and its difficulties. She talks about the uncertainty of the convention, and ties it to the uncertainty of the nation and the world, and uses those tensions to make the case for action.
(Photo: 1942 portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.)