The Worst Wait.

Inside views of presidential candidate anxiety. By Elizabeth Mitchell

John F. Kennedy tracking election results in Hyannis Port, Mass., on morning of Nov. 9, 1960, the day after vote but before Nixon conceded. (Image taken from the book “The Kennedy Years,” Viking Press.) Credit: Jacques Lowe

Election night cooks up a unique tension. The result means the victory of one person. But it also holds sway over people around the globe. In few instances does the outcome of an event profoundly change one individual’s life while altering the fate of millions.

So how have presidential candidates absorbed that high-stakes moment? Their responses are often not what you would expect. On election night 1864, Lincoln waited to hear if he would secure a second term. After more than forty months of Civil War carnage and many hundreds of thousands of casualties, the American people went to the polls to specifically decide if Lincoln would continue the war or if his Democrat challenger, former Union general George McClellan, would shift strategies. The War Department engaged in questionable politicking, throwing its whole muscle behind reelection.

Unsettling results: George W. Bush watches election night returns in 2000 with family at the Texas Governor’s Mansion. (credit: David Hume Kennerly/Center for Creative Photography/University of Arizona)

“The political struggle was most intense, and the interest taken in it, both in the White House and in the War Department, was almost painful,” recalled the Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana.

You might think that, under the circumstances, revered President Lincoln would spend those hours while waiting the results crafting a memorable victory speech. Or perhaps he would be on his knees praying for the nation should he lose. But instead, Lincoln sat in the office of his War Secretary Edwin Stanton and, as the returns came in, Lincoln pulled out a humor pamphlet and began sharing passages. After enduring these recitations throughout the night, Stanton could stand it no longer. He pulled Dana into a side room and vented his fury. “The idea that when the safety of the republic was thus at issue,” Dana recalled, “when the control of an empire was to be determined by a few figures brought in by the telegraph, the leader, the man most deeply concerned, not merely for himself but for his country, could turn

Ronald Reagan was so surprised by his quick landslide victory against Carter, he took Carter’s concession call wearing nothing but a towel from the shower.

aside to read such balderdash and to laugh at such frivolous jests was, to his mind, repugnant, even damnable.” But Dana had an explanation. That was the only way Lincoln had to blow off steam. Everyone has to blow off steam somehow.”

Sometimes, the presidential candidates get caught on election night in the midst of being human when the decisive news comes in. Presidential historian Carl Sferrazza-Anthony points out that Warren G. Harding was celebrating with a birthday cake, and Ronald Reagan was so surprised by his quick landslide victory against Carter, he took Carter’s concession call wearing nothing but a towel from the shower while a toweled Nancy looked on.

Ronald Reagan with wife Nancy receiving Walter Mondale’s concession call in 1984. (Ronald Reagan library)

David Hume Kennerly covered 13 presidential elections as a photojournalist for Life, Newsweek, the White House, and CNN among others. He remembers President Gerald Ford, facing his first presidential election night after filling out Nixon’s second term. On election day, Ford spent an emotional morning in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, voting and admiring a new mural that depicted scenes of his life. The painting left Ford, who had endured his early years with an abusive father and been saved by a loving stepfather, who served as a Navy lieutenant commander in World War II, among other pivotal events, in tears. Ford seemed hopeful he would win, but back at the White House, having blown out his voice in a last two weeks of barnstorming the country, Ford watched possible defeat. He went to bed with

Bush looked stunned. “He took it back,” he blurted out to Kennerly.

that defeat unconfirmed. When Kennerly returned to the White House at 5:30 the next morning, he wandered through the near silent White House and up to the residency. He found Ford sitting alone in the dining room eating breakfast with the TV on, dressed to go down to the Oval Office. A solitary American man by appearances, facing a normal, dull day. Kennerly acknowledged that they’d had it.

“Yes, I am afraid so,” Ford rasped out.

After Betty Ford read her husband’s concession speech in his stead, everyone left the Oval Office except for Ford and Terry O’Donnell, his personal aide. Ford wrapped his arm around O’Donnell and said, “You know I’ve never really thanked you for all you’ve done for me,” which caused the two non-presidents in the room to cry. That was Ford’s style, even with news of his defeat fresh.

Kennerly remembers too the multiple nights of presidential decision in 2000. He had taken a photo of a suddenly distinguished-looking George W. Bush preparing his acceptance speech on November 7, then watched the whipsaw changes of fate unfold from vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney’s suite. Cheney had gone to bed, asking to be woken if anything happened. When news networks declared a key Bush victory in Florida, Cheney had to be woken, shirt untucked, looking a mess. He seemed less joyful than stunned, as if he were thinking ‘now we’re really going to have to do this.’ They headed over to the mid-19th century Governor’s mansion, where people crowded the small rooms smoking cigars and celebrating. Bush had already received Gore’s concession call and was in a corner by the stairway scolding his daughters that they needed to wear their coats when they went outside for the acceptance speech. Time ticked by with Gore not publicly conceding. Barbara Bush declared herself “too old” for the waiting game and went upstairs to bed. Partiers left and the press got kicked out. Finally a call came for Bush upstairs. As Kennerly, who had lingered, went looking for a glass of water in the kitchen, Bush reappeared down the backstairs. He looked stunned. “He took it back,” he blurted out to Kennerly.

“Who took what back?”

Bush told him.

Faced with a historic first, Kennerly said the first thing that came to mind: “Well, that sucks.”

Kennerly found it interesting that Bush never seemed angry, just shocked.

Looking back at those times, Kennerly says he certainly felt the gravity of the moment. He also sought and found the human drama through the lens. But the fact that an election night holds such impact from the personal to the global has never seemed so real as it does now.

Kennerly had covered the last days of the Trump campaign in 2016 and the election night party at the Hilton when he saw a grim expression on Trump’s face throughout, even in the face of victory. Seen through the lens, with no sound, an observer would think he had lost.

This year is different. “When you see what Trump has done and how one person in that office can so profoundly impact everyone on every level,” Kennerly says. “I don’t think I ever looked at the presidency quite that way

“It’s kind of a cliché, ‘This is the most important election in history.’ Well, I happen to agree with that this time.”

before.” Having won the Pulitzer for his coverage of the Vietnam War, Kennerly witnessed White House power — including that war and Ford taking us out. One man’s wish can change so much. For example, Ford had sent Kennerly to Vietnam on a mission to show him the fallout of the war there and Ford had been so moved by the humanity of those photos, he initiated an effort that brought over a hundred thousand war-stranded Vietnamese people into this country during his term alone. “It shows the power of the presidency, if you say it, you can make it happen,” Kennerly says, “which is always great if it’s a noble cause. But now it gives you the idea of what damage can be done by these people. It’s kind of a cliché, ‘this is the most important election in history.’ Well, I happen to agree with that this time. Usually, it’s hyperbole to a degree, but this time it’s not.”

Elizabeth Mitchell is the author of LINCOLN’S LIE: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street, and the White House and the former executive editor of the political magazine, George.

Elizabeth Mitchell is a journalist and author of LINCOLN’S LIE: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street and the White House (Oct 2020)