Do not be surprised if Barack Obama thanks George W. Bush for his service to the nation at the start of his inaugural address. Since Jimmy Carter, every incoming president has given a shout-out from the podium to his predecessor. But if one looks at history, one finds that this courtesy is more the exception than the rule.
It began in 1797, with John Adams' well-deserved (and characteristically long-winded) encomium to George Washington, "a citizen who, by a long course of great actions, regulated by prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, conducting a people inspired with the same virtues and animated with the same ardent patriotism and love of liberty to independence and peace, to increasing wealth and unexampled prosperity, has merited the gratitude of fellow citizens, commanded the highest praises of foreign nations, and secured immortal glory with posterity." Four years later, Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in a brutally divisive election. Still smarting, Adams skipped town the night before Jefferson's swearing-in. Next day, Jefferson omitted any mention of Adams.
Four of the next five presidents acknowledged their predecessors. Between 1841-1973, however, only two references were made to outgoing chief executives: in 1909, when William Howard Taft devoted a paragraph to Teddy Roosevelt's reforms; and in 1929, when Herbert Hoover cited Calvin Coolidge's "wise guidance in this great period of recovery" (this was the first time a predecessor was acknowledged by name).
FDR ignored Hoover, Eisenhower did the same to Truman, JFK never brought up Eisenhower, Nixon thought it best to leave LBJ out of his speech. Carter revived the tradition when he thanked Gerald Ford "for all he had done to heal our land," after the Watergate crisis and the end of the Vietnam War. Subsequent presidents played nice with one another too. But for all their faults, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton didn't cause as much damage to the United States as George W. Bush. The litany of mistakes and crimes is searing: 9/11, Katrina, the Wall Street meltdown, torture, illegal wiretapping, the treasonous outing of a CIA agent, the wanton politicization of the Justice Department, an ideological war on science and reason, Terri Schiavo, an abysmal environmental record, the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden... Feel free to add anything I've left out. And in the months to come, who knows what other maggots will wriggle out of this fetid corpse. Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter for The New Yorker, claims that several officials are waiting for Bush to leave office so they can give the real skinny on the administration.
If Obama thanks this incompetent wretch, I won't be angry. I've decided not to criticize our new president for a year. Whenever I thought he was screwing up during the election, he turned out to be right; so I'm going to trust his instincts. But if he doesn't thank Bush, it will be a sign that change has come to Washington. Of course Fox News and right-wing talk radio will scream about this act of "disrespect". But Obama will be telling future presidents that if they behave like Bush, they won't get a ceremonial pat on the back. It isn't much. I'd prefer a perp walk. But I'll take what I can get.
(One last thing: My support for Obama has limits. If he also thanks Cheney, all bets are off!)