Anyone with even a passing interest in national politics in this country has been receiving something of an education in the last few months. We’ve been learning about just how angry many of us are, across the ideological spectrum. We’ve learned (or perhaps relearned) that money doesn’t always buy votes.
We’ve also learned that experience is a liability, not an asset, and prudence is a weakness, not a strength.
Interesting lessons to learn.
As the field has been thinning, we’ve also had the opportunity to study how ambitious people (I don’t use that term as a pejorative, by the way) handle having their aspirations smashed.
Candidates for public office get to deal with their defeats in very public ways. At the municipal or county level and sometimes even at the state legislative level, it may be possible to lose and fade into the political night without facing a phalanx of cameras and live microphones. But for candidates for statewide and national office, there is no way to hide.
How failed candidates sing their swan song can be as revealing as any moment in life.
When neurosurgeon Ben Carson called a halt to his candidacy, he focused on the “erosion” of faith and family and the threat they pose to our nation. At the same time, he announced that he would lead “My Faith Votes,” an organization committed to mobilizing Christian voters. What we were to remember, in other words, was that his candidacy had been about his faith and his view of its place in the public square. It wasn’t about him.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina asserted even more strongly that neither the fight nor her role in it had come to an end. “While I suspend my candidacy today, I will continue to travel this country and fight for those Americans who refuse to settle for the way things are and a status quo that no longer works for them,” She wasn’t defeated; she was only redirected.
Former Governor Martin O’Malley kept it more simple. He spoke of “a tough fight” and the “courageous battle” he and his supporters fought. What the fight was for, other than his candidacy, was less clear.
But the most striking withdrawal speech I have heard so far this presidential season was the one given by former Governor Jeb Bush on the night of the South Carolina Republican primary.
Bush, the man who began the campaign as the anointed prince of one of our nation’s most powerful political dynasties and of the Republican establishment, with money to burn and answers to a vast array of policy questions, stood before the cameras in embarrassing defeat for the third time in a row. He had been criticized by pundits and the press, pummeled by poll results and insulted by rivals. It was quite a stunning fall for the presumptive nominee.
Rather than proclaiming the virtue of his cause or the difficulties he had endured, Bush spoke humbly of the judgment of the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, recognizing the decision they had made about his candidacy. He added, “I really respect their decision.”
He then reframed the moment. Bush spoke of “an incredible life” made rich less by wealth than by public service. Turning toward his wife, Columba, he set it all aside, noting that “no matter what the future holds . . . [t]onight I’m going to sleep with the best friend I have and the love of my life.” Then, not as the candidate, but seemingly just as a husband, Jeb Bush kissed his wife.
We measure leaders by many things. There are good reasons to look for toughness, for intelligence and for a degree of ideological compatibility. Better someone strong than weak, smart and wise than foolish and naïve, and tending toward what we believe is the right rather than the wrong way of thinking. But in an era when many people continue to be hurting, struggling to care for those they love as well as themselves, one might find value in knowing what prospective leaders value most. And that, we often discover, is what we learn when they lose. Because when all seems lost, we discover what is most precious that they have found . . . a cause, a name, a place in the news . . . or an embrace.