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Why conventions still matter (+video)

Yes, they have become costly infomercials. But political conventions can clarify – and sometimes even electrify. 

A look at what makes a good convention speech, and some of the better ones from the past.
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Can it be? Yes! They're shouting at him! "Put the microphones down! We can't see you!"

Harry Truman, wearing a white linen suit, peers out at the delegates. It's 1948. Two o'clock in the morning. He's trying to start his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. So far, it's been humiliating.

First, he knows he's a terrible speaker – so bad his aides now give him talking points, hoping he'll be livelier when he ad-libs.

Worse, most delegates don't like him. Truman knows they want to draft the most popular person in the country, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Only the political bosses running their delegations have kept them in line.

And the Southern Democrats? With a civil rights plank in the platform, they've walked out, likely to form a third party, which everybody thinks will doom his chances.

Even little things backfire. Just as he got to the stage, a woman rushed up to present him with a cage containing "doves of peace." They were pigeons. They got loose, flew up to the rafters and, as an aide wrote later, "did what pigeons do."

"Watch your clothes!" delegates cried, covering their heads.

Now this! He's the president! Can't he even control the microphones?

"I can't!" Truman shouts back.

Today, 64 years later, the Republicans and Democrats are gearing up to gavel in their conventions in a way that will allow them to control every picosecond of the multiday events.

When the Republicans open their conclave on Aug. 27 in Tampa, Fla., and the Democrats a week later in Charlotte, N.C., they will try to make everyone stay on message and stick to their meticulously prepared scripts in what has become one of the most tightly controlled rituals in American politics.

But since the first Democratic convention in 1832, these quadrennial events have always been full of surprises. These may be, too.


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