Historian: Romney speech ‘cleared the bar,’ but barely

November 7, 2012

Brevity. Humility. Uplift. Perspective.

A concession speech is the last thing any presidential candidate wants to make, the last thing to prepare for, the last thing in a winner-focused society that he or she wants to be remembered by. Mitt Romney ''cleared the bar'' with a short speech in Boston early Wednesday but it won't be one of the most memorable concessions, said historian and political analyst Scott Farris. Farris, author of "Almost President: The Men Who Lost The Race But Changed The Nation,'' breaks down a solid concession speech into several elements.

"The first part is the concession. Usually, this entails something along the lines of, as John McCain said, 'the American people of have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.' Wendell Willkie had a nice turn of phrase when he said, 'People of America, I accept the results of the election with complete good will.'

"Many candidates also go out of their way to refer to the winner as 'my president' or 'our president' to signify that the time for unity has come. Al Gore did an especially nice job in 2000, quoting Stephen Douglas, who had said after losing to Lincoln, 'Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.' Many times, they expressly call for national unity. Adlai Stevenson reminded Americans, 'That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties.'

"Then the losing candidate explains what their campaign was about and why it was a noble cause. George McGovern, who lost in a landslide, put as happy a face on it as you could by saying, 'If we pushed the day of peace just one day closer, then every minute and every hour and every bone-crushing efforts in this campaign was worth the entire effort.' Many also talk about how they brought in a new generation of young people into the process and then promise to keep on fighting. Sometimes it is for some general principles, or sometimes, as with Mike Dukakis, it can be a laundry list.

''In many ways, the ritual is like a military surrender, and the winner tolerates the loser puffing up his own campaign -- for that makes the winner's victory only greater.

"Finally, every concession speech since 1984 has ended with 'God bless America.' Commentators say this is just the equivalent of 'have a nice day.' I suggest it goes a little deeper than that. Reagan began the "God bless America" and he intended it, I think, as a subtle expression in the belief in American exceptionalism. For the loser, it is a sense that the result was divinely ordained as part of an inscrutable cosmic plan. Perhaps that takes some of the sting out of the defeat.''

Farris said Romney's speech didn't reflect the urgency of healing a divided nation: "While he congratulated Obama, he never really validated the result by saying 'the people have spoken' ... Praying for the president is nice, but it is not the same as validating the election.''


(AFP/Getty Images) Historians generally credit Al Gore with one of the best concession speeches when he yielded to George W. Bush after a protracted challenge in 2000.

Farris added that Romney did not expressly address unity. "He talked about putting aside partisanship, but he also said he had hoped to lead the nation in a different direction and remained concerned about the nation's future. He also did not define what his campaign was about, except for a vague reference to "principles," though he didn't fully identify what those were. The reflections on the importance of teachers, pastors and parents hinted at something, but it was all implied, not explicitly stated.

"It was a speech that sounded as if he did not emerge from the election with much respect, let alone affection, for the president.  He sounded as if he really expected to win and was immensely disappointed in the result -- even more so than usual.''

Readers, do you agree? Let us know in the comments section below.

 

 

 
David Beard is a writer, editor and director of digital content for The Post. He also edits The Optimist, a weekly e-newsletter, and has been a foreign correspondent.
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