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Bill Clinton's first major appearance at a convention almost destroyed his career

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton often says she’s not a natural politician — she gives that honor to her husband, Bill Clinton.

But it’s worth noting that the first substantive time this natural politician got up on a national stage, as the keynote speaker at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, he utterly bombed.

Clinton, then a governor from Arkansas and a rising star, was only supposed to speak for 15 minutes on policy before endorsing Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Instead, he spoke an uninspiring 33 minutes, interrupted by boos and chants. The speech was so poorly received that the audience cheered when he said, "In conclusion..."

It was a bad moment — and at the time, many thought it would sink Clinton’s budding political career.

"I can tell you that this place is just ready to explode and I think they are long past the period of listening to Gov. Clinton," Chris Wallace, then of NBC, said from the convention floor. "[Clinton’s speech] has gone on so long that he has completely lost this crowd. ... It seems Bill Clinton has overstayed his welcome."

"There was some concern at the time ... that he might have put himself out of contention for any political future," recalls Russell Riley, a professor at University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs and author of two forthcoming books on Clinton.

But surprisingly, Clinton went on to become the 42nd president of the United States — and is now headlining this year’s convention as the husband of the Democratic nominee.

So how did he go from the laughingstock of the 1988 convention to the 1992 Democratic presidential nominee? Riley credited a subsequent appearance on the most popular late-night talk show of the time, The Late Show With Johnny Carson, with saving Clinton's career.

Bill Clinton saved his political future with a late-night talk show and a saxophone

In 1988, no politician had ever been on The Late Show With Johnny Carson. But the day after the disastrous convention speech, Harry Thomason, Clinton’s close friend and television producer and director, knew Clinton had to be the first.

"Johnny Carson was viral before there was viral," Riley said. If something happened on Carson’s show, it permeated American culture.

In an interview on PBS’s American Experience, Thomason recalls the story:

I talked to Freddie de Cordova, who was of course Carson's producer, and he says Carson has never had a politician on his show in his entire career and he's not going to now.

And I said, okay, and so sometime after lunch I thought of another idea and I just called Freddie de Cordova back direct and I said, okay, you've never had a politician on, but what if he comes on and plays the saxophone? This guy's a musician, and de Cordova says, laughed, and he said I'll get back to you, let me go down the hall and talk to Johnny, you know.

And so, half hour later called and he said, ok, he's on the show next Thursday night and he's got to play the saxophone and I said, sure, he's gonna do it, we'll have him here.

Clinton sat down with Carson, and with the first question Carson put an hourglass on the table.

The press loved the stunt. A 1988 Associated Press report described Clinton as having "gone from the media doghouse to media darling in one short week":

And all it took was a smile, a few self-deprecating jokes and a song...Cable News Network on Friday cited the governor for the "fastest turnaround ever" on its weekly "Winners and Losers."

Clinton plotted his next moves carefully. All of his subsequent policy speeches were shorter and more focused, written with an eye toward erasing the public’s memory of that 1988 disaster.

Getting people to forget that speech wasn’t overly hard for Clinton. "People who had known him for a long time in Arkansas knew that he was an extraordinarily gifted speaker," Riley said. "Clinton is so adept at reading the room. The thing Clinton does better than anything else is read the room."

When Clinton finally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1992, he did it with the awareness that four years prior he had almost ended his political career. "I ran for president this year for one reason and one reason only," Clinton joked at the 1992 convention. "I wanted to come back to this convention and finish that speech I started four years ago."

After Clinton, late-night talk shows became a staple of political coverage

Today politicians make frequent appearances on shows like Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Show, and so on. They were a staple in coverage of both the Republican and Democratic conventions.

"Political comedy is an important force in each new election cycle because it shapes voters’ evaluations of politicians and their beliefs about their own ability to understand and participate in the political process — something we in political communication call political efficacy," Amy Bree Becker, a communications professor at Loyola University Maryland, explained in a Vox essay. "Political comedy tells voters what to think about and sometimes how to feel about a particular candidate."

But they weren’t always so ubiquitous in politics. It was arguably Bill Clinton who ushered in that trend — and, in the process, saved his own political career.

Correction: The headline previously misstated 1988 as his first appearance at a convention. Clinton spoke at both the 1980 and 1984 conventions, however 1988 was his first major appearance as the keynote speaker.

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