NEAL CONAN, HOST:
While voters head to the polls, the candidates repair to hotel rooms and a select group of campaign staff prepares one final set of remarks. Well, two sets, actually. One for victory, one for defeat. You probably remember the remarkable scene four years ago when then President-elect Barack Obama addressed a rapturous crowd of more than 200,000 in Chicago's Grant Park.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know the government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.
CONAN: On the other end of the spectrum, Richard Nixon, 1962, talking with reporters after he lost the race for governor of California.
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PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: For 16 years, ever since the Hiss case, you've had a lot of fun, a lot of fun. You've had an opportunity to attack me, and I think I've given as good as I've taken. I leave you gentlemen now and you will now write it. You will interpret it. That's your right. But as I leave you, I want you to know - just think how much you're going to be missing me. You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
CONAN: We've invited two former presidential speechwriters to discuss the challenge of writing victory and concession remarks. Paul Glastris wrote for Bill Clinton, serves now as editor in chief at The Washington Monthly. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program, Paul.
PAUL GLASTRIS: Great to be here.
CONAN: Peter Robinson is speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. He's with us from the campus at Stanford University where he's a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. And welcome back to you as well.
PETER ROBINSON: Neal, a pleasure.
CONAN: And both of your candidates won both of their presidential campaigns. So I have to ask, were there concession speeches ready just in case that we never heard? Peter Robinson.
ROBINSON: In 1984, I was on the Reagan staff. As far as I'm - unless he penned something and stuck it in his pocket himself, nobody wrote a concession speech that year. He was ahead in the polls throughout almost the entire campaign. So there was just no doubt really.
GLASTRIS: Yes. I wasn't on either of the campaigns. I was there the second administration, and I don't know whether he had a concession speech. But, you know, as with Peter and Reagan, I think Bill Clinton knew he was going to win both races.
CONAN: How - what is the art, Peter Robinson, of crafting remarks like these? Obviously, you want to, you know, you don't want to gloat if you're winning.
ROBINSON: You know, I - just to follow on the point you made a moment ago, I think there's something interesting we may be missing here, Neal, which is that I would almost be willing to bet that neither campaign tonight will have a concession speech ready. You just can't talk about that in the final moments of the campaign.
CONAN: It's unthinkable?
ROBINSON: It is unthinkable. It is - you just can't think such thoughts. It's treasonable, treasonous. So the elements in - I was thinking this over, and if I had to choose which of these kinds of speeches we're likelier to remember, I think actually concession speeches can often prove more moving and more meaningful and more compelling. Reagan never lost a general election, but he lost the '76 primary campaign to Gerald Ford and gave that, in effect, a concession speech at the 1976 Republican primary. And then in my judgment, the best speech that Al Gore, the one that even I as a Republican, the one speech I would say that Al Gore gave that was really beautiful from beginning to end was his concession speech after that long struggle of the hanging chads, the Supreme Court decision and so forth.
Both of those concession speeches struck the same notes: unity, gracefulness and also, frankly, a kind of fundamental humility. Both men submitted. They submitted to the will of the people. In Al Gore's, decision he was submitting to the judgment of the Supreme Court. There was a kind of finality and humility about them both that I found - in both of those men's long political lives, those are those of the most impressive moments.
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VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: Good evening. 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.
CONAN: And, Paul Glastris, that was a moment where the losing candidate has to - well, that's truly - had the fight gone on, that could have been a disastrous moment.
GLASTRIS: Right. And you heard what he said at the end: This time, I promised not to call him back. That was a reference to the night of the election where he had conceded by phone to George W. Bush. And in the motorcade, his staff said, hey, it looks like he didn't win. And he had to call Bush back and say, I'm not conceding. And in a very snippy tone, Governor Bush said, what? Are you taking back your concession? So it was testy there for a while. But Peter's right, you're right. It is an extraordinary thing we have in this country, this tradition of the generous concession speech.
And Scott Ferris, an author, penned a recent book called "Almost President," that is all about the history of the concession speeches. It's fascinating. And if you think - and his point is that, in a highly polarized environment like we have now where people are just not willing to concede the rightness of the other side, the importance of a concession speech that is generous and tries to bring unity as well as a victory speech that also sounds the theme of unity, is very, very important.
You know, in 2007 in France, I think 27 policemen were injured in riots after Sarkozy was elected. So an election without violence is not a given thing. And it's kind of a remarkable thing that we...
