Great Losers in Recent History

No, this is not a post about long-suffering Cubs fans, who may not be suffering much longer.  That would be a fun blog post, though.

This post is about political losers.  You see, my favorite part of the election season is listening to the loser on election day.


After months and months of campaigning in which candidates tear each other up, declare that the country will completely collapse if the other gets elected, and paint one another with half-truths and misinformation, we finally get to election day.  One of them wins.  And the other loses.

Then comes my favorite part:  the concession speech.

We have this custom in American democracy:  when it is apparent who has won, the loser of an election calls up the winner, has a brief conversation, and then gives a speech.

And what happens in that speech, after all those months of bitter fighting?

Well, consider these excerpts from the concession speeches of our last four presidential losers:

Mitt Romney: one of the Good Losers

Mitt Romney: one of the Good Losers

Mitt Romney’s concession speech, 2012:

“I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory…His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations. I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters….This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation…..”




John McCain: An Impressive Loser

John McCain: An Impressive Loser

John McCain’s concession speech, 2008:

“A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama — to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love…..In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.”


John Kerry: Another Good Loser

John Kerry: Another Good Loser

John Kerry’s concession speech, 2004:

“I spoke to President Bush and I offered him and Laura our congratulations on their victory.

We had a good conversation, and we talked about the danger of division in our country and the need — the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together.”



Al Gore: As a loser, he might have been almost John Adams-esque.

Al Gore: As a loser, he might have been almost John Adams-esque.

Al Gore, concession speech on December 13, 2000 (after more than a month of electoral controversy):

“Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States….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…I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country…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….”


Two Republicans and two Democrats.

Embedded in their statements are these elements, found in many concession speeches:

1)  They congratulate the winner.

2)  They indicate that both sides need to work for the good of the country.

3)  They mention, or imply, that the system of democracy is more important than their election victory or their political party.

In other words, the concession speech is where we most clearly get politicians articulating elements of the loyal opposition.  And as I have argued, the concept of the loyal opposition is critically important for a healthy democracy.

John McCain’s 2008 speech (which is when I first fell in love with concession speeches) and Al Gore’s 2000 speech are particularly good.  They are worth reading in their entirety and they are not long.

In fact, as I looked these speeches up, (and I could have gone back further in history, but, well, it’s a blog) I gained a level of respect for Al Gore that I did not have before.  I have indicated how many other societies might react to a disputed presidential election like ours in 2000.  Al Gore, however, wonderfully articulated the fundamental principles behind the rule of law, democracy and the loyal opposition.  Consider these other parts of his speech:

“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…..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.”

These are great points.

(OK, Gore overlooked the 1860 election when the victor and the vanquished both took up arms and five years later we looked around stunned that we had killed 750,000 of our own people).

Still, almost every time in American history both the victor and vanquished have accepted the results peacefully and in a spirit of reconciliation.

I do hope that whoever loses this year’s presidential race will give a concession speech with these elements in it.  It is not guaranteed, for there is such a thing as a bad loser.  And some people lose sight of, or don’t understand the importance of these fundamental principles.  Given the very nasty and bitter comments from both sides in the second debate, I have to confess that I’m not entirely sure either Trump or Clinton would do this.

Still, the final question of the debate on Sunday night, which came from an undecided voter named Karl Becker, got at this issue.  Becker has become something of a folk hero, which shows that many Americans long for a more civil and respectful campaign as we debate our differences. He asked this: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

Both Clinton and Trump actually said something positive about each in other.

So there is hope for this year’s concession speech.





Revivals, Idolatry and Politics

I went to a good, old-fashioned revival last week.  I found it interesting that in this age of mega-churches and coffee bars in the foyer and big-screen HD technology, this meeting still had many things that I had seen before in revival meetings.

Consider the following features: it drew a big crowd and opened up with music.  We were told to go out and go door to door to spread the faith in our neighborhoods.  We were told that we shouldn’t be shy to talk to our co-workers and neighbors and friends.  We were told we lived in a broken society and we were part of the solution to set things back down the right path. Then we hit a musical interlude in which a quartet sang “Amazing Grace.”  And finally the main preacher got up and stirred the crowd with an impassioned message, reminding us that we were part of something bigger than ourselves.  Right before the final music, he told us that the greatest hope for earth was….

Wait a minute.  I’m sorry, I got confused.

This wasn’t an evangelical revival.  It was a political rally for Mitt Romney.  (Four blocks away from my house, actually, at the local high school baseball field).

The similarities of the Romney rally to evangelical religious revivals are not merely interesting coincidences.  (And let me just annoy both the die-hard Democrats and die-hard Republicans among you by saying that Obama rallies and Romney rallies are pretty much structured the same way.)

There is a historic connection between political campaigns and revivals.  As early as the 1740s, George Whitefield and other evangelical revivalists pioneered techniques for preaching to large audiences – often outdoors.  By the early 19th century Baptist and Methodist revivalists (like the circuit-riding guy on the horse on my blog masthead) had perfected these methods.  They became so widespread and so effective that politicians picked them up for their own campaigning purposes.  These rallies have been a part of our political culture ever since.

I wonder if this is more than a historic curiosity, though.  This past Sunday, while speaking on a totally different topic, my pastor pointed out that we make idols out of all sorts of things, and we aren’t even aware that we do it.

In the passion of a political campaign, we can make politics and the United States itself into an idol.  It seems to me that the subtle similarities to evangelical revivals can stoke hopes and desires that this candidate, this political party, this policy, this nation will save us from the woes that beset us.

Ponder this:  at the close of his rally the other night (right before the fireworks), Mitt Romney declared that America is the hope for the world.


Jesus Christ is the hope for the world.

Wise political leaders, well-crafted policies and effective governments can bring order to society and limit evils and sins that we humans inflict on one another.  We need to do the best we can to work for good government, which has an important role in this world.  That role, however, is not that of savior.  Politicians, policies and the nation cannot eliminate those evils or sins, nor can they truly save us from them.

American political leaders have long had a habit of slipping into over-the-top rhetoric because it gets American audiences fired up.   We hear it and we don’t even realize that we are asking the United States to take on the role that only Christ can fulfill.  In 2008 Barack Obama declared that “the United States is the last great hope for humanity.”  Sarah Palin proclaimed that “America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has known.” Abraham Lincoln, that kindly, avuncular, home-spun Midwesterner on our penny said “My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.”

How do you like your idolatry?  It comes in tasty Democrat, Republican and historic flavors.

For those of you who want a sophisticated and challenging theological discussion of these things, I would recommend Theopolitical Imagination by William T. Cavanaugh, particularly his essay, “The Myth of the State as Savior.”

Otherwise, ponder (and pray about) this question this election season:  when, where and how do we slip into this kind of idolatry?  And what kind of citizen is Christ calling me to be?