Historical memory will sometimes romanticize losers.
Robert E. Lee, Hannibal, Napoleon, Vercingetorix — all of them have a romantic glow about them in the minds of some. In this ‘Romantic’ narrative, all of them begin as significant underdogs, but through pluck and brilliance make Goliath quake. They nearly succeed, but then one mistake, or one setback of fate, and cruel reality overwhelms them. So, Lee would have won had Stuart been at Gettysburg, Napoleon would have won if it had not rained at Waterloo, Hannibal if he had attacked Rome after Cannae, and so on.
Life can sometimes imitate art, but it is usually messier. One can certainly make arguments for the causes of all of the military men I mentioned, but making them tragic heroes can blind us to reality. Were all of them really underdogs? Lee and Vercingetorix had many, many, advantages. Napoleon nearly always faced divided allies. Hannibal was not forced into choosing what amounted to an all or nothing strategy. Furthermore, failure on a grand scale like theirs can rarely be attributed to one event. All of them exhibited, to my mind, poor strategic thinking and were sunk not by fate but by their own choices.
Have you noticed that we don’t romanticize sports losers? No one waxes eloquent about Joe Flacco, loser in two AFC Championship games, or Donovan McNabb, loser in a variety of NFC champioship games and one Super Bowl. No one cares that Jake Delhomme nearly beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Commentators killed Miami for losing the NBA championship to Dallas. No romanticizing there. The list goes on. Perhaps the one exception I can think of might be Joe Frazier, but of course he beat Ali once, and was treated horribly by Ali in a way that should draw our sympathy. My wife brought up the point that we romanticize Dan Marino. Is there a common thread?
We also never romanticize political losers. Michael Dukakis? Who cares? McCain, Mondale, Dole, — I can’t think of one romanticized defeated candidate. The concept of gallantry amidst futility (or at least perceived futility) inspires admiration for some historical figures, but not political ones.
What can account for this difference? I have no answers, but would like some suggestions.