The US political class has long prided itself on the peaceful transition of power. Donald Trump – not so much.
The outgoing president broke just about every presidential norm in the book during his one term in office, including refusing to attend Joe Biden’s inauguration.
It’s not entirely unprecedented as he’ll be the fourth US president to boycott his successor’s swearing in, but it is the first time in more than 150 years.
But there’s another – less visible – tradition that Trump says he is unlikely to participate in.
It’s become customary for the outgoing president to leave a handwritten note in the desk drawer in the Oval Office for the man or woman replacing them.
The notes are typically heartfelt and personal, with past presidents seeking to impart the kernel of wisdom that comes from experience.
According to Axios, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy urged Trump to follow the tradition in a terse phone call last week.
The president reportedly told him he hadn’t decided whether he would leave a note for Biden.
Given Trump has refused to concede defeat and continues to spread lies that the election was stolen, it’s hardly surprising that he has reportedly balked at the idea.
But it would prove to be a break in a tradition often celebrated by former presidents, the media and historians alike.
Obama’s letter to Trump
Despite their at times acrimonious relationship, Trump called the letter left to him by his predecessor Barack Obama “beautiful” and “thoughtful”.
“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,” Obama wrote to Trump.
The 44th president dispensed some advice and urged his successor to uphold the international system that has emerged since the Cold War, as well as protect democratic norms.
“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,” Obama reminded Trump.
The letters have been a bright light of bipartisanship and political harmony in a political system that has become increasingly toxic and defined by division.
In the letter left for Obama by George W. Bush, the outgoing Republican said he was rooting for the Democrat who made history as the first black man to be elected president.
“There will be trying moments. The critics will rage,” his letter read.
“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.”
The history of the handwritten presidential letter
In 1993, following a particularly partisan election campaign, George H.W Bush left a note for the incoming Democrat leader Bill Clinton, a surprising show of unity that cemented the tradition that has persisted ever since.
It came after his fellow Republican Ronald Reagan had left a letter for Bush four years earlier.
“It was a sort of a revelation that a note like this was left,” Jim Bendat, author of Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, told the Associated Press.
“We’ve come to expect them. It’s a great tradition. It’s one of those new traditions. And the traditions for Inauguration Day are like that — they often evolve through the years.”
— Bush Library (@Bush41Library) October 21, 2016
In the days following the Capitol Hill riots in Washington DC, the charitable organisation of the former president recalled his letter and the tradition that it helped spark.
“A good day to be reminded of this moment from January 1993,” the George & Barbara Foundation noted.
The letter to Clinton wished him “great happiness”.
“I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described,” he wrote.
“Just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.”
A good day to be reminded of this moment from January 1993. pic.twitter.com/niWeoKdhkR
— George & Barbara Bush Foundation (@BushFdn) January 7, 2021
President described ‘sheer joy’ of the job
In his letter to George W. Bush, Bill Clinton described the immense pleasure he enjoyed from his time in office.
“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,” he wrote.
“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.”
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