Jeff Jacoby / August 3, 2022

Public Life Needs More Good Losers

Gracious concession speeches, paying tribute to an honorable competitor, and being a good loser are essential components of the legitimacy and goodwill that social health requires.

On Wednesday morning at 11, Hal Shurtleff and Camp Constitution will finally get to fly their flag on Boston’s City Hall Plaza.

Word of the scheduled ceremony came the other day in a press release from Liberty Counsel, the public-interest law firm that represented Shurtleff and his group after their request to host a flag-raising ceremony was rejected by City Hall in 2017. Boston officials had approved hundreds of such requests in the past, but said no to this one because Shurtleff wanted to fly the Christian flag (a white banner with a cross in one corner). The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which in May ruled 9-0 in Shurtleff’s favor. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that Boston had unlawfully “discriminated based on religious viewpoint and violated the Free Speech Clause.” So now, after a five-year legal ordeal, Camp Constitution’s flag-raising can proceed at last.

The high court’s unanimous ruling was, obviously, a total vindication for the plaintiffs. I asked Shurtleff whether anyone from City Hall had reached out to congratulate him or in some other way graciously acknowledge his (and the First Amendment’s) victory. No one, he said. There hasn’t been “one peep from any city official, elected or appointed.”

I wish I could say I was surprised by such churlishness. But in politics and public affairs these days, the ability to lose with grace or to salute an opponent’s accomplishment has gone the way of floppy disks and 8-track tapes.

In other areas of life, especially athletics, displaying class after a defeat is a highly valued quality.

Professional hockey has many traditions, but none is more striking than the handshake offered by every member of the losing team to every one of the winners following even the bitterest Stanley Cup fight. Similarly, at the end of a football or basketball playoff series or championship, the coach or key players of the team that lost make a point of offering congratulations to their opponents. When the Milwaukee Bucks last year beat the Phoenix Suns to capture their first NBA title in decades, Suns head coach Monty Williams went to the Bucks’ locker room to praise the players who beat his team. “You guys made me a better coach,” he told them. “You made us a better team.”

In January, when Rafael Nadal won the Australian Open and became the first man in tennis history to win 21 Grand Slam titles, his archrival Roger Federer didn’t sulk or sneer or throw a tantrum. Instead he publicly hailed his adversary for his “incredible work ethic, dedication, and fighting spirit.”

There have been times when politics, too, has served as a showcase for exceptional graciousness. Al Gore’s concession speech after the 2000 presidential election, which followed a ferocious month of post-election litigation over the results in Florida, was a model of democratic gallantry. “I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside,” Gore told the nation. “May God bless his stewardship of this country.”

In 2008, on the night that Senator Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, aired a TV commercial extolling the first Black man to top a major party’s national ticket. “Senator Obama, this is truly a good day for America,” McCain said. “Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed, so I wanted to stop and say: Congratulations.”

Today, when many prominent politicians revel in refusing to concede defeat, unabashed displays of good sportsmanship and character like Gore’s and McCain’s have become all too rare. One remarkable exception was the joint message delivered by Utah’s Democratic and Republican candidates for governor in 2020. The two men recorded a video to emphasize that they “could debate issues without degrading each other’s character” and to show the country that “win or lose, in Utah we work together.”

Public life in America badly needs more of this. Gracious concession speeches, paying tribute to an honorable competitor, being a good loser — those aren’t mere grace notes or niceties. In a democracy, especially one as troubled as ours, they are essential components of the legitimacy and goodwill that social health requires.

When Shurtleff holds his flag-raising on City Hall Plaza Wednesday morning, it will represent a victory for freedom of speech and the peaceful resolution of an honest constitutional disagreement. It would be a fine thing if Boston’s mayor or her designee were on hand to mark the moment, and, like a hockey player who failed to win the championship, shake hands with the rival who prevailed.

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