In Washington, losing an election is viewed as a sort of death. But instead of bringing food to the house, a few neighbors and some in the media stick a microphone in your face and ask, “Did you cost Ford the White House?”
Twenty years after Ford and I lost the White House to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, I was the one pointing fingers — at myself. Then, for a long time after my loss to Bill Clinton in 1996, I would lie awake nights wondering what I could have done to change the outcome. Did we rely too much on the Republican base, letting cultural issues define us in a harsh light and driving away independents and suburban voters?
I remembered former president Richard Nixon’s assessment in the months before his death in April 1994: “If the economy’s good,” he told me, “you’re not going to beat Clinton.”
The logic was irrefutable: If times are good, why would you vote out an incumbent? But that didn’t keep me from replaying the race in my head.
It’s no secret that Americans rarely elect senators to the presidency (the incumbent notwithstanding). Yet senators may have an advantage when putting a loss into perspective. Victory and defeat, after all, are relative terms in a body where one or the other is never more distant than the next roll call. I’ll always be grateful for something Hubert Humphrey told me after the Ford-Carter cliffhanger:
“Bob, I’ve been where you are. You know they’ve got to find a scapegoat. If it’s not you, it’s going to be somebody else.”
Hubert knew whereof he spoke. That he was willing to open his heart — to share his old pain — helped me accept that I couldn’t change what had happened.
From Barry Goldwater and George McGovern to John Kerry and John McCain, I’ve taken heart from senatorial colleagues who refused to be defined by their failure to become president.
Sure, losing an election hurts, but I’ve experienced worse. And at an age when every day is precious, brooding over what might have been is self-defeating. In conceding the 1996 election, I remarked that “tomorrow will be the first time in my life I don’t have anything to do.” I was wrong. Seventy-two hours after conceding the election, I was swapping wisecracks with David Letterman on his late-night show.
The discovery by others that I had a sense of humor led to an improbable career pitching Visa, Dunkin’ Donuts and Viagra. (Any second thoughts I may have entertained about the latter were put to rest by a couple of wives who approached me in airports to say, simply, “Thank you, Senator.”) I wrote a couple of books on political humor, got a gig with Jon Stewart offering unconventional commentary on the Bush-Gore election and started the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas to promote constructive, bipartisan debate. I currently work at Alston & Bird, a law firm in Washington, which keeps me plenty busy.