PHOENIX—A concession speech is a delicate undertaking. There are certain words you have to say: Congratulate. Admire. Cooperation. Gratitude. The challenge is to make people believe you. By that standard, John McCain succeeded. In fact, he said all the things he didn’t have to. He congratulated Barack Obama not just for running a good campaign but for mobilizing millions of people who “once thought they had little influence in American elections.” He acknowledged that his loss was America’s win, at least in terms of historical progress: “I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and the special pride it offers them.” (Weirdly, though, he didn’t expand the sentiment to apply to all Americans.) He dwelled on the heartbreaking death of Obama’s grandmother the day before the election—a personal note that a less sensitive candidate would have forgone: “She is with our creator and proud of the good man she helped raise.”McCain was humble, not defiant, about his loss—almost overly so. “We fought, and although we fell short, the failure was mine, not yours,” he said. That said, he acknowledged that he faced “a difficult road”—circumstances that perhaps any Republican would have had trouble overcoming.
At the same time, McCain refused to revisit the past. “I don’t know what more we could have done to win this election,” he said. “I’ll leave that to others to determine.” (Offer accepted.) Still, there was a hint of repentance about negative campaigning—even if McCain’s campaign was hardly the sleaziest ever. “We are all Americans,” he said, “and no association has ever meant more to me than that.” Bill Ayers, you can come out of your hole now.
The audience wasn’t totally buying it. The first word to emerge from the crowd during McCain’s speech came after he said he’d called Obama to congratulate him: “Bullshit!” McCain calmly tamped down objections—a move he’s mastered lately. The audience did applaud politely at the lines about racial progress. But the mood was mostly somber. “I can’t believe Obama will be president,” one woman from California told me before ordering a glass of wine, a shot, and a chaser from the bar.
McCain also reminded Republicans of the election’s silver lining: Sarah Palin. Don’t laugh. By picking Palin, McCain re-energized the party and gave it a personality likely to remain popular for many years. “She’s one of the best campaigners I have ever seen and an important new voice in the struggle,” for conservative principles, he said. Palin, who had flown to Phoenix with her husband, Todd, after casting her vote in Alaska in the morning, said not a word. She didn’t have to—her smile said it all: “I’ll be back.”
McCain closed his speech the same way he closed his convention speech—with a call to arms. Only this time, in the wake of an Obama victory, his words sounded different. “Nothing is inevitable here,” he said. “Americans never quit. We never surrender.” He didn’t shout the words. He spoke them like you’d read a bedtime story. “We never hide from history,” he went on. “We make history.” It’s hard to imagine better words to usher in Obama’s victory.