GLASTRIS: ...are able to do that in this country. And a lot of it hinges on the graciousness of the loser. And remember, the victor won't give his speech until the loser has conceded. That's sort of the tradition.
CONAN: There have been, though, concession speeches which were not entirely characterized by that. This is in 2004, Democratic candidate John Kerry conceding to President George W. Bush after a long wait for the votes to come in from, well, where else, Ohio.
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SENATOR JOHN KERRY: I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail. But it is now clear that even with all the provisional ballots are counted, which they will be, there won't be enough outstanding votes for us to be able to win Ohio. And, therefore, we cannot win this election.
CONAN: And, Peter Robinson, graciousness did not characterized those remarks. Again, it was a long wait, and it was a reference to what had happened four years ago.
ROBINSON: Right. Right. John Kerry might have - look, let's us just put this way. I agree with Paul, John Kerry might have wanted to consider how those words would ring down the final decades of his career and life. One of these men, tonight, is going to lose, and in losing has one final chance to perform a real service to the nation.
And, again, I go back - I just think the speech - I have it in front of me. I printed it out to refresh my memory. The Al Gore concession speech. He begins by quoting Stephen Douglas, who was defeated by Abraham Lincoln. Stephen Douglas says, way back, partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you. What a beautiful tradition in this country. And then Gore again said, I accept the finality of this outcome. I accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together. Beautiful generosity of heart, and a genuine service to the nation.
When, as Paul said, we know that at one in the morning, or two, sometime in the small hours of the night tonight, half of this country is going to be feeling pretty raw and disappointed, and even angry. And their guy is the first - has the first opportunity to bring them back into the larger body politic. He'd better do it. I hope he does it.
CONAN: You - interesting quoting Mr. Douglas from 1860. Of course, half the country in that case, didn't feel so well about it, and there was a very different outcome.
GLASTRIS: And, you know, it's also the case that you don't want to concede too soon, right? And what John Kerry did, he might not have been gracious. But what he was doing was sending a signal to his troops, right? I thought this through. I'm not going to jump...
GLASTRIS: ...the gun here, right? We almost jumped the gun in 2000. And people don't remember, but in, you know, when Jimmy Carter conceded in 1980, he did it, I'm pretty sure before the California poll - the West Coast poll closed.
ROBINSON: That's right.
GLASTRIS: And he infuriated Tip O'Neill who thought by doing - by conceding so early, he may have lost some Congressional seats. So this is a delicate dance that needs to happen. And a concession seat is about bringing your side to finality as much as reaching out to the other side, which is John - what John McCain did in 2008. He brought...
GLASTRIS: There were boos at the beginning of that speech. But within a couple of minutes, he had - his gracious words had brought the crowd down and...
CONAN: And it's interesting. Peter was talking about, maybe the best speech of Al Gore's campaign was his concession piece. A lot of people thought John McCain's speech on election night...
ROBINSON: An excellent speech.
CONAN: Ted Kennedy in conceding at the Democratic National Convention in the primary fight with President Carter, a lot of people thought that was the best speech that Ted Kennedy ever gave.
GLASTRIS: How about that?
ROBINSON: You'll notice, Neal, how generous Paul and I are about concession speeches of members of the other party.
GLASTRIS: That did cross my mind.
CONAN: Well, then there comes the victory speech, and I just wanted to play - this is not necessarily speech, but the news conference the day following - this is President George W. Bush following his re-election saying, well, he's now got a little bit of mandate.
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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It's like earning capital. You asked, do I feel free? Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That's what happened in - after the 2000 election. I earned some capital.
GLASTRIS: Yeah, he spent it pretty quick. It's...
ROBINSON: Yeah. He spent it in saying those words in quite that way, didn't he?
ROBINSON: That was just not - that's the kind of thing you might say as you're making your political calculations. It's useful sometimes to say to a candidate who's just won, look, you do something with this. You got some political - but for goodness sake, that's not - that sounded totally graceless in front of the nation, I'm afraid. You've got to bring - you've go to - the first moment has to be to reach. I, actually, think victory speeches - Reagan, in both of his victory speeches, I think did a good job of this.
In a victory speech, the important thing to - and actually, frankly, I'd be a little critical of Barack Obama four years ago, underplay that moment. Don't gloat. You don't need to elicit tears from the folks who just bled with you through the campaign. They all are already with you. To be really presidential, underplay the moment, demonstrate dignity, reach out to the other side and talk about getting to work.
