All presidents begin their terms with an inaugural address delivered shortly after taking the oath of office. However, no comparable tradition exists for giving outgoing chief executives an opportunity to review their experiences in the White House before a national audience.
George Washington could have established such a tradition toward the end of his second term. On Sept. 19, 1796, the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser printed the text of what has come to be known as Washington's Farewell Address - even though the president himself never publicly read it.The immediate purpose of the document was to explain Washington's reasons for not seeking a third term. But the part that is best remembered consists of advice to the young nation on how to conduct its internal and external affairs.
In one lengthy section, Washington warned against the rise of political parties, which he described as a source of "common and continual mischiefs." As to relations with other countries, he said: "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."
For whatever reason, the Washington farewell precedent did not take hold as an official custom. Instead, presidents generally insert any leave-taking and summing-up comments in their final State of the Union message to Congress.
But there have been exceptions. The most familiar of these is President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, presented on nationwide radio and television on Jan. 17, 1961. In a phrase that immediately entered the political lexicon, Eisenhower warned that "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex" because of "the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power."
(Washington also worried about the military in his farewell address. At one point, he cautioned against the development of "those overgrown military establishments which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.")
Eisenhower's concerns extended beyond military-industrial matters. Other threats he listed
were "the prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by federal employment" and "the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."
Because of its admonitory tone, Eisenhower's farewell speech differed markedly from the one given by his predecessor, Harry S. Truman, in 1953. Speaking with evident pride, Truman recited the foreign-policy triumphs of his administration and expressed confidence that the United States would prevail over the communist world.
No president is likely to match Richard M. Nixon's record of delivering two farewell addresses - one announcing his resignation and another, more personal one to members of the Cabinet and the White House staff. "Always remember," Nixon said in the second speech, "others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."