The last incumbent president to lose an election was George H.W. Bush in 1992. Like President Trump, the late Bush was a Republican. The similarities end there.
While Trump has spent the last several days defiantly refusing to concede his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, Bush exited the stage graciously.
Here’s what Bush, a patrician former vice president and CIA head, said on election night in 1992 from the lectern of a Houston hotel ballroom, when it became clear that Democrat Bill Clinton had won handily:
“The people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the democratic system,” Bush told supporters. “I just called Governor Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He did run a strong campaign. I wish him well in the White House, and I want the country to know that our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power.”
Contrast that with the words of Trump, whose campaign has launched multiple legal challenges to the result and who recently said that “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us."
No evidence of widespread voter fraud has emerged.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump from fanning the flames on Twitter, writing Wednesday that a Philadelphia city commissioner "refuses to look at a mountain of corruption & dishonesty. We win!”
Biden won Pennsylvania by about 47,000 votes, per the Associated Press tally.
“There is a big difference between President George H. W. Bush (and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter) vs. Donald Trump,” said Michael K. Fauntroy, an associate professor of political science at Howard University and former Congressional Research Service analyst, via e-mail.
Fauntroy called Bush and predecessors Ford and Carter “men of integrity" while saying Trump, “with authoritarian leanings and evidence of narcissism, has not shown a similar level of integrity. ... Who these men are is reflected in how they left office."
While Bush’s decency on election night in 1992 appears noteworthy in hindsight, Patrick J. Maney, a presidential historian who teaches at Boston College, said Wednesday that he wasn’t always beyond reproach during campaign season.
“It’s worth remembering that Bush’s two presidential campaigns — 1988 and 1992 ― did in some ways foreshadow Trump’s campaigns,” Maney said via e-mail. “In 1988, Bush race-baited Michael Dukakis and also disparaged his patriotism. The mastermind of Bush’s campaign, Lee Atwater, later apologized for the tactics. Bush never did."
Similarly, Maney continued, "Bush questioned Bill Clinton’s character and patriotism. So, while the elder Bush has become something of an iconic figure in recent years, it’s worth noting that he was a rough, no-holds-barred campaigner whose tactics coarsened American politics and in some ways paved the way for Trump.”
However, Maney added, Bush “could not have been more gracious” once he lost.
And Bush’s son, George W. Bush, was at the center of a hotly contested White House race in 2000 that went all the way to the US Supreme Court over a disputed ballot count in Florida, which Bush ultimately won by 537 votes.
But even during that bruising campaign, neither George W. Bush nor his opponent, Al Gore, came close to approaching Trump’s level of bombast publicly, said Bruce J. Schulman, a Boston University history professor who heads BU’s Institute for American Political History.
Schulman said via e-mail that while Bush was unhappy when Gore called him to retract his concession, setting off the legal battle, “both men made very circumspect public statements and, when the matter was settled in December, Gore gave an incredible gracious concession speech."
Vernon Burton, a history professor at Clemson University, said Wednesday via e-mail that the current state of affairs is “really unprecedented.”
Burton, author of “The Age of Lincoln,” said the elder Bush "and every other president” has "respected the democratic tradition, including Al Gore when the Supreme Court stepped in.”
Burton also cited the 2020 national popular vote margin, which AP has pegged at roughly 5 million votes in favor of Biden, as another factor that would normally tip the scales in favor of a dignified concession by the loser.
“But [Trump] is a person who is so narcissistic and self-involved and seems energized by chaos and havoc, and who has built his ‘brand’ before being elected president on winning, that we should probably not be surprised,” Burton wrote, adding that history “will not look favorably on the current President’s behavior.”
Nigel Hamilton, a senior fellow at UMass-Boston’s McCormack Graduate School who’s authored several books on US presidents including “American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush,” suggested the stakes could be higher than a historical legacy.
“I worry that the lights are going out on our nation as a democracy, which is defined by whether you can hold honest elections,” Hamilton said. “That is the ultimate test, or difference, between democracy and dictatorship.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.