LIFE’s Best Convention Photos: The GOP

Scene at the 1968 Republican National Convention, Miami Beach, Florida.
Ralph Crane—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Scene at the 1968 Republican National Convention, Miami Beach, Florida.

Throughout the decades that LIFE was publishing as a weekly magazine, politics and politicians of every stripe held a central place in the publication’s mission to, in founder Henry Luce’s words, “see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud … to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed….”

While its treatment of landmark, tectonic events — World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Space Race, the Vietnam War — and unforgettable public figures cemented the magazine’s reputation as the photojournalism magazine of the 20th century, LIFE’s political coverage was no less remarkable. It’s not easy, after all, to make politics, and politicians, visually exciting.

And yet, time and again, LIFE photographers like Alfred Eisenstaedt, Bill Ray, Thomas McAvoy, Ed Clark, Gjon Mili and others found ways to capture — and to bring home to LIFE’s millions of readers — the drama, tension and, occasionally, the humor inherent in big-time politics. And with the possible exception of election night, there’s simply no more dramatic, tense or (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) humorous time to watch the strange, imperfect mechanism of representative democracy at work than during a national convention.

In recent years, of course, as conventions have come to resemble coronations rather than the passionate, quarrelsome rumbles of old, the drama around these things has, in large part, been leached out of the proceedings altogether. The “presumptive” nominee has already left any and all rivals behind in the primaries, and by the time the convention rolls around it’s usually all over except for the shouting. (And judging by some of the pictures here, nowadays even the shouting is less exciting than it used to be.)

Nevertheless … every four years, as the delegates don their pins and loud, crazy clothes and wave their flags and pennants, and the states’ names bob and weave above the crowd like unimaginatively designed carnival puppets, and the speech-makers hope and trust that being seen by millions of people watching on TV will somehow help their own chances on the national stage in the next election, or the one after that — every four years, we pay attention to the spectacle. Not because we believe that there will be any stunning upsets or even any especially surprising moments, but because the conventions are probably the best and most convenient way for us, as citizens, to gauge the mood of both parties.

Here, then, presents a selection of LIFE’s best pictures from the GOP’s national conventions across several decades. (A similar gallery of great photos from Democratic conventions will follow in the coming weeks.) More than a few famous GOP stalwarts are here — Ike, Nixon, Goldwater, Thomas Dewey — as are other long-forgotten pols who were players in their day, as well as the folks who, in the end, provide both parties’ conventions with their real energy and, let’s face it, their often surprising level of fun: namely, the shouting, laughing, weirdly garbed, wide-eyed delegates.

The American political process has never been pretty. The photos here, however, remind us that, pretty or not, that process can make for wonderful, memorable imagery.

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