Graceful Losers Triumph, In Spite Of Defeat

Email a Friend
Adlai E. Stevenson and President Dwight Eisenhower shake hands at the White House in Washington, Feb. 17, 1953. A few months before, Eisenhower had defeated Stevenson in the presidential election.

I have a special respect for political losers. Losing can reveal a candidate's character in a humbling, vulnerable moment.

An Ohio politician who lost a race for governor once explained to me that most politicians are used to being popular. They were often class officers and top athletes as kids, who become lawyers, professors, or business owners. They get used to people listening to them, and laughing at their jokes.

"So when thousands or millions of people who know you by name reject you," the Ohio pol told me, "that's an earthquake. You want to shout, 'Impossible! You know me! I'm popular. There's some mistake!'"

Losers don't get inaugural balls or government limos. But they can lose with a grace that honors the decision of the people, even — or especially — after a contentious campaign.

Congressman Mo Udall used to tell of an old Arizona pol he said once conceded defeat by saying, "The people have spoken — the bastards."

Adlai Stevenson was a little smoother in 1952 when he lost the presidency and told his supporters, "I urge you all to give Gen. Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great tasks that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many, but we pray as one."

"The people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system," President George H.W. Bush said when he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.

Al Gore fought hard for a recount of Florida ballots and their hanging chads in the disputed election of 2000. But when the Supreme Court upheld the state for George W. Bush, Al Gore declared, "Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it ...

"I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together."

And when John McCain lost to Barack Obama in 2008, he said his sadness mingled with pride that the United States had elected its first African-American president.

"Tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens," he said. "I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president."

People who lose with grace win respect, and can go on to do great things. Even — or especially — in defeat, they serve their country.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit