When Joe Biden entered the Oval Office on January 20, 2021 as the newly sworn US President, he was amazed. Because he found a letter from his predecessor on the desk.
In the past few weeks, Donald Trump had staged an unprecedented campaign to deny his election defeat, spread a number of electoral fraud lies, instigated a violent uprising at the Capitol and finally boycotted Biden's inauguration. In previous years, too, Trump had broken pretty much all the rules of political Washington. It was all the more surprising that he had continued the decades-old tradition of leaving a handwritten note for his successor. What had Trump written - perhaps an insult in the style of his many wild tweets? Biden was only to comment vaguely on this later.
Until 2021, there was no such guesswork: the so-called transition letters from the US presidents were published verbatim in a timely manner. They are exciting to read, as they highlight the people in office and illustrate a main principle of American democracy: that the President relinquishes his enormous power in a civilized manner - whether to party friends or political opponents.
It all started with Ronald Reagan in 1989. The quick-witted and down-to-earth Great Communicator presented his former Vice President George H.W. Bush put a whimsical note in the drawer of the Resolute Desk, illustrated with a drawing by cartoonist Sandra K. Boynton. The picture showed an elephant (the US Republican mascot) in the predicament of being surrounded and overrun by turkeys and the message, “Don't let the turkeys get you down”.
Below it, Reagan wrote in a scrawly, chummy tone: "Dear George, you will have moments when you will want to use this very letterhead. Well, just do it. George, I cherish our memories together and wish you the very best. You will be in my prayers. God bless you and Barbara. I will miss our Thursday lunches. Ron"
In contrast to Reagan, who handed over the presidency to his party colleague Bush after two terms (more is not allowed in the USA), the latter had to swallow the bitter pill of being forced out of office by Democrat Bill Clinton after just four years. Bush had had to break his promise not to raise taxes, the economy was in a bad way - a through ball for Clinton's successful election campaign (his slogan: "It's the economy, stupid!"). The vote-out proved a fair loser, handwriting some comradely words to Clinton that seemed to come from the heart:
“Dear Bill, As I walked into this office earlier, I felt the same wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will too. I wish you great happiness here. I have never felt the loneliness that some presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made worse by criticism you find unfair. I'm not very good at giving advice, but don't let critics discourage you or throw you off course. You will be our president by reading this message. I wish you all the best. I wish your family all the best. Your success is now the success of our country. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you. Good luck - George"
Clinton was indeed to experience a turbulent term in office (keyword: Lewinsky scandal). It's possible that Bush's words sometimes went through his head. Nevertheless, he remained popular, the economy was booming (we remember: "It's the economy, stupid!"), and he was re-elected. However, his successor was not Vice President Al Gore, but of all things the son of his predecessor: the Republican George W. Bush.
Clinton's team allowed themselves a few pranks when handing over office; among other things, the letter "W" is said to have been broken out of many keyboards. However, in the January 2001 letter from the outgoing President, there were no such jokes. In his distinctive, slightly slanted handwriting, Clinton wrote:
“Dear George, Today you embark on the greatest undertaking, the greatest honor that can be bestowed on an American citizen. Like me, you are exceptionally fortunate to be leading our country at 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, need to be answered anew. You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day forward, you are the President of all of us. I greet you and wish you success and lots of joy. The burden on your shoulders is great, but often exaggerated. The sheer happiness of doing what you think is right is beyond words. My prayers are with you and your family. godspeed Kind regards, Bill”
Eight years later it was Bush's turn to draft a letter to his successor. He had led the country through difficult times after September 11, 2001 and in the meantime received enormous approval. But by the end of his second term, the United States was embroiled in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his poll ratings had plummeted, and criticism was pouring down on him from many quarters.
Barack Obama had repeatedly and harshly criticized him in his "Yes, we can!" election campaign. Bush nevertheless wrote a collegial line to Obama. But a few sentences hinted at how much it must have affected him to be so defensive at the end of his presidency:
“Dear Barack, congratulations on the presidency. You are about to begin 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 this moment and the challenges you will have to face. There will be challenging moments. The critics will rage. Your 'friends' will disappoint you. But you have the comfort of an almighty God, a family that loves you and a country that keeps its fingers crossed for you, myself included. No matter what comes, the character and compassion of the people you lead now will inspire you. God bless you. Kind regards, GW”
Interestingly, Bush's twin daughters wrote their own letter, not to Barack Obama but to his daughters. Barbara and Jenna, then 27, gave Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10, tips on living in the White House: It's important to surround yourself with "loyal friends," to appreciate pets, and most importantly, "Don't forget , who your dad really is.” At the end of Obama's presidency, the Bush daughters even sent a second letter with advice for “afterlife”.
Obama's January 2017 letter to Donald Trump was significantly longer and more polished than those of his predecessors. On the one hand, this may be due to the fact that the master rhetorician rarely tended to be brief (the first volume of his autobiography "A Promised Land" alone has 700 pages in the original), on the other hand he apparently felt obliged to the political newcomer Speaking strongly to Trump's conscience.
Unlike his predecessors, Obama did not address his successor by his first name, but formally with “Mr. President”. Obama warned not to ignore the needs and concerns of poorer families; he emphasized that American leadership in world politics is irreplaceable. The international order must be maintained, also in order to maintain one's own prosperity and security.
The president, who was only elected for a limited period of time, is the protector of democratic institutions and traditions - "the rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil rights" must be safeguarded. "It is up to us to leave the instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them."
However, Obama's words apparently made little impression on Trump, should he even have read the letter carefully to the end - as president he was notorious for ignoring memos or at best skimming them.
And Trump's letter to Biden? It hasn't been published yet. Biden told reporters only that the letter was "very generous"; However, since it was of a private nature, he did not want to reveal more about it without consulting Trump. Internally, he is said to have remarked that the letter was even "frighteningly benevolent". Whatever that means for Trump.
You can also find "World History" on Facebook. We are happy about a like.