Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It doesn’t happen very often, the firing of a president. In the last 100 years, the only elected presidents to be voted out were Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and, now, Donald Trump.
Trump has announced he will not attend the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Not a surprise. The outgoing president isn’t exactly known for his class, grace or humility in accepting loss. Given Trump’s role in inciting a crowd to attack the Capitol in a bid to stop Biden’s victory from being certified, if he chose to attend, it would certainly make for an awkward occasion.
But even for a president who is not a sore loser, surrendering power to the man who defeated you is tough. Hoover refused to speak to former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the chilly ride from the White House to the inaugural stand at the Capitol in 1933. And though Carter was more gracious, he later confessed he found former President Ronald Reagan’s small talk about his Hollywood days “remarkably pointless,” especially since his 1981 Inauguration Day was also the day the American hostages in Iran were freed.
Former President George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, was dignity personified. The campaign was spirited. Republicans accused former President Bill Clinton of somehow being politically compromised because of a student trip he took to the Soviet Union in 1969. Bush himself, in a campaign speech, called Clinton a “bozo,” a comment he said later he hadn’t thought was all that offensive.
And, as a strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, I can tell you we launched our fair share of attacks as well, taunting Bush for pledging “read my lips, no new taxes” and mocking Bush’s seeming inaction in the face of a recession. Tame stuff compared to today, to be sure. But the potential for a deep and lasting rupture was real, and both men made a special point to unite the country.
This is where Bush’s amazing grace came in. He was a wounded politician, but more than that he was a patriot. “Among the many memories from my first inauguration that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life,” Clinton recalled to me, “is the extraordinary graciousness that President and Mrs. Bush showed to Hillary, Chelsea and me on what had to have been an incredibly difficult day for them.”
The outgoing president and incoming President-elect meet for coffee at the White House before the swearing-in, and one can imagine that the coffee comes with a quite a bit of tension – especially when you must depart the White House for the last time in the company of the guy who kicked you out. But the Bushes cut through it, Clinton told me. “They treated us with genuine kindness, and expressed a real hope that our country would be successful over the next four years, and that our family would be happy in the White House.”
Former first lady Barbara Bush, herself a fierce competitor, shifted into loving grandmother mode. “I’ll never forget Mrs. Bush praising Chelsea, who was 12 at the time,” Clinton told me, “for the way she handled herself so maturely through the crucible of the campaign. Chelsea replied, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Bush, I tried.’ And Mrs. Bush said, in her direct, classic way, ‘Oh, we all try. But not everyone can do it.’”
I asked Clinton about the car ride from the White House to the Capitol. He declined to reveal specifics – some secrets are, apparently, kept in the Presidents’ Club – but he told me, “As we spent the final moments together before the peaceful transition of power, the theme that came out again and again was gratitude – for the remarkable democracy in which we live, and for the chance to serve its people so well and so long.”
The choreography of an inauguration is precise. The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court is called forward. The President-elect recites the oath, right hand raised, left hand on the Bible. As the words, “So help me God,” leave his lips, the Army fires a 21-gun salute, a bracing signal that he now commands the most powerful military in human history.
All went according to the script on that frigid January day in 1993. After the oath, Clinton hugged his wife and daughter, and waved to the crowd. Then, in his first act as President, he strode across the platform and shook his predecessor’s hand. The two former foes had a brief but warm public greeting. A deeply empathetic man, Clinton was profoundly attuned to the pain his predecessor felt, having been rejected himself in his first bid for reelection as governor of Arkansas in 1980 – and did his best to acknowledge the difficulty of the moment.
And just as Clinton’s first act as President was a tribute to Bush, his first few words as President included this praise for the man he had defeated: “On behalf of our Nation, I salute my predecessor, President Bush, for his half-century of service to America. And I thank the millions of men and women whose steadfastness and sacrifice triumphed over depression, fascism, and communism.”
On that day, the presidency was in transition. But so, notably, was Clinton’s relationship with Bush. Clinton never knew his father, who died in a car accident before he was born. Over the years, he and Bush formed a bond that was nearly familial. Bush himself suggested that perhaps he, two decades Clinton’s senior, had been the father Clinton never had.
After Clinton’s term, the two teamed up for disaster relief efforts, and Clinton made regular pilgrimages to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the elder former president would impress the younger by slicing through the ocean at high speeds on his beloved boat. President George W. Bush has said his family’s relationship with Clinton is so close that he is “a brother with a different mother.”
For his part, Clinton clearly misses George H.W. and Barbara Bush. Thinking back on the warmth they showed him on that chilly January day, he said, “President and Mrs. Bush were wonderful people and true patriots. I’ll always be grateful for their friendship and example – and especially how warmly they treated us that day.”
Don’t expect Trump to be teaming up with any of his predecessors to help the victims of a far-away tsunami, or even to join him for a round of golf. His absence from Biden’s inauguration calls to mind one of the maxims George H.W. Bush loved to quote: “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”