Adding Just a Bit to the Election Night Speeches

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

On election night, after the networks called Ohio for President Barack Obama and before Mitt Romney made a phone call to the president, it wasn’t clear what was holding things up. Was it disbelief inside the Romney camp, or was it the sudden task of writing a concession speech that nobody thought would be needed?

Given the time limits and the sick feeling in his gut, Romney did an impressive job fulfilling his duty.

The duty of election night is a shared one. Once the winner is named and the loser concedes, the duties of the candidates converge. The goal is no longer to win; it’s to make it easier for the winner to govern.

That’s why a good concession speech and victory speech should be judged in part by the message they convey to those not in the hall and not on your side. A good speech is a gracious speech, a humble speech. Humility marks the symbolic end of aggression.

The model is one of a vanquished military leader offering his sword to the victor, who refuses to accept it.

An election night speech isn’t humble enough unless it was hard for the candidate to say. So until the speechwriters have something thrown back at them with irritation, they haven’t tested the limits.

On Tuesday night, Romney said: “The nation chose another leader. And so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.” Romney’s faith, which won respect during the campaign in part because he refused to talk about it, gave this line credibility and made his pledge to pray for the president sound authentic.

Here’s what I might have suggested to test the limits of Romney’s humility; perhaps he would have used part of it: “The country has chosen a leader who embodies an inspiring aspect of the American story — a man who achieved great things and rose to extraordinary heights with talent, intelligence and hard work and without any advantage of birth, wealth or family privilege.”

I probably would have lost my severance.

Obama’s speech, too, was gracious. It was kind to mention George and Lenore Romney. It is good to honor your father and mother, but it’s even better to honor the other guy’s father and mother. It was gracious also for the president to say he is going to meet with Romney. It sent the message, “You’re still important; your ideas matter.”

The goal is to build good will. So it’s important to bear in mind that people remember whether they liked a speech long after they’ve forgotten what was in it. That means that people remember feeling more than fact, and they especially remember surprises. So if you can surprise people with graciousness, their good feelings are likely to linger. Kind words in dark times rarely are forgotten.

In that light, here is what I would have suggested the president add to his speech Tuesday night:

“I want to say a few words right now — not to the people here in this room or to my campaign team here in Chicago or to my supporters across the country. I want to speak instead to the millions of Americans who voted for Gov. Romney and who are disappointed, even discouraged, to see me at this podium tonight in front of happy supporters — if you can even bear to watch.

“You hoped to see at this hour on election night the smiling faces of Gov. Romney and his team, and many of you believe that our chances for building a better country have been lost — at least for now.

“Campaigns are long, difficult, passionate quests. They fire the energy and idealism of a wide range of people and then leave many good and proud citizens discouraged for the future. In a close election, the results can leave nearly half the nation dispirited. In a large nation such as ours, that means nearly 60 million people. We cannot ultimately have a strong nation if 60 million vibrant, involved citizens feel discouraged or disenfranchised.

“I want to recognize your wishes, your hard work, your love of country and your doubts about me. I want to acknowledge your principles and your ideals. I promise you tonight that I will listen to you and to the representatives you have sent today to Washington with the deepest respect. I will do all I can within the constraints of my duties to answer your needs and meet your concerns for our country.

“I know that I am not the president that you wanted, but I am determined to be a better president than you expected.”

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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