“2010’s midterms looked a lot like today’s. The country was in an anti-incumbent mood. Republicans were licking their chops as Democrats braced for big losses. So as I sat down to tackle the first speech, the context felt as important as the content…I closed my laptop and took a lap around the parking lot to clear my head and imagine the worst. After so little sleep and with so much on the line, it was hard to think about losing — let alone to put it in words. So I thought of the speech as an umbrella, convincing myself that if I didn’t write it, it would be certain we’d need it.
If carefully calibrating the tone of a victory speech is important for your next term, getting a concession speech right is critical for your legacy. Al Gore nailed it in 2000, exhibiting a grace that must have been painful to summon. Hillary Clinton’s “18 million cracks” honored her supporters’ accomplishment, the elusive nomination notwithstanding. Later that year, John McCain reminded the country of the election’s significance and in doing so reminded so many why they respected his decades of service. “Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth,” he said.
But in the lowest moment of your career, such empathy isn’t always easy for candidates or their staff to conjure. When Richard Nixon lost his bid for governor in 1962, his self-pitying “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” was more sour than statesmanlike, forgetting that elections are about voters more than candidates. In 2012, Mitt Romney didn’t bother to write a second speech, and it showed.
I tried to channel Gore’s and McCain’s humility — and their brevity. In just north of 300 words, the speech would acknowledge the work of Reid’s volunteers and the choice of Nevada’s voters.
I emailed the concession speech down the hall to my colleague Kristen, who sat next to the one campaign printer that could spit out speeches on the 5″ x 8″ cards Leader Reid liked. As she silently handed them to me, we shared a look that military aides must exchange when they hand off the nuclear football: Good to have it, but let’s hope for humanity’s sake we never have to use it.
Around 8 p.m. my phone buzzed. It was an email from my colleague Jon, telling me to come to the senator’s hotel suite and that I only need to bring “the good speech.” Leader Reid calmly scribbled and scrawled on the cards, adding here and subtracting there while taking congratulatory phone calls from everyone from Barack Obama to Barry Manilow.
As for the other speech: to this day Kristen is the only other person who’s ever seen it. Some things are better left unread. But I’m glad we packed that umbrella.”
P.S. Get out there and vote!