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Can a president’s farewell speech help write history?

January 10, 2017 at 6:20 PM EST
President Obama will deliver a farewell address to the nation in Chicago on Tuesday evening. Why do presidents give goodbye remarks? Judy Woodruff gets historical context on past speeches and the shaping of political legacy from presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University Law School.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama will deliver his farewell address to the nation this evening before a room full of supporters in Chicago.

We discuss a little of the Obama legacy and look ahead to tonight’s speech with two historians, “NewsHour” regular Michael Beschloss, and Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University.

And we welcome both of you back to the “NewsHour.”

Michael, let me start with you.

How often do presidents give farewell addresses?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, George Washington began the tradition, but it’s really been more a thing of modern times begun by Harry Truman, who did one from the Oval Office when he retired in 1953.

But they don’t always work. The ones that really work are when you have the sense that the president is sort of leveling with you in a way that perhaps he wasn’t able to during his four or eight years in office. So, he’s saying something that you haven’t heard before with new candor.

And the other thing is that when he says something that sounds as if it’s a lesson he’s learned that perhaps he didn’t know before. The best example of this, Eisenhower in 1961, said, worry about the military industrial complex.

It was something that he had been increasingly worried about for a long time, but this was the first time he said it to the public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Annette Gordon-Reed, of course, it’s speculation, but why do you think President Obama wants to do this?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED, Harvard University Law School: Well, he’s in an interesting position.

The election didn’t turn out the way he probably thought it was going to turn out. This is a chance to cement his legacy and talk about the kinds of things that he wanted to do as president. And he is facing a situation where people might try to undo a good amount of that.

So, I think this is a good way for him to sort of lay a template, perhaps, for historians later on, even though that’s almost an impossible thing to do. But I think it’s a way for him to talk about his legacy, to sort of say to the American people what was important to him, what he thinks he accomplished as president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael, there is some reporting over the last few days that the president may be rethinking how he wants to spend his post-presidency, given the outcome of the election. Could this be part of that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Might very well be. He might spend a lot more time replying and criticizing things that Donald Trump may be doing as president.

And if that’s true, he’s got to have some kind of foreshadowing of that in this speech tonight. One thing everyone will be wondering is, what is his current thinking about Trump? Right after the election, he seemed quite moderate about it, hoping perhaps to coax Donald Trump to make more moderate appointments and more moderate policies than he was expecting to.

But that’s all over now. So, if Barack Obama gets through this speech and there’s not some, you know, genuine statement from him saying, you know, the country has to worry a little bit about what the new president is doing and, you know, perhaps think about a different direction, then I think we may not feel that he’s really leveling with us in the way that other presidents have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Annette Gordon-Reed, the White House did release just a small portion of what the president is going to say.

It’s basically he’s saying — he talks about the beauty of democracy and the experiment itself, government. He said, “This is a great gift our founders gave us, the freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, toil and imagination.”

But is Michael right, he’s going to need to say more than that about what he’s got in mind for the future, or else people may be disappointed?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, I think we’re in unchartered waters here.

We have a president who has never held office before. This is one of the things that was apparently one of his attractions to people. We don’t know what to expect. And so I think Michael is right. We really do expect to have him say something that indicates what kind of role he’s going to play after he leaves office, because we’re in an unprecedented era, and the president has to be different perhaps.

The post-presidency has to be different, not just matter of a person getting their library together or whatever. When he’s talking about the experiment, the American experiment, the question is, how does it continue in this particular moment? And so I expect he will say something like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, is there — I mean, looking at what presidents have done through history, post-presidency, have their actions been affected by the outcome of the election?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They sure have.

I mean, Eisenhower said that, when Kennedy defeated his vice president, Nixon, he felt as if he had been hit in the solar plexus by a baseball bat.

And so I think, in Barack Obama’s case, if we hear him tonight not saying essentially I didn’t expect to finish my presidency giving this office over to a successor who wants to destroy much of what I have tried to do and who is in many ways almost the opposite of me, if he just sort of plays cool, as if sort of he’s unruffled by that, the best Obama speeches have been — and this is true of most presidents — when you really feel that you are hearing his inner monologue.

If this is too rhetorical, if he’s trying too hard to imitate, let’s say, George Washington’s farewell address, this will not be a success tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Annette Gordon-Reed, how much have presidents in the past have been able to sort of, I don’t want to say tinker with their legacy, but, say, shape their legacy post-presidency?

I’m thinking about Jimmy Carter, but I — but there are other examples.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, Jimmy Carter has done a wonderful job with his legacy and sort of changing what people think about him in his post-presidential years.

But, for the most part, it’s very difficult to set your legacy, because every generation of people asks different questions and is concerned about different things. So, a president could say, oh, this is what I want people to focus on, but other generations aren’t really as concerned about that.

So, it’s — you know, it’s a gamble. They do the best they can do, but historians are going to do what they’re going to do and write what they’re going to write based upon the needs of their particular generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Annette is absolutely right.

We cannot be spun, or at least we’d like to think that we cannot be. And the presidents who are trying to — too overtly to try to say, here is what you historians and what you later Americans should think of my presidency, 30 or 40 years later, they look silly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, Annette, the fact that he’s doing it in front of an audience of supporters, we have not always — we have not seen many presidential speeches in that form, have we?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: No, we have not.

But this is a special moment, and he’s in a special place, the place where he began his life as a public servant. And so it’s fitting that he would be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Annette Gordon-Reed, thank you very much. Michael Beschloss, we thank you both.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We will be listening.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Glad to be here.

Yes, we will be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we want to add that, before the president’s address tonight, we hope you will head to our Web site, where we have put together some of the most memorable moments from President Obama’s speeches over the years. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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