by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
The first candidate’s spouse who spoke at the national political convention which nominated her husband as their party’s presidential candidate was in 1940. The woman also happened to be the incumbent First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although she had not done so at the two previous conventions which nominated her husband, in 1932 and 1936, she was prompted to deliver her address by a phone call from her husband. President Roosevelt was concerned over the resistance of many delegates to the choice of Henry Wallace as the vice presidential candidate.
Reached at their home in Hyde Park, New York, Mrs. Roosevelt then immediately boarded a plane for Chicago. Arriving in that city, she was whisked to the convention hall and right to podium. Her stirring speech touched on the fact that the nation was facing “no ordinary time,” as it struggled to emerge from the Great Depression and prepare for potentially entering the war in Europe which had broken out a year earlier.
No candidates’ spouses of either party again addressed a nominating convention until 1972. The woman in question was Pat Nixon and like Mrs. Roosevelt, she did so as an incumbent First Lady. The speech also made Pat Nixon the first Republican candidates’ spouse to address the convention.
She was introduced with a great little film, narrated by Jimmy Stewart, focusing on her work as a global goodwill ambassador and leader of domestic voluntary projects.
In her brief remarks, Mrs. Nixon came to thank the delegates and those Republicans who had been loyal supporters of her husband throughout his political career since this would be the last time he intended to run for public office.
In 1984, Nancy Reagan became the third incumbent First Lady, third candidates’ spouse and second Republican to address the convention.
She made spontaneous remarks, thanking the delegates for being supportive of both her and the President during the difficult times of his first term.
Most notable about her speech was that in the middle of it, her husband suddenly appeared on a jumbo screen behind her. He was seated in their hotel suite watching her on television – and she turned around to watch him, watching her.
In 1992, Barbara Bush became the fourth incumbent First Lady, fourth candidates’ spouse and third Republican to address the convention.
Mrs. Bush’s address was the most substantive speech since that of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940.
The tone of other convention speakers was pointed in attacks of both the Democratic nominee and his wife, but Mrs. Bush gave a strong speech emphasizing her husband’s integrity.
It became the standard for the speeches of all future candidates’ wives of both parties in “humanizing” their spouses.
Ironically, Mrs. Bush’s remarks about the need for parents to rely on other relatives, neighbors and friends to help raise their children forecasted the 1996 convention speech by the spouse whose husband was running against her own that year.
In 1992, the Democratic presidential candidate’s spouse Hillary Clinton did not address the convention.
By 1996, however, she was then the incumbent First Lady and gave a highly political speech which focused on American families and the challenges which many faced and the legislative intentions of a second Clinton term to address them.
That same year of 1996 marked the first time in presidential history that the spouses of both party candidates addressed the conventions.
Besides Mrs. Clinton’s speech there were the remarks of Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole’s wife, Elizabeth Dole.
She became the first non-First Lady spouse to address a convention.
Thus a pattern of speeches by the candidates’ spouses was established which has been followed at every national presidential convention since then: Tipper Gore (2000), Laura Bush (2000 and 2004), Teresa Heinz Kerry (2004), Michelle Obama (2008 and 2012), Cindy McCain (2008) and Ann Romney (2012).
Broadcasts of most of these speaking appearances of presidential candidates’ spouses may be found online, although some are abridged, at the website for C-Span.