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article imageA History of Presidential Transitions

By Sadiq Green     Nov 12, 2008 in Politics
Monday President George Bush and President-elect Barack Obama met at the White House to discuss the transition to power for the incoming president. While the Obama campaign was in part centered around Bush's failed policies, the personal tour went well.
The soon-to-be and former leaders of the Free World surely differ on policy, but by most accounts the meeting went well. There seems to be a genuine effort from the Bush administration to make the transfer of power as seamless as possible, as evidenced by the new office created by Bush via Executive Order in October. President-elect Obama for his part has done well by tasking a past White House veterans to head his transition and to serve as his new administrations Chief of Staff.
While those steps taken by the current and the next President are encouraging, history dating back to the very first transfer, has shown us that the transition periods have not always proven to be seamless. Bush and Obama can take comfort in the knowledge that their meeting and transition will likely be more successful than that experienced by some of their predecessors dating back hundreds of years.
President George Washington had left his servants in charge of the transition of power to John Adams. The servants then had a series of parties in the two weeks between when Washington vacated the house and when Adams moved in. The furniture was wrecked and most of the silverware and china had been taken.
1800- 01
This transition can be viewed as the first partisan battle of the country's history, between John Adams' Federalists and Thomas Jeffersons' Republicans. From December to the Inauguration in March, John Adams named 16 Federalist judges and created the Judiciary Act. Upon taking office, Jefferson repealed the act and denied many of the justices' commissions, leading to the landmark case Marbury v. Madison, which solidified the Supreme Court's authority.
The transition from President John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson was particularly hostile. The Presidential campaign had been ugly, with both candidates using press surrogates to attack one another. At one point, Adams supporters in the press accused Jackson's wife Rachel of bigamy. She died a few weeks after the elections. Jackson said he would forgive those who insulted him, but he would never forgive the ones who attacked his wife. Adams left Washington and did not attend the inauguration of Jackson.
In 1925, Calvin Coolidge nominated Charles B. Warren to be his attorney general. Early in the 20th century, Warren had been instrumental in the consolidation of small Michigan sugar refineries and later became president of the resulting conglomerate. The Senate, sensitive to cabinet members with backdoor connections to business after the bribery scandals of the Warren Harding presidency, rejected Warren 41-39. Coolidge stubbornly resubmitted Warren's name and the Senate, with its sovereignty challenged, rejected Warren again.
For the first 150 years of the presidency, the transition took place between November and the Inauguration in early March, leaving a lame-duck administration for four months.
In '32 Herbert Hoover was the lame duck, and for months Franklin Roosevelt distanced himself from all things Hoover. Hoover implemented government plans to reverse the economic crisis, hoping the appearance of solidarity between the current and future administrations would stabilize the economy. However, Roosevelt wanted no part of it and the transition meetings of January and February 1933 between Hoover and Roosevelt - unlike this years - were fruitless due to the mass failings of many banks. Later, the the 20th Amendment, ratified in late January, shortened the transition time to 11 weeks.
In 1945 following the Death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman helped to establish the tradition of outgoing Presidents actively assisting the transition of power to the incoming President. Following the November 1952 election, Truman sent a telegram to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower inviting him to the White House to discuss the problems of the transition period, so that it may be made clear to the rest of the world that this nation is united in its struggle for freedom and peace'.
However that unity was not evident as there apparently was no love lost between them as the acrimony of the campaign had affected President-elect Eisenhower badly. Truman said during campaign that Eisenhower knew no more about politics "than a pig knows about Sunday". Eisenhower returned the sentiments so much so, that he refused an invitation for lunch at the White House, and continued to shun his predecessor up to inauguration day.
Before meeting President-elect John F. Kennedy, a 70 year-old Dwight Eisenhower ridiculed his 43-year-old replacement as a "young whippersnapper". But after a three-hour meeting between them in the White House, an aide said Eisenhower emerged from the conversation "overwhelmed by Senator Kennedy, his understanding of the world problems, the depth of his questions, his grasp of the issues and the keenness of his mind". During that meeting, Eisenhower showed Kennedy how to use a panic button in the White House that summoned a helicopter instantly to the back lawn.
