If it’s doubtful that Donald Trump will concede the presidential race to Hillary Clinton, should he lose it today, it’s because he’s said as much–repeatedly. So while we can add it to the list of unprecedented things Trump has introduced into presidential politics, it’s worth reviewing how three other candidates have conceded hard-fought races to their opponents.
In fact, certain concession speeches stand out for the opposite reasons that Trump’s promise to “look at it at the time” (i.e., the election results) does. They’re definitive, gracious, and balance disappointment in the outcome with faith in the system that produced it. Here’s a look back at concession speeches that Clinton and Trump would both do well to keep in mind as the vote tallies come in tonight.
“Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed,” John McCain conceded in 2008. “No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.”
McCain was categorical in accepting defeat, yet clear-eyed about the partisanship the race had churned up. But the Arizona senator still pointed out that the historical nature of Obama’s victory was worth cheering, despite those political differences:
In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.
McCain showed real leadership by accepting the responsibility for defeat. “It is natural tonight to feel some disappointment,” he told his supporters, “but tomorrow we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again. We fought–we fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.
“I would not be an American worthy of the name,” McCain added, “should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century. Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant.”
When he lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson commented, “It is traditionally American to fight hard before an election. It is equally traditional to close ranks as soon as the people have spoken.”
Deferring to the wisdom of the voters wasn’t just a matter of accepting the final vote count. It was also a matter of shoring up “traditionally American” values. But Stevenson was also candid about how losing felt:
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. 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 that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.
With this short, memorable anecdote, Stevenson neatly bridged the personal (his loss) with the historical (Lincoln lore). Doing the right thing was hard to do, he suggested–it hurt–but great leaders had rightly done it before him, and he’d be wrong not to do the same.
The 2000 presidential election was resolved only after a grinding recount that the Supreme Court finally suspended five weeks later, handing the presidency to George W. Bush. That drawn-out process had been politically bruising on all sides. Al Gore’s concession speech therefore had a little more mending to do than most.
“Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken,” Gore said.
Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.
“Finality” was the operative word here. With the results of the race hanging in the balance for so long, Gore understood that the public was eager for a decisive conclusion. Like Stevenson before him, Gore was honest about his disappointment, but equally clear about his commitment to the institutions that would ensure a peaceful transfer of power. And he understood his role in those institutions.
“I also accept my responsibility,” Gore vowed, “which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.”
The 2016 campaign has been deeply divisive, and thick with rhetoric about strength. Clinton’s campaign slogan is “Stronger Together,” while Trump has built a movement premised on restoring American “greatness.” Gore’s concession speech is instructive, though, on what American strength and greatness is all about:
And I say to our fellow members of the world community: Let no one see this contest as a sign of American weakness. The strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome.
By this logic, which other commentators have echoed in recent weeks, the surest sign of weakness would be in a losing candidate’s refusal to accept defeat. Not incidentally, it’s by the same logic that that would be the least American thing to do.