By MARSHA MERCER
A ritual of American politics will unfold Tuesday night.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will hold victory parties but, before the night is over, one will concede defeat. If we’re lucky.
We can take nothing for granted. To the end, Trump remains a question mark. In his last debate with Clinton, he refused to say whether he would accept the results of the election.
“I will keep you in suspense,” he said. It was outrageous, provocative and pure Trump. He still appears likely to come up short in the Electoral College, although polls have tightened in the last week.
One thing is certain, though. The American people have suffered enough disappointment during this dispiriting campaign. Barring an election disaster, the loser needs to accept the will of the voters with grace and urge his or her followers to do the same.
The winner also must move immediately to begin repairing the breach that has riven the country.
This presidential contest has always been more about the candidates’ deficiencies than their policies. When the votes are finally counted, it’s time for all of us to put the country first.
Our admirable American tradition holds that defeated presidential candidates rise to the occasion for the sake of the greater good. It’s reassuring to see failed candidates muster grace – and even humor -- at a time of personal misery.
In 1908, after his third failed campaign for the White House, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan said: “I am reminded of the drunk who, when he had been thrown down the stairs of the club for the third time, gathered himself up, and said, `I am on to those people. They don’t want me in there,’” William Safire wrote in “Safire’s New Political Dictionary.”
Going into the 1948 election, Thomas Dewey was confident he’d beat Harry Truman – as were some newspaper editors. We’ve all seen the screaming banner headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”
All night the votes came in. When Dewey awoke the next morning to learn he’d lost, he sent a gracious telegram to Truman.
“My heartiest congratulations to you on your election and every good wish for a successful administration. I urge all Americans to unite behind you in support of every effort to keep our nation strong and free and establish peace in the world,” he wrote.
Asked by reporters what had happened, Dewey replied, “I was just as surprised as you are . . . It has been grand fun, boys and girls. I enjoyed it immensely.”
Four years later, when he lost to Dwight Eisenhower, Democrat Adlai Stevenson said he was reminded of the story about Abraham Lincoln after an election defeat. Lincoln said he felt like the boy who stubbed his foot in the dark -- “too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”
After the bitter 1960 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon offered a quasi-concession statement to John F. Kennedy.
“If the present trend continues, Mister Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, will be the next president of the United States,” Nixon told his supporters in California about midnight Pacific time.
“I want Senator Kennedy to know . . . that certainly if this trend does continue, and he does become our next president, that he will have my wholehearted support and yours too,” Nixon said.
Nixon was convinced voter fraud cost him the election but he did not demand a recount despite JFK’s razor-thin margin of victory -- just over 100,000 votes out of 68 million votes cast.
Kennedy won 303 electoral votes and Nixon 219. Fifteen unpledged electors in Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma voted for segregationist Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia.
To preserve his viability for future elections, Nixon would not look like a sore loser.
Nobody ever warms to defeat. Mitt Romney was so sure he was going to win four years ago that he’d written only a victory speech.
“It’s about 1,118 words long,” he told reporters traveling with him on Election Day. His staff hadn’t written a concession speech either.
A few hours later, Romney called President Barack Obama to congratulate him. Then Romney went to what was supposed to be his victory party.
After wishing the president and his family well, Romney told supporters, “This is a time of great challenges for America and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”
We can dream that whoever loses on Tuesday is as classy.
(c) 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.