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.")
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.