Among the many moments of President Bush’s life celebrated last week, I have a particular reason to focus on November 3, 1992, when Bush delivered what to me were the most important words of his presidency: “The people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the democratic system.”
When I heard those words I broke into tears – because I had returned that day from working on democracy in Africa, where people were literally dying to hear words like those from their leaders. I watched that concession speech with colleagues who likewise were devoted to helping countries build democracies. For us, a concession perhaps thought perfunctory by the mainstream captured everything we hoped to help others achieve.
At the time Bush gave that speech, the vast majority of countries, in Africa and around the world, had never seen a leader in power acknowledge defeat and step down, a leader accept with grace the sovereign power of the people.
Relinquishing power does not come naturally to humans. As King George sings in Hamilton, “I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.” Democracy requires many things, but none more important than this willing departure from power. Perhaps this is America’s greatest innovation and greatest gift to the world.
Of course degrees of grace in departure have varied. George Washington’s noble example was followed only four years later by John Adams stuffing the government with last minute appointees and riding off at 3:00am.
But it is perhaps our current times that make us most wonder if we are losing this key ingredient in the democracy recipe. We have a president who refused to commit to supporting the winner of his party primary and strongly hinted he would not accept the results of the presidential election if he lost. As President Bush lay in state, his party in Wisconsin voted to strip powers from the office soon to be occupied by the winning governor, following a model set in North Carolina last year.
In Africa, concession speeches, though still regrettably rare, are no longer an impossible dream. The work of helping new democracies around the world, which was wholeheartedly supported by Bush and other Presidents, has borne fruit. Many countries have succeeded in asserting the fundamental sovereignty of the people.
Democracies make war less, trade more, and generate massively fewer refugees. It is absolutely in our self-interest, as most selfishly defined, to want the fragile new democracies of the world to thrive.
Whether we like it or not, ours is the system new democracies benchmark themselves against; when we degrade our institutions and our democratic civility, it reverberates around the world to the detriment of us all.
George Bush is often praised for recognizing that those he opposed politically were his opponents, not his enemies. Perhaps we could remember his legacy by establishing a new coda for candidates to use in commercials: “I approve this message, and the people I’m running against are my opponents, not my enemies.”
Some way or another, we must restore in our country the full value of the gift that we have given to so many others.