Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.


  • Updated
  • 0

Michael Dukakis does a good job of describing life on the wrong side of a presidential election: ``You want to know about losing?' he asks in a recent interview. ``It stinks. Winning is a lot better.'

John Anderson, who ran as an Independent in 1980, says the day after losing the race for the White House, it is as if ``you are thrown over a cliff' into anonymity. ``You are no longer a substantive, great and abiding interest.'George McGovern, who lost resoundingly to Richard Nixon in 1972, recalls the silence, the loneliness. ``Where did all those voters go? Where were those huge crowds on election day?' he asks. ``You have a huge sense that the country deserted you and left you alone.'

Today, George W. Bush and Al Gore will both enter elite clubs. One will become the president-elect; the other will be the man who lost the 21st century's first election. The world will hang on one man's every word; life, for the other, will get very quiet, very fast.

In the winner-take-all world of politics, there isn't much literature of losing.

Every unhappy presidential loser is unhappy in his own way, the emotion made singular by the circumstances of defeat. For McGovern, ``to be defeated by Nixon was more painful to handle than if I had been defeated by Eisenhower or someone of that caliber,' he said in an interview.

The two men and their views of governance, Vietnam, public service, were so wildly different, that losing was a clear repudiation. Then Watergate broke. McGovern felt ``clearly vindicated.'

But vindication only goes so far. McGovern says he ran into Walter Mondale a few months after Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mondale had one question for McGovern: How long does it take, after losing 49 states, to quit hurting?

``I said, 'I'll let you know after I get there,' ' McGovern recounted. ``I was joking. On the emotional front I don't think it took longer than a year. But I still have a poignancy if someone mentions '72.'

President Ford was luckier in loss. Pardoning Nixon led to Ford's 1976 defeat by Jimmy Carter, but that same action helped close a painful chapter in American history.

And a gracious Carter helped close a painful chapter for the man he defeated. The two have since become friends.

``It was inauguration day out in front of the Capitol before President Carter was sworn in,' Ford recalled recently. ``His first remarks as he stood up, he said, 'On behalf of all the American people, we thank you for healing the land.' That was very thoughtful, and I deeply appreciated it.'

Regardless of defeat's various shadings, historians, former candidates and psychiatrists say that Gore or Bush can expect a few constants in the days and months beyond the 2000 Campaign:

Depression. A dose of self-blame, or perhaps a feeling of betrayal. A body clock tossed out of whack by 18 months of time-zone confusion. Extreme fatigue. Guilt.

``A kind of malaise falls over you, and you realize you had the main chance and you blew it,' says Douglas Brinkley, Carter's historian. ``You start looking for scapegoats. It takes awhile for (losing candidates) to look in the mirror and understand most of their shortcomings were their own.'

And the loser is not the only one hurting. The pain of a presidential defeat ripples out to touch staffers, friends, family members, especially wives. Elizabeth Dole, say GOP sources, took her husband's loss harder than he did. So did Rosalynn Carter and Kitty Dukakis, to name a few.

``I had to grieve over our loss before I could look to the future,' wrote Rosalynn Carter in a memoir penned with her husband. ``Where could our lives possibly be as meaningful as they might have been in the White House?'

Jimmy Carter, in fact, is perhaps the best example of defeat's many faces - a bitter loss, a bright resurrection. Carter was beaten by a man he held in such contempt that, to this day, ``mention Ronald Reagan and see the hair raise on (Carter's) neck,' Brinkley says.

The former Georgia governor went home to a peanut warehouse that was $1 million in debt. The aides and servants who grease the way for the powerful were gone, and he was greeted in Plains, Ga., by a potluck casserole dinner and a band that turned ``Dixie' into a dirge.

The Carters declined to be interviewed - in fact, while all major losing candidates who are still alive were contacted for this article, few called back. But in the couple's memoir, Jimmy Carter described returning to Plains and waking up ``to an altogether new, unwanted and potentially empty life.

``It was deeply discouraging for me to contemplate the unpredictable years ahead,' he wrote.

Faith in God and a deep sense of purpose proved both solace and spur. After a year of ``despair and drifting,' Brinkley wrote in ``The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House,' the former president went on to become a global elder statesman.

Carter, who was 56 when he lost to Reagan, is proof of what Dr. Harvey L. Rich, a Washington psychoanalyst, reports about political losers a year or more after their defeat: Losing, they find, wasn't entirely bad.

``A politician's life is very narrow,' Rich says. ``Suddenly they're freer. Those who don't feel broken end up with a real sense of liberation and freedom and down the road are very happy people.'

Michael Dukakis, who lost to George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988, also counts himself among those ranks. Dukakis has probably retreated furthest from the limelight since his defeat. He now teaches public policy and government at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Northeastern University in Boston.

The day after the elder Bush beat Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor walked back into the statehouse to serve out the end of his term. Having a job waiting for him cushioned his landing, he said, but it still took months for the physical effects of the campaign to go away. The emotional toll lingered, too.

``Part of the problem is you've been going nonstop for 18 months,' Dukakis recounted. ``Your time clock is all screwed up. Walter Mondale told me for months after he lost to Reagan he kept waking up at 2 a.m.'


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Dakota Stevens, 27, was found unresponsive but breathing inside a holding cell about 4:15 p.m. on Monday, the Guilford County Sheriff's Office said in a news release. Detention and medical staff started life-saving measures and EMS arrived about 4:25 p.m. to take Stevens to High Point Medical Center. He was later transferred to Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem where he died about 4:10 a.m. Tuesday, the sheriff's office said.

  • Updated

Early Monday, the Union County school board voted 8-1 to immediately stop COVID-19 contact tracing and significantly curtail coronavirus quarantine requirements. Against advice of Union County’s health department as well as state and federal recommendations on reducing COVID-19 risks in classrooms, the school district will not require quarantine for students even if they’ve been in contact ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News