• The Speech Lightfoot Should Have Made

    • Posted on Nov 08, 1998


    To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to lose, a time to win, a time to concede, a time to gloat, a time to refrain from gloating.

    Election night always brings a bit of gloating and bit of conceding, and last Tuesday was no exception.

    The best candidates refrain from gloating, though all their instincts tell them to lay it on thick, to holler "I told you so!" a thousand different ways, and rub it in, maybe with a little salt to season the victory.

    Democrat Tom Vilsack, to his credit, didn't do that. Instead, he praised moderate Republicans for their support, thanking Republican opponent Jim Ross Lightfoot, and even commending Terry Branstad for his hard work and many years of service as governor.

    That was a nice touch, and surely reminded his supporters why they worked so hard for his election.

    Of course it's not much of a task to summon a bit of graciousness when you've won. The real challenge? Graciousness under fire, when you've lost.

    Lightfoot, sad to say, didn't conjure graciousness.

    Instead, he fought off tears, shook his finger at the camera and told his opponent that he had better remember he was elected governor of all the people, not the special interest groups that supported his campaign.

    Then he took a cheap shot at the Des Moines Register, suggesting that Register editors endorsed Vilsack because they had been on drugs. ("Now I know why the editors don't endorse drug testing," he said, trying to make a joke. Even his supporters didn't laugh.)

    He also referred bitterly to "Monday morning quarterbacks," meaning commentators who have never run for office, implying that they had no business criticizing him because they can't speak from experience.

    Of course, he would have had no trouble accepting their praises had he won. Chalk it up to understandable disappointment, which can lead to bitterness and cynicism.

    In any case, here's the concession speech I would have liked to have heard from Lightfoot:

    "It's clear now that we have lost. Like anyone in a close race, I wrote two speeches. The first was a victory speech, and I'm going to just give the first line of that one. "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!'

    "That's the way I feel, even as an election loser. Either way, I'm on vacation for awhile, thank God.

    "The second was a concession speech, which I'm also going to throw out, just because my speech writers wrote it, not me, and I don't agree it now.

    "They blamed the newspapers whose editorial writers came out against us. They blamed my opponent's personality. They blamed special interests, many of whom contributed big bucks to my opponent. And they even blamed the voters for not understanding our superior positions and intelligent stands on the issues.

    "To which I now say: We have no one to blame but ourselves. Mistakes were made. No, that's wrong. Let me rephrase: I made mistakes. It was my campaign and I take full responsibility.

    "I could have taken the high road, concentrating on what I have done, and more importantly what I plan to do for Iowa. I could have articulated a vision for Iowa that would have energized and galvanized the state for its march into the next century, concentrating on the environment, education, and the changing agricultural economy.

    "What did I do? I got lazy and complacent. I saw my big lead in the polls and just coasted. I thought the governorship was mine for the asking, and took the state's support for granted.

    "I even put out yard signs that proclaimed me as "Governor Lightfoot." That was my mistake, too. "

    And yes, I have to take responsibility for those silly nude juice bar ads, which I thought might turn voters off Vilsack. I now see that I underestimated voters, and for that I'm sorry.

    "Iowans may be conservative, but they aren't dumb.

    "So to all my campaign workers and supporters around the state, I apologize. I ran a lousy campaign, lost a huge lead, and inevitably (as I see now) the election.

    "And to be frank, I should have lost. In fact, my loss strengthens my faith in the electoral process. I now know that you really can't fool all the people all the time, and I'm thankful to the Vilsack people for reminding me.

    "Having learned that hard lesson, I will take time off, study the issues, and might return to politics another time, maybe a little sadder, but certainly much wiser."

    Had Lightfoot managed to make anything like that speech, he'd have supporters lined up to help with his next election.

    Of course, had he risen to that level of honesty during the campaign, a concession speech wouldn't have been necessary. 

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  • Heroes: Not all Deserve Title

    • Posted on Oct 31, 1998


    NASA announcer Lisa Malone intoned these words last Thursday as the Discovery Shuttle roared off: "We have lift-off of Discovery with a crew of six astronaut heroes and one American legend."

    It was a fine send-off, but "heroes" seemed a bit overstated. They're six highly trained technicians who love flying, competition and problem solving. They're almost certainly straight-A students, highly motivated, with supportive families. That makes them productive citizens and role models. But not quite heroes, at least yet.

    A hero is someone who goes above and beyond expectation, who does something for which they weren't well-trained and rehearsed, and who made a large positive difference, though they weren't required to.   

    Even John Glenn might not be a genuine hero given his 1962 three-orbit flight. Yes, he perched on a rocket that wasn't all that reliable and waited to either go up or out. If up, he might never get back. If out, he wouldn't feel much, but that could have meant the end of America's pride in its space program.

    Yet he had been trained for all that, and did exactly what they expected and hoped. Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, derided the whole program at the time. He called the astronauts "Spam in a can," and thought none of it mattered much.

    Chimps could do the same, because they only had to wait and hold on. Astronauts didn't really have much control over anything, truth be told.

    Still, back in 1962, computers that guided Glenn couldn't match even the lowliest desk-top these days, and all other systems were equally primitive.

    In other words, Glenn did, in fact, put his life on the line, and was worshiped as a "hero" at the time—so much so that JFK didn't want him to go up again, and that was the end of Glenn's astronaut career.

    Still, I maintain he just did his job, and did it well.

    Naturally Glenn was disappointed, but instead of lapsing into bitterness and spite (a tempting proposition for anyone in his position) he became a U.S. Senator. Now we're talking hero. He did the unexpected and made a positive contribution against the odds. I respected him more for being a good senator than an astronaut.

    Given Glenn's name recognition and clean-cut good looks, he made a reasonably distinguished career, though not stellar. If he were stellar, he would have been president by now.

    Then he began lobbying, hard, to become an astronaut again, and NASA finally conceded that sending him up again would have both scientific and PR value.

    And he was off, and up, and this is where "legend" comes in. Legend means far beyond expectation, breaking ground in ways that no one could imagine before. Hardly any heroes become legends.

    I'm now 55, and did have a minor musical career in the early '60s. Then I went off to do other things for the last thirty-odd years. Suppose I were to continue teaching and writing for another 20 years or so, until I was 75.

    If I could still stand up and form sentences, that would make me maybe an icon, or maybe a trail blazer, but not certainly a hero.

    Now suppose after retiring from teaching at 75, I went into training as a musician, and managed to land a real concert gig. At age 77, in 2020, I'd open to an approving crowd in, say Carnegie Hall. Now we're talking at least a minor legend.

    That's why Lisa Malone's term really does apply, and why we probably need to stand in awe of such a man. One would hope that because of Glenn, more of us consider alternatives to shuffle board and beachcombing.

    I'm even starting to wonder what a geezer musician might wear to open Carnegie Hall in 2020.

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