I know that things are very bad for a lot of Americans this holiday season, so I hope people will forgive me for my good cheer. Perhaps it’s all the hope and change in the air these days, or maybe it’s just my defeat-induced life of unemployed leisure, but I have been filled with a warm and fuzzy feeling. First, there was John McCain’s exquisite concession speech.
Drafted by Mark Salter, and handed to him on election night in a somber suite at the Biltmore hotel in Phoenix, the speech set a new standard for grace in defeat. That night, as we waited for the polls to close so Senator McCain could publicly concede the election to Barack Obama, McCain said to Salter, “It’s your best ever, my boy, your best ever.” The pit in my stomach turned into a lump in my throat. The journey that Salter and McCain had been on together for so many years had come to an end. For those of us who joined the campaign after John McCain won the nomination, there was always a feeling that we’d missed the really good part (and the really bad, as I’m sure those who were with him for the duration would say). That night, those closest to McCain—including Salter and other campaign aides, his wife, Cindy, and friends Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman—seemed to feel the same mix of disappointment and relief.
I just spent a day with senior Obama campaign officials at a post-election debriefing. Having attended the same session four years ago, where we were sneered and snapped at by Bob Shrum, I was prepared for the worst.
The speech sent a powerful signal around the world about the strength of our democracy. It also opened the door for the McCains to return, unscathed, to their previous lives of impressive service—Cindy McCain as an advocate for international aid and relief efforts, and John McCain as a powerful, pragmatic senator known, liked, and respected by a sizable swath of Democrats, Republicans, the media, and world leaders.
Then there was Barack Obama’s “pardon” of Joe Lieberman. It was the right thing for Barack Obama to do for a man who simply stood up for what—and who—he believed in. But in the hyper-political environment we were all digging out of, it was still impressive. Without Obama’s leadership, I can’t imagine Harry Reid and his colleagues coming to a similar conclusion.
And a little closer to home, I just spent a day with senior Obama campaign officials at a post-election debriefing. Steve Schmidt, Bill McInturff, Mark Wallace, and I joined David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Anita Dunn, and others to discuss the campaigns we’d waged against each other. Having attended the same session four years ago, where we were sneered and snapped at by Bob Shrum, I was prepared for the worst. I found team Obama to be confident and extremely satisfied with their victory, but also smart, curious, interesting, and, for the most part, gracious. As a veteran of the Bush 2004 campaign, I was especially heartened to hear David Plouffe credit the Bush 2004 model as an inspiration.
But some of the most heartwarming stories I’ve heard this holiday season are the ones that have leaked out of both the East and West wings of the White House about George and Laura Bush, two people whose grace has gone under-reported and unappreciated for too long. After the Obamas' first trip to the White House, where, as has been widely reported, the Bushes welcomed the Obamas with genuine warmth and excitement, Laura Bush has thrown open the residence for further inspection by the Obama family. According to Democratic sources, both George and Laura Bush have offered support and reassurance to the Obama family about life in the biggest fish bowl in the world. Michelle Obama has already benefited from a well-timed lifeline thrown to her by Laura Bush during the campaign. This wasn’t a political calculation, or an effort to be part of the story. Laura Bush simply saw an opportunity to extend a little compassion to someone who needed it.
George Bush reportedly fought back tears at a recent holiday gathering with advance staff—the unsung heroes of any White House. According to one former staffer who attended, Bush choked up as he thanked them for their years of service. I saw something similar four years ago when, on Election Day 2004, with the outcome far from certain, President Bush walked up to every staff member on Air Force One and thanked them for their tireless work on his behalf. The Bushes have invited former staffers back to the White House this holiday season for one last visit to the place we called home for 70-hour work weeks. I will cherish one last stroll through the grand rooms, one last photo by the Christmas tree, one last look at the East Room as it sparkles with holiday lights and decorations, and one last opportunity to bask in the glow of their grace.
Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May 2008 to November 2008. Prior to joining the McCain campaign, she worked as a political analyst at CBS News. She served George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House from January 2005 to June 2006, as communications director for President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, and as special assistant to the president and director of media affairs at the White House.