Grace As Our Greatest National Heritage
Many have said that our democracy is built on an idea. I agree. Equally true is that it is based on the grace of its citizenry, on the ability to act with grace when our candidate or idea is victorious or when our candidate or idea is vanquished. The fundamental precept of western liberal democracy is that all of its citizens are working for a common goal; that, while we may not all share the same ideas or values, we do believe in the collective wisdom of the populace; and that those who disagree with us are not evil or imbued with nefarious motives. Power is not passed on peacefully because of universal acceptance of the wisdom or righteousness of the winner, but rather it is passed on peacefully in recognition that the people have spoken and, as participants in an enlightened social contract, we accept the will of the majority.
We are graceful in defeat because we trust the ultimate motives of our opponents and we truly wish the winner well. We act with dignity in victory because we understand that those who opposed us are good and decent, and that our support is needed for the country to succeed. It is not embodied in our loyalty to a monarch or a political party, but rather to the revolutionary idea that we are a nation of laws. Laws that were created by highly imperfect men over two hundred years ago and written into a document that has been the envy of nations ever since.
To put it succinctly, in a functioning democracy the citizenry internalize the idea that every citizen has the absolute right to be absolutely wrong. In his first inaugural address, President Obama pointedly declared that:
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.
So it has been; so it must be with this generation of Americans.
Grace transcends our political life. Even though we imperfectly practice grace in our lives, we know that it is an ideal that we must strive to obtain. When I think of grace in victory or defeat, I immediately think of the time when I coached my son’s 5th and 6th grade flag football teams. Football may have been the medium, but how those boys dealt with winning and losing may closely resemble how the greater populace faces victory and defeat within the political process.
Ten-year-old boys do not like to lose. A defeat in a flag football game can seemingly be tantamount to the end of their lives. There are tears that are barely held back and the inability to practice any introspection or accept responsibility for the outcome. Ten-year-old boys have not completely shed their fantasy life. They too easily adopt the idea that the other side cheated or that the referees were terrible and hence their loss.
Equally true is that ten-year-old boys really like to win, and they are not shy about letting everyone know that they are winners. They tend to exaggerate their prowess and are not skilled at recognizing that the difference between winning and losing is oftentimes very slight and may not have been based on their superiority on the gridiron.
There is no question that winning is very important and the parent who believes that the boys should just play for the fun of the game is living in his or her own fantasy world. As I told more than one parent, "If you did not want your son to keep score, you should not have taught him to count."
Flag football, or any contest, confronts the participants with how they will deal with winning and, more importantly, losing. Not that you play to lose, but no matter how good you or your team are, you will lose games and championships. No one wins every game, and most people are more likely to lose as often as they win.
Even one of the greatest sports franchises in history, the Boston Celtics, has lost much more than they have won. They may have won 17 championships, 8 of them in a row, but they lost championships 57 times. That is a winning percentage of 23%, which is the same for the New York Yankees. Michael Jordan, considered by most the greatest player to ever play basketball, only won championships in 40% of the 15 seasons that he played. Wilt Chamberlain, who owns the greatest individual statistics of any basketball player by far, won championships in only 15% of the 13 seasons that he played. Ted Williams is the last major leaguer to get a hit in at least 40% of his at-bats in a season. No major leaguer has hit above 500 for a season.
Life is full of failures, big and small, real and imagined. Being turned down for a date, getting passed over for a promotion, or not losing the weight you wanted are just some of the examples. The list can go on and on, and it includes having the presidential candidate you voted for lose.
As we become adults, we have hopefully learned that failure is part of life and is, in fact, essential to growth. Hopefully we have taken these lessons and applied them to our civic life and our engagement in the political process. The difficulty with exercising grace in politics is that the stakes can seem so high. Even so, it may be calming to recognize that since the founding of the country the stakes have always been high, and it is the extremely rare presidential election where there has not been committed people fervently opposing each other. People who were sure they were right and the other side was wrong. In the 58 presidential elections that have been held there have only been two candidates who have run without any major opposition - George Washington in 1789 and 1792, and James Monroe in 1820.
More importantly, there has only been one occasion in which the results of the election were not accepted. That was Abraham Lincoln's first election in 1860. Lincoln's election led to the Civil War. That election is a historical aberration with no application to the results of elections either before or since.
One of the most divisive elections was the 1800 campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two were bitter enemies and the election was one of the most cantankerous and vile election campaigns in our history. Charges of treason rebounded from candidate to candidate. Voters were bribed with liquor. There were changes that Adams brought in boats of prostitutes to further bribe voters. Adams spread rumors that Jefferson was a radical atheist whose election would result in a reign of terror similar to what happened in France. Adams was accused of being a closet monarchist who was really a puppet of the British. Yet, even so, when Jefferson won the election, Adams peacefully exited Washington D.C.
Presidential elections have almost always revolved around major and divisive issues. Even when one candidate won by a landslide, there were critical issues that divided the country. In 1972 Nixon won in such a landslide, with 60.7% of the popular vote and 49 states. In 1964, Johnson won the greatest share of the popular vote ever and all but six states. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt won almost 60% of the popular vote and only lost a handful of states. In each of these elections there were extremely divisive issues fragmenting the nation. In 1972, the Vietnam War continued, and law and order at home was at risk. In 1964, there was the civil rights movement and the expanding Vietnam war. In 1932, there was the Great Depression.
