The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Remembering a speech from ‘the most beautiful loser’ after Trump won’t commit to accepting results

In a photo dated Sept. 1950, Gov. Adlai Stevenson, Democratic Presidental nominee, bares a worn sole, proof of his whirlwind tour of five Michigan cities in 12 hours, to his Labor Day audience in Flint, Michigian. With him is Michigan's Gov. G. Mennen Williams. - CREDIT AP

The debates may be over, but the election is not -- and talk of concession may seem a little premature.

Yet chatter about gracious hand-offs and yielding to opponents was all over social media Wednesday night as the nominee for a major U.S. political party refused to commit to accepting the results of the U.S. presidential election. "I will keep you in suspense," said Donald Trump, seeming to forget this was a presidential debate and not a reality television show.

People passed around an image of the classy letter George H.W. Bush left for Bill Clinton after his 1992 loss. Others pointed to John McCain's wish for President Obama, "the man who was my former opponent and will be my president." Some criticized how Al Gore handled the election results in 2000 while others quoted from his memorable speech. "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,' " Gore said.

But as we await a concession speech to end this dark and ugly 2016 campaign, it seems good for our collective souls to look back on what has often been called the best of the bunch. Democrat Adlai Stevenson's 1952 remarks after losing to Dwight D. Eisenhower have been called the "granddaddy of all concession speeches," even "perfection itself" by the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, who called Stevenson "the most beautiful loser."

Scott Farris, the author of "Almost President: The Men who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation," wrote in the Washington Post in 2011 that "few inspired so many as the witty and urbane" Stevenson, noting that historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "went so far as to assert that the Kennedy presidency would not have been possible had Stevenson not changed the tone of Democratic politics so that eloquence and intellect were considered important presidential virtues."

So what did Stevenson say? "It is traditionally American to fight hard before an election. It is equally traditional to close ranks as soon as the people have spoken," he said in the brief but poignant speech. Stevenson thanked his supporters before continuing. "That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties. I urge you all to give to Gen. Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great task that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many. But we pray as one."

Before reading the telegram he sent Eisenhower, he went on. "With a united people, with faith in democracy, with common concern for others less fortunate around the globe, we shall move forward with God's guidance toward the time when his children shall grow in freedom and dignity in a world at peace."

One of the most famous lines was really not his own, but another one that referenced Lincoln. "Someone asked me as I came in down on the street how I felt. And I was reminded of a story that a fellow townsman of ours used to tell--Abraham Lincoln. They asked him how he felt once after an unsuccessful election. He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. That he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh."

You can listen to the entire speech here, in an audio recording via WNYC.

Read also:

The good and the bad of Bill Clinton

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