Turns out you can learn quite a lot about someone by charting their history with political conventions.
Last week I reviewed Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s run of DNC speeches. This week, I’m looking at Donald Trump’s RNC experiences.
Ironically enough, Trump’s first convention wasn’t a Republican one. In 1980, Jimmy Carter headed north to Madison Square Garden to unite a fractured Democratic Party and jump-start his sagging re-election effort (the results were less than satisfactory).
Dozens of New Yorkers jumped at the chance to shepherd the visiting delegations around New York City and among them were Donald and Ivana, who served as co-hosts for the Texas delegation.
Trump’s real breakthrough, however, came in 1988. He first dipped his toe in the political waters of New Hampshire the previous fall. By his own later admission it was mainly a publicity stunt to promote The Art of the Deal, but it seems to have triggered something in him.
While hosting an April fundraiser for George H.W. Bush, Trump pitched himself as the perfect running mate. When Lee Atwater went as far as to call Trump back, he may have ignited some hope in the New Yorker.
Since Bush didn’t announce his VP choice until mid-way through the convention, it’s quite possible that as Donald Trump flew down to New Orleans he believed he just might get the nod.
This trip was arranged by Roger Stone, yet Trump insisted to several reporters that he’d been personally invited by Bush.
Somewhat surprisingly, Trump continued to praise the Republican nominee even after Bush announced that his choice was Dan Quayle. Trump claimed to Larry King that he’d met and approved of Quayle, and that he wouldn’t have accepted the VP spot anyway.
Nevertheless, Trump still made the most of his trip. Chris Wallace interviewed him live from the floor on NBC, and he even got to watch Bush’s acceptance address from inside the hall.
For quite awhile the idea of Trump ever achieving his goal was inconceivable. Bankruptcy and divorce had made him a joke. In 1992 RNC attendees were asked what they missed about the ‘80s and presidential son Ron Reagan quipped “Donald and Ivana Trump, for making the rest of us look so good by comparison.” Seven years later, a long-shot Reform Party bid flopped out of the gate.
By 2004, though, circumstances had changed. “The Apprentice” was a hit and the Republican Convention was coming to NYC. Yet the Bush team apparently had no interest in placating Trump this time.
The New York Times included him in a piece on those unaffected by the massive event. “State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump all have plans to work a regular New York week” they wrote in a retrospectively amazing sentence.
Despite these protestations, he still craved to be at the center of attention. For instance, when Trump learned that headlining speaker Arnold Schwarzenegger was in one of his buildings he hurried down to greet him.
In spite of all that, the Romney team was hesitant to let Trump give a speech at the 2012 convention, so they suggested a video instead. One could argue this indicated that the campaign didn’t want Trump to actually come to Tampa Bay.
It’s a puzzling decision until you consider the possibility that he felt spurn in 1988 and worried about repeating that fate.
Ultimately, the landfall of Hurricane Isaac caused the cancellation of the first day of the convention and organizers used that as an excuse to nix the Trump video. They never called and Trump never came, effectively ending his involvement with the Romney campaign.
After decades of waiting, Donald Trump finally got the convention of his dreams in 2016.
At the end of the four-day event, however, it was Trump alone in the spotlight.
“I am your voice,” he declared in Cleveland. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Touching on many of the same themes he raised back in that initial 1987 dry run, Trump had seemingly come full circle. 2016 would not be Trump’s final convention, though, as his shocking victory ensured a repeat in 2020.
Donald Trump, who once admired the presidential limelight amidst the throng, will accept re-nomination this week in front of the White House.
Nick Field (@nick_field90) is a contributor to Decision Desk HQ.