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Washington governor’s history-making convention speech

On a recent morning, former Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans watches a video of his 1968 Republican National Convention keynote speech. (Feliks Banel)
LISTEN: Decades later, 1968 convention speech still sounds relevant

When Republicans gathered for their national convention in Miami Beach during the tumultuous political year of 1968, the keynote speaker on the first night was a Western governor who the New York Times said had “youth, good looks, and vigor.”

That same newspaper expected the up-and-coming keynote speaker to follow in “a long line of youth orators who have sought to bring conventions to their feet with denunciations of the opposition.”

It seems that the New York Times might have misjudged Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans on that second point.

Daniel J. Evans is Washington’s only three consecutive-term governor. He’s also an old-school Washington state Republican: able to work with Democrats to get things done; fiscally moderate; socially progressive; and OK being described as an environmentalist.

He also took a different approach to giving the keynote address at the 1968 Republican convention.

“I didn’t want to give that kind of rip-roaring, get-them-out-of-their-seats-and-cheering speech because all that does is feed everybody raw meat, but it doesn’t say very much,” the 90-year old Evans said recently.

“The acoustics were just abysmal, and you could not hear in the auditorium. I decided I’d speak to the television audience, and be much more serious in what I wanted to say,” Evans said.

“I read an awful lot of previous keynote addresses,” he said, describing preparations for his high-profile role.

Evans began his keynote address on that Monday evening in early August by quoting the most recent and then still-living Republican former president.

“Dwight D. Eisenhower once defined America’s goals in these eloquent words. It is, he said, ‘lifting from the backs and from the hearts of men, their burdens of arms and fears, so that they may find before them a Golden Age of freedom and of peace,’” Evans began.

President Eisenhower had recently been hospitalized with heart problems, and earlier that evening the World War II hero had addressed the convention from his hospital room.

Governor Evans says that a different war then raging in Vietnam and debilitating poverty at home overshadowed the 1968 convention, and influenced what he tried to say to the audience.

“We were in the last days of a very unpopular war, and I was actually saying, in essence, it’s time to reach down and ‘touch the troubled heart of America,’” Evans said, quoting a line from the speech. “In other words, we needed to pay attention to a lot of the problems that were going on in our own country. Not to be an isolationist at all, but get out of the war that we got in by accident, and never should have been in.”

Governor Evans had received the nod to deliver the keynote address as a result of his involvement with something called the Republican Coordinating Committee, a group that worked to revitalize the party in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s defeat by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Evans, who had only just been elected to his first term in 1964, was one of three governors on the committee. He led their efforts to get more Republican governors elected in 1966.

“The governors chose me as their campaign chair for the 1966 elections to see if we could raise some money, which we did. Not much, but some,” Evans said. “We consulted with candidates and tried to build a stronger group of Republican governors. We went from 17 to 26 [Republican governors], so we did very well.”

At a meeting of Republican governors in 1967, Jim Rhodes of Ohio suggested that the governors should play a more prominent role in the 1968 convention, an event more traditionally dominated in those years by members of Congress.

“[Governor Rhodes] said, ‘Well, hell, let’s tell ’em we want the keynote address, and I think Evans would be a good guy to give it. He’s young and new,’” Evans said. “He just blurted that out. Nobody had talked to me at all. And the rest of [the governors] said, ‘Yeah, it’s a hell of a good idea, we ought to do it.’ And that’s where it started.”

Months later in Miami Beach, Governor Evans says that by the time he began to speak from the dais, the convention was running far behind schedule.

“They didn’t get to the keynote address until about 10 p.m. [Eastern Time]. They had gone way, way too long, so when I got on board, everybody was tired. The audience was not responsive, they couldn’t hear. And there were a lot of people talking to each other,” Evans said.

But Evans carried on, addressing his remarks to the TV audience at home. And even though it’s been nearly 48 years since it was given, passages from the speech still sound pretty relevant, if much less strident than what’s been said in 2016.

“It’s not simply a question of guns and butter,” Evans told the audience. “It is a matter of death abroad, and poverty here at home. I think it’s time we recognized each of them for what they really are. It’s time when we must have new solutions to new problems. When a leadership encumbered by the past must surrender its place to a party whose hope lies with the future.”

And though Governor Evans had underlined great challenges facing the nation, several lines drew applause, and he ended on a hopeful note.

“Let us proceed therefore not in celebration but in the knowledge that what we do here may well determine the future of this nation. Let us debate not in fear of the future, not in fear of the present but with faith in our future and let us unite to rally a great party in the cause of a great nation. To seek progress with victory to find not a way out but a way forward.”

The next day, The Seattle Times published the speech in its entirety, which took up almost a full page. Times’ reporter William W. Prochnau called the keynote a “well-modulated but unemotional speech,” describing it as an “articulate call for a change in direction that, as it turned out, read much better in text than it could be read from a platform.”

In the wake of Evans’ national TV time, the Washington governor’s star did rise, and he was even featured on the cover of TIME Magazine.

“I’ve got a whole raft of the news reports and the commentaries,” on the speech, Evans said, ranging “all the way from, ‘Well, he killed his chances to be vice president’ to ‘one of the best speeches given in this century.’”

Richard Nixon got the Republican nomination in 1968, though Dan Evans says Ronald Reagan had a chance of snatching it away had the balloting gone differently. Even with his own star on the rise, the talk of Dan Evans as a vice presidential candidate in 1968 really was just that—talk.

“I had already backed [New York Governor Nelson] Rockefeller [rather than Nixon], so there was no chance of that,” Evans said. Nixon eventually chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate, and the pair beat Democrats Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie in a close election that November.

But Evans did come close to being President Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976.

“[President Ford] did ask a group of senior Republican governors [who he should choose], and they all said ‘Evans, he’s the guy you really want’ and there was a lot of talk. I know that in the final meetings my name was in there along with four or five others, and they finally got down to [Bob] Dole,” Evans said.

Governor Evans points to Ford’s narrow victory over Ronald Reagan in the 1976 primaries, including Washington state, which he says gave Reagan supporters more influence with Ford’s campaign and likely led to their choosing Dole rather than Governor Evans.

He says that there were no hard feelings.

“I was a big fan of Ford, and I really worked hard for him after the convention. I gave speeches in California and out in Hawaii. I acted as his surrogate on a number of appearances during the campaign,” Evans said.

Evans’ completed his third and final term as governor in January 1977. He became president of The Evergreen State College and later served in the U.S. Senate.

When asked about this week’s proceedings in Cleveland and the 2016 presidential election in general, Governor Evans was unequivocal.

“Anybody who gets my vote has to deserve my vote, and that’s the way I’ve approached every vote I’ve ever taken,” Evans said.

“Donald Trump hasn’t gotten there yet. But I don’t think Hillary Clinton is a great candidate either,” the former governor said.

“We are stuck with two very unpopular candidates. And we’ve got to make a choice, ultimately. But I haven’t made it yet.”

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