U.S. Presidents Leave Letters For Their Successors – And Here Are The Messages They Contain

The President of the United States is a job like no other. It’s perhaps why ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, every man vacating the position has left a handover note to their successor. And in some cases, these words of wisdom tell you more about the POTUS in question than any political speech.

Every U.S. presidential election, in accordance with the country’s constitution, must be staged on the first Tuesday after the first of November. However, should the reigning POTUS be defeated or be coming to the end of his second term, then he doesn’t have to move out of the White House straight away. In fact, he can have up to 78 days to say his goodbyes.

So why is there such a lengthy wait for the handover to take place? Well, if the president has been elected for the first time, it’s not just his own position he has to think about. Yes, he needs to select hundreds of American citizens while assembling his government.

This mammoth task includes the 30 key members of his staff at the White House such as the national security adviser, U.S. trade representative and press secretary. And the majority of these decisions are made in private meetings, with little information drip fed to the press. Incredibly, these decisions can often make or break a presidential reign before it’s even properly begun.

Of course, the outgoing president still has his duties to fulfil before he can start a new life. And the farewell address is often considered one of the most important. The tradition began in 1796 when the inaugural POTUS, George Washington, put his name to a 32-page goodbye letter in the American Daily Advertiser. Alongside revealing his reasons for leaving the post after two terms, the founding father asked the nation to uphold the values of patriotism, neutrality and unity.

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Now, Washington didn’t actually write the letter himself. Instead, statesman Alexander Hamilton was tasked with echoing the president’s words. He did such a good job that no other POTUS delivered a farewell address until the seventh in 1837. And Andrew Jackson sure made up for his predecessors. At 8,247 words, his message remains the lengthiest farewell in presidential history.

However, thanks to the advent of TV and radio, presidents from the mid-20th century onward have been able to speak to the nation directly. In 1953 Harry Truman revived the concept when he discussed the more controversial aspects of his White House stint from the Oval Office. His successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, is deemed to have delivered the most well-known presidential farewell, urging the U.S. military to keep the peace.

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Even the disgrace of the Watergate scandal didn’t stop Richard Nixon from bidding farewell to the American public in 1974. In fact, he delivered two speeches before finally leaving the White House. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan opted for a bittersweet tone with his address in 1989, stating, “parting is such sweet sorrow.”

In 2001 Bill Clinton boasted about his achievements during his time in power but also pleaded for Americans to treat those from diverse communities equally. On his departure eight years later, George W. Bush even found the time to compliment his successor. Indeed, he described Barack Obama’s victory as a “moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.”

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Of course, the presidential farewell isn’t the only notable correspondence that the outgoing POTUS has to prepare before he eventually leaves the White House. For you see, since 1989 each president has chosen to pen a handover letter to their successor. And some of them make for very interesting reading, indeed.

That’s right, and Ronald Reagan began the tradition in 1989 when he wrote a jovial note to the incoming George H. W. Bush. The former Hollywood star used stationery emblazoned with the quip, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” This message was also accompanied by the Republican symbol, an elephant, being climbed on by a bunch of turkeys.

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George H.W. Bush’s handover to Bill Clinton

Bush was so delighted by this handover that he wrote his own to Bill Clinton when he left the White House in 1993. However, the 41st opted for something a little more heartfelt. He began, “Dear Bill, When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.”

“I wish you great happiness here,” Bush continued. “I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.”

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Bush concluded his handover, “You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck – George.” He left the note for Clinton on Inauguration Day on the Oval Office’s Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Desk.

Many were surprised that the president had left such a touching note to his fiercest rival. But presidential historian Mark D. Updegrove told The New York Times in 2018 that this letter said a lot about the man who wrote it. Speaking in the wake of Bush’s death, the author said, “It showed to me that he was a citizen – not a partisan.”

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What’s more, this particular letter was addressed by Bush in his 1999 book, All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings. The former president revealed that he penned the note while sitting in the Oval Office alone at an entirely empty desk. And he explained why his words read so sincerely.

Bush went on to recall, “I leave a note on the desk for Bill Clinton. It looks a little lonely sitting there. I don’t want it to be overly dramatic, but I did want him to know that I would be rooting for him.” So how did Bush’s successor respond to such a gesture?

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Well, Clinton appeared to have been entirely charmed by the handover note. The 42nd even referred to it in a column he wrote for The Washington Post shortly after Bush’s death in 2018. He stated that it was the sign of an, “honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future.”

Clinton’s wife Hillary also appeared to be touched by Bush’s kind letter. In fact, she shared the 41st’s words during the final stages of her unsuccessful bid for the presidency 23 years later. The former First Lady wanted to remind the American public how important it is to restore civility no matter the outcome of the election.

