Hillary Clinton was supposed to give her official concession speech at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Two hours later, those of us who’d woken up to the reality of this bad dream to cover her remarks were still waiting.
If she was stalling, who could blame her? Who can imagine what it must feel like to get within arm’s reach of becoming the first female president, only to be thwarted by a movement of anti-competence, racism, and sexism whose magnitude few dared to expect? Throughout this election cycle, Clinton has proved unflappable in the most gut-churning of circumstances. It seemed that Tuesday night’s astounding upset, an apparent referendum on core American values, might finally break her characteristic calm.
But Clinton’s speech was gracious, composed, even optimistic. “I’m hoping [Donald Trump] will be a successful president for all Americans,” she said, congratulating her opponent on his win. “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”
Clinton often talks about herself as a bad politician, uncomfortable and stilted in the spotlight as compared to charismatic charmers Bill and Barack. This speech proved her wrong. Under unimaginable circumstances, Clinton gave a warm, self-possessed address that acknowledged both the despondency of her supporters and the need for some kind of way forward. “I know how disappointed you feel because I feel it too,” she said. “And so do tens of millions of Americans who invested their hopes and dreams in this effort.” She spoke with great feeling of her debt to her family and the Obamas and encouraged voters to work between presidential elections to make progressive change. “I still believe in America,” she assured her supporters. “This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
While Clinton spoke in her familiar cadence, with barely a swallow or cough to hint at the despair she must feel for her life’s work and the direction of her country, Tim Kaine looked on from behind, looking like he was about to cry. To him, and to her audience in tears, Clinton’s few nudges at humor came across as selfless gifts of levity. “This is painful and it will be for a long time,” she said, in a perfectly pitched bewildered tone that drew laughter from the crowd. She even threw a bit of good-natured shade at the many long-running secret Facebook groups for Clinton supporters that have revealed themselves in recent days. “I want everybody to come out from behind that and make sure your voices are heard going forward,” Clinton said with a smile.
Just one segment of Clinton’s speech threatened to disrupt her poise: her statement to women, and young women in particular, who supported her candidacy. “Nothing has made me prouder than to be your champion,” she said with a quiver in her voice. “You are powerful and deserving of every opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
Hillary Clinton will not be our country’s first female president. But she absorbed some of the worst humanity had to offer—decades of public shaming, sexual humiliation, and death threats, all endorsed by a variety of mainstream politicians. At the end, she stood proud in front of the country’s young women—people she’s fought for throughout her career—to prove that she was tougher than any weapon her haters could devise. She didn’t break that highest, hardest ceiling she’s invoked in both of her presidential concession speeches. But because of her example, the woman who does will have a worthy example of strength to guide her.