Contrary to what my beloved junior high coach taught us, defeat does not build character. However, defeat can often reveal character. So, too, can victory reveal character, as it seemed to do late on a December Tuesday night in a raucous ballroom at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel.
There we saw a happy winner who declined to pump his fist in self-congratulatory pleasure but rather insisted on giving credit to others. He would not stop thanking — by name — family members, friends and campaign staffers for the win.
He was optimistic, repeating his belief that he and all those either listening or not have more things in common than they have issues that divide them, adding, “This campaign has been about common courtesy and decency and making sure everyone in this state, regardless of which ZIP code you live in, is going to get a fair shake in life.”
It was not a speech schoolchildren will be required to learn. It was no threat to the eloquence of President Kennedy or President Reagan. Doug Jones, the upset winner of the special election in Alabama for the U.S. Senate, did not pretend his triumph was cosmic in its significance.
It — and the campaign — had been about the “issues of health care and jobs.” He made but a single request of his new Senate colleagues: “Take this opportunity, in light of this election, and go ahead and fund that CHIP program before I get up there ... Let’s do it for those million kids and 150,000 here in Birmingham.”
CHIP stands for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provided medical care for the 9 million children of America’s working poor families — those who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to be able to buy private coverage — until federal funding expired Sept. 30. Congress, of course, has been too busy feverishly laboring on a tax bill that will finally lift the onerous, unjust burdens shouldered so heroically by hedge fund billionaires and their companies.
The speech did invoke the memory of the martyr who, more than a half-century earlier, braving the clubs and the guns of state troopers and racist thugs, had led the historic 54-mile march from brutally segregated Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, in support of a federal voting rights law. Giving credit to all, Jones said the folks in the room and the people of Alabama had made progress toward proving Martin Luther King’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The late civil rights champion Howell Heflin, a former three-term Democratic senator and chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who successfully nominated the first African-American to become a federal judge in Alabama and for whom Jones had once worked as a Senate staffer, was also rightly saluted. Heflin was a wise and witty man. One time, at a luncheon of Democratic senators who had been gossiping nervously about an embarrassing National Enquirer photo of their then-unmarried colleague Ted Kennedy in a boat on the water apparently making love to an unidentified woman, Heflin effectively broke the tension and carried the day with this original line after Kennedy walked in: “Well, Teddy, I see you’ve changed your position on offshore drilling.”
What was missing from Jones’ Birmingham victory speech may actually be more important than what was in it. The winner did not trash his opponent. He did not preen or gloat. Nor did he attack or demonize any group. Mercifully, Jones just gave the rest of us a normal, grown-up speech.