“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.”
It doesn’t sound like a note that a politician would write to the man who had just defeated him in a hotly contested election for the highest office in the nation just a few months prior, yet these are the exact words penned by President George Herbert Walker Bush to his successor, newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton, on January 20, 1993. Many of the tributes to the former president, who passed away on December 1, 2018, recounted the story of this note as evidence of the character of the man, of his grace and humility. Although this specific tradition is relatively recent and not written in the Constitution, Bush’s words are emblematic of the peaceful transition of power maintained by our Constitutional system. Although not always without acrimony or bitterness, faith in our democracy and its institutions has helped ensure a stable system of governance for more than two centuries.
In this eLesson, students will explore the importance of character traits like humility and respect in the individuals who hold public office and how commitment to the rule of law has sustained the executive branch throughout the country’s history.
Ask students to read GHW Bush’s note to Bill Clinton and make a list of the character traits that come to mind in one column. Then have them read all the letters from the last three presidents to their successors and list the qualities under a separate column for each. Ask students to reflect on and answer the questions below. It may be helpful to add some commentary around the context of each election. The Florida recount and the Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore in 2000, for example, or that President Bush’s party lost the executive branch after eight years in 2008, or the acrimony surrounding the 2016 presidential elections. How are the letters similar to and different from one another? What are the themes of republican/representative government, public service, and responsibility present in these letters? How does the respect for the office and a peaceful transition of power, reflected in these letters and this tradition, help to maintain the Constitution? When your students have completed the exercise, hold a class discussion about their responses and consider the following additional questions: What is the importance of a peaceful transition of power? How does respect for the office of the Presidency help maintain the office? This is a relatively new tradition, but are there similar traditions that have defined the norms of governance throughout our nation’s history? What is the relationship between tradition and our system of government?
Read the four letters below and note the character traits (like humility, courage, respect, and responsibility) you believe are reflected by their words, writing them in the margins where you find them. As you reflect on these character traits, write down answers to the following questions:
- How are the letters similar to and different from one another?
- What are themes of republican/representative government, public service, and duty present in these letters?
- How does the respect for the office and a peaceful transition of power, reflected in these letters and this tradition, help to maintain the Constitution?
January 20, 1993
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- George
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.
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.
January 20, 2017
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 eight 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, BO