In a profession full of speeches, there’s one speech politicians don’t like to give. And that’s the concession. It’s never been fun for anyone though history who has done it. It seems increasingly inevitable to think that Trump is not planning to give a concession speech after losing the election. Has that happened before?
The answer is no — with some caveats.
Certainly in modern American politics, which for me goes back to the time of the invention of cars and moving pictures, at least to the 1890’s, politicians who come up short have always acknowledged their loss. And they’ve always sent a message to either the other side, the public, or both.
It wasn’t always an instant speech. If you were say, William Jennings Bryan, a boisterous candidate, defeated after running a full-throated campaign against William McKinley in the 1896 election, you could end your campaign with a nice telegram to your opponent.
Bryan made this goodwill gesture despite bitter policy differences and substantial feelings about wrongs in American society. “We have submitted the issue to the people and their will is law,” he said.
Just to put that in perspective, this is after Bryan, who supported silver coinage, suggested McKinley’s side was crucifying workers on a “Cross of Gold.”
Al Smith, running against Herbert Hoover in 1928, was the first to concede via radio. GOP candidate Wendell Willkie also used newsreels — quick film that would be inserted into movies seen in theaters around the country, to make a stirring concession speech about the need for unity in the wake of fascism in 1940. Adlai Stevenson was the first to concede on TV, in 1952.
However, concessions haven’t always been smooth.
There is a slight case in 1944 where FDR was miffed that Thomas E. Dewey did not send a telegram to him. However, in public, Dewey was on the radio, saying he’d accept the “will of the people.” (And he did send a note to Truman in 1948).
Barry Goldwater in 1964 didn’t concede on election night but sent a note to LBJ the next morning. His delay was notable but he did give up the election.
There is also Charles Evan Hughes, running against Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Vote returns were close and Hughes wanted to keep watching before giving up. His note to Wilson took so long the president described it as “moth-eaten.”
If one is to look way back, the record of exact concessions might be spotty due to different traditions and a lack of instant communication. You do have a curious case between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1796, their first contest for the presidency.
Jefferson wrote a letter of congratulations. But Adams didn’t get it.
Jefferson wrote his congratulations but in doing so, he included language saying that he was happy for the election’s result because he didn’t wish to “govern men.” Jefferson then had second thoughts. Through this letter, was he disavowing a future race for the presidency? So he sent the letter to his good friend James Madison and basically (lacking the cc and FWD functions of today’s email) said, “Do you think I should send this? If so, send it on to Adams.”
A cautious Madison did not send the letter. And for some historians, that lack of concession soured relations between Jefferson and Adams and helped foster a stony silence between them for a decade.
Let’s acknowledge that it’s not a fun act, and that even candidates way behind have often thought they were still going to win.
George McGovern, for instance, said he never let any doubts get to him as he had 38 percent — he campaigned at 2 am on Election Day, and didn’t write a concession until 5 o’clock that day.
George H.W. Bush staffers indicated that in the “bubble” they still hoped for a Harry Truman-like surprise.
But the concession is not without benefits for the loser — it is their chance to paint the loss in the best light. If they don’t take it, others will certainly will.
Goldwater used the telegram he finally sent to LBJ to state that while he accepted the result the Republican party would remain one of opposition. He was right, sort of, as the GOP would win big in the ’66 midterms. George McGovern said “if we pushed the day of peace one day further, the bone-crushing effort was worth it.
So the concession speech is not without benefit to the person making the concession.
Additionally, as George H.W. Bush and Walter Mondale did, the speech is a chance to salute the “majesty of the American democratic system.”
That’s the point after all.
Written by Bruce Carlson