During another of the usual verbal battles in Parliament on Wednesday, between Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, the latter referred to a familiar anecdote about the newly elected premier who finds three letters from his predecessor on his desk. He opens the first at the first bump in his tenure; it reads, “Blame the previous government.” At the next sign of trouble, the second letter advises, “Blame it on your ministers.” And the third says, “Prepare three letters.”
Tsipras argued that the prime minister is in phase one of blaming his predecessors and will soon start blame his ministers and reshuffle the cabinet. “I don’t know how soon you’ll get to phase three,” he added.
“I did not find three letters, Mr Tsipras. I didn’t even find a router on my desk,” the prime minister quipped in response.
This exchange brought to mind another letter, from another leader, in another country and, alas, in a different world at a different time. It was written by the outgoing US President George H.W. Bush and addressed to his successor, Bill Clinton.
It was dated January 20, 1993 – the day Bush moved out of the White House and Clinton moved in.
It read: “Dear Bill, When I walked into this office just now, I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
“I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described.
“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
“You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck, George.”
This kind of attitude, this political ethos and sincere commitment to democracy, is sadly lacking these days. In America too, where the late president left this letter to his successor and the two rivals went on to become friends, division and insults are widespread.
The first television debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden ahead of the elections was a painful reminder of how low politics has fallen. Just as Trump’s refusal to accept defeat gracefully and congratulate his successor mars the country’s image and is a blight on the institution of the presidency, it also harms the functioning of society.
When political rivals insult each other on an almost daily basis, they can hardly expect society, their voters, to coexist harmoniously and strive for the good of the country – or that they will offer support to whoever is in power, even the leader of the “other side,” when their country is facing hardship.