Parting words

When elections take a turn for the worse, candidates must face giving the one speech they fear: the concessionThe tricky business of the concession speech

November 09, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stepped from the governor's mansion yesterday in a gray mock turtleneck and white windbreaker to admit defeat, he engaged in a rite of passage he had always hoped to avoid: the concession speech.

It was the first concession speech Ehrlich ever had to utter in his political career, and it was clear he was not used to playing this role. The speech was just over two minutes long, off-the-cuff and lacking the grace notes that come with the best such crow-eating performances.

Ehrlich congratulated Mayor Martin O'Malley but couldn't resist a bit of a dig, noting, "A lot of people are concerned about the future of this state." And he spoke in the past tense about how his 20 years in public office had been the "ride of my life."

If he is planning a future in politics, the speech didn't accomplish much, political analysts agreed. "It sounded more like a valedictory," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "It sounded like a goodbye."

Politicians who hope to run another day know that a concession speech is likely their last chance before the next election to communicate directly with voters. The stakes, then, are high: It shapes how they will be remembered and if supporters will line up again one day to give money and volunteer time. The speeches are also a chance for politicians to let their guard down and remind voters of their humanity.

"Concession speeches are a moment to make sure the spirit of your candidacy lives on in the future," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who worked on Al Gore's and John Kerry's presidential campaigns. "For a lot of folks, the last impression -- the last chapter of your candidacy -- is that speech. If you're going to have a sequel, you want to make sure that last chapter leaves people wanting more and feeling pretty good about what they experienced."

Voters don't like sore losers and tend to remember those who don't exit gracefully. Crenson believes Ellen R. Sauerbrey's protracted legal fight over the 1994 election for governor of Maryland doomed her chances in 1998, when she lost by an even bigger margin. Likewise, Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 never recovered from his scream in his concession speech in Iowa.

One politician did manage to rebound from a famously bitter concession speech: Richard Nixon. After losing a race for California governor in 1962, Nixon told the press, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." The remark stuck to him like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth, but he was still elected president six years later.

Victory speeches are easier; everyone loves a winner, and the words don't linger like concessions do because the winner has a future in the public eye. Concessions are trickier. They call for graciousness, self-deprecating humor and an appeal to the greater good.

One speech that deftly hit those notes was Gore's concession in 2000, after a 36-day legal fight that ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a recount. Gore said that while he disagreed with the court's decision, he accepted it. In America, he said, country comes before party. "For the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy," he said, "I offer my concession."

He was humble, quoting his father as saying that "defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out." And he was funny, joking about having to mend fences in his home state of Tennessee, which he failed to carry, and closing with a line that echoed his 1992 Democratic convention speech: "In a phrase I once addressed to others, it's time for me to go."

Gore's campaign manager in 2000, Donna Brazile, said the point of the speech was to unite the country, not set the stage for Gore's own future. "I thought the speech was more about healing the country and bringing the country together after a bitter end to a long campaign," she said.

Four years later, Kerry struck a similar note in his concession at Boston's Faneuil Hall, saying there are no losers in U.S. elections because "the next morning, we all wake up as Americans." At the same time, he urged his supporters not to lose faith: "The election will come when your work and your ballots will change the world. And it's worth fighting for."

Some might say that election came this week, with Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives and on the verge of winning the Senate as well. And so it fell to President Bush, as head of the Republican Party, to deliver a concession speech of sorts yesterday afternoon.

By facing the press so soon after the election, and by replacing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush showed that he accepted the election results and would not be adopting a bunker mentality, analysts said. Indeed, Bush claimed a "large part of the responsibility" for the GOP losses and attempted a few jokes.

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