The sadness, the wit of concession speeches


The concession speech that brings down the curtain on a failed bid for the presidency is perhaps one of the most painful and bittersweet realities of American political life.

For one last moment, the candidate beaming, looking like nothing is wrong, stands with his running mate on a stage. In the audience are family members, politicians, advisers, campaign workers and well-wishers all fighting to hold onto their emotions.

The press, like undertakers at a train wreck, are there to embalm for history the final utterances of the candidates.

An almost scripted bonhomie competes valiantly with emotional reality as they vainly attempt to wrest good from disaster, and there are certain requisite nonpartisan components or cliches.

There is a recitation of the phone call by the loser to the winner. A call to come together and find solutions to problems facing the nation. In a patriotic outburst, we are reminded that this is a free and grand nation bound by the Constitution. Blah, blah, blah.

"It's a very painful moment in the lives of these people," presidential historian Robert Dallek told the Boston Globe in a 1996 interview. "The industry, the effort, the sweat, the tears, it all ends on that day. They've passed some hurdles before that, but this is the big prize."

John Vile, head of the political science department at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Presidential Winners and Losers: Words of Victory and Concession, says it's like the candidates are attending their own funerals.

"When Henry Clay lost his bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1824," wrote Vile, "he said, 'I enjoy the rare felicity, whilst alive which is experienced by the dead, if they then have a consciousness of what passes here -- that of hearing every kind of eulogium and panegyric, pronounced upon me.'"

So, in the spirit of the recently ended campaign for the White House, I thought I'd offer a sampler of concession speeches from the past 100 years.

Of course, the granddaddy of all concession speeches, which is replete with graciousness and the utility of a historical anecdote, was delivered by Adlai E. Stevenson in 1952 after losing to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"Someone asked me as I came in, down on the street, how I felt, and I was reminded of a story that a fellow-townsman of ours used to tell -- Abraham Lincoln," Stevenson said. "They asked him how he felt once after an unsuccessful election. He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh."

After being defeated by William McKinley in 1900, William Jennings Bryan said, "We are defeated, but not discouraged. The fight must go on. I am sure that Republican policies will be repudiated by the people when the tendency of these policies is fully understood."

For good measure, Bryan added, "The contest between plutocracy and democracy cannot end until one or the other is completely triumphant."

Theodore Roosevelt, the Bull Moose candidate, lost the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson. In his characteristically ebullient way, T.R. said, "The American people by a great plurality have decided in favor of Mr. Wilson and the Democratic Party. Like all good citizens, I accept the result with entire good humor and contentment."

In a congratulatory telegram to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, President Herbert Hoover wished that his administration would be "successful" and pledged, "In the common purpose of all of us I shall dedicate myself to every possible effort."

Perhaps one of the funniest presidential losers was Alf Landon, who disappeared in the Roosevelt landslide of 1936.

Landon compared his plight to that of the Kansas farmer who stood in his yard laughing after a tornado had destroyed his home and barn.

"His wife said, 'What are you laughing at, you darned old fool?' He replied, 'The completeness of it all,'" said Landon.

After being defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, President Jimmy Carter said, "I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you. So, I can't stand here tonight and say it doesn't hurt. ... The people of the United States have made their choice, and, of course I accept that decision but, I have to admit, not with the same enthusiasm that I accepted the decision 4 years ago."

Perhaps the best benediction was made by Thomas E. Dewey the day after losing the 1948 election to Harry Truman.

"It's been grand fun, boys and girls," he told reporters. "Good luck."

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