David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
A week has passed since Election Day. All but a handful of the ballots have been counted, even here in the keystone state of Pennsylvania. Now, the passions of the campaign have been replaced by a new preoccupation.
America is in the throes of a concession obsession.
Former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden would like one. President Donald J. Trump won’t deliver one. In a country suffering from nervous exhaustion, clinical depression and political vertigo, yet another struggle of wills is under way, yet another public art form is endangered, yet another civic custom is being trampled on.
Ever since William Jennings Bryan – himself as much a rebel, as much a disrupter, as much a populist, as Mr. Trump – conceded to William McKinley, the victor of the brutal 1896 presidential campaign, a gracious public acknowledgment of defeat has been a revered part of American political tradition. “We have submitted the issue to the American people,” said Mr. Bryan, “and their will is law.”
The American concession speech is never more honoured than it is after close elections like this one.
When vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey was narrowly defeated by former vice-president Richard M. Nixon in the tumultuous year of 1968, he delivered the classic of the genre. “I have done my best. I have lost,” he said. “Mr. Nixon has won. The democratic process has worked its will. So now let’s get on with the urgent task of uniting our country.”
In 2000, when the winner of the popular vote lost the Electoral College and thus the presidency, the nation watched in suspense for 36 days for a winner to be declared. After more than five weeks of contention and litigation, vice-president Albert Gore Jr. and his advisers assembled in Washington to debate how to react to the Supreme Court decision allowing Texas governor George W. Bush to claim the White House.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, Mr. Gore’s running mate, had argued for continuing to fight. Others advocated undertaking additional legal routes. But in the end, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building’s Indian Treaty Room – where the Bretton Woods monetary agreement and the United Nations Charter were signed – Mr. Gore decided to concede. “He felt he was doing the right thing,” David Morehouse, a top Gore aide who now is the president of the Pittsburgh Penguins, told me. “He never got over the loss. He knew he had won. But he worried about the stability of our democracy.”
A speech writer typed up a concession speech. Mr. Gore deemed it “too vanilla.” He fetched a pen, made amendments to the text, and then addressed the American people.
“I call on all Americans – I particularly urge all who stood with us – to unite behind our next president. This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done.”
Mr. Gore understood the importance of a chivalrous concession. His father was in the House of Representatives when New York governor Thomas Dewey, defeated by president Harry Truman, told his triumphant rival: “Every good wish for a successful administration.” The senior Mr. Gore knew that a small shift in votes – 4,429 in Illinois, 23,129 in Texas, both states with colourful histories of election corruption and with suspicious vote tallies – would have given Mr. Nixon the presidency over Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy in 1960. Mr. Nixon is hardly remembered today as a figure of gentility or political generosity, but – with perhaps more reason to fight on than Mr. Trump has today – he declined to mount the sort of challenge the 45th president is undertaking in Pennsylvania, Georgia and elsewhere.
“I can think of no worse example for nations abroad, who for the first time were trying to put free electoral procedures into effect," Mr. Nixon wrote in his memoir, "than that of the United States wrangling over the results of our presidential election and even suggesting that the presidency itself could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box.”
A gracious concession possesses the power to lead to personal redemption. Mr. Bryan won two more presidential nominations and served as secretary of state. Mr. Gore won a Nobel Prize. And Mr. Nixon? Eight years after conceding to Mr. Kennedy, he was elected to the presidency himself. The outgoing president, Lyndon B. Johnson, offered the president-elect an aircraft to fly to Florida for vacation. Once aboard, away from the public eye after another gruelling campaign in a life of political challenge, Mr. Nixon – no romantic and forbidden to dance by his Quaker mother – swung his wife, Pat, in a victory pirouette.
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