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The Long Tradition Of Presidential Concession Speeches In The U.S.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Ballgames have innings, clocks and buzzers to tell us they're over. What about elections? Shouldn't there be a set time when done is done? For weeks, President Trump has continued to insist he won an election he clearly lost. He will have to leave office after the Electoral College votes and the Congress affirms that vote. Trump himself admitted as much on Thanksgiving Day.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Certainly, I will. Certainly, I will. And you know that.

MCCAMMON: Still, Trump's refusal to concede denies the nation the public acknowledgment and the sense of closure that it's come to expect. For a closer look at that expectation, we now turn to professor Ron, NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Let us be clear - there is no legal requirement that a candidate formally concede or even acknowledge having lost. The transfer of power goes forward regardless. Still, that public concession speech has been an important element in our electoral traditions. It ends the suspense. It mellows the mood. And it means the country can begin moving on.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: This is an ABC News special report.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And we're coming on the air right now because Hillary Clinton about to appear in New York. There you see...

ELVING: Here's Hillary Rodham Clinton just four years ago, getting her mind around a tough loss.

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HILLARY CLINTON: My friends, let us have faith in each other. Let us not grow weary. Let us not lose heart, for there are more seasons to come, and there is more work to do.

ELVING: You could hear overtones of resistance in that concession four years ago. And indeed, Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. But then, as now, the Electoral College decides the winner, and Clinton knew that as well as anyone. A few years earlier in 2012, Republican Mitt Romney had been assured he would win and deny Barack Obama a second term. When he lost, he reportedly had no appropriate speech prepared. So his concession sounded a lot like the speech he had hoped to be giving that night.

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MITT ROMNEY: The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.

ELVING: The concession speech was a point of contention in itself in the year 2000. On the night of the election, Democrat Al Gore, who was vice president at the time, looked to be winning. Yet as the night wore on, it all came down to Florida. And Republican George W. Bush took the lead there in the wee hours. And Gore called him to concede. Then as Bush's lead in Florida all but disappeared, Gore called him back. It then took five weeks of counting and recounting and recourse to the courts before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to it all in a 5-4 decision. The next day, Gore went on TV with a concession that featured these words.

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AL GORE: Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time.

ELVING: That ended the standoff and allowed some degree of healing to begin. It also exemplified the concession tradition, which has provided ineffable benefits at fraught moments in the past. Such was the case in 2008 as well when Republican Senator John McCain was conceding the election and control of the White House to his rival candidate and to the Democratic Party.

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JOHN MCCAIN: The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him.

(BOOING)

MCCAIN: Please.

ELVING: McCain was both humble and eloquent in his concession that night.

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MCCAIN: To congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.

ELVING: Going all the way back to 1800, John Adams was the first president to be dismissed by the voters after one term. Adams was said to have congratulated his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, in private. But with the coming of faster and more public means of communication, the more modern notion of a concession statement emerged. In 1896, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan offered congratulations to Republican William McKinley by sending a telegram. In the early years of radio, the nation actually heard the losing candidate New York Governor Al Smith admit defeat and congratulate Republican Herbert Hoover.

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AL SMITH: I have a statement that I should like to make.

ELVING: Then in 1952, TV took over as Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson conceded to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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ADLAI STEVENSON II: The people have rendered their verdict, and I gladly accept it. General Eisenhower has been a great leader in war.

ELVING: In the decades since, we have come to expect to see the loser take his medicine live on-screen. It has not always happened right away, but it has always happened. This year may break that string. And if it does, it will be part of the way we remember Donald Trump's presidency. The concession is not, after all, a gesture for the sake of its maker. It is meant for those who need clarity and closure, including the losing candidate's family, staff and campaign workers, as well as the party rank and file. In other words, concession speeches are for everyone else but the candidate, yet it is the candidate who must finally decide who and what he cares most about.

Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.