I always enjoy Thanksgiving, but I’m particularly going to savor this year’s in light of the midterm elections. They surfaced something beautiful and decent and vitally important in the soul of the nation. It was a readiness to defend the core of our democracy — our ability to peacefully and legitimately transfer power — when it was under imminent threat by Donald Trump and his imitators.
Had we lost our commitment to the solemn obligation that one party smoothly hands off power to another, we’d be totally lost as a country today. But instead, democracy was reaffirmed. Enough Americans — principled Republicans, Democrats and independents — sorted through their ballots and rejected almost all of the high-profile Trumpist election deniers for major state and federal offices.
In “using the tools of democracy to protect democracy,” as Vox put it, they reconnected the country with something deep in our heritage — that losers concede gracefully and move on, and winners win gracefully and govern. In celebration of that tradition, I offer these five readings for your Thanksgiving table:
Sept. 19, 1796, excerpts from President George Washington’s Farewell Address, explaining that he would not seek a third term and the most important lessons he had learned:
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquillity at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize. … You should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness. … With such powerful and obvious motives to union affecting all parts of our country … there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands. …
“The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the constitution which at any time exists, until changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
Dec. 13, 2000, Al Gore’s concession speech after the Supreme Court effectively handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush:
“Good evening. Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. … Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency: ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’ Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country. Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly, neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy. …
“The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends. …
“This is America, and we put country before party; we will stand together behind our new president. … As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe, as my father once said, that ‘no matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out. …’
“And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others: It’s time for me to go.”
Dec. 13, 2000, George W. Bush’s speech accepting Al Gore’s concession:
“Vice President Gore and I put our hearts and hopes into our campaigns. We both gave it our all. We shared similar emotions, so I understand how difficult this moment must be for Vice President Gore and his family. He has a distinguished record of service to our country as a congressman, a senator and a vice president. This evening I received a gracious call from the vice president. We agreed to meet early next week in Washington, and we agreed to do our best to heal our country after this hard-fought contest.
“Tonight I want to thank all the thousands of volunteers and campaign workers who worked so hard on my behalf. I also salute the vice president and his supporters for waging a spirited campaign. And I thank him for a call that I know was difficult to make. …
“I have something else to ask you, to ask every American. I ask for you to pray for this great nation. I ask for your prayers for leaders from both parties. I thank you for your prayers for me and my family, and I ask you to pray for Vice President Gore and his family.”
In his memoir “A Promised Land,” President Barack Obama recalled six words that he shared with his staff on April 27, 2011, after holding a news conference at the White House announcing the release of his long-form birth certificate to end the bogus but distracting claims by Trump, and other “carnival barkers,” that he was not born in the U.S.:
“I exited through the sliding doors that led back into the communications team’s offices, where I encountered a group of junior members of our press shop who’d been watching my remarks on a TV monitor. They all looked to be in their 20s. Some had worked on my campaign; others had only recently joined the administration, compelled by the idea of serving their country. I stopped and made eye contact with each one of them.
“‘We’re better than this,’ I said. ‘Remember that.’”
June 9, 2022, Representative Liz Cheney’s opening statement at the House Jan. 6 committee’s initial public hearing:
“Tonight, I am going to describe for you some of what our committee has learned and highlight initial findings you will see this month in our hearings. As you hear this, all Americans should keep in mind this fact: On the morning of Jan. 6, President Donald Trump’s intention was to remain president of the United States despite the lawful outcome of the 2020 election and in violation of his constitutional obligation to relinquish power. Over multiple months, Donald Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election and prevent the transfer of presidential power. In our hearings, you will see evidence of each element of this plan. …
“There is a reason why people serving in our government take an oath to the Constitution. As our founding fathers recognized, democracy is fragile. People in positions of public trust are duty-bound to defend it — to step forward when action is required. … That oath must mean something. Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
In July 2021, I interviewed Liz Cheney in front of an audience. While we disagreed on many policy issues, I was so taken by her willingness to risk her seat in Congress to defend the Constitution from Trump’s attacks — something so few Republicans were willing to do. At the end, I just shook my head and asked her how there could be only one of her.
She just shook her head back.
Well, it turns out that Liz Cheney had a lot more supporters than we thought. The midterms demonstrated that her message — and that of other leaders with integrity — had gotten through to enough Americans to make a difference. And it got through precisely because it tapped into a deep vein in our country’s history. For that we have much to be thankful for this year.
God bless America, and happy Thanksgiving.
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