I spent the last 24 hours of the last midterm elections clutching a pocket folder with two sets of index cards inside. On one set was printed a victory speech no one outside our campaign thought we were going to need. On the other was a concession speech I hadn't even shown the guy who might have to deliver it that night, like it was his own eulogy.
Four years ago I was writing speeches for Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Majority Leader and the Republicans' biggest target. He was in the fight of his career and our internal surveys had us cautiously optimistic. But if you read just about any public poll, the smart money said the better Election Night party was going to be in our opponent's ballroom down the Las Vegas Strip from ours.
Every campaign staffer's to-do list swells by the hour as the countdown on the wall withers by the day. From the trenches, it's a tension as acute as the greater fight between your candidate and the other guy. At the end, two contradictory tasks wait to be crossed off the speechwriter's to-do list:
1) Write victory speech.
2) Write concession speech.
Writing the first feels like you're jinxing it. Writing the second feels counterintuitive. The ritual of writing both election night speeches, after the years of planning and months of polling, is perhaps the most tangible demonstration that no one really knows what's going to happen.
2010's midterms looked a lot like today's. The country was in an anti-incumbent mood. Republicans were licking their chops as Democrats braced for big losses. So as I sat down to tackle the first speech, the context felt as important as the content.
While it might have been tempting to gloat, our candidate's win would be tempered by many of his colleagues' losses and a frustrated electorate. Nobody likes the guy who wins the office pool and tries to high five the coworkers he just beat -- and anyway that wasn't Reid's style. As he'd said throughout the campaign, there were still too many Nevadans out of work, at risk of foreclosure, or worried about how they would pay their tuition. Their problems didn't go away when the polls closed, so striking the right note would be everything.
We sought to follow legendary coach John Wooden's advice: "Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat." That was easy in Reid's case; he was humble and gracious round the clock. He was eager to thank his family and supporters, and to reassure Nevadans that he wasn't done fighting.
An amateur boxer in his youth, we scripted a metaphor likening the race that had just been called to a bell that had just been rung in the ring. Describing it not as the end of the match but merely the beginning of the next round, Reid told the crowd to "enjoy tonight, but tomorrow it's back to work for the people of Nevada."
I closed my laptop and took a lap around the parking lot to clear my head and imagine the worst. After so little sleep and with so much on the line, it was hard to think about losing -- let alone to put it in words. So I thought of the speech as an umbrella, convincing myself that if I didn't write it, it'd be certain we'd need it.
If carefully calibrating the tone of a victory speech is important for your next term, getting a concession speech right is critical for your legacy. Al Gore nailed it in 2000, exhibiting a grace that must have been painful to summon. Hillary Clinton's "18 million cracks" honored her supporters' accomplishment, the elusive nomination notwithstanding. Later that year, John McCain reminded the country of the election's significance and in doing so reminded so many why they respected his decades of service. "Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth," he said.
But in the lowest moment of your career, such empathy isn't always easy for candidates or their staff to conjure. When Richard Nixon lost his bid for governor in 1962, his self-pitying "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" was more sour than statesmanlike, forgetting that elections are about voters more than candidates. In 2012, Mitt Romney didn't bother to write a second speech, and it showed.
I tried to channel Gore's and McCain's humility -- and their brevity. In just north of 300 words, the speech would acknowledge the work of Reid's volunteers and the choice of Nevada's voters.
I emailed the concession speech down the hall to my colleague Kristen, who sat next to the one campaign printer that could spit out speeches on the 5" x 8" cards Leader Reid liked. As she silently handed them to me, we shared a look that military aides must exchange when they hand off the nuclear football: Good to have it, but let's hope for humanity's sake we never have to use it.
Around 8 p.m. my phone buzzed. It was an email from my colleague Jon, telling me to come to the senator's hotel suite and that I only need to bring "the good speech." Leader Reid calmly scribbled and scrawled on the cards, adding here and subtracting there while taking congratulatory phone calls from everyone from Barack Obama to Barry Manilow.
As for the other speech: to this day Kristen is the only other person who's ever seen it. Some things are better left unread. But I'm glad we packed that umbrella.
Stephen Krupin leads the executive communications practice at SKDKnickerbocker. He was chief speechwriter for Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, and President Obama's re-election campaign.