The end of one presidential administration and the beginning of another is an opportunity to reflect and look to the future.
At this point, it is unclear whether President Donald Trump will deliver a farewell address. But it’s also not required.
Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford chose to give formal “State of the Union” addresses in 1969 and 1977, respectively. Recently, most farewell addresses have be delivered to the nation from the Oval Office. George H.W. Bush, however, chose to speak at West Point, and Barack Obama delivered a campaign-style speech from Chicago.
The farewell address has become a sort of victory-lap list of accomplishment from their time in office, but mixed in are some instructions worth noting.
George Washington provided both encouragement to the fledgling nation and a number of stern warnings. In addition to cautioning against foreign entanglements, he also took on the problem of hyper-partisan political parties. Washington wrote, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual, and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”
Jimmy Carter’s farewell included a reminder about the value of the presidency when he said, “The plain truth is that we cannot routinely or casually or selfishly savage the Office of the Presidency without destroying the ability of the holder of that office to do the very things which it was created to do for us. Either raising the Office of the President to the heavens or crushing it beneath our feet will destroy the balance on which our entire system — and much of the world —depends.”
Barack Obama summoned American exceptionalism and the need for constant, forward-moving effort to live up to the notion of a nation where “all men were created equal.” Obama explained: “So that’s what we mean when we say America’s exceptional: not that our Nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. … But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.”
Ronald Reagan spoke of his eight years as a season of rediscovering America’s founding. He remarked that, “because we’re a great nation, our challenges seem complex. It will always be this way. But as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours.”
In an unexpected crescendo, he proffered a a challenge to the children of the country: “And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”
We concur with these lessons from before. America must change the tone and tenor of politics. It is vital for the country to keep the office of the president in its proper place and those who occupy it humbly serving the people. American exceptionalism is the result of each individual striving to ensure liberty and justice for all. All great change in the country begins at the dinner table with children leading the discussion about what it means to be an American.
We would add an invitation for this week of presidential transition that every American start at the dinner table with a prayer for the new administration and a conversation about the country. We ask each citizen to do something in the next seven days to serve someone in need. We invite all to watch their words, look for opportunities to listen and strive to find common ground in disagreements of every kind.
And, we invite the children to hold the adults accountable for living up to the most sacred title of American citizen.