YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


For the Loser, a Sudden Lonely Silence

Every defeated presidential candidate is unhappy in his own way. How much did he want it? What will he do next? Was the election close? And who beat him?


Michael S. Dukakis does a good job of describing life on the wrong side of a presidential election: "You want to know about losing?" he asks in a recent interview. "It stinks. Winning is a lot better."

John B. Anderson, who ran as an independent in 1980, says the day after losing the race for the White House, it is as if "you are thrown over a cliff" into anonymity. "You are no longer a substantive, great and abiding interest."

George S. McGovern, who lost resoundingly to Richard Nixon in 1972, recalls the silence, the loneliness. "Where did all those voters go? Where were those huge crowds on election day?" he asks. "You have a huge sense that the country deserted you and left you alone."

On Wednesday Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore will both enter elite clubs. One will become the president-elect; the other will be the man who lost the final election of the 20th century. The world will hang on one man's every word; life, for the other, will get very quiet, very fast.

America is a culture that scorns losers, forgetting along the way that democracy demands them. Although the Oval Office seats but one, true political debate requires at least two voices. On Wednesday, only one will be heard.

In the winner-take-all world of politics, there isn't even much literature of losing. Memoirs--when they are written at all--tend to dwell on happier times. Biographers turn away. Supporters drift off. Your party starts to talk about rebuilding--usually without you.

"There are more jokes about losers than there are books about losers," says Nelson Warfield, press secretary for Bob Dole during the former Kansas senator's unsuccessful 1996 White House bid. "The most common volumes you see written about them are the bumper stickers during the next administration: Don't blame me; I voted for the loser."

Every unhappy presidential loser is unhappy in his own way; the emotion made singular by the circumstances of defeat. How much did he want it? What will he do next? Was the election close? And who beat him: A wildly popular former actor who would repudiate his legacy? The man who went on to become the most disgraced leader in modern American history? Or someone who would show a little grace in victory?

For McGovern, "to be defeated by Nixon was more painful to handle than if I had been defeated by [Dwight D.] Eisenhower or someone of that caliber," he said in an interview. The two men and their views of governance, Vietnam and public service were so wildly different that losing was a clear repudiation. Then Watergate broke. Within a year, polls started showing that the result would be far different if only the election were held again. After Watergate, McGovern said, he felt "clearly vindicated."

But vindication goes only so far. McGovern says he ran into Walter F. Mondale a few months after Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mondale had one question of McGovern: How long does it take, after losing 49 states, to quit hurting?

"I said, 'I'll let you know after I get there,' " McGovern recounted. "I was joking. On the emotional front, I don't think it took longer than a year. But I still have a poignancy if someone mentions '72."

President Ford was luckier in defeat, if that's not too much of an oxymoron. Pardoning Nixon led to Ford's 1976 defeat by Jimmy Carter; that same action helped close a painful chapter in American history. And a gracious Carter helped close a painful chapter for the man he defeated. The two have since become fast friends.

"It was inauguration day out in front of the Capitol before President Carter was sworn in," Ford recalled recently. "His first remarks as he stood up--he said, 'On behalf of all the American people, we thank you for healing the land.' That was very thoughtful, and I deeply appreciated it."

Regardless of defeat's various shadings, historians, former candidates and psychiatrists say that Vice President Gore or Texas Gov. Bush can expect a few constants in the days and months beyond the 2000 campaign:

Depression. A dose of self blame, or perhaps a feeling of betrayal. A body clock tossed out of whack by 18 months of time-zone confusion. Extreme fatigue. Guilt.

"A kind of malaise falls over you, and you realize you had the main chance and you blew it," says Douglas Brinkley, Carter's historian. "You start looking for scapegoats. It takes a while for [losing candidates] to look in the mirror and understand most of their shortcomings were their own."

And the loser is not the only one hurting. The pain of a presidential defeat ripples out to touch staffers, friends and family members, especially wives. Elizabeth Hanford Dole, say GOP sources, took her husband's loss harder than he did. So did Rosalynn Carter and Kitty Dukakis, to name but a few.

Los Angeles Times Articles