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Who knows whether the letter was responsible for starting a beautiful, if unlikely, new friendship? Indeed, despite their opposing political views, Bush and Clinton went on to become buds following their respective stints in the White House. Also, they joined forces to help raise millions for the victims of both the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina.

What’s more, following Bush’s passing, his heartfelt handover message was shared countless times on social media. Many commented on how the respectful and considerate tone was worlds apart from the current political climate. Clinton deputy chief of staff Jon Davidson tweeted, “The note he left behind in the Oval Office for President Clinton when he transitioned out of office is a great reminder of what a true statesman he was.”

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For many, Bush’s presidency was defined by his handling of the invasion of Kuwait led by Saddam Hussein in 1990. The 41st was applauded for the national coalition he created and military strike he instigated which ultimately drove the Iraqi dictator out. In contrast, his successor’s stay in the White House is best remembered for a major scandal.

Yes, in 1998 Clinton was impeached for telling investigators lies about the nature of his relationship with a young intern. Initially, the president had denied having an affair with Monica Lewinsky, who at the time was aged just 22. His remark of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” is considered one of the most famous in modern American politics.

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Bill Clinton’s handover to George W. Bush

Unsurprisingly, Clinton didn’t allude to his extra-marital indiscretion when he continued the handover note tradition in 2001. Instead, the 42nd chose to sign off his two terms with a sense of optimism about the future of the country. Of course, the recipient this time around would also have received some invaluable advice much closer to home.

Indeed, just eight years after his father had vacated the presidential hot seat, George W. Bush was elected the 43rd POTUS. Nevertheless, the man nicknamed Dubya would no doubt still have appreciated the hand-written gesture from Clinton. It began, “Dear George. Today you embark on the greatest venture, with the greatest honor, that can come to an American citizen.”

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Clinton continued, “Like me, you are especially fortunate to lead our country in 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, must be answered anew. You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are President of all of us.”

“I salute you and wish you success and much happiness,” Clinton added as he began to wrap up his farewell message. “The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible. My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed. Sincerely, Bill.”

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Of course, Bush would soon learn about the great burdens that a president can face. Just eight months after his inauguration ceremony, the 43rd would be forced to deal with the tragedy of 9/11. The deadly terrorist attacks resulted in one of the darkest days in modern American history.

Interestingly, Clinton’s handover note was only made public for the first time in 2017. You see, the letter was released by the National Archives and Records Administration alongside that of his successor. So what words of wisdom did George W. Bush impart to the first African-American to be elected President of the United States?

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George W. Bush’s handover to Barack Obama

Well, like previous handover notes, Bush initially opted for a positive tone. He wrote, “Dear Barack. Congratulations on becoming our president. You have just begun 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 the moment and the challenges you will face.”

Bush’s presidency could certainly be described as challenging. Alongside the horrors of September 11, the 43rd also had to deal with a national credit crisis. Furthermore, he was widely criticized for his handling of Hurricane Katrina and for instigating a global war on terrorism with military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

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And Bush went on to reference his detractors in a passage which ensured Obama knew that tough times would be ahead. He wrote, “There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your “friends” will disappoint you.” However, Bush also allayed any fears that his successor might have about coping with these hardships alone.

Concluding his note, Bush stated, “But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me. No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead. God bless you. Sincerely, GW.”

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Obama went on to give the go-ahead for a covert operation to find the man responsible for the darkest day of the Bush administration. In 2011 Osama bin Laden was tracked down at a Pakistan compound and fatally shot by a group of elite Navy SEALs. Addressing the nation on television that same day, Obama said, “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.”

The 44th will also be remembered for introducing the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare, negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He spent two terms in the White House after defeating Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. And he, too, continued the tradition of the handover note with a message to his successor.

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Furthermore, Obama became the first U.S. president to deliver a farewell message to the nation on Facebook. In a lengthy social media post, the 44th said, “I’ve seen you, the American people, in all your decency, determination, good humor and kindness. And in your daily acts of citizenship, I’ve seen our future unfolding.”

Obama continued, “And when the arc of progress seems slow, remember: America is not the project of any one person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the People.’ ‘We shall overcome.’” He concluded the post with possibly his most famous slogan, “Yes, we can.”

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The University of Virginia’s Miller Center’s Barbara Perry, a presidential studies director, believes that there’s one major reason why the handover tradition has only been continually adhered to in recent times. And that’s the place where the note is written. Indeed, the Oval Office has only been a functioning presidential working space since the early 20th century.

Perry told The New York Times, “The letter is part of a bigger place, a sacred space of that office. That letter, when they write it, is their exit from the Oval Office into their post-presidency.” But she noted that several presidents just haven’t had the opportunity to write such a note.

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Indeed, no fewer than eight different presidents have passed away while still in office, the last being John F. Kennedy in 1963. And, of course, Richard Nixon was forced to vacate the position in disgrace. It will be interesting to see whether the 45th can extend this graceful new tradition.

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