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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT