The King is Dead. Long Live the King!

by David Trumbull

January 24, 2001


We were cold, damp, and sore standing in the mud and rain--and we loved it! We were present to see George W. Bush take the oath of office as the 43rd President of the United States. "The peaceful transfer of authority is rare in history, yet common in our country," began President Bush in his inaugural speech. And I wondered do Americans really appreciate just how exceptional we are?

I remember the election of 1992. The evening security guard in the building where I worked was from Sudan. He was fascinated by everything about America, including our political system, and was thrilled when I gave him a copy of the U.S. Constitution and a civics book for persons preparing for citizenship. Sayid even went with me to a political meeting once in order to learn more about our system. Although he could not vote in it, he followed that election more closely than many Americans. When Bush lost, and on January 20, 1993, President Clinton was sworn into office, Sayid was as disappointed as I. But his reaction was different from mine.

I was saddened by Bush's lost, and Clinton's inaugural was, for me, a bitter day. Sayid, on the other hand, was amazed by the transition. He was amazed that the most powerful man in the world would leave office without a fight. There were no assassinations, no blood in the street, none of the usual mayhem that accompanies the transfer of power in much of the world. Sayid taught me a lesson that the citizenship books could not convey--that the peaceful transfer of power is indeed rare in history.

We take for granted that, when a new President is elected, the former President steps aside. It took a long time to get to this point. In times past, a change in leadership meant that a new leader had defeated the old leader. The old leader would be killed, along with his family, to remove any potential challenge to the new leader. It was a great leap forward in civility when, instead of killing all the relatives of the defeated, they were merely pressed into slavery.

The hereditary principle--applied to kings and lords--strikes us Americans, accustomed to electing our leaders, as an inferior and flawed system of government. Heredity was, nevertheless, the first giant step toward a peaceful transition of power. The new king comes to power upon the natural death of the old king, rather than through assassination or death on the battlefield. And the principle of primogeniture assured an heir apparent, whom all subjects would recognize.

The writers of our Constitution advocated a risky scheme based on the largely untested theory that we could give a man the power of the presidency and trust him to lay it down at the end of his term of four years. And it worked! Even in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln had to stand for reelection under the provisions of the very constitution that was under attack. In several southern States, Mr. Lincoln's position as head of state, and the Constitution which created that position, had been repudiated through local acts of purported succession. The month-long delay in determining the final result of the vote in Florida last November was nothing compare to that real "Constitutional crisis."

In Washington, this January 20, I saw a few protesters with "hail to the thief" signs. I felt rather sorry for them. They endured the same mud and cold and rain as I, but I at least was having fun cheering the man I supported. How dismal it must be to spend hundreds of dollars to travel to Washington just to risk pneumonia protesting an election "stolen" from a man who isn't even there protesting with you. Yes, former Vice President Gore and former President Clinton were on the podium with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, lending credibility to the peaceful and lawful transfer of power.

Mr. Clinton lives and is free, while another man, of a rival party, holds the power he held for eight years. Truly, a rare thing in human history.

[David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.]