Nov. 7, 2012
One of the things I had to learn some forty years ago was how to concede an election. I was totally unprepared for my loss, so I hadnt given any thought to what I would say. Suffice it to say, I didnt say it well. I soon learned that Americans dont like sore losers. Richard Nixon lost the California governorship in 1962 and told the media to take a hike. You wont have Nixon to kick around any more, he said with no little bitterness. And, as we all know, that was the end of him.
Henry Clay was the high-minded sort. After losing the White House for after his third try, he said: I had rather be right than be president. Voters agreed. They respected Clay and they came to despise the president who beat him.
Abraham Lincoln lost his second bid for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Illinois. His comment was typically touching: I feel like the little boy who stubbed his toe: Im too big to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh. Fellow Illinoisan Adlai Stevenson liked that line so much, he used it when he was defeated for president by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Adlai liked that Lincoln line so much that he got to use it again: When Ike beat more soundly in 1956.
The Great Commoner William Jennings Bryan ran for president three times, 1896, 1900, and 1908. He was the thunderer, the powerful orator who brought down a prairie twister of denunciation on the bankers of Wall Street. Bryan, an Evangelical and teetotaler, got a laugh when he compared himself to the drunk who got tossed from the saloon three times. Im getting the impression they dont want me in there.
In 1916, the election looked over in the East as the candidates and most other Americans went to bed. They were confident that the bearded Charles Evans Hughes had defeated President Woodrow Wilson. But late returns from California painted a different picture. One enterprising reporter telephoned the Hughes residence in New York and asked to speak to the candidate. Somewhat huffily, Hughes son replied that the President was sleeping and was not to be disturbed. Thats okay, dont wake him, said the scribbler, but when he gets up, tell him he aint president.
Ronald Reagan rarely had to concede a defeat. In 1976, he lost, narrowly, to Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. On the last night of his partys convention in Kansas City, Jerry Ford gave the best speech of his life. I was so impressed, I even considered voting for him. After that splendid performance, President Ford motioned to his defeated rival. Gov. Reagan, tanned and wearing a light colored sport coat, aw shucksed the victor and mouthed the words: No, No, Jerry, this is your night.
The president was not to be put off. He virtually ordered Reagan to come to the speakers podium. Alright, Reagan said, ambling down to the stage. Then he delivered a stirring address that left the convention delegates and millions of Americans deeply moved. On their way to the Kansas City airport, the homebound Republican delegates had to follow a single route. One enterprising conservative put up a billboard: Republicans: You nominated the wrong man! Four years later, many of those same Ford delegates corrected their error.
My favorite concession speech was from Gov. Thomas Dewey in 1948. He was stunned, the world was stunned, when President Harry Truman defeated him. Every poll showed Dewey winning over the embattled incumbent. The Chicago Tribune even went to press early with a stunning headline: Dewey Defeats Truman. Well, he didnt. (Thats not the last time the media hosed things up.)
Dewey recovered from his shock quickly however. The very dapper, dignified New Yorker described his reaction: I feel like a man who wakes up in his own casket. If Im alive, what am I doing here? If Im dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?
But the best line of that surprising night goes to Mrs. Dewey. The governor was so confident of victory, he had bought his wife a fetching nightgown because, he said, beaming, tonight youll be sleeping with the President of the United States.
Mrs. Dewey asked her hubby: Well, Tom, is Harry coming over here or do I run over to the White House?