WASHINGTON – One of the key characteristics of the Trump administration, especially in the last few months, has been the president’s ability to show how presidential norms are not laws, and traditions – particularly ones involving social graces – can and will be shirked.
Concede the election in a congratulatory phone call to the victor? Nope.
Concede at all? Not going to do it.
Welcome the president-elect and the incoming first lady to the White House? Unlikely.
Attend your successor’s inauguration? Not happening.
But as President Donald Trump’s term came to a close Wednesday, he embraced one tradition while ignoring so many others, leaving a note in the Oval Office for President-elect Joe Biden, White House spokesman Judd Deere told reporters.
The tradition started three decades ago with a silly illustration from a children’s book author. It was Jan. 20, 1989, and Ronald Reagan was passing the presidential baton to his vice president, George H.W. Bush. Before leaving the Oval Office, Reagan wrote a note on some stationery illustrated by Sandra K. Boynton, showing a cartoon elephant covered in turkeys, with the caption “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.”
The note read:
You’ll have moments when you want to use this particular stationery. Well go to it.
George I treasure the memorys [sic] we share and wish you all the very best. You’ll be in my prayers. God Bless You & Barbara. I’ll miss our Thursday lunches.
Exactly four years later, Bush found himself in a very different position. Unlike Reagan, who retired in glory after two terms, Bush had been voted out after one. He was being replaced by an opponent, not a friend. Still, in one of his last acts as president, Bush wrote a generous, graceful letter to incoming President Bill 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.
Good luck –
In a 2018 op-ed after Bush’s death, Clinton recalled the letter, writing: “No words of mine or others can better reveal the heart of who he was than those he wrote himself. He was an honorable, gracious and decent man. …”
Bush and Clinton later became friends when they worked together on tsunami relief in 2005. By that time, Bush’s son, George W. Bush, had become president and won a second term. Just as had been done for him, Clinton left the younger Bush a welcome note in the Oval Office.
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.
Obama administration officials have cited the Bush administration for an exceptionally smooth transition in 2009, despite it happening across party lines. That extended to family, too; Bush’s daughters Jenna and Barbara showed Malia and Sasha Obama around their new digs, and on Inauguration Day, Bush left the by-then obligatory note for incoming President Barack Obama.
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.
Things were a little different eight years later when Obama left his handwritten note for Trump. The first names – “Dear Bill,” “Dear George” – were gone; Obama addressed Trump as “Mr. President.” And the letter is more than twice the length of the others, which perhaps should not be a surprising, since his recent memoir is nearly 800 pages long (and it’s only the first volume!).
“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,
In his first sit-down interview as president, Trump told ABC News’s David Muir he appreciated the letter, saying, “It was long. It was complex. It was thoughtful. And it took time to do it. And I appreciated it. And I called him and thanked him.” Then he seemed to compare it to the ones that came before, adding, “You know, usually it’s, ‘Hey, good luck. Lots of luck. Have fun. Enjoy yourself.’ Right? I’ve seen ’em. I mean it’s like I- I saw another one recently where it was sort of that. No, this was a very well-thought-out letter.”
Now Trump’s final thoughts for Biden will make it into the archives, too.