“The Most Beautiful Loser”: Reflections on the Concession Speech Throughout US History

By Samantha O’Connell

William Jennings Bryan, the “Great Commoner” and legendary orator of the “Cross of Gold” speech, was, alas, no match for William McKinley in the 1896 presidential contest. Within two days of the election, it became clear that the votes swung in McKinley’s favor, so Bryan sent the victor a telegram: “Senator Jones has just informed me that the returns indicate your election, and I hasten to extend my congratulations. We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.” During the previous hundred years of American history, the confirmation of election results had occurred behind closed doors, but Bryan’s brief message marked the beginning of a new democratic tradition: the formal concession. 

The technological boom of the 20th century only made this custom increasingly public and elaborate with the first radio-broadcasted concession speech in 1928 and the first televised one in 1952. In many ways, the concession speech is just for show; it’s arguably more a demonstration of good sportsmanship than it is an actual announcement of information. The losing candidate maintains their honor by accepting the decision of the people and putting an end to the election saga, but their melodramatic, magnanimous language is also ripe for mockery. As journalist and presidential speech writer William Safire sarcastically outlined, any worthy concession must include the following strategies: “Absolve yourself of all blame…Get in one last, satisfying lick at your distinguished opponent, the sleazy hack..[and] wish your victorious opponent well in a way that will ignite ‘fire next time,’ thereby planting the seed of victory in your dung heap of defeat.” 

However, now that both sides of the aisle seem increasingly willing to throw this time-honored custom out the window, the situation no longer feels quite so comedic. For months, President Trump has contested this year’s election results before the votes have even been cast, let alone counted, all because of supposedly fraudulent mail-in ballots. In response, Hilary Clinton has urged Joe Biden not to concede the election “under any circumstance.” 

Perhaps this act of political theatre actually has very practical consequences. As presidential historian Scott Farris ominously argued in 2012, “the winners only govern with the losers’ consent. It would only take one candidate to say ‘I reject the results’ to plunge things into chaos.”

Despite the psychic numbing effect this awful year has had, I believe it’s still worth taking a moment to mourn the possible death of the concession speech, a somewhat awkward obligation that has suddenly taken on such an increased emotional weight. 

Some of the most iconic concession speeches in our history now act as stinging reminders of the mutual respect and dignity that continue to wither in our current politics and of the values that Americans are, in theory, supposed to share. Cliche phrases of peace and unity sound spectacular when the alternative is childish bullying and bickering (see the first 2020 Presidential Debate).

One might look to George H.W. Bush’s concession in 1992 for his emphasis on the peaceful transition of power and his steadfast commitment to patriotism over partisanship: “I want the country to know that our entire Administration will work closely with [Clinton’s] team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done, and America must always come first.” To his credit, Bush also left a hand-written letter for Clinton in the White House which included, “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.” This kind note marked the beginning of what would eventually become a warm friendship between former political rivals. 

One could also look to John McCain’s speech in 2008 for the deep respect he paid to his opponent, Barack Obama. Beyond just admitting defeat and wishing Obama an customary congratulations, McCain elaborated that:

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.

Of course, not all transitions of power have been entirely seamless or pain-free; the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and Geroge W. Bush was admittedly one of the messiest in American history, complicated by the contested counting of Florida’s votes and consequential US Supreme Court ruling. Despite the fierce political battle that stretched all the way through November, though, Al Gore did eventually concede on Dec. 13, stating, “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…Tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” The drama of 2000 made the connection between the concession speech and the overall harmony of the nation abundantly clear. 

Last but not least, Adlai Stevenson was crowned “the most beautiful loser” by the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg for his masterful 1952 speech. What was hailed as an exercise in class and humility almost 70 years ago still remains deeply moving in 2020. “That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties,” Stevenson explains. “I urge you all to give Gen. Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great tasks that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many. But we pray as one.” 

He even ended his brief address rather cheekily, discussing how the defeat emotionally affected him. Much like Abraham Lincoln when he suffered his first political loss, Stevenson also felt like “a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. That he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.” In addition to the message of unity and compassion, Stevenson’s speech perhaps displays the virtues that have been the most neglected in our modern political discourse: a healthy dose of self-awareness and a genuine appreciation for self-deprecating humor.  

Considering the ever-growing list of nightmare scenarios America has endured this year, a melodramatic, ten-minute speech full of fluff shouldn’t seem this significant. Keeping a tradition that’s backed by a hundred years of precedent alive through the rest of 2020 shouldn’t have to feel like such a substantial democratic win. 

But it is what it is. 

Title Image Credit: CNN