First Impressions: A Look Back at Five Presidential Transitions

In most of the world's democracies, the pieces of a newly elected government are already in place in the form of a shadow cabinet whose members have been serving as the government's loyal opposition. When a new leader takes office, members of the new cabinet are immediately available. In the United States, however, a newly elected president must quickly put together his government, choosing hundreds of private citizens to serve in his administration.

The new president's first challenge, between election day and inauguration day, is to select some 30 people to serve in his cabinet and as his top White House staff. The cabinet includes the secretaries of the 14 executive departments plus an assortment of other top echelon jobs, such as the U.S. trade representative. The key White House staff includes the chief of staff, the national security adviser, counsel, press secretary, and the top economic and domestic policy aides.

For those on the inside of the selection process, noted Martin Anderson in Revolution:The Reagan Legacy, the transition is a time of "delicious chaos." For those on the outside, including the press, bankable information is hard to come by. It is a complicated business, largely conducted behind closed doors. Yet the selection of these 30 individuals determines, in large measure, the initial success and lingering impression of each presidency. An orderly transition shows Americans a presidency predisposed for success. But personnel mistakes, sometimes serious errors, can and have plagued chief executives even before they took office.

A quick survey of the highlights—and lowlights—of five recent first-term transitions provides a roadmap to successful transitions.

Richard Nixon

Elected November 5, 1968

Richard Nixon's transition was one of the smoothest in recent memory. By the end of the second week after his closely fought campaign against Hubert Humphrey, Nixon had appointed his White House congressional liaison (Bryce Harlowe), chief of staff (Bob Haldeman), counsel (John Ehrlichman), and press secretary (Ronald Ziegler). Two weeks later he had picked his top national security, economic, and science advisers. On December 11 he introduced all 12 departmental secretaries—all white males—on live, prime-time TV. The extravaganza made the expected splash and grabbed attention, but in hindsight its real value was to reduce the nitpicking attention given each nominee. It was as if to say, noted Tom Wicker, "Let's have a big hand for the new Government."

Senate committees held informal hearings on the president-elect's cabinet choices quickly. On January 20, Nixon took the oath of office and sent his cabinet nominations to the Senate, where, except for Alaska governor Walter Hickel, his choice as secretary of the interior, they were approved during a 20-minute session. The next day they were sworn in. And after Hickel expressed to the Senate a devotion to environmental conservation that had not been previously evident, he too was approved and sworn in on January 23. The Washington Post's Herblock, whose drawings of Nixon consistently featured dark jowls, now drew a barbershop with a sign, "THIS SHOP GIVES EVERY NEW PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES A FREE SHAVE." In general, it was that sort of transition.

Jimmy Carter

Elected November 2, 1976

Trying to avoid the type of bunker mentality that had eventually characterized the Nixon presidency, Jimmy Carter conspicuously chose his cabinet before announcing his White House staff (excepting press secretary Jody Powell). Because the president-elect, a stranger to Washington, was not widely acquainted with the typical denizens of a cabinet, he invented a selection process of elaborate interviewing. That allowed him to get to know the candidates, but also invited intense lobbying of the kind Nixon had eluded with his TV show. Operating from hotel-less, motel-less Plains, Georgia, did not make the search any easier.

Five weeks after the election Carter announced his first two cabinet choices—Cyrus Vance as secretary of state and Bert Lance to head the Office of Management and Budget. Two weeks later he had rounded out a cluster of national security posts with Harold Brown (Defense) and Zbigniew Brzezinski (National Security) and an economic cluster with Michael Blumenthal (Treasury) and Charles Schultze (Council of Economic Advisers). All but Lance were experienced Washington hands; all, white males. On December 16 Carter announced Congressman Andrew Young, a long-time friend, as his choice for United Nations ambassador. By December 23, Carter had completed his cabinet selections, including two women—Juanita Kreps at Commerce and Patricia Harris, a black, at Housing and Urban Development. Senate hearings generated some heated controversy, especially over Griffin Bell (attorney general) and Ted Sorenson (CIA). In the end, Sorenson asked that his name be withdrawn. Finally, a week before the inauguration Carter named a Georgia-dominated White House staff, emphatically "open door" and "free access" in nature. Whatever the Carter administration was going to be, it did not want to be the Nixon administration.

Ronald Reagan

Elected November 4, 1980

Reagan's transition team prepared well and early, taking advantage of a landslide election victory and also of the readiness of experienced Washington hands to join his new administration after only a four-year GOP hiatus—not to mention a cadre of veterans of California's state government. Led by Reagan's chief of staff in Sacramento, Ed Meese, the transition team filtered nominees through a "kitchen cabinet" of Reagan's California friends, including his personal lawyer, William French Smith. Although some appointments mattered deeply to Reagan, he left many choices almost entirely to others. By the end of the seventh week, almost all appointments had been announced. On December 22, Reagan added the lone black (Samuel Pierce, Housing and Urban Development) and the lone woman (Jeane Kirkpatrick, United Nations) to his cabinet. In the end, ironically, there were more strangers—people the president had scarcely even met—in Reagan's cabinet than in Carter's. Although all Reagan's nominees were approved by the Senate with ease, several, including Al Haig (State), William French Smith (Justice), James Edwards (Energy), and James Watt (Interior), had contentious hearings.

Reagan's White House staff was not—as Ed Meese had accurately predicted—"nine guys from California." Indeed, what most distinguished his aides was their collective experience in the executive branch. Chief of staff James Baker, for example, had first come to Washington to be under secretary of commerce in the Ford administration. Other top assistants had also served Washington apprenticeships in previous GOP administrations. This presidency, it appeared, was prepared to "hit the ground running."

