It was almost inevitable that a Trump-hating media became focused on the absence of any reference to Joe Biden in the President’s farewell address. Truth be told, I thought it strange as well, even a little churlish, and it sent me – the curious type – to do the research. I found that it is actually not uncommon at all for little or no reference to be made by an outgoing President to the incoming one. Indeed, Trump’s sole reference to his successor – he referred to the next President as the “new administration” – was arguably the most expansive and flowery of all his predecessors. He said: “This week, we inaugurate a new administration and pray for its success in keeping America safe and prosperous. We extend our best wishes, and we also want them to have luck — a very important word.”
Let’s compare Trump’s salutations with those of prior presidents as they left office and bid farewell to the nation.
As it turns out, Jimmy Carter in his White House farewell speech in 1981 made no mention at all of Ronald Reagan, calling him just “President-elect,” and Carter, like Trump, served one term and had to hand over power to the opponent who defeated him. But Dwight Eisenhower, turning the reins over to a Democratic president in 1961, who had beaten Ike’s own Vice-President (also a dubious election), made no explicit reference to John F. Kennedy, just terming him “the new president.” He wished JFK “God speed.” Carter wished the nameless successor “success” in addition to Godspeed (“speed” here meaning “prosper”).
By contrast, Harry Truman in 1953 mentioned Ike five times, each time calling him “General Eisenhower.” That, too, represented the transference of power to the other party, as happened as well in 1969. In Lyndon Johnson’s farewell, LBJ mentioned Richard Nixon thrice and was quite extravagant in his wishes. In the context of a State of the Union address delivered in Congress, LBJ said:
“President-elect Nixon, in the days ahead, is going to need your understanding, just as I did. And he is entitled to have it. I hope every Member will remember that the burdens he will bear as our President, will be borne for all of us. Each of us should try not to increase these burdens for the sake of narrow personal or partisan advantage.” He didn’t wish Nixon well.
Richard Nixon had a singular farewell address that preceded his resignation but Gerald Ford (in 1977) mentioned Jimmy Carter just once, and almost cavalierly, combining his congratulations to Congress, especially its new members, “as I did President-elect Carter.” That’s it.
In 1989, Ronald Reagan, in a beautifully reflective speech about America, noted towards the end of it that “if we’re to finish the job, Reagan’s regiments will have to become the Bush brigades. Soon he’ll be the chief, and he’ll need you every bit as much as I did.” That’s it. No other reference, and that was the friendliest transfer in the last 90 years.
Certainly, both the Bush presidents were known for their graciousness and Southern manners. Nevertheless, George H.W. Bush, delivering his farewell address at West Point in 1993, also mentioned Bill Clinton somewhat offhandedly, remarking that ,“ I am proud to pass on to my successor, President-elect Clinton, a military second to none.” The focus was on the military – not on the newcomer who had defeated him.
Eight years later, in 2001, Bill Clinton, in 2001, after the hotly contested election of 2000, became the first (and to date only) president to actually use his successor’s full name, “wishing our very best to the next president, George W. Bush.” George W. Bush in 2009 stated that “I join all Americans in offering best wishes to President-elect Obama.” But in none of these cases was anything else addressed directly to their predecessors; their focus was on their administration and their aspirations for America.
In 2017, Barack Obama omitted what had become the customary good or best “wishes” merely noting – to a crowd in Chicago that was jeering – that “I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.” That was it. It is a shame that Obama neglected to mention to the FBI his desire for a smooth transition.
In any event, the standard farewell address includes expressions of gratitude for members of one’s own administration, staff and family, with an account of successes, and usually a reflection about where America is and should be going. Most presidents listed at least some of what they perceived as their accomplishments; LBJ went further, and urged Nixon to adopt some of his policies. Trump’s three blessings to the new but unnamed administration exceed those of all his predecessors.
Of course, President Trump broke with tradition in a number of ways, not the best look all in all. He is shunning the inauguration, which is not that shocking given the hostility towards him on Capitol Hill. The presence of former presidents does signal the peaceful transition of power and the stability of American democracy. It also attests to the great skill of politicians who can sit and smile at people they despise even as their eyes shoot daggers. Whether Trump honorably refuses to play the political hypocrite or is just a sore loser probably depends on your politics.
On the other hand, it would have been proper to call Joe Biden or invite him to the White House for a meeting, anytime in the last two weeks, if not two months. This is not for practical reasons – the bureaucracies are cooperating and Trump never had control over the FBI so Biden need not fear that – but for reasons of decorum and good taste. It need not have been televised but it is appropriate to signify somehow a peaceful change in administrations. Alas it was not to be. In a week or two, none of this will matter but since at least part of Trump’s immediate future rests in Biden’s hands, it would have been worthwhile to meet discreetly and exchange thoughts about the future. About the past, they will never agree.
None of the presidents in their speeches went overboard on graciousness. That is surprising, until we realize the anguish they must feel in going instantaneously from being the center of attention and the most powerful man in the free world to being a historical sideshow. That is certainly not meant as a rationalization, as graciousness in public life should be a minimum expectation of our leaders. But the content of these orations make it clear that for one last brief and shining moment, they want the spotlight all to themselves.
Interestingly, the amicability of the transitions appears to be unrelated to the verbiage used toward one’s successor in these farewell addresses. As Trump himself noted, he is the first non-politician (or ex-general) ever elected to the presidency. He came with none of the feigned sincerity, the practiced smiles or the phony geniality that good politicians project. That was his strength as well a weakness, among other strengths and weaknesses that the years to come will surely chronicle.