The letter and the legacy

writing desk

Governor’s mansion writing desk image courtesy of sienna12, Morguefile.

A few days ago, I explored a news site which had a large collection of President Obama photos. It fascinated me since the photos showed the President in a variety of different moods — solemn, playful, sincere, tender and formal.

One of the most intriguing photos showed the President reading a letter that was left for him in the Oval Office. The letter was on the top of the Resolute desk and written by former President Bush. This is a tradition at The White House; the outgoing president leaves behind a letter for the new president to find and read.

My writer’s imagination went to town on this one because I found this tradition to be charming. What did that letter contain? Was it short or long? Was the new president warned about on-the-job hazards, or did the letter just wish him good luck?

And what would I say if it was me writing that letter? I like to imagine that I’d impart some wisdom and maybe give the new President something to smile or laugh about. The road to The White House is a tough one.

I don’t know which President started the tradition, but it’s been going on at least since Reagan’s time. Mostly, the content of the letter is kept secret, but I found one letter you can read, at least.

We live in an era now where it’s more common to send a tweet, post on Facebook, text on a phone or click a button to send an e-mail, but I don’t think letters have completely lost their influence. It’s easy for us to click on a button and delete an electronic communication with a couple of clicks, but much harder to get rid of a paper letter. I’ve saved some letters that I received which were meaningful to me because of what the writer told me, and I still have them. I also have some letters from my childhood that I like to keep because they show me how my writing has evolved over the years.

As bloggers, I think that we understand more deeply than others how truly powerful the written word can be since many of us will probably never meet each other. We can’t see the faces of those other bloggers and interpret their facial expressions and body language (unless they choose to post a picture or put up a video of themselves), so we can only understand another blogger’s character by what they write online and how they express themselves.

And sometimes I wonder if future generations will find the letters we’ve saved and our blogs, and better understand what we were like. Maybe they will. I hope so.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “The letter and the legacy

  1. I remember love letters tied with ribbons. While I was in Israel, my now husband saved every letter I wrote to him during those 9 years, tied them carefully and put them in a drawer for safe keeping. That was my first clue that something important was happening between us. So many letters. I don’t think either of us has written a real letter since … but those letters meant everything.

  2. Patti

    I heard about the letter writing tradition from the Bush girls when they wrote to the Obama girls. Part of the letter was read by the Bush girls on a morning news show.
    The letter was warm and informative.
    I wonder if there is copy out there since it was read aloud?
    Thank you for reminding me of such a great gesture.

  3. Martha Graham

    A college friend and I have exchanged long, detailed letters for more than 30 years — literally. After I’ve collected a dozen or so of hers, I bundle them up and mail them back to her and vice versa.

  4. I have a collection of birthday cards given to me from family ranging from serious to silly to sentimental. They warm me up on days I’m felling a wee bit mortal. It’s like paper connection, I believe.

  5. I hope my memoir serves as a “letter” of sorts to my family–well, maybe more a journal.

    I also have a practice of writing a letter to my son to be opened on future birthdays. On his 10th birthday, I wrote a letter about my observations of him as a young man, my feelings about being his mother, and some “predictions” of who he would be/what he would be doing in 10 years–to be opened on his 20th birthday. On his 20th birthday I wrote another letter for his 30th birthday and he opened the one I wrote when he was 10. We read it together and it was delightful. He entrusted me to keep the letters (one of my observations is that he is, by nature, disorganized). We both look forward to this tradition and the wonderful conversations that ensue after we read the letter from 10 years past.

  6. What a great tradition. I think you would have to be very strong to take on the role of politician. I would like to think that most do it because they really believe they can do something to help their country.

  7. You have captured well one of the motivations of blogging — to preserve those thoughts in written form because of that vivid power of the written word. Sometimes I think it more powerful than a video clip. I have a box with a handful of special letters from over the years, as well — shame we really don’t save emails and electronic communications like that, and something special will be lost over time.

  8. I didn’t know about this letter to the next president tradition. Cool. I do think you’re right about bloggers knowing the power of the word. I’ve heard you can make your blogs into books from some programs out there. I want to do that someday.

  9. I remember hearing about the letters left for incoming presidents. Those would be fascinating to read.
    We have early letters and journals from both sides of the family. More interesting than fiction to me.
    Written words linger and reveal personalities, and how mankind/society has changed – what was considered important through the eyes of someone of that time ( which most historians don’t do when recording historical events)
    Have you considered printing out blogs to save for others in the future? These words are now electronic, but they are still words that may be valued – who knows what technology will become, but printed words are pretty solid.

  10. Patti

    I’ld love to be able to read the letter from the Bush girls. I recall they talked about ignoring the bad press, the incredible opportunities, and to appreciate all they would be exposed to.
    I’ve been looking for a copy of that letter.
    I do recall now the blonde Bush daughter read only part of the note saying the remainder was private. It brought tears to me at the time. It was a lovely warm letter.

  11. Fascinating would be interesting to see more of them it would give an interesting insight into the presidency and what the presidents feel is important to pass on to their successors…

  12. I agree. It would be a unique window into the presidency and into the characters of the fortunate few who have held the job. My mind boggles when I think of all the demands upon our President.

  13. The thing is that things written tend to assume the values of the time. That is why, for instance, reading a piece of fiction written IN a particular period often tells you much more about the values of that particular day than do the historical summaries. So, when our words are read (hopefully) in the future some of what we write will resonate and some will do the opposite, depending of the values of that time…and not whether what we have to say has any lasting value. Too bad.

    • I would agree that written pieces tend to assume an era’s values. But I would add that what resonates and what does not depends upon the reader’s character, and that people interpret novels, poems, etc. differently by filtering them through their own life experience.

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