At a Loss for Words for Loss?

Note to John McCain: Read this before conceding.

Sometime after sundown on Tuesday, barring a political upset of historic proportions, John McCain will address his supporters on the lawn of the Phoenix Biltmore to concede the 2008 presidential election. The concession formula is pretty simple: Accept tearful, painfully drawn-out applause; crack self-deprecating joke; congratulate opponent (and stanch booing that accompanies every mention of said opponent); pledge yourself to the cause of unity; and thank your family, your supporters, God, and the American people (though not necessarily in that order).

This formula calls for brevity, focus, and graciousness, qualities that have not always been evident in the McCain campaign. Here are a few things he can learn from previous losers—and a few ways the “consummate maverick” can close his campaign with words that actually matter.

Put Country First
Models: Adlai Stevenson, Hillary Clinton, Dan Quayle

A candidate whose slogan has been “Country First,” McCain will need a special take on the obligatory call for patriotic unity. His best bet? A jarring fusion of Adlai Stevenson and Dan Quayle. Stevenson, whose 1952 concession speech is a sterling example of the rhetoric of defeat, memorably intoned: “I urge you all to give General Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great tasks that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many, but we pray as one.” That’s a classy line—even better than Bob Dole’s description of Bill Clinton in 1996 as “my opponent and not my enemy.”

But after seeking to link Barack Obama to the two greatest American fears of the last century (terrorism and communism), McCain’s got a long walk to the high road. He might win some bipartisan cred by examining Hillary Clinton’s June 7 primary concession speech—or, if he wants to stay on his side of the aisle, Dan Quayle’s astute but ever-so-slightly backhanded 1992 observation: “If [Clinton] runs the country as well as he ran his campaign, we will be all right.”

Make It Funny
Models: Bob Dole, Al Gore

For a standard of dignified humor, McCain should turn to Bob Dole’s concession speech in 1996. Trying to hush his supporters so he could finish a sentence, Dole admonished: “You’re not going to get that tax cut if you don’t be quiet.” It was a warm, sportsmanlike moment, the kind for which McCain once had a knack.

When it comes to good sportsmanship, the model is Al Gore in 2000, who led with a joke after a month of hard-fought legal battles: “Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time.” McCain should be able to muster some non- Janet Reno-related humor. (Potential joke: “If I ever need a good nonlicensed plumber, I know who to call.”)

Talk Straight
Model: John McCain

This one’s a long shot. But it would make for a landmark, distinctly nonboilerplate speech—one that avoids excessive references to Joe the Plumber, mavericks, and bear DNA. McCain can state plainly that Obama is neither a terrorist nor a communist (see: Country First) and that any discussion of “real” and “nonreal” Americas is fatuous. In his own defense and with only minimal disingenuousness, McCain can touch on his record of campaign-finance reform (George Will be damned!) and observe firmly but without bitterness that his commitment to public funds put him at a colossal disadvantage. He can’t go too far here—don’t expect him to acknowledge any possible downsides to his pick of a No. 2, for example—but we could hear something refreshing nonetheless. McCain could easily acknowledge that the majority of Americans—plumbers, pundits, and those in between—want something different, and that Obama promises to provide it.

Exhort the Youth
The model: Michael Dukakis, George H.W. Bush

Again, the key here is salvaging a sense of decency and worth in politics—all the more crucial after a campaign based on such a thorough eviscerating of the individuals and institutions of Washington. Addressing the “young people” of America after his defeat in 1988, Dukakis said: “There is nothing you can do in this world more fulfilling and more satisfying than giving of yourself to others and making a contribution to your community and your state and your nation and your fellow citizens.” Four years later, George H.W. Bush urged the same demographic not to “be deterred, kept away from public service by the smoke and fire of a campaign year or the ugliness of politics.”

Show Some Empathy
Model: Abraham Lincoln via Adlai Stevenson

McCain is at his best as the underdog who—with a nod and, yes, a wink—sees something nobler than the brawl. For the last two months, he’s been in the thick of it. In the early hours of Nov. 5, perhaps, we’ll get a version of McCain who looks further than the next 24-hour news cycle. His most important job may be to provide some measure of visceral closure for his base—which provided this campaign with some of its scarier moments—not for the sake of making them feel good but to restore a sense of fellowship between them and their Obama-voting countrymen. McCain needs both to show his supporters he knows how they feel—and how important it is to move on. For this task, there are few passages better than Adlai Stevenson’s invocation of Abraham Lincoln in his concession speech, delivered in Springfield, Ill., in 1952:

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.