The mother of concession speeches

By John Logie, 12/9/2000

MINNEAPOLIS -- The candidate who ultimately concedes in the presidential election will deliver the most-watched, most-talked-about, and best-remembered concession speech in this nation's history.

This prediction might sound bold, but it isn't. Americans typically pay little attention to concession speeches.

In most elections, only the most dogged supporters of a losing candidate attend closely to the final hail and farewell. And in presidential elections, we all recognize that the conceding candidate is exhausted and coping with one of the most overwhelming personal rejections a human being can experience. As a courtesy, we tend to remember the losing candidate's convention address, or performance in debates, or performance as president rather than the candidate's exit lines.

In the last quarter century, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, George H.W. Bush, and Robert Dole have conceded presidential races. I suspect few Americans remember with any precision what any of these men said in the hours after the polls closed. And this is true despite the fact that three of these men were sitting presidents responding to a most unusual rhetorical challenge. In our nation's history, only eight presidents have conceded the presidency while holding the office. It is unusual for ''the loser'' to have been such a recent ''winner.''

But, whether sitting president or failed party nominee, most recent ''losers'' have never again campaigned for elective office of any kind. Richard Nixon stands as the most amazing counter-example, having served up two memorable concessions prior to winning the presidency in 1968. His best-remembered concession was after his loss in the 1962 California governor's race, when he muttered to members of the press, whom he blamed for his loss, ''You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.''

If only.

Nixon's 1960 concession, delivered in the context of a close popular vote but a walloping defeat in the Electoral College (303-219), is now misremembered as ''statesmanlike'' despite the fact that Nixon's election night ''concession speech'' was neither a true concession nor a model of eloquence. It is the consequences of Nixon's actions, and not his words, which are favorably recalled today.

And while the 1960 race has been held up as the historical model for our current national inconvenience, the real antecedent is the 1876 race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden, the Democratic nominee, won the popular vote by 260,000. In Florida, charges of voter intimidation and ballot fraud muddied the close popular vote. The period between the election and inauguration was fraught with ongoing legal and political battles, culminating in a court fight over whether Florida's Republican or Democratic electors ought to be seated. In the end, Florida's Republican electors provided a narrow Electoral College margin of victory (185-184) for Rutherford B. Hayes. Time will reveal the preciseness of this final parallel.

So, given that Samuel Tilden is the person whose election experiences are likely to most closely match the experiences of the two men who might be called upon to offer up a concession speech in the future, what might we learn from Samuel Tilden's concession speech?

What concession speech?

Tilden never really conceded. His first public address on the topic of the final results of the election, three months after Hayes' inauguration, didn't exactly strike the grace notes that our embattled candidates are being called upon to deliver. Tilden instead said, ''Everybody knows that, after the recent election, the men who were elected by the people ... were counted out; and the men who were not elected were counted in and seated. If my voice could reach throughout our country and be heard in its remotest hamlet, I would say `Be of good cheer. The Republic will live ... The sovereignty of our people shall be rescued from this peril and reestablished.''

While Tilden partisans urged him to run again in 1880, the Democrats nominated Winfield Hancock to run against the Republicans, and Tilden faded into total obscurity until, roughly, mid-November of this year.

In recent weeks, pundits have suggested that the fate of this nation hinges upon Americans hearing a ''healing'' concession speech that offers a newly minted mandate to this muddled election's eventual ''victor.''

But do we really want either of these candidates, while conceding this election, to be more gracious and eloquent than either was able to be for the duration of the 2000 campaign? Were either man to deliver the kind of compelling, insightful and unifying rhetoric now hoped for in a concession speech, it would be the first great speech of the 2000 campaign. And it might just send pangs of regret shooting through voters who would have been inspired to do more than dimple a chad had they heard, just once, a truly persuasive argument.

Or worse, it might be the first great speech of the 2004 campaign. And this is a prospect that invites us to look favorably on Samuel Tilden's example. To both candidates, I say, fight on! Never concede! Then, perhaps, we will have the good fortune that the voters of 1880 had - two brand new nominees - and the opportunity to begin forgetting about the two candidates the nation had wisely refused to fully embrace.

John Logie is assistant professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota.