There was a time when the purpose of American politics was to get useful things done for the largest possible number of Americans. There was a shared understanding of the institutions of government and how it should work. President George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday, was the embodiment of that ideal, and his letter to incoming president Bill Clinton is the most personal affirmation of what it feels like to be the president and the head of the American system of government. Reviewing the eloquent and human letters that subsequent presidents have left for their successors shows the value of this tradition.
Here’s what George H.W. Bush wrote to Clinton.
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.
There is little in the way of substance here. But imagine, for a moment, that you are Bill Clinton sitting down at your desk in the Oval Office and reading this note. The messages here — that the responsibility is awesome, that it can be lonely, that presidents must persevere in the face of criticism, and that presidents represent all the people — are a great way for president to start his term.
Here are the letters that subsequent presidents sent to their successors — you can see George H.W. Bush’s influence at work. This is what Bill Clinton wrote to George W. Bush:
January 20, 2001
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.
Here’s what George W. Bush wrote to Barack Obama:
Jan 20, 2009
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.
And finally, here is what Obama wrote to Donald Trump (the handwritten version does not appear to be available anywhere):
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,
What the most powerful people in the world write is instructive
There is very little that a president can say to his successor about policy that hasn’t already been aired out in countless debates. What’s left are, of course, platitudes about the presidency.
Even so, a president’s choice about what personal experiences to share with his successor reveal that the essence of the presidency is about how leaders deal with their own human emotions as they make momentous decisions and speak to the people they lead.
There is a reminder here: No matter how important you imagine yourself to be, your role is temporary, and your responsibility is to share your humanity. If presidents can do this for each other, so can you.