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Bowing out with dignity

It takes skill to craft a concession speech. Some folks have it, some don't.

November 07, 2002|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

In politics, the champagne toasts and the Barbara Walters interview go to the victor. The loser gets stuck with the concession speech.

How he or she handles that dubious democratic duty can go a long way toward binding up the wounds of a nasty campaign, uniting the electorate behind the winner and, not coincidentally, giving a boost to the loser's future career prospects.

Tuesday's election results offered several good instances of how to sound gracious when your opponent has just eaten your lunch, according to some serious students of political rhetoric. Republican candidate Bill Simon, who lost the race for California governor to incumbent Gray Davis, and U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, who failed in her re-election bid to represent Missouri, were among the standouts.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale was judged by some to have delivered an exemplary speech under unusually trying circumstances. "Walter Mondale's concession speech was really a model for what you want to do in that rhetorical moment," said John Logie, professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota.

Given barely a week to campaign for a U.S. Senate seat after he'd agreed to replace Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone, who'd been killed in a plane crash, Mondale lost to Republican challenger Norm Coleman. Mondale fulfilled two basic requirements of a good concession speech: reaffirming the goals of the campaign while striking a bipartisan tone, Logie said.

"I told him that the U.S. Senate is the best job in America, and I think that he will love it," Mondale told his supporters. He went on to urge young Democrats to stay active in politics: "You are our future and you are the trustees of the legacy of social justice and decency. Stand up and keep fighting."

"What Mondale did was effectively empower Norm Coleman to do his job," Logie said. "In a fierce political fight, it is often hard for opponents to concede in a way that creates a space for a winner to begin to build what you would hope would be a bipartisan coalition."

Whatever harsh words and bad blood may flow between candidates during the campaign, it's bad form to use a concession speech to second-guess an opponent's victory or replay old arguments, Logie suggested.

"There's a ceremonial aspect to what we do here," Logie said. "Even if you have some serious disagreements, and I have no question that Walter Mondale had disagreements with [Coleman], Mondale has been around long enough to know you lose nothing by focusing on the hopeful elements."

"Hopeful" isn't the first word you'd think of to describe some memorable concession speeches.

In defeat, some politicians rise to lofty poetic heights, offering gracious words of support to the victor while bringing tears to the eyes of his or her faithful followers. Adlai Stevenson lost the presidency twice to Dwight Eisenhower, but set the gold standard for modern concession speeches by quoting Abraham Lincoln in his failed 1952 run for the White House. After an unsuccessful election bid, Stevenson related, Lincoln 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."

At the opposite extreme, Richard Nixon sank into the rhetorical mulch of sour grapes, grumbling to journalists when he lost the California governor's race in 1962 that "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

A touch of self-deprecating humor can help set a conciliatory tone and salve the sting of defeat for a vanquished politician, said Tom Hollihan, a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. When Jimmy Carter lost the White House to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he said that he accepted the decision of the American people, though "not with the same enthusiasm that I accepted the decision four years ago."

Though some interpreted Carter's remark as snarky, Hollihan said, humor can be a way of acknowledging that "even in these moments of loss when things somehow seem larger than life, life goes on."

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