I was watching the Presidential inauguration of Obama on Tuesday night (Indian time) last week. It was the first time I have watched an American Presidential inauguration live on TV. It was good to see the familiar faces of past American Presidents as they walked in as guests. Though there were many interesting things about the inauguration – the momentous occasion, the invitee list, the way the chairperson of ceremonies conducted it, Obama’s eloquent speech, the songs and the poetry recitals – for me the most fascinating and poignant thing about the ceremony was the smooth transfer of power which happened. George W. Bush walked in with Laura Bush and smiled at everyone and shook hands with Obama and other guests and sat in the place where other guests were also seated. He held his smile when Obama thanked him for his service to his country and for the smooth transition that had happened in the past one month. Bush continued holding his smile when Obama proceeded to deliver a sophisticated, veiled but scathing attack on his administration. Then he left the way he came alongwith the Obamas, as a normal citizen. Bush and Obama talked and smiled all the way to the helicopter which would take him and his family to the Andrews Airforce Base. Michelle Obama gave company to Laura Bush. The Obamas walked the Bushes to the helicopter and they parted with smiles. It was a graceful and warm gesture from Obama. The CNN correspondents said that it had not happened in recent memory – the incoming President walking out with the outgoing President to his helicopter and giving him a sendoff. It was as if Obama was saying ‘We might have political and policy-related differences but personally we can be friends’. It must have been a poignant moment for George Bush. He was the custodian of his country for the past eight years and had his triumphs and his not-so-good moments, his highs and his lows. He was praised and vilified by the people who voted for him and against him and by people all over the world. Till an hour back, he was the most powerful person in the world. Now it was time to move on. And he moved on. He smiled, shook hands, hugged old friends and moved on with dignity.
I remember other occasions when people refused to move on. It has happened in corporate offices and in sporting arenas and in politics. It has happened in families. When people get drunk with power that they can’t think of the day when they won’t have authority and influence. They feel that their sense of self-worth will go away. So they refuse to move on and keep hanging on to their position and bring a lot of pain to their families, their organization and the world. If we look at most sporting organizations like the IOC, IAAF, FIFA, BCCI or others we can find examples of this. If we look at many sporting teams we can find examples of players who are past their prime, who are hanging around, more because of their past reputation and their political clout and less because of their present performance. If we look at corporate offices we can find many examples of senior managers who are past their primes, whose ideas of governance, new business ideas and the status of their industry are outdated, but who refuse to give way to their younger peers to take charge. We can find examples of this in politics where eighty year old politicians who are well past their prime, hang on to their powerful positions. What these powerful people don’t realize is that they are the custodians of their families, teams and organizations and they don’t own them. They can’t own them. Sometimes it takes a complex coup to unseat these holders of the strings of power. Then the truth dawns on them – that they are custodians and not owners – but by then it is too late. It makes for unpleasant viewing.
Here, George Bush just walked away. It was a poignant moment. There was no time to even look back at the White House – his home for the last eight years. There was no time to go into some of his favourite rooms, admire his favourite paintings, look out and enjoy his favourite views outside the windows. He wasn’t even invited for lunch after the inauguration ceremony. It was a walk to the helicopter, a short journey to the Andrews Airforce Base and a short flight back home to Texas. There was no time even for some last-minute reflections and last-minute goodbyes. He simply moved on. George Bush was just 62 – a young age in most countries for a politician. I have a soft corner for him, despite the many mistakes of his administration. It is probably because of his personal warmth towards others – at the way he smiled and at how he invited everyone to his ranch. It is probably because of his love for books and his reading competition with his friend and colleague Karl Rove. I don’t know what he will do now. Probably he will try winning the book-reading competition against his friend Karl Rove. Probably he will write his memoirs. Or probably he will play golf in his ranch. The beauty of it all is that it is there in the American constitution. That the most powerful person in the world has to move on. Sometimes when we think that democracy creates institutions which inhibit the speed of progress and makes it difficult to built roads and bridges and infrastructure, and produces bottlenecks in governance, I think we should remember this transition of power. Of how even the most powerful people who shape the world and their country with their decisions and actions have to move on. And on how they do it with dignity. It has never happened in past eras, when monarchy or totalitarianism in its different hues, was the norm. It can never happen in an authoritarian country today. That is the beauty of democracy.