Atlanta had its big moment in the political spotlight in 1988, when Democrats came to town to hold their national convention to select their presidential ticket. The city had drawn bigger trade conventions, but never so much media — there were about three reporters, television producers and other members of the press corps per delegate. It served as a good warm-up for the 1996 Summer Olympics, and lessons learned then helped shaped the Atlanta of today.
1. Many, many words failed him. Bill Clinton made one of the biggest impressions at the convention; it just wasn’t a good one. Clinton, who gave the speech nominating Michael Dukakis as the party’s standard-bearer, talked for 33 minutes, twice the allotted time, and showed little of the charisma that would later help him become a president. “The lowlight,” Steve Kornacki wrote for Salon, “came when Clinton uttered the words ‘In closing,’ prompting a spontaneous round of sarcastic cheers from the audience.” The performance was viewed as a threat to the 41-year-old Clinton’s ambitions, but he managed to bounce back. In 1992, in accepting the Democratic nomination, Clinton said: “I ran for president this year for one reason and one reason only. I wanted to come back to this convention and finish that speech I started four years ago!”
2. Golden performances and a silver foot. Although Clinton’s speech may be one of the lasting impressions of the convention, there were a number of successes at the podium. The website American Rhetoric singled out two of the convention’s speeches, by Ann Richards and Jesse Jackson, as among the 50 greatest American speeches of the 20th century.
Richards, who would later become governor of Texas, gave the keynote speech on the convention’s opening night, and she drew a bead on George H.W. Bush, who would lead the Republican ticket that year. “Poor George,” she said. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
On the second night of the convention, Jackson – who was Dukakis’ biggest rival for the nomination – gave a speech aimed at unifying the party behind its nominee.
“Common ground,” Jackson said. “That’s the challenge of our party tonight – left wing, right wing.
“Progress will not come through boundless liberalism nor static conservatism, but at the critical mass of mutual survival. … It takes two wings to fly. Whether you’re a hawk or a dove, you’re just a bird living in the same environment, in the same world.”
Jackson also gave a nod to Atlanta, calling it “the cradle of the Old South, the crucible of the New South.”
3. Big crowd, complete with funny hats and multicolored wigs. The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce estimated that the convention brought 38,000 delegates, alternates, members of the media and other visitors to the area.
The AJC’s Lewis Grizzard gave this breakdown in a piece the Sunday before the convention:
“This welcome goes to all 4,161 delegates, 13,500 members of the media – even those who will write ugly things about my town before they leave – and assorted others who are here to stage protests, start fistfights, spread rumors, sell funny hats and show up on television wearing multicolored wigs and T-shirts advertising certain passages from the Bible.”
4. An economic boost. The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce estimated the immediate take from the convention at $70 million.
5. A $700 hammer. The first post-convention reports filed with the Federal Election Commission put the event’s cost at $22.5 million. (Among the more eye-catching expenses was the gavel U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas used to carry out his duties as chairman of the convention. The price tag: $700.)
6. Spot in political arena too much for Omni. A major complaint was the capacity of the Omni, the site of the convention. “For three nights running,” one AJC article said, “hundreds of delegates, guests and press were kept on the wrong side of The Omni’s doors because of the coliseum’s small size.”
Those complaints helped strengthen the argument for building the Georgia Dome.
7. Southern hospitality comes through. But Atlanta also received plenty of compliments, such as this quote from Montana Gov. Ted Schewinden: “I’ve been pleasantly surprised because all the organization in the world doesn’t result in courtesy, and God these people are nice.”
8. Atlanta shines in its close-up. A big concern among Atlanta leaders was how the city would be portrayed in the media. On television, it did pretty well, especially on the morning shows, which, the AJC noted, “gushed like the fountains adjacent to Woodruff Park.” There was a concern that out-of-state viewers would think the only restaurant in town was The Varsity.
9. A convention Lowe point. There was one other big piece of media news, starring actor Rob Lowe, who came to Atlanta as a Dukakis supporter. Lowe and a friend met a pair of females at an after-hours club one night during the convention. We’ll let Grizzard take it from here:
“The foursome, so the story goes, retired to a hotel room and somebody set up a video camera and there were all sorts of sexual maneuvering and the rest is a dreamboat show for ‘Geraldo.’ ”
The plot thickened when it turned out one of the females was 16.
The tape eventually fell into the hands of the girl’s mother, who sued Lowe. A criminal investigation was also launched, with Lowe looking at the possibility of being charged with sexual exploitation of a minor, a felony offense that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Lowe and his father eventually met with the Fulton County district attorney, and the actor worked out a deal, in lieu of a trial, to perform 20 hours of community service.
The actor also settled with the girl’s mother. The terms were not disclosed.
Nearly two years after the encounter, while promoting his film “Bad Influence,” a contrite Lowe spoke to Interview magazine and described it as “embarrassing.”
“It was just one of those quirky, sort of naughty, sort of wild, sort of, you know, drunken things that people will do from time to time,” Lowe said.
10. From big bounce to a dribble. Dukakis left Atlanta feeling a lot of love. A Newsweek magazine poll released the Saturday after the Democratic National Convention showed Dukakis leading Bush by 17 percentage points. But the July romance faded before you could finish the first chorus of “Summer Loving.” In November, Bush won with 53.37 percent of the popular vote and 411 out of a possible 535 electoral votes.
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