The Letters That Outgoing Presidents Wrote to Their Successors

Each one reminds us what a peaceful—and gracious—transfer of power looks like.


Story by Alex Kalman


One of the most crucial aspects of a functioning democracy is the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. Each of the following five letters, handwritten by an outgoing president and left in the Oval Office for the incoming president to find, reminds us of the sanctity of that fundamental practice. Reagan wrote to Bush. Bush wrote to Clinton. Clinton to Bush. Bush to Obama. And Obama to Trump. Regardless of the party. Regardless of personal beliefs.

Each letter humanizes this small but monumental moment in the life of a democracy. Each note graciously acknowledges that one’s duty in office has come to an end, that it is now time to pass the immense power to someone else, and maybe even offer some advice or help while doing so.

As the country waits for the sitting president—and many of his political allies—to acknowledge the results of last week’s election and begin the transition process in partnership with President-elect Joe Biden, we are again reminded of Donald Trump’s dangerously anti-democratic instincts. The authors of these letters provide something that Trump has never been able to: evidence of their understanding that they are part of something larger than themselves, serving the country’s citizens as participants in the American experiment.

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