Al Gore delivered the speech of his life Wednesday night -- sincere, human, heartfelt, self-deprecating, completely and absolutely deferential to President-elect George W. Bush. Bush responded with a strong, conciliatory and humble speech. Before a Texas Legislature unified in rousing cheers, Bush positioned himself as Mr. Bipartisan, using the key word "together" six times in a matter of mere seconds.
And this is how it always is, which is something for both men to remember, especially soon-to-be civilian Al Gore. Because when the pundits praise Gore over the next few days for his grace and class, they are merely doing what the media always does with presidential losers.
"A Concession Speech with Grace and Class," headlined the Washington Post ... on Nov. 5, 1980, for President Jimmy Carter. "Bush, Gracious in Defeat, Promises Smooth Transition," wrote the Associated Press ... on Nov. 4, 1992, about President George H.W. Bush. "Dignified Ending to Dole's Gutsy, Arduous Campaign," headlined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Nov. 6, 1996, about Sen. Bob Dole.
There are similar headlines in Thursday's papers. Slapped in the groin with an insurmountable Supreme Court-delivered opinion that ended his hopes to have 60,000 or so Florida "undervotes" counted and reviewed by hand, Gore stepped to a podium at the Old Executive Office Building. He seemed to take a moment to mentally prepare himself; a barely perceptible shift from a wince in horror to a sigh of relief.
"Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States," Gore said. "I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time," Gore joked about his calling Bush, the first of many jokes he charmingly -- and startlingly, perhaps, from him -- made at his own expense.
Gore spelled out his concession so clearly that no pundit could read any doubt into it, or slam him for anything but unconditional surrender, "offer[ing] my concession ... and accept[ing] my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together."
Without trying to justify his hard-fought legal battle to have the Florida undervotes counted, Gore acknowledged that he "strongly disagree with the [Supreme] court's decision." But he also said: "I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College."
Showing a glimmer of the pugilistic "Fightin' Al" who felled Bill Bradley and so turned off the media, Gore said that "some have asked whether I have any regrets and I do have one regret: that I didn't get the chance to stay and fight for the American people over the next four years, especially for those who need burdens lifted and barriers removed, especially for those who feel their voices have not been heard. I heard you and I will not forget. I've seen America in this campaign and I like what I see. It's worth fighting for and that's a fight I'll never stop."
He quoted Sen. Stephen Douglas telling Abraham Lincoln, "'Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism.'" He said that "what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country." He thanked Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and his wife Hadassah, for not only bringing "passion and high purpose to our partnership" but for "open(ing) new doors, not just for our campaign but for our country." (In case anybody forgot: Lieberman's a Jew!)
The camera cut to Tipper sandwiched by Lieberman and wife, with a tearful daughter Karenna and husband Drew Schiff behind them, as well as a mop of blond hair from an unidentified Gore daughter. Karenna must have lost it when Gore quoted his father (quoting poet Edwin Markham) saying, "As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe as my father once said, that no matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out."
"I personally will be at his disposal, and I call on all Americans -- I particularly urge all who stood with us to unite behind our next president," Gore said. ("Dole may get to advise Clinton foreign policy," Washington Post headline, post-election 1996.)
"And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others" -- namely President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 -- "it's time for me to go," Gore said.
Boy! the pundits are sure to exclaim. If only he spoke like that during the campaign!
Just as Gore didn't seem slick or fake or insincere or arrogant or condescending -- even humbly referencing his need to "mend some fences" in Tennessee, both "literally and figuratively" -- Bush successfully steered clear from his oratory foibles.
He didn't smirk, didn't mispronounce any words with more than two syllables, didn't seem -- as he too often does -- a few California rolls short of a sushi platter. His tongue darted in and out of his mouth a tad too often (dry mouth?), but Bush seemed sturdy, strong and a good winner.
In stark contrast with his campaign staffers who drummed up Florida crowds with anti-Gore vitriol, Bush even suggested that he understood, even empathized with, Gore's attitude the last few weeks. "Gore and I put our hearts and hopes into our campaigns," Bush said. "We both gave it our all. We shared similar emotions. So I understand how difficult this moment must be ... He has a distinguished record of service to our country as a congressman, a senator and as a vice president."
(Bush didn't work into his speech Gore's service in Vietnam during the war. Gore, helpfully, did.)
Bush asked for prayers for him and his family, prayers for Gore and his family, for "this great nation" as well as "for leaders from both parties." With the Creator in mind, Bush put a karmic spin on the last 36 days, saying, "I believe that things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past."
Bush emphasized his desire to work with Democrats, ticking off reforms that everyone can agree on in the broadest, most superficial terms imaginable: education, Social Security reform, Medicare, tax relief, foreign policy "true to our values" and a strong and superior military.
Bush does seem better suited to co-leading a bipartisan consensus on Medicare and Social Security reform than Gore, but the bloody, ugly divisiveness of the last six weeks may prove far more powerful than the glossy sheen Bush tried to coat his incoming presidency with.
Speaking of divisiveness, having lost the black vote by a larger percentage than any Republican presidential candidate since Gerald Ford in 1976, Bush even marginally reached out to the black community -- heralding "our shared American values that are larger than race or party," and adding that "The president of the United States is the president of every single American, of every race and every background."
Comparing this tight race to the hard-fought 1800 race that delivered the presidency to perhaps America's most brilliant president, Thomas Jefferson, Bush said he would "be guided by President Jefferson's sense of purpose: to stand for principle, to be reasonable in manner and, above all, to do great good for the cause of freedom and harmony." Perhaps hoping to increase the sales of his campaign "autobiography" (written by spokeswoman Karen Hughes), Bush said that "the presidency is more than an honor, more than an office, it is a charge to keep and I will give it my all."
And so what's next for Gore?
"I know I speak for all of you and for all the American people when I say that he will be our president, and we'll work with him. This nation faces major challenges ahead, and we must work together. And I extended my best wishes to him and to Mrs. Bush and to the members of the Bush family."
That's not Gore speaking. It was Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988.
And he was interrupted by the Democratic crowd.
They cheered: "'92! '92! '92! '92! '92! '92!"