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As Obama Takes Office, Another President Says Good-bye

January 20, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist: It is in winter when the trees are skeletal and twilight does not linger that presidencies come to an end. Shortly after the new president is sworn into office on the Capitol steps, the old president leaves.

Bill Clinton, and before him, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, all the way back to Richard Nixon, who melodramatically waved farewell to us in his disgrace, this has become a ritual of the television age. From the White House lawn to the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base, the ex-president waves goodbye.

It is astonishing to witness the ancient lesson that power passes, even the greatest power passes, because life is transitory.

There is, in the physical act of waving goodbye, an acknowledgment of all that we cannot hold. The hand is open, empty. We practice waving goodbye throughout our lives. It becomes a way of preparing ourselves for the loss of all that we love.

Goodbyes linked with uncertainty

Americans have long boasted that we are a youthful, active people, unsentimental, thus unafraid of goodbyes. Immigrants abandoned language and custom in search of the new. Cowboys left for the territory. We leave in-laws and inevitability behind. We construct freeways to keep from having to stay too long in Tampa or Modesto or Phoenix.

Saying goodbye is not only a relinquishing, but also a pushing away. The children must go to school. Your favorite nephew must go into the Army. Your father must go into a rest home. You're fired.

This winter, Americans papered with pink slips. Factories have closed, banks, small businesses, in Manhattan, in Janesville, in Seattle. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs. They carry away years of service in cardboard boxes.

Goodbyes provide closure

Lately, there has been a different kind of leave-taking. Americans have lost their homes because they were unable to keep up the mortgage payments or because their houses ended up worth less than what they still owed the banks.

Many walked away, leaving doors unlocked, without saying goodbye to anyone.

It is a bad feeling to leave a place without saying goodbye. Despite the stress we Americans place on starting anew, there's no getting away from the burden of goodbye.

Goodbye, Mama. Goodbye, Grover's Corners. Goodbye, world.

Presidential goodbyes 'modest'

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Was there ever a warrior's goodbye as eloquent as Douglas MacArthur's?

GEN. DOUGLAS MACARTHUR, Former Army Chief of Staff: Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Each season, old athletes say goodbye to the game and the prowess of their youth.

I've always admired performers who say goodbye to their art before their audiences are willing to let them go. Gelsey Kirkland, the ballerina, retired at 35 while the crowd still cheered. To watch her bows was to realize that every curtain call is an artist's negotiation with inevitability.

The powerful who refuse their curtain call become mad tyrants. However we judge any American president's tenure, it is wonderful to witness the most powerful office in the world relinquished in so modest and orderly a manner.

As the ex-president turns and waves, the lesson is as clear as any Shakespearean history play or passage from Ecclesiastes: There is a time to assume power and a time to say goodbye.

I'm Richard Rodriguez.