After weeks of speculation, the Republican National Convention is finally underway, with an official speakers’ schedule notably free of the big sports names once rumored to appear. Tim Tebow, Mike Ditka, Bobby Knight, and Mike Tyson are absent. But UFC president Dana White will be speaking in prime time Tuesday night. It seems profoundly fitting that a representative from the gaudy, cartoonish, and gory realm of ultimate fighting will speak at the convention nominating the most brash, boastful, and combative presidential candidate the country has ever seen. But this isn’t the first time a figure from the heights of American combat entertainment has appeared on stage at a convention—and the previous example suggests that it’s possible for a big personality to be neutered by the big stage of the RNC.
In 2000, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was given a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Johnson, known to millions then as a WWE champion and known to hundreds of millions now for appearing in third-rate action comedies, has evidently been a Republican for some time, although his remarks at the convention were focused squarely on encouraging young people to vote regardless of party affiliation. The Rock also showed up at the Democratic Convention later that August with the late Chyna, but wasn’t given a speaking slot there.
If it seems unusual that wrestling stars would be hobnobbing with delegates at a presidential convention, it’s worth remembering that wrestling was an empire at the time, drawing 22 million viewers per season. (Donald Trump, a WWE Hall of Fame member whose history of wacky appearances at WrestleMania goes back decades, was one of them.) The WWE launched a “Smackdown Your Vote!” drive that, likely owing to the publicity garnered by Johnson and Chyna, registered 40,000 voters online and at WWE events. But the Rock’s appearance didn’t go unprotested: The early 2000s were also the heyday of the almost comically powerful Parents Television Council (PTC), which called on the GOP to cancel the speech. But the party shrugged off social conservatives on this question, as they did on the party’s first convention address by an openly gay politician.
If the Rock smelled the party’s march further rightward cooking, he didn’t show it. In the beginning of the speech, he deftly defended the WWE against comments made by PTC founder L. Brent Bozell III, talked about the importance of voting, and described himself as “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment” as endearingly as one possibly could. You get the sense he’d make a good politician if he were so inclined.
The speech ended, surreally, with Johnson introducing then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, and doing his signature eyebrow arch during Hastert’s chilling-in-retrospect statement on youth voting.“If you know someone who hasn’t registered to vote, especially young people in this country, especially people who’ve just turned the age of 18,” Hastert said, “tell them to register today.”
Hastert’s skeeviness aside, the Rock’s guest spot was entirely inoffensive, and strikes a contrast with the celebrity speeches of the 2016 convention so far by stars like Scott Baio and Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson. Their remarks, while less inflammatory than some may have expected, did play subtly and unsubtly to the political and cultural divisions the Trump campaign has exploited for the past year.
Given their tone and the tone of the convention overall thus far—and given Dana White’s predilection for yelling on Twitter—it seems unlikely that the Rock’s anodyne guest spot will be mirrored by White’s remarks. But perhaps White and the rest of the convention’s speakers will be under pressure to deliver a controversy-free contrast with Melania’s plagiarized speech from Monday night. If the Trump camp does decide to take things down a notch, they should consider taking a page from the Rock.