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Needed: grace in defeat

The next president would benefit from the help of his rival in bringing the nation together.

November 04, 2008

The winner of today's election will lead the United States through a difficult period at home and abroad. The loser, however, will have the opportunity to make that course smoother and the nation healthier. No matter who concedes, we hope he will salve the wounds of this injurious campaign.

Our history is rich with the graceful departures of men who fought hard for the presidency and then, having been defeated, chose their country over their egos. "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism," Stephen Douglas reputedly said to Abraham Lincoln in 1860. "I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you." Al Gore, who lost after the longest election night in American history -- and whose defeat was further burdened by his victory in the popular vote -- took until Dec. 13 of 2000 to place his difficult call to George W. Bush. When he publicly gave up the contest, he quoted Douglas' remark.

Those are hardly the only presidential candidates who, recognizing that it was in the nation's interest, chose to bury the hatchet. Jimmy Carter portrayed Gerald R. Ford as incompetent, then came to appreciate him. Same with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Campaigns inevitably highlight criticism. Allowing it to outlive the campaign, however, can impede progress, and the rancor of recent weeks has been apparent to anyone remotely paying attention to this race. Candidates have been threatened, effigies hung, tempers allowed to flare. There is an anger loose in our land that threatens the success of our next president, whoever it is.

We are confident that Barack Obama and John McCain care deeply about this country. One of them, presumably tonight, will face the choice between indulging his disappointment and gracefully assisting the victor. The followers of whoever loses need to know that they will be represented by the winner. A close race might make that harder; certainly, the protracted election of 2000 made bridging the partisan divide more difficult. But both McCain and Obama understand that they've exaggerated in this campaign: Obama is no socialist, and McCain knows it; McCain is no clone of President Bush, and Obama knows that.

As the campaign concludes, grace in victory and patriotism in defeat will serve us all well.

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