September 19th, 2020


On A Sad Note, Even Notes Between Presidents Aren't What They Used To Be

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Sept. 7, 2017

On A Sad Note, Even Notes Between Presidents Aren't What They Used To Be

In a White House that leaks worse than most colanders, it's surprising that it took this long (226 days since Donald Trump took office) to learn what advice Barack Obama left to his successor.

Not that it was worth the wait. If anything, the letter is a reminder of two unappealing aspects of the Obama presidency, the first being rhetorical overkill.

Obama devotes 270 words - two words fewer than Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - in essence, to say very little of great heft. Like many an Obama missive, it's a hard push to sound noble without leaving behind anything terribly trenchant or memorable.

Obama congratulated Trump on his "run" (as opposed to his victory), admits that any advice he has to dispense may not be very helpful (not that it stopped him from prattling on), says it's up to the fellow in the Oval Office to help lift the fortunes of all Americans, offers a reminder that presidential leadership is indispensable in a complicated world (well, duh), and friends and family time are important.

Cherry on the sundae: Obama references ideals and guarantees that, not coincidentally, progressives fear Trump will menace - rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties.

Which is too much: these notes are supposed to be a pat on the back, not a warning that the new president is on notice.

Here's the full text, in case you're curious:

"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."

My second nit to pick: the Obama letter isn't suitably "Bush League".

Whereas Bush 43 and Bush 41 addressed their successors by their first names ("Dear Barack", "Dear Bill"), Obama chose the icier "Mister President".

At least he didn't add a question mark . . .

Back in January 2009, here's what 43 left behind for 44 (in all of 100 words):

"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."

In January 1993, here's what 41 left behind for 42 (grand sum of 117 words):

"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."

Note that last sentence. There is nothing in Obama's letter that approaches the elder Bush's graciousness. To be fair, Trump doesn't exactly engender kindness (although he did call what Obama wrote, "a beautiful letter"). But consider what all H.W. Bush had to process in January 1993 - evicted from the White House in favor of someone who wasn't his match in terms of personal integrity or life experience.

Speaking of Bill Clinton, the same president whose State of The Union Addresses averaged an interminable 74 minutes - 12 minutes more than Obama's, 22 minutes more than Bush 43 and 29 minutes more than Bush 41 - got the job done in 119 words.

Here's his letter, which also addressed the new president by his first name:

"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."

By the way, the one president who turns out to be a man of few words (just 45 of them): Ronald Reagan. His note to Bush 41 was written on stationery bearing the legend: "Don't let the turkeys get you down."

Accompanied by these words: "You'll have moments when you want to use this particular stationery. Well, go to it. George, I treasure the memories we share and wish you all the very best. You'll be in my prayers. God bless you and Barbara. I'll miss our Thursday lunches. Ron."

Not that I'd expect Trump to limit his advice to the 46th President of the United States to a mere 45 words. It's barely one-third of one tweet.

Will he be gracious, resist the temptation to make a political point, or do something as simply polite as addressing his successor by his first name?

Such is where we stand in 2017.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.