The first time I ever saw my sainted mother cry was late at night on Nov. 4, 1952, as she listened to Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee, graciously congratulate — from the Leland Hotel in Springfield — Dwight D. Eisenhower on Ike’s landslide victory that day. Stevenson consoled his supporters: “Someone asked me ... how it felt, and I was reminded of a story that a fellow townsman of ours used to tell — Abraham Lincoln. They asked him how he felt once after an unsuccessful election. He said that he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry but it hurt too much to laugh.”
Not so gifted as Stevenson in expression, James A. Rhodes, a four-term governor of Ohio, once misquoted English poet John Donne’s signature line by declaring that “no man is an Ireland.” And it was Rhodes who, one election night, went on TV to concede to his Democratic opponent, only to find out the next morning that late returns had given him a razor-thin victory. Asked why he had been so quick to resign himself to defeat, Rhodes offered this malapropism: “Concession is good for the soul.”
After bitter American presidential campaigns, the losing candidate’s concession can be very good for the national soul and even for influencing the level of esteem in which history will hold the unsuccessful nominee.
Eight years ago, the losing candidate rose to the occasion. Here is part of what Sen. John McCain said that evening: “A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love. ... I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.” Classy.
Classy, too, was Vice President Al Gore in December 2000. Having won the nation’s popular vote, he stood to accept the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision awarding the election to Republican George W. Bush: “Almost a century and a half ago, Sen. Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’ Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.”
Let us hope in the final days of this dismal campaign season that both the winning candidate and the losing candidate might somehow be inspired to rise to these same levels of maturity and magnanimity of spirit. Failing that, the losing candidate could still borrow the candid wisdom of the legendary Dick Tuck, who, upon being told that he had just lost a California state Senate primary, offered this concession: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”