To whom it may concern
Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Just as any other recurring event, the transition and inauguration are fraught with tradition. There are those dictated by the Constitution: the time and manner in which a new president is to be handed power, dating back to George Washington. And there are those that are much more informal, such as the precedent set by Mary Todd Lincoln of wearing a white gown to the Inaugural Ball.
There are few traditions that interest me more, however, than the assorted letters written by those leaving for those arriving. This is a tradition, depending on the position, dating back to the founding of our country.
The most mysterious of the bunch, of course, is the letter sealed and left on the oval desk by the outgoing president. What does it say, and to what effect? In leaving the White House, James Buchanan reportedly said to Abraham Lincoln, “If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am in leaving it, then you are a truly happy man.” While I’m not sure Mr. Bush’s will be quite as explicit, I can’t help but imagine that the letter is written as a warning of the difficulties and trials facing the newest member of the world’s most exclusive club.
It will warn of the inevitable time when the honeymoon wears off and the press again turns rabid. It will talk about the inevitable failures of the presidency: having new legislature blocked and Congress call your bluff. And it will foretell the times when the tasks at hand become nearly impossible, and that it is probably in these times that sentiments similar to Buchanan’s arise. It might talk about the difficulty of being a mere mortal, but being compared to some of the immortals of history, those whose faults history has long forgotten.
In recent months, Mr. Bush has seemed to become far more introspective and reflective of his time in office, as I’m sure outgoing presidents are, and it’s perhaps in this simple letter he can find the only audience who will soon be able to understand his travails.
There is also the distinct possibility that I am completely wrong, and it mostly just advises to be cautious of the second floor toilet; that sometimes it’s necessary to jiggle the handle.
Another instance of letter passing that I find amusing is the Flack Jacket, a suit coat hanging in the office of the White House press secretary that holds in its pockets words of advice from every former press secretary dating back to Ron Nessen of the Ford administration. Allegedly the job of press secretary is second in difficulty job only to the chief executive himself, so I’m sure the advice left in the jacket is appreciated.
What might the collective group of outgoing Bush administration front men leave as advice for Robert Gibbs? I imagine Ari Fleischer would warn against getting thrown under the bus, and to beware anything related to undercover CIA agents and corrupt vice presidential chiefs of staff.
Scott McClellan probably talked about the horrors of working in the White House, and may have even mentioned future intent to make a fool out of himself. He might have explained the difficulties of working in an environment where a conflict of conscience can arise. But he certainly didn’t allude to confronting those issues; it’s better to wait and make a hefty profit.
The latest secretary, Dana Perino, most likely would give the best piece of information: Beware speaking off the cuff, and keep it simple. That way you can avoid proclaiming, in reference to Mr. Bush’s low poll numbers, “Both the president and the vice president have long believed, and it’s a part of what has made them the leaders that they are, which is not to chase popularity polls but to hold themselves to a standard that requires people not to like them.” Ouch.
The newest, and perhaps my favorite incarnation of the letter writing tradition began this cycle when the Bush twins penned a letter of advice for the incoming Obama girls, Sasha and Malia. Speculation is not necessary for this letter; it was quickly reported and published along with some of the highlights. The girls warned that over time people will come to think differently, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, but to always remember who your father is, not the sketch or image in the newspapers.
They emphasized the “magical” aspects of living in the White House. I’m not entirely sure how the “magical” experiences of the 27 year old twins, who were 18 and going to college at inauguration, wholly relate to 7 year old Sasha and 10 year old Malia, but I’m sure they have something to offer.
They emphasized the importance of first daughter experiences, such as sliding “down the banister of the solarium … and playing sardines on the White House lawn.” I actually also heard there was an unpublished postscript: Until you’re 21, watch the bar scene. With a full secret service escort, you’ll draw some attention.
That’s probably the most prudent advice of all.
Jason Coleman is a junior majoring in management. He can be contacted at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.