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Lessons From the 1980 Presidential Elections

Notes on Another Swing of the Pendulum

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Maybe our current president won't prove one of the great ones -- and there was no maybe about it the morning afterTuesday's midterm elections -- but that doesn't prevent him from seeing signs of greatness in others. One of the first congratulatory phone calls Barack Obama made as the election returns came in Tuesday night was to a rising Republican star and now U.S. senator-elect from Arkansas named Tom Cotton. How's that for an electable name in these latitudes? This still young man also has a sterling record -- compiled at Harvard, in the U.S. Infantry airborne, and, not least, in Yell County, Arkansas -- home of Mattie Ross and "True Grit." This young man fights.             


Say what want about our president, he knows quality.

It's not the parade of victory speeches election night, the kind that fill the airwaves like so much static, that say most about the candidates. For the triumphalism of the winners will only be repeated a few years hence by separate but equally fervid spokesmen for the other party when it wins. In the midst of all this hoopla, it might help to remember that this is not the coming of the Millennium we're discussing but just another swing of the pendulum in a healthy two-party system.

Anybody can celebrate victory; it is defeat that is the true test -- of character and courage. That's why it's the concession speeches I stay tuned for. Someone once defined courage as grace under pressure, and few better tests of character have ever been devised than losing an election into which the candidate has poured so much of himself.

One cold November night in 1952, the most eloquent American to lose a presidential election in modern times -- Adlai Stevenson -- returned to his native state of Illinois to concede defeat, and he couldn't have chosen a better model to follow. As he told the tearful crowd of admirers gathered at a hotel in Springfield that night:

"Someone asked me as I came in, down on the street, how I felt, and I was reminded of a story that a fellow townsman of ours used to tell -- Abraham Lincoln. They asked him how he felt once after an unsuccessful election. He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh."


Credit for the most gracious and least formal concession speech I heard Tuesday night goes to Mark Pryor, the incumbent senator Tom Cotton beat. Handily. Mark Pryor showed he was his father's son, for there's never been a more gracious figure in Arkansas' political history than the ever-considerate David Pryor, former governor and U.S. senator. This year the son rose to his father's standard when he said: "Tonight the people have spoken. I've just called Tom Cotton to congratulate him on his victory. I wish him the very best as he takes this seat on the Senate floor. I want you to know that he will be in my prayers. That's part of taking off the red jersey and taking off the blue jersey, right?"

As we all now should. It's time to let this election that wouldn't end end at last.

As for the cliche-ridden victory speeches Tuesday night, they were full of the usual grandiose pronouncements we have come to expect on such occasions, the kind that reflect more hubris than humility. The End of an Era! A Sea Change! Or at least a Wave, whatever that is, as opposed to -- what? A wavelet? A ripple? A shadow moving over the face of the deep?

Then there was the kind of spread eagle oratory that is less patriotic than chauvinistic. "This is the greatest nation in the history of mankind," declared the winner of a Senate seat in Iowa. Take that, Rome!

The doors were cedar

and the panels strips of gold

and the girls were golden girl


and the panels read

and the girls chanted:

We are the greatest city,

the greatest nation:

nothing like us ever was.

The doors are twisted

on broken hinges.

Sheets of rain swish

through on the wind

where the golden girls ran

and the panels read:

We are the greatest city,

the greatest nation,

nothing like us ever was.

It has happened before.

Strong men put up a city

and got a nation together,

And paid singers to sing and women

to warble: We are the greatest city,

the greatest nation,

nothing like us ever was.

--Carl Sandburg,

"Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind"

What now? Will anything change? It can. Even presidents can learn from defeat, that greatest of teachers. Looking over the ruins of his party after the Republicans achieved their historic victory in the midterm elections of 1994, Bill Clinton may have had his finest hour. He did not sulk, he did not go looking for excuses. He changed course. And by doing so assured his own re-election two years later.

Cooperating, the battered president and the ebullient new speaker of the House worked together to fulfill Newt Gingrich's visionary Contract With America. There followed some of the most fruitful years in the history of American governance. Budgets were balanced, a welfare system that was producing only an American underclass was reformed, taxes were reduced and refined so they encouraged economic growth instead of strangling it ... and so constructively on.


Who says divided government has to produce dysfunction? With the right combination of leaders, this ever-new country will flourish again.

Now let's see if Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner can do as well as Clinton, Gingrich and Co. back in the '90s. Stranger things have happened. To quote a German statesman named Bismarck back in a different century, "God looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America." Have faith. Maybe it's time hope and change become more than a faded campaign slogan.

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