Issues, such as war and peace, have often been major campaign issues. These include the following elections:
1808 (James Madison/War of 1812),
1844 (James Polk/Mexican War),
1896 (McKinley/Spanish-American War),
1940 (F. Roosevelt/WWII),
1952 (Eisenhower/Korean War),
1968 (Johnson/Vietnam War),
1972 (Nixon/Vietnam War),
2004 (Bush/Iraq War), and
2008 (Obama/Iraq and Afghan Wars)
In each of these elections during those and all other years, there was no doubt that if the incumbent lost he would peacefully vacate his office. Nor did people take to the streets demanding that the result of the election be overturned. The losing candidate accepted the results with grace and so did his supporters. That is not to say that there was no recriminations or suspicions about illegal conduct by the winner. In 1960, Nixon suspected that Kennedy had won Illinois by winning the graveyard vote in Chicago. There were similar charges for Texas and other states. The election ended with one of the thinnest of margins ever. Nixon was overheard at a party right after the election telling close friends, “we won, but they stole it from us.” He considered, but ultimately rejected, demanding recounts or challenging the election in courts.
Regardless, Nixon publicly conceded defeat in the early morning the day after the election. On January 6, 1961, as Vice-President and President of the Senate, he presided over the official vote tally and declared Kennedy the winner of the elections. He explained to the joint session of Congress:
In our campaigns, no matter how hard they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.
President George W. Bush is another example of an American President who accepted his failures and limitations with grace. President Bush took a significant amount of ridicule for the creative way he used the English language. Examples are Robin Williams' jokes that "[w]hen the media asked George W. Bush a question, he answers, 'Can I have a lifeline?'" Or "Ever notice that George Bush doesn’t speak when Dick Cheney is drinking water?" President Bush's response to many of the jokes was acknowledgment and effacing humor
Bush's grace was never more apparent than when he spoke at the White House the morning after the victory of his successor. President Barack Obama. The Obama victory was a clear and unadulterated repudiation of the Bush presidency. Yet, there was nothing but good will and a recognition of the meaning of the Obama victory when Bush spoke that morning. The Bush White House went out of its way to welcome the new administration and President Bush himself did what was in his power to ensure President Obama's success.
The twin sister of grace in defeat is grace in success. This comes from the ability to accept success with the humility that whatever you have accomplished, no matter how great, your success is the product of many people and that you do not have to diminish anyone in order to enjoy it. It is akin to humility or dignity. Its practical side is recognition that no one is always victorious; failure can just as easily follow success as another success can. It is the old adage that you need to make as many friends as you can on the way up because you'll need them on the way down.
This concept was woven into one of history's greatest and most ornate victory celebrations - the Roman Triumph. After significant military victories, a day-long Triumph was held to celebrate the victory and praise the victorious Roman general. The Triumph began with the
general giving a speech praising his legions. The general then drove his chariot, decorated with gold and ivory, throughout Rome. He was followed by his troops and preceded by the spoils of war and his most significant prisoners. The general was dressed in a red or purple toga with his face painted red to replicate the face of the statutes of Mars, the god of war, or of Jupiter, the king of the gods.
To ensure that the general celebrated his victory with dignity, behind the general in the chariot stood a slave. That slave would hold a golden crown over the general’s head and repeatedly whisper in the general's ear, "Remember, you are mortal." According to General George S. Patton, Jr., the slave’s purpose was to insure that the general heard the "warning: all glory is fleeting.”
American political culture does not celebrate with Triumphs. Nor do we paint the faces of our political victors to resemble the Roman or any other gods. Instead, we celebrate with a peaceful transition of power, and the grace encompassed in that transfer from one president to another is seen in the oath that the new president takes. The oath is short, sweet and to the point. It makes clear that the office that the victor is about to accept is not to be used to further one's glory or for personal enrichment, but only to serve the Constitution. Under Article II, Section 1, Clause 8 of the Constitution the incoming President swears to "faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Incoming Presidents have almost uniformly accepted the meaning of the oath and all that it entails, including his responsibility to all Americans. This has led to some of the greatest speeches in our history. There is no gloating or recrimination. There is an effort to uplift and move the entire nation toward greater heights. The appeals have almost uniformly been to our better angels.
For Abraham Lincoln's, in his second inaugural address, it was his plea to heal the wounds of a nation at war.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Almost a century later, it was President John F. Kennedy 's clarion call for national service.
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
We as Americans should be proud of our accomplishments as a nation. We also have much for which we must ask forgiveness. We are the descendants of a Declaration that, in beautiful prose written by a slave owner, proclaimed that "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." We live by a Constitution that made us a nation of laws and protected the rights of its white citizens against government intrusion, but that only counted blacks as 3/5 of a person. We fought two wars in Europe to secure other peoples’ freedom and then we rebuilt the economies of our enemies, but we systematically massacred Native Americans and continue to marginalize people of color.
Our greatest accomplishment may be that for over 200 years we have elected 45 different presidents and, on each occasion, with one exception, the loser has peacefully accepted the results. Even in the most cantankerous elections, in which there was a change of power, the loser left the Presidency without the need for armed troops. That is still revolutionary.
I have purposely not discussed the current election since it is incredibly important that it not be viewed myopically. Historical context is critical and viewing what will and has happened without understanding what did happen is like only viewing one small part of the Mona Lisa. The beauty of da Vinci's masterpiece can only be understood when the entire picture is viewed. The same is true for our democracy.
There is no doubt that democracy is messy, and it may not be the form of government if, like Benito Mussolini, your goal is to have the trains always run on time. In the near future, there may be protests about the election of President Biden. You may hear that a large portion of voters mistrust the results. However, as has happened since George Washington left the office in 1797, on January 20, 2021, President Trump will leave the office and make room, however begrudgingly or ungracefully, for his successor. That is because the ultimate beauty of our messy and flawed democracy is that the decision to leave is not dependent on his, or any president’s, personal whims or desires.