Trying to be gracious on a bitter night
No sad-sack candidate gets out of bed on Election Day deciding what to say in a concession speech. There’s always Harry S. Truman’s miracle of 1948 to inspire a heartfelt prayer for a miracle. But late on election night, when all hope has vanished on a cloud of gloom, a loser has to step up to the cameras and say something nice about someone he, at the moment, purely despises.
Some losers take control of their emotions and do it better than others. If there’s a prize for the most dazzling failure to show a little humility in the face of mortification, Alison Lundergan Grimes, beaten by Mitch McConnell in Kentucky by 16 points, wins it in a walk this year. Her remarks rival those of Richard Nixon’s famous farewell to reporters the morning after he failed to get elected governor of California: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” (Some farewell it turned out to be.)
Mzz Grimes managed to talk for fully five minutes, defiance and rudeness in her voice, with never a mention of Mr. McConnell, the survivor and soon to be the majority leader of the U.S. Senate. No congratulations, no compliments, not even a tip of her bonnet to the people of Kentucky. What her disappointed supporters got was a full-throated stump speech, a lugubrious recitation of “the journey of my campaign,” of her bravery for taking it and a promise to keep her campaign apparatus intact. She clearly had not been told the journey was over.
She threw her little tantrum when she was dog-tired, weary of endless days and sleepless nights, of too many cheeseburgers and bad coffee taken on the run, but she was a loser, and she was not prepared to deal with it. Instead, she got censure from unexpected Democratic places, tips on campaign etiquette from the master of mean pulpit invective, the Rev. Al Sharpton. She should have been “gracious,” the Rev told her.
Graciousness in defeat is difficult, and gracious people do it best. The model continues to be Adlai Stevenson’s concession to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952: “I urge you all to give General Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great tasks that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many, but we pray as one.” Classy stuff. Bob Dole, was similarly classy conceding to Bill Clinton in 1996, saying that Bubba was “my opponent and not my enemy.” Mr. Dole, like many election night losers, found it hard to be gracious when he had to speak over the raucous noise of supporters, many well lubricated, all angry and some defiant in defeat. The senator, still a powerful influence in the Senate, finally stopped in midsentence and told them: “You’re not going to get that tax cut if you don’t be quiet.”
Sometimes such a gentle quip, a flash of anger aimed at himself, makes a loser’s concession memorable. Dan Quayle, conceding that he would no longer be vice president in the wake of the Clinton-Gore wave in 1992, observed that “if [Mr. Clinton] runs the country as well as he ran his campaign, we will be all right.” Mr. Gore conceded to George W. Bush twice, withdrawing his first concession as premature when hanging chads began fluttering over Florida. Weeks later, when the endless counting was finally over, he called the new presidentelect again. “I congratulated him on becoming the 43d president of the United States,” he said, “and I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time.”
There’s no shortage of congratulations on Capitol Hill this morning, many of them by Republicans to Republicans. Self-congratulations can be tacky, but no one doubts their sincerity. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says the Republicans may have built “a hundredyear majority in the House.” It’s true that nothing succeeds like success, but it’s equally true that nothing recedes like success. It’s a caution good to keep in mind, as any number of Tuesdaynight losers could tell you.
Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable moment in the nation’s politics. There were few Republican concessions needed, gracious or not. The sincerest concession ever spoken was from the heart of Davy Crockett, who was elected to Congress from Tennessee almost by acclamation and then defeated for a second term. The fickle rule, after all.
Davy, who would soon leave Tennessee to die at the Alamo, offered the brief concession speech that every loser longs to give. “The people have spoken,” he said, “and I’m going to Texas. The rest of you can go to hell.” Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.