Many Americans may not have caught the significance of the photo on the front of this newspaper Tuesday, which we have reprinted here. It was of President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama walking side by side, talking in a friendly, peaceful way about the nation's problems.
Why is this significant? Think of the many nations in which the peaceful transfer of power is only a dream; where an opposition party's only hope for power lies with guns and bombs and riots in the streets. Think of how Mikhail Gorbachev had to withstand a coup attempt as he tried to steer the Soviet Union toward democracy.
The thing that will happen Jan. 20 in Washington is of no small significance. On that day, a president who has been vilified and lampooned by the opposition party will willingly hand over the most powerful office on earth to that very party. The thought that he might try to hang on and prevent the transfer is unimaginable.
It is so unimaginable that many Americans have come to take this part of the political process for granted. For that, they have one man to thank — George Washington.
The Constitution has become a revered document. It spells out how presidents are elected and the words they must repeat to be sworn into office. But written words are not as powerful as precedents. Washington was aware of this. He was setting the example that would govern the republic's future, and his decision to voluntarily step down after two terms caught the attention of the rest of the world.
It was said that England's King George III, the man Washington and his fellow revolutionaries had beaten in order to gain independence, was so skeptical of Washington's decision that he said Washington would be "the greatest man in the world" if he voluntarily relinquished power. But when the time came on Inauguration Day, Washington peacefully and gladly attended and listened to what the new president, John Adams, said in his speech. Then he made the conscious point of making sure Adams and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, left the room first, with him following behind.
Not only was there no coup, there was no ego. There were no guns and there was no posturing. For Washington, there was only a profound respect for the office of the presidency and for the will of the people.
It may be argued that Washington's example was felt far beyond the United States and became a template for conduct in other free republics worldwide.
Likewise, by all indications Bush had no concern this week other than for the nation, which is why he spent time talking to his successor about matters he needs to know when he takes office.
The remarkable thing is this seems so unremarkable. It is a hallmark of the nation's enduring strength, and perhaps the greatest gift from its first president.