Washington, Obama, and Trump: The Art of the Farewell

Shakespeare wrote, “Parting is such sweet sorrow”. This line came to mind as we’ve had the bittersweet experience of saying goodbye to a president. President Obama’s Farewell Address and extended farewells have been celebrated and lamented—for different reasons by different constituents.

The artistry of a statesman’s farewell is an American tradition. It was a precedent established by our first President, George Washington. Yet his Farewell Address could be considered his third Farewell if his Circular to the States as the victorious general at the end of the Revolution and an uncompleted draft from the end of his first term are included. Having served again, he wrote in his Farewell, “…my inclination to [retire], previous to the last election, had even led to the preparation of an address …but … unanimous advice … impelled me to abandon the idea.” Each of these Farewells is essentially forgotten and “Washington” has morphed from a towering person of character into a tumultuous seat of political power.

Annually around February 22nd, however, Washington’s magisterial message is read by the US Senate. This began in 1862 amidst the Civil War. Senator McCain read it first among living senators on February 16, 1987. Discussion of Washington’s Farewell has recently appeared in some articles and a new book.

Nevertheless, Washington’s Farewell is essentially forgotten by Americans, generally taught in schools with politically correct curricula. His cherished values have long been expunged from national discourse. Can Americans express Washington’s view of the secret for a happy America?

The Commander-in-Chief answers this question in his Circular to the newly independent thirteen Governors and their states. In a most public letter, he says,

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection…that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

Washington declares America can never hope to be a happy nation unless it humbly imitates the “Divine Author” of Christianity. In Washington’s Farewell Address, he restated this theme, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Washington’s Farewell and its forgotten values are preserved by the Senate’s annual tradition. However, these spiritual values of his Farewell were not evident in the Farewell of the outgoing Obama administration. But they were accented in the inauguration of America’s 45th President.

The Trump era commenced with a record number of Inaugural prayers—three more than the official Inaugural Balls. In his Inaugural Address, the newly sworn in President spoke of “righteousness” and declared America would be “protected by God” echoing themes of virtue and providential care extolled by President Washington in his First Inaugural Address. President Trump quoted the Bible, citing Psalm 133:1, a text that celebrates unity often heard at the beginning of religious assemblies. For many in the Judeo-Christian faith traditions, this likely comes as a welcome change as the Obama administration often seemed to lecture Christians about historical failures, diminish America’s commitment to Israel and even described some voters as those who “cling to their guns and to their Bibles”.

The Farewell of President Obama ends an era. An epoch was begun by the unexpected electoral sweep of President Trump. But will the values and virtues celebrated at the Inauguration soon be forgotten by one whose “religion and morality” ironically were severely scrutinized throughout the presidential race? If Washington’s spiritual legacy from his last words to the nation is heeded, according to our Founding Father, we may be well on the way to “political prosperity” as “a happy nation”. So here’s my prayer for the new President: When he finally bids farewell to the nation, may he have been as successful in emulating the spiritual values of Washington as he has been in the art of the deal.

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