In the time since former U.S. president George H. W. Bush’s death, as people absorb the fact of his life’s ending and ruminate over what his life stood for, one of the most widely-shared elements of his legacy has been the letter he left on the desk in the Oval Office for incoming president Bill Clinton. “You will be our President when you read this note,” Bush wrote. “I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
It would be a mistake to see this letter as only an exercise in courtesy or a losing contestant’s sportsmanship, or as relevant only within America or amid the domain of politics. This gesture of goodwill toward an incoming president of the opposite party, who defeated the sitting president no less, must be seen in full for what it is. It is a deep realization of one of democracy’s greatest, most difficult aspirations, and a profound bulwark in one of the most fundamental struggles of American history and politics, world history and politics, and the human condition on the collective level.
That struggle is the endeavor to secure a peaceful, respectful transition of power, one that subordinates any one figure’s self-interest to the well-being and peace of all — a project that is in jeopardy today more than in a long time.
As long as centralized power has existed, the problem of how to pass it on has persisted. Many of the world’s most enduring stories plumb how dark such conflicts can be, and thus spotlight the urgent human need for respectful succession.
One such story is King David’s death, as narrated in the Hebrew Bible. The young Solomon faces a mortal threat from his coup-launching brother Adonijah. With David’s blessing, Solomon nonetheless becomes king, and offers his rival clemency — only to find Adonijah still agitating for the throne. Solomon orders the death of his would-be fratricidal killer.
Similarly, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius knows he can kill the king, his brother and Hamlet’s father, and seize the kingship for himself; and so he does. Hamlet is left to decide how to respond, a dilemma so agonizing it drives him to debate the most basic choice of life itself: “To be or not to be.”
Modern democracy represents a new commitment to implementing succession ideally. The principle of the people’s choosing a leader necessitates that when the people choose a new leader, the prior leader must let him or her govern. And in turn, the ideal of peaceful transition of power, while it does not necessitate democracy, reinforces democracy, as it calls for some basis of legitimacy for a ruler’s rule other than might’s making right.
But principles do not translate themselves into practice. Only human beings can do so.
The great, first modern touchstone success in this regard was the handover of power by John Adams, the second president of the United States, to Thomas Jefferson. Unlike President George Washington and his successor in Adams, Adams and Jefferson belonged to opposing political parties. Adams, a sitting one-term president, did not wish to yield power.
Yet he did. Historian Matthew Costello recounts the scene: “On the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, President Adams quietly vacated the President’s House at four in the morning. Several historians have suggested that Adams left early because he believed his presence might provoke violence.”
“I Pray Heaven To Bestow The Best Of Blessings On This House And All that shall hereafter Inhabit it,” Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail Adams. “May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof.” He wrote that letter amid the 1800 election, and thus as a statement of goodwill to his “hereafter” successor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered this statement so central to American political aspirations that he had it literally carved in stone in the White House’s State Dining Room.
Following Bush’s death, a word that has been on many people’s tongues to describe him is “decent.” Bill Clinton called him “honorable, gracious and decent.” House Speaker Paul Ryan portrayed Bush as “leading with decency and integrity.”
Like any administration, Bush’s was more complex. When the time is right, we must again remember the Reagan-Bush Administrations’ response to the AIDS epidemic, the Willie Horton ad, and other issues in that vein.
But perhaps what these words reflect most is Bush’s deep commitment to peaceful transfer of power as a cornerstone of democracy and humanity.
Why is that commitment so celebrated now? Because it is in danger now.
Then-candidate Donald Trump, when asked if he would accept the 2016 U.S. presidential election’s result should he lose to Hillary Clinton, said: “I will look at it at the time. I will keep you in suspense.” Trump has called the election “rigged” and undermined by “fraud” and “bias” — both before the election; and even after he won, but perhaps not by the margins for which he had wished.
The stakes for America are high. With Trump so on record, it is a serious possibility that Trump would not accept a 2020 loss, and would not hand over power with respect and, yes, decency. Those who doubt that such disrespect could spawn violence need only look at the explosive packages recently sent to Trump critics, and the far-right violence in Pittsburgh, Kentucky, and Tallahassee.
But not only are the stakes high for America; they are high for the world. Consider the story of when U.S. President John F. Kennedy said to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, “I was elected by the Jews of New York … I will do something for you,” and Ben-Gurion replied, “You must do whatever is good for the free world.”
Of all the comments Ben-Gurion could have made to deflect Kennedy’s ethnically essentialist quid pro quo, it is significant that Ben-Gurion chose this one. Ben-Gurion knew that the structural integrity of the free world depends on America and its leadership. When an American president speaks, the world listens. When an American president is sturdy and stands for liberal democracy, the free world is bolstered. When an American president is unstable or wavers on liberal democracy, the free world shakes.
While much of this dynamic arose out of World War II’s aftermath, much of it dates back to America’s very founding. As John Winthrop, future first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said in 1630 to the passengers of the ship Arbella, “[W]e must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” While Winthrop’s context was one of settlement and faith (the phrase, “a city upon a hill” is from Matthew 5:14), American political culture would soon transmute this spirit into the secular faith of democracy.
To this day, what happens in America is watched intently by a wide variety of people worldwide. There are liberals amid rising xenophobia in countries like Britain and France; there are those in Israel fighting over whether to respond to the country’s very real challenges and threats with democratic moves or illiberal-tilting moves. There are pro-democracy dissidents in un-free states like Russia, Iran, and China; there are the leaders of those un-free states, wondering who will stand up to them, if anyone; there are the leaders of developing countries, wondering whether democracy or autocracy will carry the 21st century, and which model their own country should follow.
Amid these conditions, Bush’s gesture of support for Clinton was world-fortifying. Though a private gesture at the time, it was one more beam in the infrastructure of the world’s democratic order, which was supported and expanded by Bush’s presidency in historic ways — from America’s decisively prevailing over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, to its protecting Kuwait from Iraqi aggression, and Bush’s building a genuine coalition to do so. So too, the world’s democratic order was supported and empowered, in one way or another, by all U.S. administrations from World War II through President Obama’s tenure (not to say that administrations did not at times make mistakes, even grave mistakes, in how they did so).
Trump’s undermining free and fair elections in America, by contrast, is world-shaking. Clear and present for all to see, it sends a message — like much of Trump’s language and policy, from his demonizing journalists to his undercutting NATO, from his praising Putin to his taking an ultra-hard line on Hispanic asylum seekers — that the American leadership’s commitment to liberal democracy and peace, at home and abroad alike, is beginning to unravel.
When Bush wrote his letter to Clinton, he “cement[ed] a modern presidential tradition,” The New York Times wrote. Bush was the first-ever president to leave such a letter for a successor of an opposing party (the first president to leave such a letter at all being Reagan for Bush). “Future White House occupants made it a tradition,” the Times reported.
America, and any democratic state in the modern world, is “a republic, if you can keep it,” as Benjamin Franklin said. The same precariousness pertains to the democratic world order itself. Words and actions like those of Bush’s letter are the kind we must demand from our leaders if we are to fulfill the better side of Franklin’s wager.