The last couple weeks of election fracas have recalled to mind a prayer, from the evening of Nov. 4, 1992, less than 24 hours after William Jefferson Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush.
Jon O’Brien, then headmaster at St. Andrew’s School, stood before the students in the dining hall, preparing to say grace before our Wednesday evening meal.
Imagine an encyclopedic knowledge of English literature, wrapped in the L.L. Bean catalogue, shaped into a bear of a man, spiced with a passionate love of knowledge and for his students, and topped with an indomitable smile — that was Jon O’Brien.
Usually, Mr. O’Brien’s pre-dinner, pre-pre-chapel, Wednesday evening prayers were formulaic. For years after I graduated, any time I was called on to say grace, I’d regurgitate the words of Jon O’Brien.
But, on that November night in 1992, Mr. O’Brien broke from his regular script. Instead of the anticipated “bless this food to our bodies, and us to your will” recitation, Mr. O’Brien launched into a considerably longer, and sincere, prayer of thanks for the gift of a nation that can peacefully transfer power from one administration to the next.
Many of us students quietly scoffed at the diversion from the normal prayer. We knew, in our immense adolescent wisdom, the prayer was extraneous. A peaceful transition of power from one president to the next was so certain, it seemed trite to even pray for it.
And, for 44 presidential transitions over 244 years, that’s been the expectation. It’s simply been a given. There’s a winner and a loser. And the loser, in some form or fashion, concedes the race and paves the way for his successor — for the good of the nation.
But, as with everything else involving Donald Trump, history, precedence, decency and the good of the nation take a back seat to the president’s self-deluding narcissism.
Never before has this nation seen a president lose so convincingly, and yet insist he has won, refuse to concede, and instead continue to plan for a second term, as if it were a foregone conclusion.
Pundits and reality-denying Trumpists like to compare this election — which Trump lost — to the 2000 debacle between Bush and Gore. It is a comparison as tenuous as the president’s grasp of reality. That election came down to 537 votes in one state — not five-digit leads in at least three states.
When a 5-4 Supreme Court decision exhausted Al Gore’s legal recourses, he congratulated Bush by telephone, then told the American people, “for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
Bush, in an equally gracious acceptance, said he was “not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation.”
When Hillary Clinton fell behind Donald Trump in 2016 — in the electoral college, not popular vote — she readily and graciously accepted the outcome. She lost — likely by the same electoral margin by which Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump.
And, when it became clear she had lost, there was no equivocation. There were no threats. There was no denying of reality. There were no baseless claims of fraud. No. At about 2 a.m. the day after the election, at the urging of then-President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump, congratulated him, and conceded the race.
Republicans, every bit as much as Democrats, have known when to concede — with their dignity and honor intact — and to begin the necessary work of a peaceful transition of power.
When John McCain lost to Barack Obama, he urged “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.”
Bush 41, after that election that altered Mr. O’Brien’s prayers in 1992, conceded and accepted defeat because of his “deep devotion to the political system under which this nation has thrived for two centuries.”
Even Richard Nixon, who wasn’t above a bit of felonious election-tampering, said this in his 1960 concession to John F. Kennedy: “One of the individual features of America is that we have political contests … and once the decision is made, we unite behind the man who was elected.”
These men and woman, Republican and Democrat, knew when to step aside, to concede. They were powerful figures, and to those accustomed to victory, defeat has a particularly bad aftertaste. But, they stepped aside anyway, because they understood our form of government, our Constitution and the health of our republic are bigger than any one person, bigger than any party, and more important than any of our petty differences.
Republicans have, in the past, understood and embraced this fundamental truth. They understood the wisdom of Jon O’Brien’s prayer.
I hope and pray, in the coming days and weeks, enough Republicans relearn this fundamental truth. After all, for there to be Republicans, we must preserve the republic. And to ensure that, they need to rein in their deluded standard-bearer, and begin the peaceful transition of power.