Win at all costs, but lose graciously

By Ellen Goodman, Globe Columnist, 12/10/2000

F THERE IS a theme song to the post-election drama, it's been the a cappella chorus accusing Al Gore of being a ''sore loser.'' Right from the get-go, the air was filled with folks serenading him with the refrain ''Sore/Loserman.'' And all along my e-mail has echoed, ''Gore lost! Get over it!''

It's not just Bush supporters. Analysts and editorial writers have struck the same high, cautionary notes. They write about the fine line between the hard fighter and the sore loser. They assume anyone who crosses it will be shunned as a citizen of Sore Loserland.

I must say I share that assumption. But lately, I have been wondering why. This is a country in which everyone is told in Vince Lombardi's (in)famous phrase that ''winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.'' This is a country in which Ernest Hemingway warned his son scornfully, ''You know what makes a good loser? Practice.''

It's positively un-American to lose. But then, it's also un-American to be a sore loser.

When was the last time that anyone erected a statue like the one to Davy Crockett, another Tennessean, who lost his 1835 re-election campaign to Congress by 252 votes and told the citizens of Jackson, ''You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.''

Today we put different models on the pedestal. One is Adlai Stevenson, who humbly retold Abe Lincoln's description of feeling like a boy who stubbed his toe: ''He was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.'' Another is Bob Dole, who honestly admitted his post-election blues: ''I slept like a baby - every two hours I woke up and cried.''

More than ever, we live with opposite and contradictory messages: to win at all costs and to lose graciously. It's written on the scoreboards of big and little leagues. And on the faces of fans and parents who are ill at ease with both the sore and the loser.

The pressure on Gore to lose un-sorely has come with even more of an excruciating edge. After all, this election left the candidate with the tantalizing, unnerving possibility that he could lose the presidency without losing the election.

It's not just the fact that Gore's plurality in the national vote was three times as high as JFK's. But he may lose Florida, in the courts or the Legislature, rather than on ballots. There is still the real possibility that a post-Bush-inaugural recount under Florida's Sunshine Law will find Gore with a majority.

As the Florida Supreme Court orders more recounts, this whole experience is less like a sudden-death overtime in a ballgame than it is like a decision in a boxing match. But we don't have much patience now for the likes of the boxing manager Joe Jacobs, who lost a heavyweight title fight in 1932 and won immortality with the line, ''We wuz robbed!''

Indeed, in an NBC poll 47 percent of Americans said they have doubts about who won the election. But 59 percent said Gore should concede.

Is this another duality? The desire for unity and peace vs. the desire to pursue truth - especially when truth may be too close to call? Can the desire to ''heal'' and ''move on'' overwhelm justice - especially when justice is elusive?

Every newspaper reporter has been plagued by some person with decades of papers in obsessive pursuit of righting some ancient wrong. Is he a sore loser or a crusader? Every one of us has a friend who lost his unfaithful lover or wife to another and can't shake the wrong. Who hasn't said, ''Get over it.'' Is he a sore loser or righteous?

In one of the bizarre sidebars to this story of winners, losers, chads and butterflies, we learned of a St. Chad of England. In 669, he had his title to the bishopric challenged on a technicality and humbly gave it up. But that was enough to make him a saint.

In our less saintly era, we are lucky - and I use the word loosely - that the campaign between Bush and Gore never engendered the sort of passion that produces civil wars over injustice. But in politics we have a winner-takes-all system. The winner is president, the loser gets to figure out what to with the rest of his life. Or at least the next four years.

The hardest job of this campaign will be making a concession speech that is honest and conciliatory, proud but not bitter, healing and not sore. A speech that puts the country first.

I don't envy the task and I don't criticize the sore spot left by the wounds of uncertainty. But in all this wondering, remember what happened to Davy Crockett. He ended up at the Alamo.

Ellen Goodman'semail address is