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- August 31, 2012

One of the most striking aspects of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech yesterday was his extended discussion of his family life and upbringing. Romney’s inability to connect has been widely discussed, so this emphasis was no surprise. Yet he was far from the only speaker who talked at length about his personal background. References to parents, children, spouses, grandchildren and growing up are now standard for candidates and even other convention speakers.

What many viewers may not realize is that this “share-y” rhetorical approach is recent. Now the Presidential nominee’s acceptance speech is the highlight of the Convention. Yet as scholars including Gil Troy and Richard Ellis have noted, until FDR Presidential nominees DID NOT EVEN SPEAK at the Conventions that nominated them. Given that one would have had to travel to the convention in advance of the nomination vote in those pre-air travel days, such a speech would signal that one sought the honor of the nomination. Such naked ambition was considered unseemly. This taboo was so strong that even nominees whom everyone knew had the nomination well in hand before the convention opened, e.g. Al Smith and Herbert Hoover in 1928, did not speak at their conventions. Instead, candidates issued a letter of acceptance well after the convention or, by the time of Hoover and Smith, an acceptance speech in their hometown after a delegation from the party had formally notified them of their nomination.FDR flew to the 1932 convention that nominated him, (and returned in 1936 and 1940), but this was a break from tradition, and despite the rise of air travel Republicans did not follow Roosevelt’s example until 1944.

When it finally became accepted for candidates to speak at the conventions that nominated them, they were all business. One can read Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches from 1932 and 1936 or Thomas Dewey’s from 1944 and 1948 without getting any hint that FDR or Dewey had parents, siblings, a childhood, a spouse or children. FDR at least projected warmth, but Dewey was exactly the kind of aloof character whom handlers would seek to humanize today. Yet at that time a tear-jerking speech or even extended discussion of personal matters would have been seen as highly inappropriate. In 1940 FDR claimed to speak in “very personal and informal way”, but he merely included the phrase “my good wife” (referring to Eleanor’s earlier speech) and his reasons for seeking an unprecedented third term despite his alleged wish to retire. The speeches of Eisenhower and Stevenson in the 1950s and Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s were similarly impersonal. The idea that Eisenhower would salute his running-mate’s love of his mother, as Romney did last night, is laughable. In 1960 JFK DID talk at length about his Catholicism , but this was a defensive move and he made no mention of his experience on PT-109 in World War Two or his ancestors fleeing the potato famine.

So this change didn’t follow instantly from the rise of television either. In 1968 Nixon did engage in a bit of this rhetoric, no doubt b/c his advisors felt he needed to be “humanized”, but it was mild by current standards and, again, it didn’t start a trend. Ronald Reagan, often seen as THE television candidate par excellence, DIDN’T speak about himself or his family at all. Mondale and Ford did just a little.

By 1988 though this rhetoric was far more prominent in both Bush’s and Dukakis’s speeches, perhaps because both candidates were seen as somewhat aloof or hard to relate to and, importantly, the culture had changed. I also remember Bush the Elder talking in a debate about losing his daughter to Leukemia (in a debate?!) and Dukakis countering with mention of his wife Kitty’s miscarriage. Both candidates seemed uneasy about this. The media reflected some of these changes. As awkward as Bernard Shaw’s death penalty question to Dukakis about what he would do if his wife had been raped and murdered was, it is impossible to imagine such a question being formulated, let alone asked by a reporter at the Kennedy-Nixon debates.

Interestingly, in the period just before it became standard to speak at the convention when candidates gave acceptance speeches days later in their hometown they talked a bit more about themselves, perhaps because this was seen as acceptable in this more personal setting.

Relatedly, the candidates’ wives did NOT speak at the convention until recently, Eleanor Roosevelt excepted. Betty Ford may have been the next spouse to speak in 1976 and even after her it didn’t become routine. In those days there was at most the briefest mention of the spouse. Eisenhower referred to “Mrs. Eisenhower” (!) in passing.

These changes are linked to larger shifts in the culture including a trend toward informality and the decline of traditional notions of privacy. We now live in the age of “reality” TV in which the entire family runs for office.

Is this progress? It would be wrong to say that candidates were nobler in one era than another. The old style of presentation of self, rooted in the fiction of the reluctant and selfless candidate, was deeply dishonest. Candidates are human beings and their backgrounds are relevant. Yet this modern ritual in which Gore or Romney is forced to show at great length that he is a human and loves his family (does anyone doubt this?) is repellent. In this way however, while treacly rhetoric does not tell us much about candidates’ plans, it reveals much about our culture and its changing norms and values.