Richard Nixon's defiant concession talk in 1962 may become a template for Donald Trump if he loses the election, writes Julian Zelizer
Nixon told reporters, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," before remaking his image and winning the presidency in 1968
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
With Donald Trump escalating his “rigged election” rhetoric, many observers are wondering what will happen if he loses. Would Trump concede – and what might his speech sound like?
As with everything in the Trump campaign, a concession speech is hard to imagine. Trump has spent the last few weeks insisting that the entire election is rigged against him, and that no matter what, “Crooked Hillary,” as he likes to call the Democratic nominee, will only win through chicanery and fraud.
But there is a historical model that comes to mind when thinking about what Trump might do or say if he loses in November: Richard Nixon. It would not be surprising if Trump looked to Nixon for guidance. Throughout this campaign, he has often taken a page directly out of the Nixon playbook — focusing on law and order, appealing to the forgotten Americans, and often insinuating guilt by association.
There is another element in Nixon’s career that might come in handy. Back in 1962, Richard Nixon, the former Vice President who lost in the 1960 presidential campaign against John Kennedy, ran for governor of California against Pat Brown. The incumbent governor was an extraordinarily popular Democrat in what was then a Republican state. Nixon ran a tough campaign that painted Brown as far-left of-center. Although he did well early in the campaign, Brown won by a narrow five percent of the vote. Nixon, who thought he would win, was stunned.
Nixon was furious with the outcome and believed that the media had helped lead to his defeat because of unfair and biased coverage. As Brown waited for Nixon to concede, nothing came. At 2:30 in the morning, his press secretary Herbert Klein spoke to reporters to say that his boss was not yet ready to concede. Brown was up by almost 90,000 votes, but the Republicans believed that there was still uncertainty in certain key counties like Orange County.
Nixon still felt that voter irregularities and fraud had cost him crucial votes in Illinois and Texas in the 1960 presidential election (his halting televised concession speech in 1960, which kicked off the tradition, didn’t take place until about 3 a.m. eastern time when he said “if the present trend continues,” Kennedy would be the next president).
In the 1962 gubernatorial race, Nixon finally went to sleep at about 4 a.m. He didn’t wake up to good news. By the morning, Brown was up by well over 250,000 votes. Nixon sent a grudging letter to Brown congratulating him on his victory.
That morning in the Presidential Suite of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Nixon was angry. When told by his advisors that reporters had been waiting to hear from him, he responded, “Screw them.” When Press Secretary Herbert Klein said that everyone expected to hear the traditional concession statement, Nixon repeated himself: “Screw them.”
In a bizarre press conference, Klein appeared before the media at 10 a.m. to inform them that Nixon had left the building and would not appear. Instead he read from the concession telegram Nixon sent the governor.
About ten minutes into his appearance, Nixon surprised everyone by stepping in front of the microphones. Looking haggard and angry, Nixon explained that, “Now that Mr. Klein has made his statement, and now that all the members of the press are so delighted that I have lost, I’d like to make a statement of my own.”
The concession part came early: “I congratulate Governor Brown, as Herb Klein has already indicated, for his victory. He has, I think, the greatest honor and the greatest responsibility of any Governor in the United States. And if he has this honor and this responsibility, I think that he will now have certainly a position of tremendous interest for America and as well as for the people of California. I wish him well … I believe Governor Brown has a heart, even though he believes I do not.”
He spent his time with the media blasting the kind of coverage that he received and complaining that the “Cuban thing,” meaning the Cuban Missile Crisis, prevented him from getting his message across in a critical few weeks. He targeted the press, saying that throughout his public career, journalists had always been biased against him.
“For 16 years, ever since the Hiss case, you’ve had a lot of fun — that you’ve had an opportunity to attack me and I think I’ve given as good as I’ve taken,” he said.
With many in the room feeling that he was being a poor loser, Nixon famously concluded by saying: “I leave you gentlemen now and you will write it. You will interpret it. That’s your right. But as I leave you I want you to know — just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference. And I hope that what I have said today will at least make television, radio, the press recognize that they have a right and a responsibility — if they are against a candidate, give him the shaft, but also recognize if they give him the shaft, put one lonely reporter on the campaign who will report what the candidate says now and then.”
In an aside to one reporter, he said that “Losing California after losing the presidency … Well, it’s like being bitten by a mosquito after being bitten by a rattlesnake.”
Nixon shocked everyone in the room. Brown believed that Nixon had made a bad miscalculation that would cost him in the years to come. Much of the press piled on with stories about how his career was over.
Jules Witcover called the press conference the “public act of hara-kiri of the century.” It wasn’t just what Nixon said but how he said it. As one reporter recounted four years later in New York magazine, “He ranted, he contradicted himself, he fumbled sentences, he carried on like a petulant baby unfit to handle one crisis, much less six. Never, in all the times he had been trapped by his own blunders, had he looked less qualified to lead even a backward nation.”
However self-defeating it was, the press conference shows how a concession speech could be used to complain about the process and raise questions about the outcome even while acknowledging defeat.
It is easy to imagine that if Hillary Clinton is victorious we might see something resembling Nixon’s bitter words in November. Trump might very well concede, but it is doubtful that he would not emphasize how unfair he believed the entire process to have been. Like Nixon, Trump is a figure who feels the need to justify his defeats and to put blame on others for his own difficulties.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Of course, Trump’s opponents might also want to remember what happened next. Over the next few years, Nixon rehabilitated himself by transforming his image from being a vicious partisan Republican into a diplomatic statesman.
Everyone has been scratching their heads trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s speech at Gettysburg on Saturday.