President Donald Trump was playing golf Saturday when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the bitterly contested 2020 election. Unlike other election losers, Trump did not congratulate his opponent or give a concession speech. Instead he released a statement falsely claiming voter fraud and vowing that “this election is far from over.”
Historically, when a presidential candidate has lost, he has written, telegrammed or called his opponent to offer congratulations. In the television age, losing candidates have also made a public concession speech, almost all containing the same elements: 1) an acknowledgment of the will of voters, 2) a prayer or message of support for the winner, 3) a call to heal the divisions of the campaign, and 4) when it applies, a promise of a smooth transition of power.
For example, here’s what President George H.W. Bush said in 1992 when he conceded to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton:
“Well, here’s the way I see it … the people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the Democratic system. I just called Gov. Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations … I want the country to know that our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done, and America must always come first, so we will get behind this new president and wish him well.”
Bush was a one-term president, like Trump soon will be, which can carry with it a certain sting. Upon losing to California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1980, fellow one-termer President Jimmy Carter described it like this:
“I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you, so I can’t stand here and say that it doesn’t hurt. The people of the United States have made their choice, and of course I accept their decision, but, I have to admit, not with the same enthusiasm that I accepted the decision four years ago. I’ve a deep appreciation of the system, however, that lets people make a free choice about who will lead them for the next four years …”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who lost to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in 2008, not only congratulated his opponent but acknowledged the importance of the moment:
“This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans, and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight … A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.”
In 1952, Adlai Stevenson said a prayer for winner Dwight Eisenhower: “That you may be the servant and guardian of peace and make the vale of trouble a door of hope, here’s my earnest prayer.” As did Mitt Romney for Obama in 2012: “I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction. But the nation chose another leader. And so Ann (Romney) and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.”
Some candidates, such as Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas in 1996, attempt a joke to open their speeches:
“I was thinking on my way down the elevator, ‘Tomorrow is the first time in my life I don’t have anything to do.’ … Let me say, I talked to President Clinton, we had a good visit, and I congratulated him. … I have said repeatedly in this campaign that the president is my opponent, not my enemy. And I wish him well, and I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America.”
But even if the defeat is too bitter for jokes — for instance, you lost every state but your own or you won the popular vote but not the electoral college — it is vital to still accept the results of the election. Here’s Walter Mondale after winning only the District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota in 1984: “We rejoice in the freedom of a wonderful people, and we accept their verdict.” And here’s how Hillary Clinton handled winning 3 million more votes than Donald Trump but falling far short in the electoral college four years ago:
“I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. And we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.”
When Richard Nixon narrowly lost to John Kennedy in 1960, he made the standard dignified speech, congratulating Kennedy and promising to support him. If you don’t remember it that way, it may be that you’re confusing it with Nixon’s speech two years later, when he lost the California governor’s race and gave a famously self-pitying speech saying, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” and promising it was his last news conference. (It wasn’t. He won the presidency six years later.)
In 1976, first lady Betty Ford gave husband Gerald Ford’s concession speech for him, as his voice had become too raspy and strained that evening to make it through another address.
Of all concession speeches, though, former vice president Al Gore’s is the gold standard. This speech had everything: opening joke, congratulations, acceptance of the result, a prayer, a call to heal, and the teeny-tiniest hint of bitterness. It even contains a quote from another election loser: Stephen Douglas speaking to Abraham Lincoln.
On election night 2000, Gore famously conceded to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then retracted his concession when it became clear Florida was too close to call. Five weeks later, after Supreme Court intervention and the presidency going to Bush, Gore made this speech:
“Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time. I offered to meet with him as soon as possible so we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we’ve just passed.
“Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency: ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’ Well, in that same spirit, 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.
” … 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 and the electoral college, and tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.
” … (H) istory gives us many examples of contests as hotly debated and as fiercely fought, with their own challenges to the popular will. Other disputes have dragged on for weeks before reaching resolution, and each time, both the victor and the vanquished have accepted the result peacefully and in a spirit of reconciliation. So let it be with us.”