Bowing Out Gracefully

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, December 13, 2017. Aren’t special elections fun? When is the next one? Losing Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore didn’t acknowledge his defeat last night, which is understandable given the closeness of the vote. Award the man points for consistency, if nothing else: He quoted Scripture instead of making a concession speech.

The verses he chose come from the 40th Psalm, which was fitting enough. In an interesting passage near the end — not the part recited by Roy Moore — we are warned not to take joy at another’s comeuppance. Although I’ll honor that admonition this morning (and readers of this Morning Note would expect no less), I’m put in mind of the events of 17 years ago, when Al Gore was forced by circumstances to make one of the most painful concession speeches in American political history.

Gore did his part. I’ve written about this in the past, as recently as last year. But it seems so apropos this morning, I cannot resist.

The presidential campaign that resulted in George W. Bush becoming the 43rd U.S. president revealed something about elective democracy: The concession speech by the losing candidate is more than classy conduct. It is an essential part of the democratic process. It tells partisans on the losing side that the election is truly over.

On December 13, 2000, it was time for Gore to send that signal. He more than did his duty. He did his country proud. Speaking from the vice president’s office, Gore began with a lighthearted quip: “I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time,” a reference to the election-night concession to Bush that Gore retracted an hour later. “I offered to meet with him as soon as possible so that we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we just passed.”

In cadences and prose that evoked Abraham Lincoln, Gore added: “Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road; certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended — resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.”

Bush, too, subtly invoked Lincoln that day, saying in a speech delivered in Austin, Texas that the nation “must rise above a house divided.”

“Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements,” Bush continued. “Republicans want the best for our nation, and so do Democrats. Our votes may differ, but not our hopes.”

Bush also included some personal grace notes for his rival, lauding Gore’s “distinguished record of service” as a veteran, congressman, senator, and vice president — and wished him success in future endeavors.

That wish came true, for both men. George W. Bush served two terms in office, teamed up as an ex-president with Bill Clinton in fighting AIDS in Africa and raising money for victims of tsunamis in Asia, and taught himself to paint. Gore went on to become a spokesman for our planet’s ecology, an Academy Award winner, and a Nobel laureate.

In other words, F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t just wrong about there being no second acts in American life, he was conspicuously wrong: There are second, third, even fourth acts.

Which raises the question: What will Roy Moore do now? After seeing him uncertainly astride a horse named Sassy as he rode to the polls Tuesday, the thought occurs that he’ll just ride off, inexpertly, into the sunset. Or maybe not. Perhaps he’ll take to the pulpit. Or run for office again. Whatever he decides, last night Moore expressed the disappointment and instinct for denial that grips losing candidates in any close election. “May God bless you as you go on, give you a safe journey and thank you for coming tonight,” he told his supporters. “It’s not over and it’s going to take some time.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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