Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke took the stage last week, but unless you tuned into CSPAN or streamed it online, you wouldn’t have seen him. On the first night of the Republican National Convention the speeches were running late and, despite Zinke being touted as a keynote speaker, the networks and cable channels had cut away and most of the audience left.
It was a bizarre beginning to a bizarre week that saw a Trump campaign speechwriter acknowledge she had mistakenly inserted lines from First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech into Melania Trump’s; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz loudly booed for refusing to endorse Donald Trump; and the nominee himself deliver a lengthy and raucous speech centered largely on restoring law and order in America.
Zinke’s speech was uneventful in comparison. Tapped for a night themed “Make America Safe Again,” he talked about his experience in the Navy SEALs and criticized President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as “armchair quarterbacks” responsible for weakening the country’s standing in the world.
“Our world knows this president is weak and his anointed successor, the architect of Benghazi, is no better.” He served up a boilerplate speech and delivered it well over the course of six minutes. And he would have drawn more applause if more people were still in the building.
It was a strange scene, watching Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, then Zinke, speak to the thinning crowd. It was stranger still two nights later when a packed arena shouted down Cruz, the runner-up in the GOP primary, as Donald Trump entered the building and waved to the audience. But memories prove short when comparing this to previous conventions that were just as unconventional and far more chaotic.
After Robert Kennedy was killed during the presidential primary, Democrats had no clear frontrunner at its 1968 convention in Chicago. Instead of choosing Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the party establishment chose Vice President Hubert Humphrey as its nominee, despite the fact that he hadn’t competed in any primaries. Mayhem ensued on live television as attendees screamed “The whole world is watching!” and riots erupted outside the convention hall.
Because of the scene in Chicago, conventions are far more calculated than they once were. The speakers stick to similar scripts that traditionally revolve around why their candidate is better than the opponent. Old rivalries are mended. Everyone comes together. Most of the time.
Some years, not everything goes as planned and not every speech is well received. Before there was Ted Cruz, there was Ted Kennedy. In 1980, Kennedy challenged his party’s sitting president, Jimmy Carter. Despite Carter’s clear path to the nomination, Kennedy attempted to free delegates from their commitments to the incumbent. While Kennedy supported Carter, his lack of enthusiasm for nominee was apparent, and the former president later wrote that the scene “was quite damaging to our campaign, and was to linger for a long time.”
It’s too soon to tell whether Cruz’s non-endorsement will hurt him or hurt Trump. In the immediate aftermath, Cruz’s fellow Republicans called him everything from “selfish” to a “self-centered liar.” Perhaps it was best that Zinke largely stayed out of the fray, unnoticed by many outside our state.
When Trump accepted the nomination on July 21, Zinke was already back in Montana discussing the plight of the timber industry in Columbia Falls. And another convention, this one for the Democrats, was preparing to begin in Philadelphia.