Losing Is Publicly Painful

By Mark Shields

February 1, 2008 5 min read

Long before he would become Democratic Party chairman as well as the colorful and successful Washington lawyer, Bob Strauss grew up in the small West Texas cowboy town of Stamford, where, as he joked, his non-Jewish neighbors thought "Hanukkah was a duck call."

President George W. Bush once told an off-the-record press dinner of the political counsel Bob Strauss had volunteered when Bush's polling numbers were first dropping. "Mr. President," Strauss allegedly advised, "you can fool some of the people all of the time ... and those are the ones you should concentrate on."

But beneath the clever wit, there was wisdom. He understood how painfully public and publicly painful life could be for the unsuccessful political candidate. Now, as losing candidates take their leave of the 2008 presidential field, consider the perceptive insight Strauss offered some 28 years ago: "It takes a lot of guts to stick your neck out and run for any public office. But the only thing that's tougher than announcing for office is withdrawing from a race, because when you drop out you are saying that you are quitting and that you're beaten."

He, of course, is right. When a presidential candidate confronts reality and admits that the dream is over and, while he may have fought the good fight and kept the faith, he has not finished the course, the candidate's sense of loss is total.

It is true that most presidential candidates are almost always individuals with records of exceptional accomplishment. They are often governors who have achieved much or senators who have written important laws or respected military leaders who have led troops in battle. But all their previous triumphs are small consolation when, as virtually all who run do, they lose.

Consider the example of George Romney, whose son, the former Massachusetts governor, remains a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. George Romney was a celebrated titan of the American automobile industry, a strong supporter of civil rights and the successful, popular Republican governor of Michigan. In 1968, George Romney sought his party's nomination for the White House. All that is remembered of that failed campaign was his too frank admission, concerning the controversial subject of the U.S. war in Vietnam, that he had been "brainwashed."

George Romney, an admirable man and valuable public servant, is, sadly and unfairly, best remembered politically for his "brainwashed" gaffe. Ohio Republican Gov. Jim Rhodes, who backed his Michigan neighbor in that campaign, remarked afterward that "watching George Romney run for president was like watching a duck 'make love' to a football."

Wisecracks cannot mask the hurt. After his own losing national campaign in 1976, Bob Dole tried a quip: "Contrary to reports that I took the loss badly, I want to say that I went home last night and slept like a baby — every two hours I woke up and cried."

Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who twice lost national elections to President Dwight Eisenhower, poignantly began his concession statement in 1952 this way: "Someone asked me ... how I felt, and I was reminded of a story that a fellow townsman of ours used to tell — Abraham Lincoln. They asked him how he felt once after an unsuccessful election. He said he felt like a little boy who stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh."

So as the 2008 presidential candidates fold their campaigns and accept the end of their dreams, let us show a little kindness to these fellow human beings who have risked and have endured public rejection on a level the rest of us cannot begin to imagine. Bob Strauss had it right: Losing is painfully public, and "the only thing that's tougher than announcing for office is withdrawing from a race."

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

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