A new vaccine is being disseminated across the United States, spreading faster than the deadly virus did in February and March as it turned 2020 into a rolling nightmare.
We also, officially, have a new president-elect. The Electoral College has spoken, and its tally gave Joseph R. Biden Jr. 306 electoral votes -- the same number Donald J. Trump earned in 2016. In both years, the results in several key battleground states were exceedingly close. In both years Trump trailed significantly in the national popular vote: Hillary Clinton outpolled him by 2.87 million votes four years ago; Trump is trailing Biden by 7 million votes (and counting) this year. It's emotionally difficult to lose a presidential election, whether narrowly or in a landslide. But only one candidate can emerge as the winner. This year it's Joe Biden.
Twenty years ago this week, in another contentious election that was ultimately decided at the Supreme Court, the winner was George W. Bush. It fell to Albert Gore Jr. to conclude the process by delivering a concession speech. He did so in a brief address noteworthy for its grace. I mentioned this recently and wrote about it at length in this space four years ago (and five years before that). What follows is a reprise of my earlier essay, but its lessons are again relevant.
The presidential election held on Nov. 7, 2000, produced an anomaly that had happened only three previous times in U.S. history: The winner lost. The first, and most notorious, instance came in 1824. In a four-man race, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and bested John Quincy Adams in the Electoral College. He lacked the required majority of electors, however, so the issue was thrown to the House of Representatives, which chose Adams. This result infuriated Jackson supporters, who dubbed it "the corrupt bargain," and it galvanized Old Hickory -- he won the presidency handily four years later. I imagine Donald Trump's acolytes are already whispering "corrupt bargain" in his ear.
For Al Gore, the 2000 election returns were triply painful. First, he lost in the Electoral College by so narrow a margin that a switch of even the smallest state from Bush to Gore would have made the difference. Second, it seems apparent that third-party candidate Ralph Nader cost him a win in New Hampshire -- and almost certainly in Florida, where a razor-thin recount result (and a divided Supreme Court) rendered the eventual outcome. Third, Gore won the popular vote by some half-million ballots -- a foreshadowing of the 2016 election.
The 2000 election revealed something to Americans that neither Gore nor George W. Bush had given much thought to at the outset of the contest: The concession speech is not merely good manners. It is an essential part of the democratic process. It signifies to partisans that the election is over. Al Gore did not shy from his civic duty.
Speaking from the vice president's office, Gore began with a lighthearted quip: "I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time," a reference to the election-night concession to Bush Gore had made -- and then retracted an hour later. "I offered to meet with him as soon as possible so that we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we just passed."
Gore made it clear he disagreed with the Supreme Court's decision, but he turned rhetorically to Abraham Lincoln to make sense of it. "Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.'"
American politicians often quote Lincoln, but Gore didn't do it casually. He was reminding his own supporters of the "better angels" of their nature. In cadences and prose that deliberately evoked the 16th U.S. president, Gore added: "Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road; certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended -- resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy."
Bush, too, alluded to Lincoln that day, saying in his victory speech that the nation "must rise above a house divided."
"Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements," Bush added. "Republicans want the best for our nation, and so do Democrats. Our votes may differ, but not our hopes."
Two decades later, we wonder if that is still true. But one way to rekindle those feelings is to reach across the divide in a personal way. Bush did that, too. "Vice President Gore and I put our hearts and hopes into our campaigns," said the new president-elect. "We both gave it our all. We shared similar emotions, so I understand how difficult this moment must be for Vice President Gore and his family. He has a distinguished record of service to our country as a congressman, a senator and a vice president."
Bush added a verbal "salute" to Al Gore, and wished him every success.
That wished-for success came, too, for both men. George W. Bush served two terms in office, has teamed up as an ex-president with Bill Clinton in fighting AIDS in Africa and raising money for victims of tsunamis in Asia, and taught himself to paint. He's a surprisingly good artist. Al Gore went on to become a spokesman for our planet's ecology, an Academy Award winner, and a Nobel laureate. In other words, F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn't just wrong about there being no second acts in American life, he was conspicuously wrong: There are second, third, fourth acts.
Take Newt Gingrich as a case in point. The once-ousted House speaker ran for president in 2012, endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and continues to pursue a second career as a commentator and novelist. Twenty years ago, when Gingrich was asked by NBC's Tom Brokaw to distill the meaning of the 2000 election and its aftermath.
Gingrich noted that in 1994, Republicans believed they had earned a mandate because of their huge gains in the midterms. Brokaw then asked the former speaker what message voters had sent with the nearly evenly divided 2000 election returns. "It's a mandate to slow down," Gingrich replied, "and listen to each other."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.