Lyndon Johnson, following discussions with Richard Nixon that focused on the Vietnam War, pulled his successor into his bedroom and showed him a safe hidden in the wall: "I wanted you to know about this." It was the infamous taping system. Johnson explained that it was used as an instrument to record history, which Nixon was said to have found absurd. Ironically, Nixon apparently had a change of heart and continued to use the system that ultimately tore his presidency down.
Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan took the animosity they had shown each other on the campaign trail in 1980 into the Oval Office when they met during the transition period. President Carter had run TV advertisements claiming Reagan was not to be trusted with the nuclear button. Reagan had accused Carter of driving America into depression. The conversation at the White House between the two men began badly, and deteriorated from there. President Carter began by talking about national security matters. President-elect Reagan however, sat impassively, saying nothing and taking no notes. An annoyed Carter told Reagan, "The day begins early. A CIA officer briefs you at 7am." Reagan, responding only has he could, "Well, he's sure going to have to wait a long while for me."
President-elect Reagan's slights towards Carter were mirrored by the attitude of First Lady to Be Nancy Reagan towards First Lady Rosalyn Carter. During their meeting at the White House, Mrs. Reagan gave a "subtle hint" that the Carters should get out early so she could start decorating.
John Tower, the author of the Iran-Contra investigative report, had his nomination as President-elect George H.W. Bush's defense secretary voted down 53-47 by the Senate. Among the criticisms were his ties to defense contractors and his pro-choice stance on abortion. But Tower was likely targeted for retribution by some Democrats, angered over the 1988 General Election campaign that had used negative tactics against Michael Dukakis. The issue that garnered the most newspaper space was his reputed drinking and womanizing. Tower became the first cabinet nominee to be rejected in more than 30 years. Wyoming Congressman and former Gerald Ford Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, considered a moderate pragmatist, was confirmed unanimously 10 days later.
The 1992-93 transition is generally remembered as chaotic, unfocused and undisciplined. Clinton said in his autobiography that, "I spent so much time on the cabinet that I hardly spent any time on the White House staff." The cabinet position that caused the most time spent, not to mention public embarrassment, was the Attorney General position. President-elect Clinton's first and second choices for the position, Zoë Baird and Kimba Woods respectively, blew up due to similar reports that each had employed illegal aliens for domestic work. Clinton, determined to nominate a woman for the position, settled on Florida State Attorney Janet Reno who was sworn in on March 12, 1993.
George W. Bush ran for the Presidency in 2000 on a campaign in part to restore "honour and dignity" to the Oval office, a reference to President Clinton's indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky in that room. His own transition meeting occurred in December 2000 shortly after the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, awarded him the General Election win and the Presidency. When President-elect Bush met Clinton in the White House the encounter had great potential for disaster, though it never materialized. Presidents Clinton and Bush went on to talk privately for an hour and dine without incident over curried squash soup and fillet mignon.
President Bush took office in January 2001, and he aimed to make a clean break from all things Clinton. However, the acrimony stemming from the 2000 Florida recount and the Supreme Court decision apparently carried over to the staffers. Reports of office vandalism and thievery made their way into the press soon after the Bush team moved in. A 215-page Government Accounting Office report released a year later, found between $13,000 and $14,000 worth of damage, including missing doorknobs and "W" keys from nearly 60 computer keyboards occurred. A Clinton spokesmen acknowledged that there may have been pranks done in jest, but attributed the majority of the damage to normal wear and tear. In the end both sides claimed vindication, but the bitterness was a symbol of the entire 2000 election.
President-elect Obama's meeting on Monday with President Bush could have equally been awkward, considering that the Obama campaign appealed to the American people to reject the "eight years of failed policies" of his host. But Bush, having the benefit of being in Obama's position at the receiving end of a handover, made it easy for the pair to conduct themselves with grace and dignity.
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