Five days into the 1993 calendar – 15 days before his White House stay concluded – George H.W. Bush traveled to West Point for one last presidential address.
The event was short on bells and whistles. Gray-uniformed Army cadets provided the backdrop. The event opened with the National Emblem March and wrapped up with the West Point March. Bush’s reward for making the trek up the Hudson River: a cadet parka – a curious bit of clothing for a Navy man.
Bush 41 was all business that solemn day. He chose the venue to impart wisdom on what role the attending future warriors would play in global theatres. He chose not to pat himself on the back for peacefully concluding the Cold War and humiliating Saddam Hussein, but instead outlined America’s commitments as a triumphant superpower in a reshaped world.
Fast-forward 14 years and five days to Chicago’s Lakeside Center at McCormick Place and President Obama’s Tuesday evening “farewell address” before an effusive crowd – the second time, now, that an outgoing president said goodbye in a venue beyond the nation’s capital.
Obama chose the moment and the setting (it’s where he gave his victory speech on Election Night 2012) to bask in idolatry rather than say much that will stand the test of time.
Two things you should know about Obama’s last hurrah:
First, it wasn’t so much “farewell” as “to be continued”.
Come a week from Friday, Obama will be the first ex-president since Woodrow Wilson to stay in Washington once his administration ends.
On Tuesday night, Obama made it clear that, unlike the enfeebled Wilson (or the gracious George W. Bush, for that matter), he plans to be quite vocal – on everything from illegal immigration, replacing ObamaCare, climate change, and the Iran nuclear deal – if he feels the necessity.
Second, Obama chose the moment and the setting (it’s where he gave his victory speech on Election Night 2012) to bask in idolatry rather than say much that will stand the test of time.
As such, it was a disappointing finale to a presidency that, too often and in too many different ways, placed too high of a premium on celebrity status and cult of personality – an American colossus ruled by Narcissus.
Here’s a list of presidential farewell addresses, from the pre-modern written versions to this generation’s televised goodbyes.
They include our nation’s first President George Washington establishing a peaceful transfer of power, Andrew Jackson showcasing populism, Dwight Eisenhower warning of a “military-industrial complex” and Ronald Reagan embracing of a “shining city on a hill”.
Those and most other presidential farewell tended to be futuristic in their substance. Big-picture speeches.
He did go big-picture in the beginning, tapping the Founding Fathers and the concept of a more perfect union and a republic defined by generational embraces of American exceptionalism. And he lamented the current “state of democracy” – Americans needing to set aside their differences for the good of the nation’s solidarity.
However, too much of the 54-minute address was devoted to a recitation and defense of a progressive record.
Obama talked up the broadening the definition of marriage, rebooting relations with Cuba and what he claims to be a healthier economy with poverty on the wane.
On the topic of inequality, he referenced “a new social compound” that’s, in effect, a back door to more unionization, more social-program spending and higher taxation of the affluent.
Get used to more of this. Part of Obama’s post-presidency will include revamping Organizing for Action, a group born from his campaign machine and tasked with candidate recruitment.
Obama also claimed that race relations have improved over the recent decades, arguably his wobbliest words as (a) he removed his presidency from the equation and (b) in a city fraught with intra-racial homicides, it was just five days ago that four black Chicagoans were arrested for torturing a white special-needs teen live on Facebook.
However, the topic of race was also one of Obama’s stronger moments: calling on white Americans to better understand minority struggles with equality; minorities learning to better appreciate white struggles with a changing economy. “We all have to try harder,” he neatly surmised.
Still, Obama couldn’t resist the subtle dig at his successor (“science and reason matter”) and the loyal opposition (“how can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?”), even if it was cloaked in a nobler call for both parties to stop engaging in double standards.
Not until nearly midway into his remarks did the only president to serve an entire two terms with a nation at war delve into terrorism.
Not that it was much a deep dive.
The former constitutional law professor rolled ISIS into a big ball of human rights, women’s right and LBGT rights – and from there, naturally, protecting voting rights and a closing passage in which Obama called for his countrymen to became a nation of community organizers.
Add it up and, for one last time, America was witness to the Obama paradox. Twice, this very personable man was elected to the nation’s highest office. He’ll leave office with healthy approval numbers.
Yet on three separate occasions – two midterm elections and Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated stab at “hope” and “change” – the American people rejected the man’s ideas and ideology.
One good thing about star power, as Obama showed this one last time as president: it means not going unnoticed.
Back in 2009, George W. Bush’s press minions had to grovel for airtime for their boss’s farewell address from the East Room of the White House. This time around, none of the three major television networks balked at granting Obama coverage live and in primetime.
And good television it was.
As per usual, the words were melodic. The crowd was spellbound; a fawning media will swoon over the passages.
But with Obama it’s always been a temporary high – a long, rhetorical nitrous oxide hit before returning to the sobering realities of a sluggish economy, flawed health care reform, a socially divided nation and a world stage dotted with bad actors.
Despite the lofty language, the kind optics and the man’s cool presence on stage, Obama’s party paid a terrible price down-ticket in congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative numbers. Last November, the electorate handed the presidency to a man who’s the anti-Obama in taste, temperament, experience and execution.
Saying farewell can be hard – especially when one’s party has been left in the dust.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.