The anniversary of January 6 hits us all deeply and in different ways. A year ago, I watched the revolting insurrection and thought of my days as a U.S. Capitol Police officer, a patronage job I got after returning from two years in the Peace Corps in Africa. (I worked in the Senate by day and on the force at night.)
Those were difficult days, too. It was the spring of 1971, and the much-anticipated “May Day” protest was planned for the Capitol. As I wrote in the Monthly a year ago, when the editors asked me to write about my experience on the USCP in light of the assault, I remembered that “a sign of the coming trouble confronted me as I was patrolling the West Front of the Capitol. ‘Hit ’em once for me!’ a nearby tourist said in dead seriousness. He must have assumed I was some hate-filled cop, out to bash the skull of some anti-war longhair.” I noted in that piece that I overheard the late liberal New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug worry aloud about what the police might do to “the kids” out there protesting, not knowing that a lot of us cops wanted out of Vietnam, too. As divisive as those days were, the idea that a president would encourage a violent insurrection to interfere with an election and pressure his vice president to scuttle the will of the people wasn’t even remotely conceivable. I couldn’t imagine that the Republican Party would see attacks on Capitol Police officers, whom they knew by name, as no big deal. I still can’t.
When I think of January 6, I recall that Election Night has always been magical for me. The anticipation ends with the crackle of results. There is a winner and, more dramatically, at least for me, a loser. It was always the most emotional moment of the night. I’m talking about what we call “the concession speech.” I worked for Jimmy Carter as a White House speechwriter and endured his 1980 loss. And while working for House Speaker Tip O’Neill in the 1980s, I saw our team pick up more than two dozen seats in 1982 but get destroyed in the presidential election in 1984. Everyone in politics or journalism knows that there are emotional highs and lows. Still, for me, the concession speech is the most revealing and the most magical because it’s a tacit acknowledgment that, win or lose, we’re one country, where each side will have to endure defeat and taste victory.
I was too young to see the presidential concession speech on Election Night 1952. But I’ve seen it a few times since. The Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, congratulated General Dwight Eisenhower, the great World War II leader, on his sweeping victory:
My fellow citizens have made their choice in selecting General Eisenhower and the Republican Party to be the instrument of their will for the next four years. General Eisenhower has been a great leader in war and a vigorous and valiant candidate in this campaign.
With his supporters yelling “No!” Stevenson dampened the resentments, as good losers do. He got them to root for Ike’s success. Only then did the Illinois governor speak of his feelings. He recalled a story that Abraham Lincoln, also of Illinois, told after losing an election. It was about a young boy who stubbed his toe in the dark, who said he was “too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.” Humbling oneself for the good of the country isn’t just a one-time thing. Stevenson would have to concede to Ike again in 1956. Thomas Dewey lost two elections as well, in 1944 against an ailing Franklin Roosevelt and 1948 when he was upset by President Harry Truman. William Jennings Bryan was the Democratic presidential nominee three times. He, too, understood the importance of this sacrament, and conceded thrice.
The concession I remember watching live was Vice President Richard Nixon’s speech late on Election Night 1960 when the results weren’t quite in:
One of the great features of America is that we have political contests, that they are very hard fought as this one has been hard fought. And once the decision has been made, we unite behind the one who was elected.
Nixon dramatized the results when he and President-Elect Jack Kennedy met over Cokes at a beachfront cabana in Key Biscayne. Nixon did this despite the extreme closeness of the race—100,000 votes in the popular count—and there had been real questions about the results in Illinois and Texas. Still, Nixon decided that it would be wrong to leave the country in suspension, also seen as bad sportsmanship, to refuse to certify his rival as the next president. Unlike Trump, Nixon could have made a real case for fighting on, but he wisely chose not to. Part of what tarnished Nixon’s reputation in the 1960s, before his comeback, was his churlish behavior after losing the California governorship in 1962, where he self-pityingly said to the press, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
In 1980, my then boss, President Jimmy Carter, came onstage early to concede his loss to former California Governor Ronald Reagan. He began with a reference to a campaign pledge he’d made as a candidate:
I promised you four years ago that I will never lie to you. So I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt.
The most challenging concession speech came in 2000, when the Supreme Court intervened by stopping the vote count in Florida and then declaring Republican George W. Bush the winner. Al Gore went on national television to announce that he would end his legal battle and concede. It was what many believed to be the most remarkable speech of his career:
Neither he nor I anticipated this country’s long and difficult road. Certainly, neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.
Like Nixon, Dan Quayle, Mike Pence, and Walter Mondale were vice presidents who had the grim duty of presiding over the counting of electoral ballots only to utter their own names as the loser. Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore would also have to endure the humiliation of announcing their own defeat.
John McCain avoided that misfortune, but in 2008, the former prisoner-of-war used his Election Night concession to pay homage to the election of the first African American president:
This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has to African Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight.
Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and his country. I respect him for it and offer him my serious sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day.
In 2016, the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, shocked along with the rest of the country by the election of Republican Donald Trump, rented the ballroom at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York the day after her anticipated victory party at the Javits Center became a wake. She told her assembled supporters about the need to support Trump. Former Senator Clinton spoke of yet another landmark she had hoped the country would reach:
And to all women and especially the young women who put their faith in this campaign and in me, I want you to know that nothing has made me prouder than to be your champion.
Now, I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.
Four years later, with the returns in and Democrat Joe Biden a victor by 7 million voters in the popular vote, the losing candidate threw this noble tradition into the trash. It’s not just that he refused to attend his successor’s inaugural or refused to acknowledge defeat. On January 6, 2021, the day for Congress to certify the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump called on his people to “fight” what the voters had done. That they surely did.
Is this the future? The harsh lesson on this anniversary is that, as long as the losing candidate denies the electoral results, tens of millions of Americans will reject the legitimacy of our democracy. We can have hard-fought elections and courtroom struggles over the final result, but it has always been a given that one side will concede, even if grudgingly. Both Hillary Clinton and Al Gore won more popular votes than their opponent—Clinton almost 4 million more—and still managed to concede. In 1876, after a brutal contest with Rutherford Hayes that was settled by a congressional commission, Samuel Tilden conceded, albeit grudgingly. The sight, sound, hatred, and fury of last January 6 robbed us of even that. It has left us a country lacking what had been its greatest pride: genuine respect for our democracy. That is the true infamy of January 6 and the legacy of Donald Trump.
I don’t know if we’ll find a Desmond Tutu who can bridge our divide. Three decades ago, I was with him on that first democratic Election Day in South Africa, as I wrote recently in the New York Daily News. He prayed for the racist white people who had set off bombs to disrupt this giant step toward democracy, and he prayed for peace, not retaliation, from the country’s trampled Black majority. The efforts at truth and reconciliation made a huge difference in bringing that country together. I hope the January 6 commission can play a similar role. But after Trump, I’m wary.