By Mark Green

As the votes come in on Election Day, each of the candidates for president will face both a moment of truth and a moment of choice.

The moment of truth, of course, is the cold, hard reality of the numbers — the voters’ verdict. The moment of choice, especially for the vanquished, is what comes next.

During the 2008 elections, I was serving as the U.S. ambassador in Tanzania. Public interest in our elections was at an all-time high because, as Tanzanians liked to put it, Barack Obama had “African blood flowing through his veins.” When media reports suggested Obama might win, they were bursting with pride: “One of their own” could be leading the greatest power on Earth.

The opportunity for public diplomacy was obvious, so we hosted election watch parties at the embassy and elsewhere. The Tanzanians were in awe as the results came in and were glued to the screens when the African-American senator from Illinois gave his victory speech.

But in the weeks that followed, we came to realize that the most important message we could offer didn’t come from Obama’s victory, but from John McCain’s loss. Or, more precisely, from the way he handled it.

In many countries, especially those with populist or semi-authoritarian leanings, it’s not a given that a losing candidate will accept defeat. If the candidate has particularly strong ties to the military or militias, he or she might void the results at the end of a gun barrel. More frequently, the candidate will claim fraud, conspiracy or corruption to delegitimize the voters’ verdict. In either case, it’s like pulling the walls down around you.

On election night 2008, John McCain did the opposite. He didn’t merely concede; he called on his supporters, disappointed as they obviously were, to help the president-elect move forward in the difficult times ahead.

He said:

Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed….I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

In the weeks that followed, the Tanzanians spoke to me of that speech many times.

Cindy McCain tells a story from an overseas trip to Bangladesh her late husband took not long after his presidential loss. The country was going through a period of political turmoil under a caretaker government that had been installed until new elections could be held.

One of the ministers there told McCain that his concession speech had been broadcast across the country. The government hoped it would “show supporters of our political parties how you react to defeat in a democracy.”

On election night 2020, and likely in the days that follow, one of our candidates for president will face a moment of truth and a moment of choice. While he will inevitably be weighed down by personal and political disappointment, he will also have an opportunity, even greater than that of the victor, to reaffirm that America’s moral, democratic flame still burns bright.


This article was first published by the New York Daily News.