Karl F. Inderfurth was an assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration. He is writing a play on the 18-year private correspondence of President Harry S. Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson.
Losing is never easy to accept, as then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson observed on Nov. 4, 1952, when Adlai Stevenson lost the presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower.
Acheson was at the house of friends in Washington as the returns came in. The company was made up of close associates, all deeply involved in what was happening. As the news was reported, Acheson recalled in his memoir, “a feeling of despair, almost of panic, came over the group as though they were suddenly learning of a stunning natural disaster, which they could not believe or bear.”
“How were they to face it?” Acheson wrote. “What were they to do?” As recalled by those who heard him and recounted in his book “Present at the Creation,” this was his response:
“Most of you are so used to a Democratic Administration . . . that you think of this state of affairs as normal. But it was not normal. What has just happened was bound to happen. It is not only wrong to feel angry about it, it is unrealistic. Tonight you, especially the younger ones, feel angry and bitter. . . . You exaggerate the campaign and call the election a ‘steal’ and claim that it was won by demagogues and vilifiers.
“You must realize that we Democrats have been in power for a long time and it is natural and normal for there to be a change. That fact, you might as well accept, and also that it is not necessarily a bad thing. You must accept it the way that some day you accept growing old.
“From this moment you should not go on fighting battles that have been lost. Don’t, above all, go on fighting them the way the League of Nations battle was fought over thirty years. Do what nature requires, that is to have a fallow period. Just let the field of your emotions stay barren, let new seeds germinate, until May, or next year; that is what happens in nature. Have different activities; think of something else. Don’t read the New York Times from cover to cover every day.
“Then when you come back into the scene, you will come back fresh. And you should think of the problems that exist then, and not of the problems that existed a year before. Say, ‘These are new problems. I am going to attack the new problems in a creative way.’
“This gets us to the point of how you should act now. The people who come in will have a responsibility which they haven’t had for years. Actually the problems will remain the same. They are very difficult problems, in some cases just about insoluble. The new people will find this out, and the chances are that they are not going to be able to find miraculous solutions any more than we have done. But now they will have the responsibility. They will have fresh minds and a fresh approach, and it is possible that they will be able to think of some things that we haven’t thought of and to do some things that we haven’t done. If so, that is all to the good. And we should give them a chance to do their best.
“One thing that we shouldn’t do is reduce their chances of getting somewhere. We probably could if we tried. Because the new people won’t understand the great complexities and the ramifications of the things they have to deal with. But that’s all right, because they will soon, and we should try to help them as much as we can. Whatever we may have thought of some of the men who will come into the new Administration when they have been so critical of us, there’s no sense in continuing to voice these past opinions of the new men. We must give them a chance. Their purposes are the best interests of this country, just as ours are. So that’s the second thing to keep in mind: Don’t undermine the whole foundation by hammering at mistakes the Administration will make from the beginning and by discrediting the new Administration as rapidly as its problems arise. This is not only tempting, but extremely easy. Quite a few of us know enough to make life intolerable for the new Administration. We should not by our actions make it impossible or more difficult for them to accomplish what all of us have been trying to accomplish over the last seven years.
“After things have settled down a bit and the new people have taken over and are doing what they can, we will have ideas about how to solve some of the difficult issues that will come up. We will have a chance to be constructive by throwing out those ideas. If they are wise ideas, they will be picked up and will be helpful. We probably won’t be able ever to put our ideas into operation ourselves. But if we can think of them, and advocate them, the new people in the Democratic Party, people whom we don’t even know yet because they haven’t appeared, will have something to go on. There is no sense in having our ideas [be] simply ideas of how badly the Republicans are doing things. What we need to have and what the country will need to have are ideas that are constructive and helpful in solving new problems that it will face.”
Many presidential elections cycles later, Acheson’s words and wisdom still ring true. While Donald Trump is no Dwight Eisenhower, the same principles and practices of a democratic transition of power should apply. Dispirited Democrats, pay heed and take heart.