Bush’s letter to Clinton: Even bitter elections can bring polite power transfers

A letter from President George H.W. Bush to President Bill Clinton when the former lost the election circulated around social media recently as users reminisced about civility in politics.

David J. Phillip/ AP/ File
From left, President Barack Obama, former president George W. Bush, former president William J. Clinton former President George H.W. Bush and former president Jimmy Carter arrive for the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on Thursday, April 25, 2013, in Dallas.

Following this campaign season can be stress-inducing. Apart from the typical mud-slinging in every election, there were pointed insults, occasional violence, and a seeming void of personal relationship between the two candidates who didn’t even shake hands in the third and final debate.

So when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he might not accept the results of the elections in November, it seemed like the final straw for stressed American voters craving some semblance of civility and peace in politics.

Then a short handwritten letter began to make rounds on social media. It was former Republican President George H.W. Bush’s letter to Bill Clinton in 1992, after the former lost the election to the latter.

"There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair … but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course," President Bush wrote. "You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well.... Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you."

The content of the letter underscores the historical fact that the United States have always had a peaceful transfer of presidential power – often called a hallmark of democracy – no matter how contentious presidential elections become. Mr. Trump’s comments, which hints at disruption of the democratic process, concerns those who think that the country’s legacy or reputation could be tainted – in addition to provoking concern about actual unrest, and about citizens' perception of the next administration's legitimacy.

"The transition of power is actually the highlight of American democracy," Thomas Whalen, an associate professor at Boston University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "It says to the rest of the world there may be strong differences between parties, but we're able to come together, put that aside and have a unified government."

Professor Whalen, who studies American history, points to previous presidents as examples. President Lyndon Johnson, he says, had "no high regard" for Richard Nixon, whose administration followed his, but there was a professional transfer of power.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower had tense competition, but the transition went well, with Eisenhower later calling Kennedy one of the "ablest, brightest minds I’ve ever come across" after having received attacks from Kennedy during the campaign.

"Presidents coming in and out, there was no love lost," Whalen says. "There was a lot of tension there but the thing is I think presidents realize that you have to put aside your personal feelings, that the national interest has to come first. Ego has to be checked out at the door."

A more recent example might be the 2000 race between President George W. Bush and Al Gore, with its high-stakes dispute over Florida's ballot counts. Trump has compared his criticisms of this election to that race, but that problem was a matter of counting errors in a tight race, not the idea of widespread voter fraud, of which Trump has repeatedly warned. 

The 2000 election was settled when the Supreme Court stepped in and Mr. Gore decided to concede.

"I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am, too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country," Gore said at the time, as the Chicago Tribune recounts. "The strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome."

Bush echoed a similar sentiment when he spoke later from the Texas capitol in Austin.

"I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation.... The president of the United States is the president of every single American, of every race and background," Bush said, according to USA Today.

Trump has clarified his comments on Thursday to say that he will accept the results if he wins, or if there is a clear election result.

Americans say, at least, that they want to see more civility in politics. A poll in January by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, with KRC Research, found that 70 percent of 1,005 adults polled say incivility has risen to "crisis" levels, and 93 percent say level of civility is an important factor in deciding how to cast their vote.

"What binds us as a country together is this belief in a higher purpose of a country, as opposed to our individual concerns," Ravi Iyer, the founder of Civilpolitics.org, a nonprofit by academics in moral psychology, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "We really recommend a couple of things when groups have moral conflicts … to focus on relationships instead of the things you're fighting about."

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