Changing Presidents : Transition: The Agony of Victory

Times Staff Writer

On the day after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, the Washington Evening Star excited readers with a dramatic scenario: President Herbert Hoover would appoint Roosevelt secretary of state and then resign, so that Roosevelt, under the succession law of those days, could take over the government immediately in the midst of national economic crisis.

Hoover, of course, never did so. But the erroneous newspaper speculation did not come out of mad fancy. It stemmed from a need to make sense of an American institution that still befuddles politicians and scholars: the presidential transition.

No other Western democracy has the same phenomenon: the 10 weeks or so that it takes for a departing American President to pass power to the candidate elected to succeed him. It is a period that can alternately be hectic or burdensomely long, and, occasionally, dangerous.

Weeks of Preparation


So crucial is this transition period for future government that small teams of aides to both Vice President George Bush and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis already have been preparing for it for many weeks.

Both teams intend to be ready, as soon as the night of victory celebration winds down to the dawn of Nov. 9, to assemble the much larger staff that will enable President-elect Dukakis or President-elect Bush to start immediately to fashion a new administration.

Despite the early start, the staffs of both candidates do not like to talk about the transition. No one wants to evoke the foolishly overconfident Thomas E. Dewey, who, according to most accounts, had already put together his prospective Cabinet when he was defeated and humiliated by Harry S. Truman in 1948.

“We do not want to appear presumptuous,” said Chase Untermeyer, the 42-year-old former assistant secretary of the Navy who heads Bush’s transition team. “We do not want to appear overconfident. We are not a government-in-waiting.”


Pre-Election Secrecy

There is a related fear that transition planning could become entangled in the campaign. Neither candidate wants to be burdened with rumors that his aides have already proposed a chemical plant owner to be chief of environmental protection or a trade unionist to be secretary of commerce.

“The focus has to be on winning this campaign,” said Marcia Hale, the 36-year-old former city planner from South Carolina who heads the Dukakis transition team. “We need to be quiet and not become . . . an issue in the campaign.”

“But,” she went on, justifying the need to start early, “you wouldn’t want to vote for someone who didn’t think that the transition was a complex process that you had to think through.”

Most scholars and politicians agree. Outside the campaign, in fact, a host of think tanks, universities and commissions--a larger number than ever before--are preparing a host of reports intended to smooth and influence the transition.

All this may be overblown. Stephen Hess, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who was a consultant during Jimmy Carter’s transition after his election in 1976, insists the transition period should be shortened.

“No matter how much time transition takes,” Hess said, “the same damn people get picked. They pick people who have served before, they pick their friends, their campaign workers, their campaign contributors. It isn’t as if they use the extra time to go to the High Sierra and ask some great philosopher to come down from the mountain to impart something to them.”

For almost a century and a half, presidents were inaugurated on March 4, four months after Election Day. A 1933 constitutional amendment advanced the date to Jan. 20.


Hess, insisting that presidents-elect never use the interim time well, proposes advancing the inauguration date again, to early December. “If the candidates knew they would only have a month after the election,” he said, “it might make them start thinking hard about their Cabinet and their programs while campaigning.”

Earlier Date Proposed

Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) has proposed a constitutional amendment to set the inauguration at Nov. 20. “It is ironic,” he told the Senate, “that our Constitution now provides automatically for up to 10 weeks of crippled leadership each time the presidency of our nation changes hands through elections.”

Yet Congress, persuaded that a shorter period would only make transitions more hectic and troubled, shows no sign of abandoning Jan. 20 as Inauguration Day. And although the House this year blocked Senate-passed legislation to subsidize the transition, Congress since 1963 has appropriated funds--$3.5 million will be available this year--to pay planning staffs and cover the miscellaneous expenses of presidents-elect.

Even with the availability of federal subsidies, recent transitions have uniformly proved to be what Stuart E. Eizenstat, an adviser to President Carter, called “perilous times"--chaotic moments in history when vital decisions are taken at feverish pace by a President-elect and his aides at a time when they have little experience or knowledge to guide them.

Transition failures have haunted the administrations that followed them. Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, for example, holds bad transition planning partly to blame for the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco under President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Carter’s Early Mistakes

Many scholars agree that errors committed during transition set the Carter Administration on a woeful footing for the next four years. And, ironically, no candidate had devoted more time, thought, staff and funds to transition planning before Election Day than Jimmy Carter.


Carter appointed Jack H. Watson, an Atlanta lawyer, to head a transition team of more than 25 professionals at least five months before the election and diverted $150,000 from campaign funds to pay for the operation. This infuriated campaign manager Hamilton Jordan, who resented the loss of funds and bristled that someone else would control the spoils of the victory that he was orchestrating.

The resentment erupted into conflict after Election Day, with Jordan winning and taking over most of the transition work. Thus the transition that had started earlier than any other in history lost two weeks of time after the election, and Jordan tossed aside a good deal of Watson’s preliminary work.

