“we are fellow Americans…”

This week’s issue of The New Yorker has a great exegesis of President-Elect Obama’s victory speech. (And yes, I know that word is usually reserved for religious texts.) But as great a night as it was, and as eloquent and moving a speech as it was – exactly what was needed at the end of a divisive campaign and the beginning of an era of historic change – for me, the most memorable speech-giving of the night happened an hour or so earlier, and half a continent away.

I did not vote for John McCain, but his concession speech was remarkable in its sincerity and humility. I can’t recall another concession speech in which the just-defeated candidate spoke so warmly and with such appreciation for the accomplishments of his opponent.

It reminded me of the John McCain I read about in a Vanity Fair article a couple of years ago*, talking in a speech about his imprisonment in Vietnam:

“Very far from here and long ago, I served with men of extraordinary character, honorable men, strong, principled, wise, compassionate, and loving men,” McCain told the students. “Better men than I, in more ways that I can number….Some of them were beaten terribly, and worse. Some were killed….Most often, they were tortured to compel them to make statements criticizing our country and the cause we had been asked to serve. Many times, their captors would briefly suspend the torture and try to persuade them to make a statement by promising that no one would hear what they said, or know that they had sacrificed their convictions. Just say it and we will spare you any more pain, they promised, and no one, no one will know. But the men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response, ‘I will know. I will know.’

“I wish that you will always hear the voice in your own heart, when you face hard decisions in your life, to hear it say to you, again and again, until it drowns out every other thought: ‘I will know. I will know. I will know.’ ”

If that John McCain had run in this election, the outcome would have been far closer – and perhaps not to my liking.

But at least that John McCain showed up on Election Night, to try to heal some of the divisions he and his campaign team exacerbated, and to point the way forward for us. The New York Times transcript captured it like this: ” ‘Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.’ (Cheers, applause.)”

*Unfortunately, the Vanity Fair web site only carries an extract of this article. Look it up in the original mag – “Prisoner of Conscience” by Todd S. Purdum, February 2007.

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