In 1993, before Bill Clinton stepped into the oval office, President George H.W. Bush wrote him a letter. Short, gracious and encouraging, the letter conveyed the departing President’s honest good wishes for the success of the man who had defeated him in a tough election. His letter conveys the overwhelming sense that Clinton was now the President of the whole country — George H.W. Bush’s President as much as anyone else’s.
The letter-writing tradition has continued, but the letters don’t always become public. Clinton and Bush ’41 famously became good friends after their terms were all complete, and raised vast sums for charity together, particularly in the aftermath of the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia. George W. Bush has been accounted an exemplary former President. Despite the increasing acrimony of our politics, he exited the stage in 2009 and has never sought to interfere in his successor’s work.
But our Presidents are treating each other a lot better than the rest of us are treating them. When Clinton ’42 won, he won only a plurality of popular votes (Ross Perot got 19 percent). Though he won decisively in the electoral college, some never accepted the legitimacy of his Presidency. After he was reelected resoundingly, the seed of that plurality victory in 1992 grew into the disastrous and pointless effort to impeach him during his second term.
George W. Bush won the closest race ever — losing the popular vote and winning the electoral college by the disputed margin in Florida. Nonetheless, even after the Supreme Court settled the issue and he became President Bush '43, even greater numbers of Americans refused to accept the legitimacy of his Presidency. The increasing rancor in Congress as a result sowed the seeds for the total dysfunction we see in the legislative branch today.
Of course the most recent Presidency has been denied more than any other. Absurd allegations that President Obama is not an American at all, that he was born in Kenya, or Indonesia, or that he is a secret Muslim impostor, flourished on the right wing throughout his Presidency, and have only been given up grudgingly, now that his terms are coming to an end. “Not my President” is an expression that has gained real currency.
This must not continue.
In a healthy democratic process, the legitimacy of the winning candidates must come not only from the free casting and accurate counting of the votes, but from the acknowledgements of the losers. Concession speeches are deeply meaningful events because they signal to those who supported the loser that their man or woman lost fair and square, and that the winner takes office. The gracious acceptance of the concession helps the winner transition from what might have been a hard-fought contest to the realization that he or she is now the Delegate, the Senator, the President of everyone, not just the people who voted his or her way.
This time around, we appear to be in worse shape than ever on this score in our Presidential race. Both parties, I think it is fair to say, are seeking not only to win the election but to totally delegitimize the opponent. In respect to Donald Trump, who I believe would be a terrible President, I’ve done it myself. A few weeks ago, I called him a "moral catastrophe." Maybe that's too strong. But it’s not the furthest out there by any means. We see persistent allegations that one candidate or the other is “disqualified” and outrageous calls for Hillary Clinton to be jailed or even executed.
We can be certain that Bush ’41 wanted to win and thought himself the better candidate in 1992. But he realized that far more important than his presidential preference was the peaceful and orderly transfer of power that has allowed us to keep the world’s oldest constitution alive and preserve our government without revolutions, coups, or violent oppression. He must have known that the country needs a President and that the support of all, or at least most, of the people began with his support.
If we keep going on like we’ve been, only willing to respect and follow the presidents we want, and totally determined to destroy and defeat the ones we don’t want, we will become Lincoln's house divided against itself, that cannot stand. We will end up having no president at all, in the same way that we have no Congress, because there is no longer any room to govern in the midst of the perpetual campaign filling the endless election season.
So — and this isn’t easy — let me put it down in ink. If Donald Trump should win the Presidential election, he must become the President. The will of the people must prevail. No mistake he could make would be bigger than the de-legitimization of the cornerstone of our governmental system — that the will of the voters must prevail. More than that, if he should win, we must, for all our sakes, wish him well in his work and hope that it goes well. This doesn't mean we'd be going along with anything he might propose or do, but as President, he would be entitled to the respect the office deserves, which is more than it has been getting for quite a few years.
The reverse holds as well, of course. The effort to criminalize, demonize, and destroy Hillary Clinton before her presidency even begins has got to stop. We’re all free to disagree and fight for our views on the issues, but we all have an interest in the next presidency being a successful one because we all have an interest in the survival and success of our country. The next President, whoever he or she may be, deserves a fair chance to lead and succeed from every American.
Imagine the election was yesterday. Imagine your candidate didn’t win. What kind of letter would you put in an oval office desk drawer? What we would say to a new President of the opposing party, if we had to do it ourselves, could tell us a lot about who we are, and what kind of country we’re going to have next year.