GLASTRIS: I couldn't agree more. It's what the American public is desperate for. There's tremendous pressure on these politicians to deliver that. And, you know, as you played that clip of Richard Nixon, that grumpy concession speech haunted him for years, and people still remember it. It was - it's just not done in America.
CONAN: Pau Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. And Peter Robinson, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And after reading that book on concession speeches, Paul, when are these written if they're not written in advance? If that's the unthinkable, even George McGovern didn't have a concession speech ready.
GLASTRIS: I think the tradition has been somebody tells a speechwriter, you go do that. It may not be the candidate. It may be the campaign chief of staff. It's hard for the candidate to get his mood around talking about that stuff. But, again, I've not been in the middle of it, but I think the tradition has been that campaign - the concession speech - often, it's the candidate himself who does write it, at least that was in the distant past. And, you know, in the case of Al Gore, right, there was a long time between...
GLASTRIS: ...the vote and the ultimate concession, weeks, as we all remember. So he had some time to think about how to do that right.
CONAN: And is there a question about the setting? Of course, Al Gore, when he finally did make that speech, it was not in front of a bunch of disappointed campaign workers. It was in a, essentially, a dead room. And those are very different context, aren't they, Peter?
ROBINSON: Oh, yes, sure. Reagan, as I recall, gave his remarks at the '76 convention, extemporaneously. He could do that. He was putting together bits and pieces of speeches he'd already delivered. But, of course, there he - I mean, it's almost the reverse of Richard Nixon, who thought he was out of politics. And frankly, a bad concession speech is often a moment of self-indulgence. The candidate is exhausted, and he just let slide. And he doesn't think that people will remember for decades. Reagan, the '76 primary, the speech that he gave at the Republican convention, that rang through people's minds to this day. If you got look at it in YouTube, it's a glorious moment. People listening to him tears streaming down their faces, a magnificent moment.
Al Gore, again, I give Al Gore a lot of credit for this. He worked - it's my understanding that he worked with Dick Goodwin, who was a John Kennedy speechwriter, on this draft. And as he thought it through and said, dead room so that we can control the emotion of the moment. The cameras aren't going to be going face to face. That was choosing the setting. Choosing the deadness of the room was a way of choosing to make the speech final. It was an act of graciousness in itself as I read what they did.
GLASTRIS: And I'm not sure about this, but I don't think Barry Goldwater gave a concession speech. Did he? I think that he conceded. He certainly didn't give a phone call to Johnson. He sent Johnson a...
CONAN: It not like that election was in much doubt.
GLASTRIS: No. But he...
ROBINSON: That's true.
GLASTRIS: ...said a very, kind of, imperious or defiant telegram. And that, you know, he wasn't going to run for president again...
GLASTRIS: ...but that defiance, kind of, defined the movement that he led. And in that sense, it wasn't the problem. It was, you know, the fuse that was lit where conservatism seemed dying and actually, it was going to be revived soon enough.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Very...
ROBINSON: Yeah. I'd say each of these men - both of these folks - but, of course, these are two disciplined people. But you may think that you're - you may be leaving politics tonight, Mitt or Mr. President, but people...
CONAN: Probably - certainly, Mr. President's last night as a candidate.
ROBINSON: That's true. One way or the other. Well, for - but the point is that you have people who worked with you who will go on in politics. You're part of a larger - at a minimum, you're the nominee of one of the great American political parties. Think before you speak if you give a concession speech. Don't let fly. Be dignified. You owe that to your supporters and to your party, as well as, of course, to the nation. But you owe that to the people who will be in that room and who just finished working so hard for you.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Gentlemen, thank you very much, and we appreciate your contributions to this campaign as we've been following the rhetoric and the approaches of the various candidates, and the challenges of writing the speeches to which we all pay so much attention. We thank you so much for your contributions.
GLASTRIS: Great to be here.
ROBINSON: Neal, it's been a pleasure. I wish Paul good luck tonight, but not too much.
GLASTRIS: Yeah. Same to you, Peter.
CONAN: And early bed for us all.
ROBINSON: Thank you.
CONAN: That may not happen. Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, formerly a White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, with us here in Studio 3A. President - Peter Robinson was a White House speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and he joined us from the studio there on the campus at Stanford.
Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin with actual votes the day after the elections. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.