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A Brief History Of Spousal Speeches At Political Conventions


Melania Trump was in the spotlight at the Republican National Convention last week because parts of her speech sounded a lot like Michelle Obama's 2008 convention address. Later this week, would-be first gentleman Bill Clinton is expected to speak to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. And all of this got us wondering, when did it become so conventional for the spouses of candidates to speak at conventions? NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi has more.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: 1940 - that's the first time the spouse of a presidential candidate actually made a speech before a party convention. As Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian with the National First Ladies' Library, points out, it was an election cycle of unusual circumstances.

CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY: Incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt is stirring up enormous controversy because he is seeking an unprecedented third term.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So he calls his politically-savvy first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who's on vacation in upstate New York and asks her to go to the Democratic convention to help sway the delegates.

ANTHONY: She puts down her knitting, goes on a plane, even takes control of the plane for a while - something she'd always wanted to do - lands in Chicago with one sheet of notes, gets up to the podium and tells them that this is no ordinary time - a reference to the growing threat of fascism in Europe - and tells them they must pull together.


ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: We people in the United States have got to realize today that we face a grave and serious situation.

ANTHONY: The convention is described in press reports as being stunned silent.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And Roosevelt went on to win re-election.

ANTHONY: Then you go for a really long stretch.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Thirty-two years, in fact, until first lady Pat Nixon took to the stage at the 1972 Republican National Convention to support Richard Nixon's bid for a second term in office.


PAT NIXON: Well, I certainly can say this is the most wonderful welcome I've ever had.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Unlike Roosevelt's speech, Nixon's and the speeches that followed focused mainly on thanking convention-goers for their support, until 1992 when first lady Barbara Bush laid the foundation for the modern spouse speech with humanizing anecdotes that helped paint a portrait of her husband George H. W. Bush.


BARBARA BUSH: Once, when one of the boys hit a baseball through the Vanderhoff's second-story window, I called George to see what dire punishment should be handed out. And all he said was, the Vanderhoff's second-story window? What a hit.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today, we expect to hear from major party candidates' spouses at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, but it wasn't until 1996 that both Hillary Clinton and would-be first lady Elizabeth Dole addressed their respective conventions on behalf of their husbands.

And every convention since then has featured speeches by the spouse of both major party candidates. Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, says most of them follow the same formula.

MATT LATIMER: This is somebody who presumably knows the candidate better than anybody else and gives them a side - to the voter, to the media and to the public watching at home - of a candidate that you don't normally see.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So the question now is - when former president and aspiring first gentleman Bill Clinton takes up that familiar mantle later this week in Philadelphia, will he follow the formula or will he break with convention? Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).