Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What it's like to lose the election

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 9:21 AM EST, Mon November 5, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
HIDE CAPTION
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Candidates who lose a presidential race have deep, if unexpressed, feelings
  • He says many challengers lose, but losing incumbents he's talked to also had complex emotions
  • Ford said it wasn't his nature to outwardly lament defeat; Nixon defiant, not seeking sympathy
  • Greene: Someone wins, someone loses; it's painful to be told by voters: you're not the one

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story;" "Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents;" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- They're not just constant characters on a television screen, these candidates who every four years seek the presidency. They're not present only to give us something to talk about for months on end.

"What you feel like on certain days is a slow-moving target," said George Herbert Walker Bush, reflecting on the unsuccessful campaign when he sought reelection to the White House.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

They grin and wave at crowds, asking for our votes while implying eternal sunniness. To reveal that they are vulnerable to hurt would seem to be an admission of weakness.

"I didn't like it," Gerald Ford said, speaking of being defeated when he ran on his own for president. "I was sad. But I never let my feelings be reflected publicly. ... Inwardly, inwardly. I never let it out. It's not my nature."

The candidates know that only one person can win a presidential election, and that the loser, no matter how accomplished, will forever be associated with the fact of his defeat. Sometimes it is the incumbent; sometimes it is a challenger. The feeling of emptiness is the same, although the men who have lived in the White House and have then been denied a second term understand especially well just what it is they will be leaving behind.

News: Polling center--down to the wire

"I think when I lost the reelection campaign for the presidency," Jimmy Carter said, "I think I did my best, and although Rosalynn was pretty -- well, bitter -- after the loss, I was not. I had to spend a long time assuaging her disappointment -- I'm sure she would agree with this if she was here in the room right now -- and I said to her, 'Rosalynn, we have a good life ahead of us.'"

In my conversations over the decades with men who have served as president of the United States and who have had to leave office before they wanted to, we have spent significant time talking about the emotions that accompany the leave-taking. These are men who have reached a pinnacle the rest of us will never come close to achieving. Yet when they are turned away, their past accomplishments cannot fully soothe the sting.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



On Tuesday night, two men of considerable talent, soaring ambition and lifetimes full of triumphs will find out which one of them has been selected for a job they each covet, and which one has been rejected. Either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is certain to be wounded to his core, even while the other man is celebrating to wild cheers.

News: If Obama wins a second term...

Very few people have known what it is like, on that highest of levels, to be seen as having failed.

"If I had feelings," Richard Nixon said, "I probably wouldn't have even survived."

Obama: Romney scaring people for votes
Romney's strategy to win Ohio
Pre-election jobs report spin

His own final leave-taking, of course, was different from an election-night defeat. He had lost the presidency on a November night in 1960, then won it on November nights in 1968 and 1972. He might well have assumed that the defeats of his life were all past tense. And then came the resignation at the height of the Watergate crisis in August of 1974.

He was defiant -- proudly so -- in not wanting to be seen as actively seeking sympathy. "I never wanted to be buddy-buddy," he said. "Not only with the press. Even with close friends. I don't believe in letting your hair down, confessing this and that and the other thing -- saying, 'Gee, I couldn't sleep, because I was worrying about this or that.' I believe you should keep your troubles to yourself.

News: If Romney wins...

"That's just the way I am. Some people are different. Some people think it's good therapy to sit with a close friend and, you know, just spill your guts ... so perhaps the younger generation should go in every time they are asked how they feel about this or that, and they should reveal their inner psyche -- whether they were breast-fed, or bottle-fed.

"Not me. No way."

The first President Bush, in talking about the pain of losing to Bill Clinton in 1992, also bristled at the memory of being expected to reveal to the public his private feelings: "I didn't feel comfortable with all this 'Larry King Live' and MTV," he said. He imitated the voice of a hard-bitten political adviser: "'Everybody else has been on MTV, you gotta show 'em you can communicate with the youth.' I kept being told ... "

He let his voice trail off.

Carter, recalling his 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan, told me: "So, yeah -- I think there is a lot of misapprehension about who a person is, even when he's being looked at all the time. ... A lot of the reporters who almost sort of condemned everything I'd done and said, and they were insinuating that I didn't have any intelligence, I didn't have any judgment, I didn't have any moral convictions ... I mean, it wasn't unanimous, but it was there. And even the reporters who were most negative about me, in my post-presidential years they have said, 'Wow, this guy has finally listened to what I said about him as president, and he's changed his ways now, he's got a little bit of sense, a little bit of judgment. ...'"

Opinion: Stand up for centrist candidates

Carter laughed, with more than a hint of harshness. "I don't think I've changed," he said.

On Tuesday night, the man who loses will have to assure his supporters that he and his family will be just fine. Betty Ford told me that her husband, after his defeat, did his level best to give that impression.

"He really did try to be very stoic in his face," she said. "He told us that there always has to be a winner and there always has to be a loser, and that you shouldn't be in politics if you aren't aware of that. We didn't talk a lot about it, because there was no sense in dwelling on it. We both felt pretty terrible. But we couldn't change it."

The real anguish Tuesday night will take place behind closed doors. Few will bear witness.

In the 1972 election, George McGovern, who died last month at the age of 90, was wiped out by Richard Nixon. McGovern's press secretary, a novelist and former Los Angeles Times reporter named Dick Dougherty, later recalled what it was like to be in McGovern's hotel room that evening as McGovern was, line by line, editing his concession speech:

"His eyes welled over and a tear fell that was so large it splashed when it struck the top of his hand. A terrible sound came from him that was like a giggle except that it was as much a sob as a giggle. He got up. He said: 'I don't know why I do that when I'm sad -- why I laugh.' He moved quickly toward the bathroom. [McGovern's wife] Eleanor, beginning to cry again, said: 'George always does that. He always laughs when he feels most badly. ...'"

They are not just names and moving images on millions upon millions of smart phone screens, these people who ask us to make them our president.

And one of them, on one November night every four years, finds out what it is like to be told: Sorry. We've decided to go with someone else.

Opinion: Crowley -- It's the losing campaigns I remember most

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT