By John Krull
John Krull, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – On Election Night, several candidates, both winners and losers, showed how real leaders speak after the votes have been cast and the contest has been decided.
And several didn’t.
Let’s talk about the ones who got it right first.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was gracious in defeat. He complimented President Barack Obama on his victory, he spoke with feeling about the reasons he sought the White House in the first place and he said that it was essential Americans work together to meet the great challenges ahead.
When it became Obama’s turn to accept victory, he was no less gracious. He paid tribute not just to Romney, but to Romney’s father and mother – and to the entire Romney family’s legacy of public service. Obama called the vigorous debate in which he and Romney engaged the pulse of an energetic and vital democracy. And he too called for Americans to come together to do the work that lies before us.
Here in Indiana, victorious Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Joe Donnelly complimented his opponent, Republican Richard Mourdock – and then delivered an extended and impassioned tribute to the man Mourdock beat in the GOP primary, six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
In the governor’s race, Republican Mike Pence, the winner, and Democrat John Gregg, the loser, both said nice things about each other. Both were self-deprecating. Both behaved with grace at what was an emotional moment for each.
But there were some who struck the wrong notes on Election Night.
Upstart Glenda Ritz, the Democrat who pulled off the upset of the night by beating incumbent Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, devoted much of her speech to crowing about her victory. It was equivalent of taunting a fallen opponent.
For his part, Bennett wasn’t much better. His remarks combined equal parts bitterness and petulance. For a man who had touted accountability for others, he seemed to find it difficult to acknowledge that he might have done some things that he didn’t need to that offended many of the state’s teachers, parents and students.
But the maestro of the politically tone-deaf on Election Night was, not surprisingly, Mourdock. His message of congratulations to Donnelly was perfunctory at best.
Then Mourdock began to talk about himself. And he wept.
He said that the most significant thing he would take away from this campaign was that he had been “attacked” for believing his “principles.”
That was true enough, but in many ways beside the point.
What, pray tell, did Mourdock think he did to Lugar in the primary? Or Donnelly in the general election? Did Mourdock think that accusing Lugar of betraying conservatives or Donnelly of selling himself to the highest bidder was a compliment or an act of kindness?
What Mourdock went through had to have been painful, but that is the nature of fights. No one forced him to enter into this one. He did that of his own will.
But does it really matter what candidates say in their victory and concession speeches?
Elections are about forcing decisions. They are about defining differences. They are about dividing citizens for a time so that choices about direction, about policy and about the character of the country, the state or the community can be made.
Once the votes have been cast and the verdict has been rendered, it is the job of true leaders – both those who won and those who lost – to bind up the wounds created by the campaign, to remind citizens on both sides of the divide of their shared concerns and to summon them all to the common challenges ahead.
That is service. That is patriotism. That is leadership.
That is what Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Mike Pence, John Gregg and Joe Donnelly gave us on Election Night.
Too many people now on the extreme left and extreme right feel that they are not obligated to honor the outcome of any election in which their preferred candidate or position did not win.
But rejecting an election’s verdict doesn’t show defiance to a candidate as much as it does contempt for the will of the people and a disregard for the idea of self-government.
In both triumph and defeat, wise leaders summon, to use Lincoln’s wonderful phrase, “the better angels of our nature.”
We should heed their call.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.