Four years is a long time. Long enough to forge a new normal, even if that normal is unpleasant and unwanted. Four years is long enough to nearly forget what ordinary, everyday graciousness sounds like. We know that graciousness and decency once existed, that politicians, even the ones with whom we disagree on a foundational level, at least attempted to frame their ideas and their speech around concepts of hope, unity, and faith in one another.
But four years is a long time to go without that. It’s long enough that when you are eventually confronted with the sound of it, it’s startling—almost foreign. It’s like returning to a place you loved as a child but haven’t visited in a long, long time.
It’s how I felt the other day, when I stumbled across a post by Viola Davis on Instagram—a video from just after the 2008 election, of John McCain giving his concession speech after Barack Obama had been declared president of the United States.
It’s not that I expected to hear Senator McCain issue a snarky, disdainful commentary about his opponent Barack Obama. But after four years of… well, you know… it was almost jarring to see him do precisely the opposite. I stand on the opposite side of the political aisle as John McCain did when he was alive, and yet I was moved to tears by the grace and dignity of his words.
And I wasn’t alone. At the start of his speech, McCain’s own supporters were angry and jeering, booing the idea of conceding defeat, but McCain quickly and calmly guided them to rise above. “In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance,” McCain said of Obama. “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 that I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.”
He spoke of America’s legacy of racism and the historic nature of that 2008 election. He reminded the crowd how, “a century ago, president Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington 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. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.” Here, the same crowd that moments ago had jeered and booed spontaneously erupted into applause.
McCain went on to say, “I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences.”
It would have been easy for McCain to whip his supporters into a fervor. But instead, McCain’s measured words, his dignified demeanor, his gracious rhetoric, soothed what had at first been a frustrated, angry crowd of people. By the end of his speech, they were cheering for democracy. The video has gone viral in recent days, as clearly it has moved many more weary hearts than mine. It is a stark demonstration that words and behavior matter. It is further confirmation that furious, egomaniacal bluster is not the American way.
George Bush’s concession speech in 1992 was similarly dignified. “The people have spoken,” he said of his loss to Bill Clinton. “And we respect the majesty of the democratic system.” He went on to say, “I wish him well in the White House … Our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power.”
To be clear, this is not to paint too rosy a picture of the relationship between progressives and conservatives. The GOP platform explicitly states that it intends for the government to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, that it wishes to strip women and their doctors of the right to make difficult decisions about their bodies, and that religion may be used as justification for discrimination, among other problematic and marginalizing views. These ideologies cause real damage. Even McCain’s assertion that electing a Black man to the presidency is a demonstration of how far we’ve come feels to many like a denial of how far we still have to go to dismantle the very real systems of white supremacy that continue to marginalize and harm people of color.
But words still matter. It should be unacceptable to every American for a leader to deliberately stir massive groups of people to violence, to promote the spread of disinformation, to belittle and degrade those who oppose or question him.
Even Hillary Clinton had kind, supportive words for the person who won the electoral vote in 2016. “We must accept this result and then look to the future,” she said as her supporters shed tears in the audience. Of her opponent, she said, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
Each of these concession speeches emphasized a peaceful transfer of power and a respect for democracy. Even in those political races that were fraught with animosity and discord, the party on the losing side responded with the humility and grace every American should and must demand from their political leaders.
Of the current losing incumbent, his supporters say they appreciate that he’s “not a politician.” To me, this is like saying you prefer not to have a snake as a pet and so instead you buy a rabid badger. There is nothing redeeming about this person. Nothing in his action or policies that make his behavior forgivable. His tenure is a stain on our democracy. May we never again allow him a place in our government.
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