January 18, 2017Once upon a time there was a land not far, far away where the phones hung on the wall, the birds tweeted and 140 characters were things that Disney artists created. And civility in politics was fairly common.
This Friday, January 20, we will again inaugurate a President. I wonder if he will speak or tweet his Inaugural Address? And what might he say about his predecessor?
Forty years ago to the day we inaugurated another President. James Earl Carter, Jr., a one-term Governor of Georgia, was sworn in at the Capitol. His first words as the 39th President of the United States were, "For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land."
What was that again, Mr. President? You are thanking the man you defeated in the election? A man from the opposite party? What a nice, civil gesture! In fact, just a few years later, Jimmy Carter and his predecessor, Michigan's Gerald R. Ford, became fast friends. They spoke at each other's library events and worked together on more than 25 projects. And they made a pact that one would give the eulogy at the other's funeral.
When President Ford passed away at the end of 2006, President Carter kept his word and spoke in memory of his friend at the service in Grand Rapids. In part he said, "You learn a lot about a man when you run against him for President, and when you stand in his shoes, and assume the responsibilities that he has borne so well, and perhaps even more after you both lay down the burdens of high office and work together in a nonpartisan spirit of patriotism and service.
"Jerry and I frequently agreed that one of the greatest blessings that we had, after we left the White House during the last quarter-century, was the intense personal friendship that bound us together."
Once at a reception in 2005 that I attended with my father-in-law, a classmate of Carter's at the Naval Academy, I asked President Carter about this friendship. He told me, "The worst thing President Ford ever called me during the campaign was 'Governor Carter' and the worst thing I ever called him was 'my distinguished opponent.'"
Carter also said in his eulogy, "We always cherished those memories of now perhaps a long-lost bipartisan interrelationship."
He continued, "As President, I relished his sound advice. And he often, although, I must say, reluctantly, departed from the prevailing opinion of his political party to give me support on some of my most difficult challenges. For many of these, of course, he had helped to lay the foundation, including the Panama Canal treaties, nuclear armaments control with the Soviet Union, normalized diplomatic relations with China, and also the Camp David accords."
In conclusion President Carter said of his friend, "I still don't know any better way to express it than the words I used almost exactly 30 years ago. For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land."
Presidents Bush 41, Bush 43 and Bill Clinton, the 42nd President, two Republicans and a Democrat, have also become friends and work together often on projects of benefit to humanity. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, once colleagues then bitter political rivals, buried the hatchet after leaving Washington and remained close friends until they died…on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence that they both worked so hard to bring about.
It is heartening to remember that political rivals can not only be civil to each other but can set an example for the rest of us. President Carter, now 92, will attend President-elect Trumps' Inauguration along with the George W. Bushes and the Clintons.
I am hopeful, and optimistic, that we can return civility to our politics and our daily life. We can debate and defend our points of view vigorously but at the end of the day, we should remember that we are all Americans who want the Nation and its people to succeed.
On January 20, Donald John Trump will become the newest member of the most exclusive club in the world, the American President's Club. I hope he will reach out to the other members of the club for their counsel. That's one way to restore civility and help "Make America Great Again."
Email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.