How to Lose an Election Gracefully
Al Gore's beautiful 2000 concession speech is worth rereading to clear our palate from the bitter taste of Trump's tawdriness on Jan. 6
Yesterday’s concluding hearing of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was distressing—to say the least. The committee offered a blow-by-blow account of what Donald Trump did during those three fateful hours that a furious mob, whom he had mobilized by his calls to “fight like hell” during his Ellipse speech, broke into the country’s cherished symbol of democracy, tried to hunt down Vice President Mike Pence and other members of Congress certifying the election result, battled law enforcement officers, ransacked the interior and much, much more.
Through all of this, the hearing showed, Trump sat in the White House private dining room, watching the mayhem unfold on Fox News. He ignored multiple pleas by his own staff, family members and even hosts of the very news channel he was watching, asking him to make a forceful statement and call off the mob. Instead, he egged on the insurrectionists, tweeting first a video of his Ellipse speech, followed half an hour later with one condemning his Vice President: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
As the mob closed in 40-feet from where Pence was hiding, video footage showed Secret Service officers trying to secure a safe passage for him. Heart breakingly, so afraid were some that they wouldn’t make it back home in one piece, they called their loved ones to bid them adieu. Their calls are reminiscent of those that passengers in the hijacked Flight 93 made on 9/11 before the planes crashed, killing them all. The difference is that this time, the man doing the hijacking was the President of the United States.
Contrast Trump’s behavior with that of Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate who too lost a bitterly contested election 20 years before. In Trump’s case, it was clear within 24 hours after the votes were cast that he had lost both the popular vote by seven million and the Electoral College. But that did not stop him from filing 60 or so lawsuits challenging the election outcome in key states. He lost virtually all of them and still would not concede, even the day after the heinous events of Jan. 6.
By comparison, in Gore’s contest against George W. Bush, the outcome dragged on for a whole month. Bush had a razor-thin, 537-vote margin in Florida, a crucial state that gave him a single-vote edge in the Electoral College. This margin was so slim that Florida law actually required a recount. However, after a series of legal battles, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court finally ruled 5-4 to stop the recount, forever quashing Gore’s presidential hopes even though he had won the national popular vote by over half a million ballots.
Yet once the Supreme Court ruled, did Gore claim the election was stolen from him? No. Did he trash the court? No. Did he berate Bush? No. Did he go on a rampage? No. He delivered a brilliant and graceful concession speech celebrating America and its institutions, even managing to poke a little fun at himself while calling on his supporters to move on. Moreover, there is no doubt that if the court had ruled the other way, Bush would have done the same.
Gore’s speech is worth reading—and rereading— to remind ourselves of what we stand to lose as a country if Trump’s political vandalism is not decisively repudiated and punished. One man can’t be allowed to tear down in a heartbeat traditions built over nearly 250 years.
Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time. 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've just passed.
Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you." Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country. 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.
Over the library of one of our great law schools is inscribed the motto, "Not under man but under God and law." That's the ruling principle of American freedom, the source of our democratic liberties. I've tried to make it my guide throughout this contest, as it has guided America's deliberations of all the complex issues of the past five weeks.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new President-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.
Let me say how grateful I am to all those who supported me and supported the cause for which we have fought. Tipper and I feel a deep gratitude to Joe and Hadassah Lieberman, who brought passion and high purpose to our partnership and opened new doors, not just for our campaign but for our country.
This has been an extraordinary election. But in one of God's unforeseen paths, this belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground, for its very closeness can serve to remind us that we are one people with a shared history and a shared destiny. Indeed, that history gives us many examples of contests as hotly debated, as fiercely fought, with their own challenges to the popular will. Other disputes have dragged on for weeks before reaching resolution. And each time, both the victor and the vanquished have accepted the result peacefully and in a spirit of reconciliation.
So let it be with us.
I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country.
And I say to our fellow members of the world community, let no one see this contest as a sign of American weakness. The strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome. Some have expressed concern that the unusual nature of this election might hamper the next president in the conduct of his office. I do not believe it need be so.
President-elect Bush inherits a nation whose citizens will be ready to assist him in the conduct of his large responsibilities. I, personally, will be at his disposal, and I call on all Americans -- I particularly urge all who stood with us -- to unite behind our next president. This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done. And while there will be time enough to debate our continuing differences, now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America and we put country before party; we will stand together behind our new president.
As for what I'll do next, I don't know the answer to that one yet. Like many of you, I'm looking forward to spending the holidays with family and old friends. I know I'll spend time in Tennessee and mend some fences, literally and figuratively.
Some have asked whether I have any regrets, and I do have one regret: that I didn't get the chance to stay and fight for the American people over the next four years, especially for those who need burdens lifted and barriers removed, especially for those who feel their voices have not been heard. I heard you. And I will not forget.
I've seen America in this campaign, and I like what I see. It's worth fighting for and that's a fight I'll never stop. As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe, as my father once said, that "No matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out."
So for me this campaign ends as it began: with the love of Tipper and our family; with faith in God and in the country I have been so proud to serve, from Vietnam to the vice presidency; and with gratitude to our truly tireless campaign staff and volunteers, including all those who worked so hard in Florida for the last 36 days.
Now the political struggle is over and we turn again to the unending struggle for the common good of all Americans and for those multitudes around the world who look to us for leadership in the cause of freedom.
In the words of our great hymn, "America, America": "Let us crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea."
And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others: it's time for me to go.
Thank you, and good night, and God bless America.