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Jewish World Review March 20, 2000 /14 Adar II, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The courting of the losers: An election-year ritual -- NOW COMES THAT PAUSE in the campaign's occupations when the losers can act like winners -- when their ruffled egos must be soothed and their endorsements sought.

Which brings up the question nobody seems to have asked: Did Alan Keyes ever concede defeat, endorse George W. Bush, withdraw from the campaign or what? I seem to have missed whatever he did, or maybe nobody bothered to report it. But somewhere, Gentle Reader, you know he must still be orating, if only in the bathroom mirror.

As for Bill Bradley, he was too much the gentleman, and too much the loser, to play any games. He wasted little time pouting and came out for the smooth operator who had just trounced him.

Even on the way out, Bill Bradley was still trying to elevate the level of American politics. He called for "a politics that's not polluted by money; a politics in which leaders speak from their core convictions, and not from polls or focus groups; a politics that's about lifting people up, not tearing your opponent down; a politics that reflects the best in us ... and not the worst.'' He didn't have to mention Al Gore's name for the contrast to be clear. As a loser, Bill Bradley was still a winner.

If the true test of a politician's character is his concession, John McCain disappointed. It wasn't even clear he was conceding. Instead he was "suspending'' his campaign. He wished George W. Bush well without actually endorsing him. To quote one of his backers, Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska senator: "There's no question that there's some bitterness there, and some anger.''

Bitterness and anger are only natural in the loser of so hard-fought a campaign. The test of greatness is whether the loser has the grace to overcome them. John McCain didn't, at least not election night. His tone was understandable, all right, but not admirable. Have we got another John Anderson in the making here -- a bright hope who turned into a forgotten, quadrennial bore?

What puzzled was not the Republican loser's lack of grace -- for defeat is hard for anybody to accept -- but the Republican winner's. George W. praised his defeated opponent, which he certainly needed to do if he wants Senator McCain's support this fall, but there was something perfunctory about the gesture, as if he were picking up a pawn (ital)en passant.(unital)

The nominee-presumptive's pilgrimage to Canosa will doubtless come later -- like Richard Nixon's penitential visit to Fifth Avenue in 1960 to win Nelson Rockefeller's support in the razor-close presidential campaign of that year. Or Ike's pact with Robert A. Taft after their bitter fight for the GOP's presidential nomination in 1952.

What was lacking in this winner's victory celebration was the winning gesture. He may have had the notes, but not the music. In 1952, the first thing Dwight Eisenhower did after securing the presidential nomination in Chicago was walk across the street from his headquarters at the old Blackstone to pay his tribute to "a great American'' at the Taft camp on the ninth floor of the Hilton.

Ike was met by a crowd -- a mob, really -- in the first full throes of defeat. Talk about bitterness and anger. Snarls were hurled, vengeance vowed. "We Want Taft!'' they kept chanting. Fiercely. The security detail had to clear a path for Ike to the defeated candidate's door. After the general fought his way in, he found Senator Taft not just calm but matter-of-fact. "You'll win the election, all right,'' the senator assured him in front of the hastily set-up microphones in the hallway.

After hushing his supporters, Senator Taft read his statement: "I want to congratulate General Eisenhower. I shall do everything possible to secure his election and to help in his administration.'' Which is just what he did.

The healing had begun, and the Republican Party would go on to win its first presidential election in 20 years. In part because its nominee had the simple grace to walk across the street and extend his hand.

Compare that gesture to George W. Bush's passing mention of his defeated opponent in a speech devoted mainly to his own victory and his own plans for the campaign ahead.

If he'd had a few graybeards with a sense of history to advise him, George W. would have been on his way to John McCain's ranch outside Sedona the next morning to pay homage to A Great American. Their meeting would have done more than make some great television footage; it would have symbolized the unity of new and old Republicans, just as the meeting of Taft and Ike did in that still fresh vignette from half a century ago.

The formal agreement between general and senator would not be sealed till later that year, when the two met at Morningside Heights. But from the moment of their meeting in that hotel hallway, there had never been any real question of the senator's support. He was a party man first, last and in between -- whatever bitterness and anger he felt. And he had reason for both after the vicious, not to say slanderous, campaign his party's Eastern establishment had run against him.

The New York Times' Arthur Krock, who'd seen just about every variety of American politician by then, called it Robert Taft's "finest hour,'' and added that "even if he had become president, he could have left no finer memory.'' Defeat has its glories, too, and they can outshine those of victory.

Compare the simple, businesslike declaration of support that Robert Taft offered the man who'd just beat him with John McCain's continuing coyness. Maybe, just as Senator McCain said again and again during his campaign, it's all a matter of character.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate