Sunday, September 03, 2017

Transition Letters

CNN has released a copy of the note Barack Obama left for Donald Trump in the Oval Office. This is a tradition dating back some time. (Even the NYT is vague on this point--"part of a long tradition"--and my four minutes of Googling did not reveal how long.) We now have the four most recent, and while they all contain a similar spirit, they are also wonderful reflections of the men who wrote them. Here they are, with a bit of commentary.

George HW Bush to Bill Clinton, 122 words
The elder Bush was famously laconic, not atypical for WWII-era military men. It illustrates Bush's habit of mentioning slightly awkward things in the midst of very pro forma communications, some of them quite revealing. In the longest passage of this short note, he wanders into what is clearly a fresh bruise as he was leaving office--the constant criticism. The comment about loneliness also seems apt for a Greatest Generation president.

JANUARY 20, 1993  

Dear Bill,  

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.  

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.  

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I'm not a very good one to give advice; but just don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course.  

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you.  

Good Luck — 

Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, 122 words
Nobody enjoyed being president more than Bill Clinton--evident in his final paragraph. Not only does he look back on his burdens as exaggerated--for a president who managed to get impeached, they were not insubstantial!--but "sheer joy" is not what the presidency looks like from here. It's also amusing to see him offer a bit of the old Clinton spin there in the second paragraph.

JANUARY 20, 2001

Dear George, 
Today you embark on the greatest venture, with the greatest honor, that can come to an American citizen.  

Like me, you are especially fortunate to lead our country in a time of profound and largely positive change, when old questions, not just about the role of government, but about the very nature of our nation, must be answered anew.  

You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are President of all of us. I salute you and wish you success and much happiness.  

The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible. My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed.  


George W. Bush to Barack Obama, 107 words
Of course Dubya's note was the shortest of the bunch; of Bush few will say, "he was an eloquent man of words." His note to Obama is nevertheless both revealing and surprisingly personal. Bush betrays not just the hurt he felt, but his approach to dealing with it (God and family), both of which seem totally consistent with how he governed. Both he and Obama signed with their initials, an interesting coincidence.

January 20, 2009

Dear Barack, 

Congratulations on becoming our President. You have just begun a fantastic chapter in your life. 
Very few have had the honor of knowing the responsibility you now feel. Very few know the excitement of the moment and the challenges you will face.  

There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your "friends" will disappoint you. But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me. No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead.  

God bless you.  


Barack Obama to Donald Trump, 279 words
Obama is one of the few presidents whose natural mode is writing, not speaking, so it's no surprise his note is more than twice as long as any of the others. It's unusual in a few ways, though that's largely because of the unusual figure inheriting the job. His four pieces of advice are very specific and pointed (and lawyerly), and I can't imagine him giving any of this advice to Hillary Clinton or even Ted Cruz. His note is undated, uniquely among the group, and also uniquely, mentions both wives (Michelle and Melania) specifically. In much shorter notes, the other three presidents divulged more of themselves than Obama, the most guarded president in my lifetime. Finally, more than the other presidents, Obama understands and frames the role in historical context (which is unusual; you'd think they'd all have that top of mind as they left the White House for the final time).

Dear Mr. President - 
Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure. 

This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don't know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years. 

First, we've both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It's up to us to do everything we can (to) build more ladders of success for every child and family that's willing to work hard. 

Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It's up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that's expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend. 

Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions -- like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties -- that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it's up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them. 

And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They'll get you through the inevitable rough patches. 

Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can. 

Good luck and Godspeed, 

Will Trump be in office to write a letter to his successor? Will he have the capacity to understand why such a small act is important and follow through on it? We'll see. Meanwhile, I leave you with images of the letters. Trump has not released the Obama letter, but you can see him brandishing it in the final photo. 

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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