Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Generosity in defeat – McCain the statesman goes the extra mile

There will doubtless be many words printed in papers and online today describing Obama’s speech in Chicago early this morning. But it was McCain that captured my attention first last night. (Ahem, half four this morning!)

Before the US President-elect comes out to speak, the conceding candidate gets to talk to gathered supporters and the watching/listening country.

It’s their last chance to communicate to a captive audience. It’s their chance to set a tone. It’s their chance to draw lines under past behaviour and activity. It’s their chance to rise above the debris of a campaign and remind people why they were a candidate in the first place.

McCain's concession speech in Arizona (c) BBC

For me, John McCain nearly stole the show last night when he stepped out on the stage on a “beautiful Arizona evening”.

There were no weasel words. No looking for chads on the floor.

“My friends, we have -- we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.”

He even seized the moment to remind Republicans that they had no reason not to celebrate an African American president winning the White House. It was a completion of something they too aspired to. And it was good for everyone.

“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.

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.”

Turning back to the campaign, he took personal responsibility and delivered a remarkable line that didn’t mention the party, or his strategists, or his running mate, or the economy.

“And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.”

After all, the history books will tell a different story anyway! Towards the end of his speech, he came back to his actions and personal liability.

“I don't know what more we could have done to try to win this election. I'll leave that to others to determine. Every candidate makes mistakes, and I'm sure I made my share of them. But I won't spend a moment of the future regretting what might have been.”

And then finished with gracious words. It’s patriotic, but not so much that it loses its humanity. The standard template for a concession speech is softened by describing Joe Biden as “my old friend”.

“This campaign was and will remain the great honor of my life. And my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude for the experience and to the American people for giving me a fair hearing before deciding that Senator Obama and my old friend Senator Joe Biden should have the honor of leading us for the next four years.

I would not be an American worthy of the name, should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century. Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone and I thank the people of Arizona for it.

Tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”

During the speech, when the disappointed Republican crowd booed, McCain hushed them. It was over. No need for further pantomime. Obama was no longer the opponent. He was the next president, and that demanded respect.

Palin on stage during McCain's concession speech (c) BBC

Did McCain say that the party needed to pick itself up, reform, reenergise and prepare for government in four years time? No. He looked forward to what the current election result would bring. Setting a positive tone for his supporters. And setting the positive tone in which history will probably now remember McCain.

Which comes to his penultimate point.

“We never hide from history, we make history.”

And in a parallel world, I wonder what Obama’s concession speech would have said? With a decent electoral mandate, the Democratic party now has the chance to put its words into actions. But as Gordon Brown knows, leadership is all about dealing with the unknown. Hundred day plans do off the rails within the first ten minutes.

America’s new wonder-boy president will be imperfect. He will inevitably make mistakes. At times, he will be incredibly disappointing. But can be keep his head while all around lose theirs? Can he earn the label of being a great president to replace the too easy badge of first African American?

Season Eight of The West Wing is about to begin! Only this time, it’s live.


John Self said...

I agree McCain gave a terrific speech: gracious, generous, sincere. I was disappointed, as he no doubt was, by those in the audience who booed the mention of Obama's name. This must be similar to the frustration he felt when he had to take the mike off people on the campaign trail when they started calling Obama an Arab etc.

However, one commentator did point out that as McCain spent much of his campaign suggesting that Obama wasn't fit to be president, he shouldn't really be surprised when his supporters react badly now that he says nice things about him.

And I read in the Guardian today that at the McCain 'victory rally', the TVs were turned off once the bad results started coming in. This means (the Guardian suggested) that the first many people in the audience knew for sure that McCain hadn't won was when he made that speech. This sounds a bit unlikely to me - no doubt they had phones etc to get the news - but would explain the bad response of sections of the crowd.

Anonymous said...

I was also impressed by his acceptance of reality, although if only he had the guts to stand up to the mobs earlier he might be the next President today. He sold out everything he had ever stood for to get the job, thereby proving that he wasn't fit for it in the first place. Amazingly, I thought George Bush was extremely gracious in his welcome to the new President and he seemed genuinely happy that history was being made with this election of the first Black President. Whatever Bush is or was, he is not a racist, even if some of his badly advised policies have been, especially the reaction to New Orleans which will forever be a stain on his term of office as big as that of Iraq.

John Self said...

Yes, Bush did well too - though isn't it always easy to take a kinder view of those we dislike, when we know we'll be rid of them soon?

Frankly I think Bush can't wait for January. He's had a gutful of the job, low approval ratings and all, and who can blame him?

Anonymous said...

You are probably right, I feel myself growing fonder of Bush every day we get nearer to January 20th! Seriously though, I always thought he would be a great person to have as a friend, just a really lousy President.