Dawn doesn't break the morning after an election in Arkansas, but just kind of eases up over the horizon, as if afraid to shine a light on the results. It doesn't come like some hoot owl that can be heard a way off. And by the whole neighborhood. That's not its style this morning. Today dawn comes like a scooch owl, slowly, creeping almost imperceptibly closer and closer and closer to its prey ... until you look down and there's no more prey, only remains. Much like the results of an election carefully recorded in small type on the inside pages, column after column, precinct by precinct, in neat rows, like graves.
Bless their disappointed hearts, the losers are always so surprised by their political demise. They can't help it. Everybody they talked to assured them, friend and stranger alike, that they were sure to win. Nobody turned down a push card, everybody smiled back. That's the South. Or anywhere decent. And now, in the first tenuous glow of day, there is the newspaper at their doorstep -- or on their tablet these days -- saying they've lost. There must be some mistake.
Like an old boy after a bender, dawn opens just one eye at first to keep the glare to a minimum as it peeks out from under the cover of night, hesitant to assess the damage left behind by the day before. Indeed, by the whole campaign before. Dawn hesitates. As if not wanting to see the shambles strewn in every direction.
I know how dawn feels. The light hurts. The party's over, and the mess will have to be cleaned up. The dull, slogging, mundane world is back. The election didn't change everything after all. No wonder dawn would really rather stay in bed. Dawn doesn't dawn today so much as tremble tenuously on the edge of day. Yesterday seems so long ago.
Dawn stirs but doesn't fully wake, shuddering at the prospect of having to file the after-action report on this campaign. How is The Candidate going to put the worst of it in the best light? Goodness, where did all the balloons and cheers go? The bumper stickers lie crumpled on the floor, the signs and banners hang limp from the ceiling. Somebody needs to take them down before they depress even more.
Nothing remains of all the razzmatazz of the campaign. It's turned into the flotsam and jetsam of a victory party that, 'long about midnight, or even before, had turned into a wake.
The bright smiles of the winners on the front page are only salt on the loser's wounds. He's really got to get a grip. And he does. The sun's going to come up after all. It's not the end of the world, just of an election campaign that will fade away like all the ones before it. Cheer up, losers. If fame is fleeting, so is disappointment. Somebody should have told them that.
The real test of the candidates isn't how they respond to victory but to defeat. Which may explain why the concession speeches are the high point of election night, the real test of a candidate's mettle. Anybody can deliver a victory speech, it's the concessions that are the real challenge. When made with grace and even eloquence, they make defeat, indeed the whole losing campaign, worthwhile. Who ever learned anything from victory? Who has not learned from defeat?
Me, I don't stay up for the victory speeches. Just for the concessions. They're the real test of character and courage, of grace under pressure.
Richard Nixon of all people passed that test in 1960 when he conceded without making a big fuss about it. Al Gore failed the test in 2000 when he refused to concede for the longest, most excruciating time. And plunged the whole country into uncertainty day after day, hour after hour. After weeks and weeks of doubt, some of us no longer cared who won, just so long as somebody did.
For election-night style, few American politicians have ever matched Adlai Stevenson's concession speech in 1952, which was both concise and eloquent. (The two do tend to go together.) He was too old to cry, said Governor Stevenson, and it hurt too much to laugh.
Some of us wait and watch for those bright, redeeming moments of simple honor that redeem even the dingiest campaign. That's when dawn breaks through. And we realize all the cheap politicking was worth it -- just for one glimpse of splendor. How simple decency shines after we'd lost sight of it in all the campaign's mud and calculation. Perspective is restored. The polls and pols, the base appeals and high pretensions, no longer matter; human dignity always will. Elections come and go, but words endure. Orwell and Mencken wrote political essays that are still read, long after the issues they wrote about have been forgotten.
A good word, a decent gesture, transforms defeat in an election into victory in life. And in the no longer hesitant dawn, hope rises, fluttering its wings like a lark, heading up and up toward the sun. Caught up in the long night with all its fireworks and fakeries, we'd forgotten the beauty of the stars high above, of being part of a people that is its own master and, for good or ill, makes it own decisions. Ballot by ballot.