Patriotism, like other kinds of love, is unique in every heart. The flag, the White House, the Brooklyn Bridge, Gabby Douglas sticking the landing: any of these—and a thousand more—can ignite an American’s love of country. For me, the spark is election night. To be clear: it’s not the stadium atmosphere or the magic maps or the special pageantry of watching of watching Wolf Blitzer try to catch his breath. It’s not even the joy that comes with a longed-for victory. What slays me—actually makes me weep—is not how we win, but how we lose.
The peaceful transfer of power is one of our country’s greatest hallmarks, the legacy of our first president, who had the wisdom (and fatigue) to quit after two terms. This was a startling development—before then unseen in the political world. As Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton has King George put it with extreme economy:
But in the U.S., that is exactly what we do. In 1796, John Adams succeeded his fellow Federalist George Washington. But four years later, he was himself defeated by the rival party’s candidate, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s chief apologist had labeled Adams, among many other things, a “strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness.” It was ugly. But as Jefferson later wrote in an 1811 letter to Benjamin Rush, while Adams was none too thrilled about his narrow defeat, he took it in stride: “On the day on which we learned …the vote of the Union, I called on Mr. Adams on some official business. He was very sensibly affected, and accosted me with these words: ‘Well, I understand that you are to beat me in this contest, and I will only say that I will be as faithful a subject as any you will have.’”
America doesn’t do coups. We have unspeakable violence and too many guns put to too many horrible uses, but when presidents are elected, we don’t express our disappointment with acts of aggression. We don’t jail—or even threaten to jail— our opponents. We don’t say the system’s rigged. We don’t inflame our followers. We try to calm them. No matter how much mud has been lobbed, there eventually is grace—sometimes even before there’s been time for acceptance.
Since the middle of the last century, concession speeches have been made both more vivid and more poignant because we’ve gotten to watch them. It is a familiar scene, but somehow all the more moving because of its familiarity. The loser steps up to a microphone, exhausted and dazed. He (up until now, always he) thanks his supporters with the last ounce of energy he has, and then congratulates the victor and says it’s time to unite. Sometimes, when the opponent’s name is spoken, the crowd boos and the candidate stretches out his hands as if patting each individual head and saying, “Hush, now; there, there.” Dreams, dollars and sleep have been lost. Disappointment, sadness, shock and even hatred may be balled up in the loser’s throat, but he somehow manages to say that the country is more important than any single candidate, election or party. In his 1992 defeat, George H. W. Bush hailed “the majesty of the democratic system.”
Ironically, the candidate in recent history with the most legitimate claim to sour grapes is the one who may have given the most gracious concession speech. In 2000, after more than a month’s legal battle ending in a decision that people still question, Al Gore declared: “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. … And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, 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.”
Even when they are less lofty, even when their call for unity is more grudging, losing candidates say words like these because it is right to say them. Whatever bizarre mixture of self-regard and selflessness has led them to seek the office in the first place, they manage to swallow hard and acknowledge their defeat. The acknowledgment frees their followers to move on with their lives, recalibrate their hopes, and, enjoy the possibility of discovering that the demon they’ve been railing against may not be a demon at all.
Even in this age, when children are given medals just for showing up, parenting books and websites still tackle the subject of teaching good sportsmanship. Bragging has never been an acceptable way to win, even if the brag is spelled out in five vulgar gold letters and affixed to anything that’s not pinned down. Yet as abhorrent as it is, “I won, I won, I won!” is still not as dangerous as “I didn’t lose, you cheated!” If grace has an opposite, it is probably spite.
“Tonight,” said John McCain, upon losing to our current president eight years ago, “more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”
If Donald Trump is looking for a way to win, he might consider the examples of the nearly sixty presidential losers who have gracefully, however reluctantly, gone before him.