Capitol riot

My first election night was November 1958. I remember sitting with my Dad down in the family rec-room back in Pennsylvania watching New York Governor Averell Harriman admit defeat to Nelson Rockefeller.

What struck me was the sadness in Harriman’s face, also in the sympathy my dad, a Republican, felt for this Democrat in his defeat.

I suppose that moment, recalled from six decades, began my education in politics. In a powerful way it taught me a person’s pride in public service. Here was Governor Harriman, a man of enormous inherited wealth and privilege, enduring the humiliation of having his being popularly rejected. Being defeated by a man with even more inherited wealth and privilege didn’t make it any easier.

Harriman’s poise that night in 1958 also made me a fan of concession speeches. These are perhaps the single occasions when politicians cannot conceal their souls. It’s when the people’s verdict is heard loud and clear and the loser must wear it on their face.

As a former speechwriter, I know how those addresses are supposed to go: Thank those who worked for you. Tell your disappointed supporters that you just called your winning opponent and graciously conceded, quiet the crowd if they boo upon hearing their name. Vow to continue the fight for your cause, not for your own ambition (although that’s still there).

This is the democratic ritual that Donald Trump robbed from us. His crime began when he first dissembled on whether he’d accept the 2020 vote. Elections are meant to give off a crackle of victory and defeat. They are meant to be clear and therefore conclusive no matter how close. As Thomas Jefferson argued, democracy means accepting a majority decision if only by a single vote. Trump not only broke that rule; he trashed it. As a country we will have a hell of a time to get it restored. In recent memory, we have had Hillary accepting defeat the morning after the election, painfully but graciously to Trump. The best in recent years was John McCain’s extraordinary address to supporters in 2008. It’s worth a long excerpt:

“My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama—to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. 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 I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.

This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.

I’ve always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. But we both recognize that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.

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. 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.

Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day—though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her Creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

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 and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”

As eloquent as McCain’s concession was, sometimes the hardest speeches are when, unlike McCain’s, the election is close, and you have to decide how long you can try to eke out the last votes.

I remember my second election night. It was 1960. In a late hour, Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat came onto the stage at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to console their supporters and accept what now appeared to be defeat. “If the present trend continues, Senator Kennedy will be the next president of the United States. He promised Kennedy his “wholehearted support.”

The sadness on both their faces was visible, palpable. But there was an honesty to it, something genuine about the country and its enduring constitution. Here, losers lose. They don’t cling to power with a gun or a mob.

That 1960 election turned out to be even closer than Nixon expected. He ended up winning California. There were questions about the count in Richard Daley’s Chicago and in Lyndon Johnson’s Texas. Had Nixon won both those states, he’d have won. As long as he lived, Nixon never got over the defeat—neither its closeness nor the questions surrounding the tally.

And yet, he conceded. More than that, he agreed to meet with Kennedy the following week in Key Biscayne, Florida. As the two men sat drinking Cokes, Nixon knew he was bestowing victory on his rival.

By December, as president of the Senate, Nixon had to read the electoral results aloud, announcing his own defeat as Mike Pence, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and Walter Mondale did before him. It’s a majestic and profoundly humbling act announcing one’s own defeat while presiding over the Senate. None of those men liked it but they did it.

If that wasn’t enough, on January 20, Vice President Nixon took his assigned place on the inaugural platform. You can see him clapping in approval at Kennedy’s words urging us all to ask what we could for our country.

Nixon, at that moment of national sacrament, was doing just that.

You can see him in the films reaching to shake his rival’s hand. He wanted the country to see that, too. Perhaps it was to set himself up as JFK’s challenger in 1964. Nixon had turned 50 just a few days earlier. He was young enough to know he had another shot, but he was also wise enough to know that the country doesn’t like sore losers (a lesson he forgot briefly when he lost his cool after losing the California governorship two years later).

Imagine if Donald Trump, who lost the election by seven million votes, not the 100,000 Nixon did, had behaved like that with some modicum of patriotism.

We wouldn’t have this trial in the Senate. We wouldn’t have the lethal video evidence of the insurrection he sparked, wouldn’t have the breech in our national pride. We wouldn’t have “January 6” blotting our national record.

That is Donald Trump’s crime for which he dare not be acquitted: Putting self over country. As I’ve written before, I served briefly as a member of the U.S. Capitol Police. I don’t see how the Republicans who vote to acquit Trump will be able to look in the eyes of the USCP officers who risked life and limb that day to fight Trump’s vanity and criminality.

Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews has worked as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist. He is the author of This Country: My Life in Politics and History and Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.