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Spencer Rendahl: Saying Goodbye

Like millions of kids nationwide, my seven-year-old son glues his ear to the nearest speaker whenever he hears the soundtrack of the Broadway hip-hop smash hit Hamilton. The main story follows the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, but my son is most transfixed with the relationship between George Washington and King George III.

He loves to hear King George sing; especially when he trills his “r’s” about the “arrangement” he thought England had with the colonies, and mourns their estrangement as colonists hurl tea into the sea. He’s also fascinated with the fact that George Washington, after 8 years in office, simply stepped aside to let someone else be president - just as President Obama is doing now.

My son was born 11 months after Obama’s first inauguration, so he’s only known one American president. And the idea that someone would voluntarily give up power seems bizarre to him, just as it did to King George in 1796 – when Washington gave his farewell address.

Many others both at home and abroad, who only knew kings who ruled their entire lives, also struggled to understand why George Washington, the nation’s first president, and a slave owner, would willingly step aside. Who could possibly follow anyone who loomed so large? Likewise, my son can’t imagine why Obama, the nation’s first African American president, married to a descendent of slaves, would leave the White House.

I tell my son that we have term limits now, so Obama couldn’t be elected again. But I also tell him being President is hard. Obama plans to take extended time off with his family to rest. In Hamilton, Washington, quoting scripture, says he wants to sit under his own vine and fig tree, having a moment alone in the shade, safe in the nation they’d made.

But mostly, Washington understood that yielding power is every bit as important as gaining it; and he wanted to teach Americans how to say goodbye to any president, however popular.

One of the things that make our country great – what makes us safe in the nation we’ve made, as Washington sings in Hamilton - is that while history may judge some presidents better than others, and some elections may go more smoothly than others, in the end every president must eventually step aside.

And now Obama is teaching my son how to say goodbye.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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