Op-ed: Definition of Grace – Letter to Successor Presidents

There is a graceful tradition which is being followed in America from the last three decades where an outgoing American President leaves a congratulatory and advisory letter in the Oval Office for the upcoming president.

One of the most crucial aspects of a functioning democracy is the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. More importantly, such a transition is quite critical when it has to be transferred from one political party to rival party — that is also the ultimate expression of the rule of law. No doubt, elections are rough and transitions are emotional.

Losing is never easy. However, in a democratic society, even the tough and determined competitors put the country before themselves by initiating the quiet miracle, i.e. power transition, which really makes any democracy works. This act forms the bedrock of the democratic society.

The tradition of peacefully conceding power after votes has spread throughout the modern world, but the process in America still drives the global commitment to democracy and sets the example that others follow. Contrariwise, the advent of this decade witnessed such a disappointing scenario, when it took the outgoing US president more than 60 days to concede defeat in the November 2020 presidential election.

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During this time he and his allies filed and lost more than 60 lawsuits, sought and lost many full and partial recounts, denied Biden’s team routine transition access. In addition, eventually, incited a most shocking assault on American democracy by breaching the home of the US Congress for the first time since 1812, when the British attacked it during a war.

US Congress has eventually certified Joe Biden’s election victory on Thursday 07 Jan morning, hours after it was stormed, assaulted, and occupied by supporters incited by President Donald Trump’s false and baseless claims of poll fraud. A shocking attack on democracy has been described as an insurrection and was watched with horror around all hemispheres.

Vice-President Mike Pence, who presided over the joint session of Congress to certify the election, declared Biden had won the Electoral College by bringing down the curtain on his boss’s blatant disregard of democratic norms. Trump, whose Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts were suspended, issued a statement shortly after through a White House social media account, saying, “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless, there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.” Besides, he also announced that he would not attend the oath-taking ceremony of the new president.

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For all its screeching U-turns, endless shocks and jaw-dropping scandals, politics is equally as renowned for its traditions. One such tradition is being followed in US politics from last three decades is that the outgoing US president leaves his successor a letter offering both congratulations and various pearls of wisdom accrued from their time in the Oval Office.

Five letters have surfaced so far and each of the five letters, handwritten by an outgoing president and left in the Oval Office for the incoming president to find, teaches us about the essential decency required among civilized fraternity regardless of party and personal beliefs. Reagan wrote to Bush senior; Bush senior wrote to Clinton; Clinton to Bush junior; Bush junior to Obama; and Obama to Trump.

Each letter humanizes this small but monumental moment in the life of a democracy. Each note graciously acknowledges that one’s duty in office has ended, that it is now time to pass the immense power to someone else. Out of all those five letters, one of the most profound, magnanimous, bipartisan & dignified note is the one, which was left by President George H.W. Bush (republican) for President Bill Clinton (democrat) on January 20, 1993. Because at that time power was being transferred from one political party to the rival party without securing the second consecutive tenure for Bush senior like this time.

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One can just love reading and rereading this letter from Bush senior to Clinton, that he left on the way out. There is not only grace demonstrated here, but also a sense of oneness that America is one of greatest countries in the world, and its President carries that weight and also recognizing that there are negative challenges and difficult times ahead.

This letter is proof of a person’s integrity and utmost grace and respect for the process of peaceful transfer of political power. The will to leave your personal needs aside, and acknowledge the needs of the country. This letter should serve as an inspiration to all leaders and public officials. Be respectful, be accountable and be united for a greater good beyond self-ego after all respect can only be attained when it is given (willingly), and not when it is demanded. Grace is easy to recognize, and something we all aspire to practice, yet so rare to see.

It is clearly demonstrated from the letter that even in the face of defeat, Bush holds out the hand of kindness and courtesy. It is a shame for politicians today who sometimes ignore the lessons of those who have already walked the same path. It is high time that everyone should go through all these letters and observe that when all is said and done, ultimately, human decency, delivered with grace, is what shines through and sets the right example to follow.

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The prioritizing of these human emotions and behaviors ahead of political persuasions and rhetoric is the only way to move forward. Different ideologies are obvious and natural but this is how you accept such differences that demonstrate true grace.

Imagine this being expressed now as mentioned in the letter that, “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good Luck. George”. What a stark contrast to what is happening today. Every action and offensive behavior conducted by Donald Trump has confirmed an illustration that Trump presidency deems burdensome for people of the United States of America.

Sadly, in modern times the one characteristic that is missing more often than not when compared to generations of the past is civility. It would be nice to return to civility in politics. While we may disagree on issues, we can still treat each other with respect and dignity.

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Being gracious gives you the opportunity to be humble in accepting defeat. Loss defines you as a person than a win. When there is a win, there is also a loss. It is so sad to see what is transpiring when Trump could have shown that he is more than what all say about him – a petty and egoistic person. Hope current generation learn from his behavior of what not to be. One cannot imagine this kind of note being left for President Biden. Which is a real shame. It is not about the dynamics of the election – it is about recognizing that all in public office serve at the will of the people and that the will of the people is a fickle and unpredictable master.

Biden won the election – to continue to argue against this is to undermine the democratic values that the worlds look to America to uphold. Undoubtedly, a key part of the democratic process is humility in victory and grace in defeat – to lose sight of this is to lose sight of democracy itself and plays into the hands of those intent on destroying it. Political reverence is the most valuable tool since it’s made of a lot of other skills like empathy, intelligence, capacity to plan future, analysis of weakness and strengths of others, etc. Sometimes we are not sure whether we are moving these days towards progress or we are just devolving into a Cyber-stone Age.

This letter vividly hints to celebrate the rise of purpose and the spirit of service by leading a country and all its citizens and residents and leaving it in better condition than when you came into power, for the next generation.

Saud Bin Ahsen is Post-Grad student of Public Administration at Institute of Administrative Sciences (IAS), University of the Punjab, Lahore. He is interested in Comparative Public Administration, Post-Colonial Literature, and South Asian Politics. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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