Traits of a Good Concession Speech: Brevity, Grace By the end of Tuesday night, a few presidential candidates who had hoped for victory in New Hampshire will have to admit defeat. Political speech writers Kerry Tymchuk and Eli Attie talk about the art of crafting a concession speech. They say a good concession speech should be brief, free of bitterness and overwhelmingly gracious.
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Traits of a Good Concession Speech: Brevity, Grace

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Traits of a Good Concession Speech: Brevity, Grace

Traits of a Good Concession Speech: Brevity, Grace

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

So what is the expression that one aims for at a moment of defeat, especially so early in the primary season, when so many contests are still in the offing? Well, we brought together two speechwriters. First, Eli Attie wrote speeches for Al Gore, for New York City mayor David Dinkins, among others, before writing for President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet aka Martin Sheen on "The West Wing." Welcome, Eli.

M: Hi, pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: And Kerry Tymchuk wrote speeches for, among other Republicans, Bob Dole, including his concession speech in 1996. Good to have you on the program, Kerry.

M: Thank you.

SIEGEL: When you're writing a speech in which the candidate is going to concede - we tried hard, but we didn't make it, what's the sentiment, Kerry, that the main sentiment that you're trying to communicate?

M: Well, actually, I think the concession speech is much tougher than the victory speech. You, you have to be humble and humorous and gracious and self-deprecating and not bitter in the slightest and magnanimous and all that in a couple-minute speech, hopefully.

SIEGEL: Agree with that, Eli Attie?

M: Yeah. I think so. I mean, politics is a very personal business. I think running for office, you really lay yourself bare. And I think there's always a temptation when you lose an election to show bitterness, be defiant in a way that can seem like you're sort of contesting the results. And I think what people really crave at the very end of an election is a kind of coming together, a kind of an embrace of the process and democracy. And I think people want to go home, whether their candidate won or lost, feeling that everybody accepted that this is the system we have.

SIEGEL: So, somehow you have to communicate the idea that the candidate is saying, I know this isn't what any of us here in the room wanted, but I'm big enough to take it. I understand I've been defeated, but, you know...

M: Yeah. I believe it's so important, even if it sometimes goes against the instinct of the politician, for them to be dripping with graciousness toward the person who defeated them.

SIEGEL: Some observers faulted Senator Clinton in Iowa for when she came before her supporters, giving a speech that almost could have been a victory speech. Someone said, she should have opened with some kind of gently self-lacerating line like, so much for inevitability. Is it important to get up a funny line when you face people at that moment?

M: Well, you know, it's hard, I think, to call a speech like that a concession speech because you're not at the end of the race. Obviously, you're trying to spin it. The most famous example of that was when Mike Dukakis came in third in the Iowa caucus in 1988 and came out with the line, well, we won the bronze tonight, some version of that, which actually was brilliant spin because most of the press coverage, you know, had a sort of a sense to, well, Mike Dukakis, far from home; not in a region that's friendly to him, you know? Came home with the bronze. Not bad for, you know, the Massachusetts governor, you know? I think Romney's advisors borrowed that Thursday night.

SIEGEL: Kerry Tymchuk?

M: Yeah. What people are looking for, I think, more than ever this year is authenticity. To be authentic. And I do agree somewhat with the criticism. I think she should have let her emotion show. And I like the idea of a self-deprecating joke up front.

SIEGEL: We will wait for a number of candidates to come out tonight. And typically, they'll do a lot of thanking before they get to anything of substance that they say. And then, you know, it's a race between the candidates' patience and the patience of many producers, television and radio networks. When do we leave this thing? When do we stop listening to this? How long should a candidate talk for, do you think, after he says a few thank yous, Eli Attie?

M: Well, I always think a speech should be no more than three, four minutes maximum and really dispense with the acknowledgments and formalities.

SIEGEL: Kerry Tymchuk, how long do you think you should take up there?

M: Okay, absolutely three to five at the max, especially for a concession speech. I mean, you are not the main act. The winner is the main act. You need to gracefully get off the stage.

M: I think it's also true that these are not the kinds of speeches you give at the Brookings Institute on a Tuesday morning. You're not laying out a 19-point, you know, tort reform proposal. They're tone poems. You're trying a little bit to open up your heart. And if you can't get that across in two minutes, then you probably don't have a clear rationale for your campaign.

SIEGEL: Kerry?

M: I'd say it would be interesting at some time to hear a concession speech that Senator Obama might give. He is so eloquent and it'd be interesting to have the tables turned, and if Hillary were to upset him in New Hampshire or somewhere, to see what he would bring to the podium.

M: The interesting thing is I would bet, somewhere on a laptop, unbeknownst to him, there exists such a speech. And, you know, I hope he never has to see it.

SIEGEL: I gather that's a rule of these things, that you should be ready to have that speech prepared in any case to use.

M: Yeah. I was told by a much older political consultant, when I started working in politics, that you had to always have a concession speech ready. The speechwriter had to have one. Didn't have to show it to anyone, did not have to even mention to the candidate that it had existed, but you had to have one. It was like a superstition among speechwriters, because if you didn't have one, you would need it. I, unfortunately, tended to have them and need them.

SIEGEL: And you needed them, I see... (Laughter)

M: Maybe I, maybe I did something wrong. Maybe I misheard the rule.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you for talking with us about this.

M: A pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: That's Eli Attie and Kerry Tymchuk. Both of them are speechwriters. Eli Attie wrote for such Democrats as Al Gore, Kerry Tymchuk for such Republicans as Bob Dole.

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