Gilbert: The Farewell Address

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(HOST) As the end of the forty-third presidency approaches, VPR commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert is wondering if President Bush will give a Farewell Address.

(GILBERT) Not every retiring American president has given a farewell address. Wayne Fields’s history of presidential eloquence entitled "Union of Words" tells us that only two presidents in the nineteenth century followed Washington’s lead and gave a formal farewell address: Andrew Jackson, who saw himself as a second Washington, and Andrew Johnson, who avoided being removed from office by a single vote in the Senate. The rest of the presidents added brief remarks of farewell to their last State of the Union address. It was Harry Truman who revived the tradition in 1953, and all retiring presidents since then have followed suit, with the exception of George Bush, Sr., who you will remember, wasn’t much interested in "the vision thing."

Much depends, of course, on the circumstances under which a president leaves. Nixon resigned in disgrace and so his farewell remarks, especially those made to White House staff right before his departure, were not so much national in focus as deeply personal. His autobiographical comments were nothing short of bizarre under the circumstances, particularly his tragically ironic advice to "never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Many presidential farewell addresses have emphasized national unity – because that was, for much of our history, a central concern. Many, including Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander, spoke of the greatest of all goals – world peace.

Wayne Fields observes that when Vietnam forced President Johnson from office and President Ford was defeated for election, their remarks of closure placed their presidencies in the context of their larger careers of national service in Washington. Unfortunately for Jimmy Carter, a Washington outsider, he could not refer to a long career in Congress, and with the Iran hostage crisis still underway, it was impossible for his remarks to convey a sense of closure.

Some presidents used the opportunity to explain themselves, to do a first draft of history, you know, to spin. Washington, Jackson, Eisenhower, and Reagan used their farewells as opportunities to instruct the nation. Eisenhower famously warned us of the dangers of the military-industrial complex because of its implications not just for defense and the economy, but also for the country’s moral and spiritual character. He also urged us to [quote] "avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, [he said], not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."

Will our current president choose to make a farewell address? And if so, what message or lesson he will seek to leave us with? We’ll soon know.

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