Government & Politics

A Trump defeat could buck a long tradition of dignified losers

“They Also Ran,” an exhibit at a bank in Norton, Kan., highlights the losers of U.S. presidential elections.
“They Also Ran,” an exhibit at a bank in Norton, Kan., highlights the losers of U.S. presidential elections. They Also Ran on Facebook

Whoever wins the presidency on Nov. 8 will have an official portrait painted and exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Whoever loses will have a black-and-white photograph installed in a hall of losers on the second floor of a bank in Norton, Kan. A picture of Thomas Jefferson, the loser of the 1796 presidential race, hangs in the gallery there. Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and John McCain, too. Mitt Romney’s photo was the last installed, just months after he lost to President Barack Obama in 2012.

“With every winner, there’s somebody they had to beat,” Lee Ann Shearer, curator of the “They Also Ran” exhibit, said the day Romney was added. “These are those guys.”

From the earliest days of our democracy, concession speeches have demonstrated how to lose with grace and dignity. After hard-fought campaigns, the vanquished — unbound by law to do so — lick their wounds, put on a brave face, symbolically shake the hand of the victor and move on.

“Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism,” Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln after losing to him in 1861. “I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.”

Now comes Donald Trump, suggesting he might break with the tradition of elegant concession by refusing to say whether he will accept the results of this election. “I will keep you in suspense,” he teased at the last presidential debate.

Who likes to lose? Not Trump, who has made the word “loser” a hallmark insult of his campaign. He has used the word — by one count his favorite Twitter insult — to bludgeon everyone from Rosie O’Donnell and Cher to George Will, Mark Cuban and his Republican primary opponents.

“We have a bunch of babies running our country, folks. We have a bunch of losers. They’re losers! They’re babies!” Trump declared at a rally in North Carolina last week.

No one knows what to expect from Trump if he becomes the loser, but some now are expressing what they hope he will do.

“Rising. Healing. Linking arms. Moving on. That’s what’s supposed to happen in the aftermath of even the bitterest elections,” Frank Bruni writes in The New York Times. “At least that’s what vanquished candidates are supposed to encourage.”

And they have.

Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, has been described as “the most beautiful loser” in presidential history.

“It is traditionally American to fight hard before an election. It is equally traditional to close ranks as soon as the people have spoken,” Stevenson said in his concession speech.

“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 General 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.”

John McCain used his concession speech in 2008 to acknowledge the momentous election of the country’s first black president.

“A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit — to dine at the White House — was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time,” McCain said.

“There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on earth.”

Contemplating what a Trump concession could sound like, Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, mulled Richard Nixon’s defiant, “petulant baby” concession speech when he lost the 1962 California gubernatorial race.

“Screw them,” Nixon said to advisers who told him everyone was waiting to hear him concede the day after.

In what journalist Jules Witcover described at the time as the “public act of hara-kiri of the century,” Nixon spent much of his speech blasting the media and famously concluding: “I leave you gentlemen now and you will write it. You will interpret it. That’s your right. But as I leave you I want you to know — just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

If any candidate in modern history had earned the right to lob bombs in defeat it was Al Gore in 2000, whose controversial loss to George W. Bush was sealed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And yet, in concession, Gore said, “while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.”

John Kerry, too, spoke of national unity and the values all Americans hold in common when he conceded to the second President Bush in 2004.

Kerry rejected the term “loser” to describe his second-place finish.

“In an American election, there are no losers,” Kerry said. “Because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning, we all wake up as Americans. And that is the greatest privilege and the most remarkable good fortune that can come to us on earth.”

If Kerry had attended the ceremony when his photo was hung in the They Also Ran gallery in Kansas, he would have met others who feel the same way.

No losing candidate has ever attended an induction ceremony.

Once, a National Portrait Gallery spokeswoman poo-poohed the idea of a losers museum as “a bad idea if you are a losing candidate.” But the gallery’s Midwestern keepers are proud to keep the memory of also-rans alive.

“These guys deserve some recognition for having the guts to run for president,” Roberta Ryan, a city councilwoman, told The Boston Globe. “The president gets his due, and these guys were just left by the wayside. This is a gentle reminder that these fellas are part of our history.”

A spot on the wall next to Mitt Romney awaits Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump next year.