“It wasn’t anything personal between Hamilton and me,” Watson recalled, “although it was manifested that way. . . . It got worked out, but it was a tense time. There is no doubt about it. We lost a little bit of time.”

‘100-Day’ Wonders

The Carter transition also faltered under the pressure of what Eizenstat calls “the 100-day mythology"--the attempt every new President makes to rush through a number of significant laws during his first 100 days in office, just as Roosevelt did in 1933. That pressure, according to Eizenstat, pushed Carter into embracing financial, energy and arms-control proposals that proved both unpopular and unwise.

Raymond A. Fontaine, the General Services Administration official who has handled the logistics of every transition since Richard M. Nixon succeeded Lyndon B. Johnson, said the Carter transition caused him the most difficulty. In his view, most of the Carter workers were “amateurs.”

“They didn’t listen,” Fontaine said. “They were kids in blue jeans. I met with them the second day after the election and told them that they would have to give me the Social Security numbers of everyone on the payroll. And some (American Civil Liberties Union) lawyer in the group said, ‘We are not going to give you the Social Security numbers--it’s an invasion of privacy.’

“I said, no Social Security numbers, no checks. What did they think? That I made out all the checks myself?”

Reagan Started Early

The Reagan staff began transition planning even earlier than the Carter staff, but tried to avoid its obvious mistakes.

A year before the election, Reagan’s long-time associate, Edwin Meese III, quietly asked E. Pendleton James, a specialist in executive personnel-hunting, to start planning for Reagan’s transition. Meese, who took over as transition director the day after Reagan was elected in 1980, estimates that he personally spent six to eight hours a week on transition planning during the campaign.

With the election won, Meese put in place an extensive transition team of more than 1,000 workers, many of them preparing policy papers for every department and agency of government. Their work was buttressed by lengthy theses on policy and personnel from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research institution long close to Meese.

Taking a gamble on the election, the Heritage Foundation staff had spent many months outlining a detailed program for putting a conservative stamp on the federal government.

“Two days after the election,” said Philip Truluck, executive vice president of the Heritage Foundation, “we delivered three copies of each manuscript to them in their office. “

sh Many Jobs to Fill

Yet, for all the planning, many key Administration positions remained empty when Reagan was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981. Much of the avalanche of reports from transition headquarters was probably ignored. Alexander M. Haig Jr., Reagan’s first secretary of state, publicly dismissed the transition staff’s report on foreign affairs.

Yet there is no doubt the transition work enabled the Reagan Administration to start at a remarkable pace. Within a few months of taking office, it had reduced taxes, boosted military spending, chopped domestic programs and generally given the federal government a conservative slant.

The lessons from Carter and Reagan seem clear.

“From a theoretical point of view,” said Meese, the former attorney general who is now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, “you want to do as much as possible as early as possible. That’s good management, but in the real world, you are not going to siphon anything from the campaign and divert the attention of anyone from the campaign. You have to be low key.”

Anticipatory Actions

The Dukakis and Bush camps act as if they are listening. Both insist they are concerned mostly with “process” now. For example, they have both accepted the GSA’s offer of rent-free office space for their post-election transition teams in a downtown building left vacant since the government recently transplanted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the suburbs in Virginia.

Hale and Untermeyer, the pre-election transition directors for Dukakis and Bush, are prepared to make room for more celebrated associates once the election is over. “There won’t be any doubt,” Hale said, “that the major people in the campaign are going to be the major players in the transition as well.”

Although Untermeyer served two terms in the Texas House of Representatives before his appointment as executive assistant to Vice President Bush and then assistant secretary of the Navy, he remains a Harvard political science student at heart.

Untermeyer said he does not regret keeping apart from the campaign. “No one ever asked me to work in the campaign, anyway,” he said. “I am a government major. This is more my kind of work. I would not be very good at working in the precincts of Iowa.”

Works Outside Campaign

Hale also studied political science, but she has been more active than Untermeyer in precinct politics. A former legislative assistant to Rep. Butler Derrick (D-S. C.), she was director of advance planning for Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro in 1984. She worked as Southern field director for Dukakis during the primaries, then managed his operations at the Democratic National Convention.

“I obviously was very involved in the campaign right through the convention,” she said recently. “I came from the campaign and keep in touch with it, but I have a job to do, and it’s fascinating.”

The problem of transition is uniquely American. In other Western democracies, prime ministers and presidents take office only a few days after they are elected. Stability and continuity are guaranteed by a permanent staff of senior civil servants who are prepared to work for politicians from all political parties with equal efficiency and anonymity.

A U.S. President, by contrast, takes over a government denuded of most of its significant policy makers. He must appoint 3,000 officials, 700 of them powerful enough to need Senate confirmation.

Hardly anyone or anything related to government remains from the previous White House. “Everyone on the White House staff leaves, except the Filipino waiters and people like that,” said Eizenstat, who advocates a permanent secretariat for the White House. The outgoing President even takes all his papers with him, he pointed out, and leaves behind only the antique furniture and art.