WASHINGTON — As President Trump prepares to leave the White House and President Elect, Joe Biden prepares to step in, there are many questions lingering. Amid all the big unknowns, is a question about a tradition and a letter.
“The presidency is a very tough job,” says Case Western Reserve University professor, Joseph White. “Only they can really appreciate what it’s like.”
It’s become a presidential tradition. For the past 30 plus years, an outgoing president has left a little note to his successor. It’s a custom that began with President Ronald Reagan and turkeys.
“It was very amusing and it was meant to be amusing. I mean, he wrote it on a cartoon," explains White.
President Reagan, wanting to leave words of encouragement for incoming President George H.W. Bush left a note with cartoon turkeys on it and along with other niceties, the phrase, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.”
President George H.W. Bush continued the custom with a letter to President Clinton, stating in part, “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck, George.”
White says, “In some ways, the courtesy of George H.W. Bush’s letter is most striking, because after all, Clinton beat Bush. They attacked each other throughout the campaign.”
The tradition continued from there, with each president leaving a handwritten note in the oval office for their successor. President Clinton left one for President George W. Bush, stating, "sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible."
Mr. Bush penned one to President Obama with the words, "no matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead." Also included, was a kids guide to the White House from Bush's daughters to Obama's daughters.
Mr. Obama wrote one to President Trump that included, "We are just temporary occupants of this office.” Mr. Obama continued, "It's up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them."
Now, the custom seems vulnerable to end tomorrow. President Trump has already stated he won’t be attending the inauguration, leaving many to believe there also won’t be a letter. As simple as the presidential departure letter is, White says it signifies more than just a note.
“This is the outgoing president saying, ‘I know how you’re going to feel,” says White. “You can do this with decency and integrity and come out of it whole.”
Just like any tradition, there can be breaks from time to time with someone starting them back up. That’s what many historians and political scientist believe will happen if President Trump doesn’t leave a note. They believe that President Biden will restart the custom when it’s time for him to leave the office.