George Bush

Elected November 8, 1988

George Bush, the man with the golden resumé—congressman, ambassador to the UN and to China, national party chairman, CIA director, two-term vice president—would not assemble a government of strangers. Said one old friend, "Loyalty is his ideology." But the "friendly takeover" from Reagan to Bush was surprisingly rocky. Although Bush retained numerous Reagan appointees (of 53 White House staffers, 27 came from the Reagan government), everyone knew somebody who had gotten a pink slip.

Bush got off to a fast start, announcing the morning after the election that he would appoint James Baker as secretary of state and several days later that he would retain three other Reagan cabinet members—Nicholas Brady (Treasury), Richard Thornburgh (attorney general), and Lauro Cavazos (Education). In the end he selected two Hispanic Americans, one African American, and two women—a considerable advance in diversity over previous Republican cabinets.

The conundrum of the Bush transition was why a team so knowledgeable in the culture of the capital had such severe startup problems. Dr. Louis Sullivan, nominated to be secretary of health and human services, found himself embroiled in—and entirely unprepared for—a bitter abortion controversy. In the end, he won a 98—1 confirmation vote on March 1. But if the matter of Sullivan was an embarrassment, the matter of John Tower was a disaster. Tower, nominated as defense secretary, was no innocent traveler in the Washington wilderness. Indeed, he had chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee that held hearings on his nomination. But when the hearings began in January, Tower was subjected to an almost daily barrage of allegations about drinking and womanizing, as well as about his defense industry connections. The committee voted 11—9 against Tower, and the full Senate narrowly rejected his confirmation. Bush quickly patched up relations with Congress by appointing Dick Cheney, the popular Wyoming congressman who had been President Ford's chief of staff. But he paid a heavy price for the Tower humiliation. Three other cabinet nominees—James Watkins (Energy), William Bennett (drug czar), and Edward Derwinski (Veterans Affairs)—were not confirmed until March. The New York Times reported "a growing impression in Washington" that the administration was "adrift."

Bill Clinton

Elected November 3, 1992

If the Bush transition was uneasy, the Clinton transition was downright chaotic. On the plus side, Clinton's earliest nominations—Lloyd Bentsen (Treasury), Roger Altman (deputy at Treasury), Leon Panetta (Office of Management and Budget), Alice Rivlin (deputy at OMB), and Robert Rubin (National Economic Council)—illustrated his priority on economics. Much of Clinton's transition problem was his self-imposed task of creating a cabinet that "looks like America," reserving the attorney general slot for a woman. But by Christmas Eve, the mythic date by which presidents-elect aim to complete their cabinets, he had not yet announced his choice for chief law enforcement officer and hurriedly chose Zoë Baird. When it was revealed that Baird and her husband had hired illegal aliens to care for their child and additionally had not paid their employees' Social Security taxes, the confirmation hearing was brutal. Baird's nomination was withdrawn, to be replaced by Kimba Wood, who also had a "nanny problem." On the third try, Clinton chose Janet Reno, state attorney for Dade County, Florida. When Reno was confirmed, on March 11, Clinton's cabinet had eleven men and four women, nine whites, four blacks, and two Hispanic Americans. Yet the fallout from the attorney general fiasco helped create the impression that the new presidency would, as the New York Times put it, "hit the ground stumbling."

Lessons

If we could gather in one room the five presidents whose transitions we have just explored and ask them what advice they could give the next president, this is what I think they would say.

First, be prepared, even before you are elected. There are risks to planning personnel decisions before election day, but emerging from an election with a carefully vetted list of those who should be considered for top jobs is of inestimable value.

Second, act quickly. The normally sound counsel—"Take your time and get it right"—is bad political advice. Most bad transition decisions are those that take the longest, those made as the transition clock is running down. The longer you delay, the greater pressure you will be subjected to. Every prompt decision means you will have to say "no" a lot fewer times. Quick decisions mean that the transition news will be momentum, not indecisiveness. A handy rule of thumb: have your White House staff in place by Thanksgiving and your cabinet secretaries announced by Christmas (assuming your election is not contested).

Third, put the White House first. By election day you probably do not know who you want to head the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, or Labor. But you do know who you want as your top White House aides. So why delay the announcements?

Fourth, think clusters. For one shining moment at the administration's creation, you have the opportunity to relate the parts to each other. If you choose a secretary of state, a secretary of defense, and a national security adviser who are in sync, whose egos and ambitions are properly aligned, you will have a better shot at achieving your objectives.

Fifth, send a message. Appointments, so microscopically examined and interpreted by the media, can be used by presidents-elect to make a statement. Clinton picked an economic team, signaling thereby his top priority. Most presidents in transition simply announce their intentions as they make up their minds and thus fail to take advantage of these early opportunities.

Sixth, choose your demographic goals. Deep in the archive of your mind should be a rough sketch of what you want and need your administration to look like. This is personal property. To announce that you want the attorney general to be a woman is to paint yourself into a corner. Remember that this is a game that you can win by changing the dimensions of the playing field. The U.S. government has 14 departments, but some government agencies or even offices are more important than some departments. Announce which positions are in your cabinet before you make the appointments so that the appointments will not be denigrated as pandering to special interests.

Seventh, feed the beast. As Lloyd Bentsen's press secretary noted, given "a constant supply of doggie biscuits," the news media will "gleefully lick the hand that feeds them." But run out of treats, and they will "devour your arm." The problem can be particularly severe for a transition press secretary who has nothing to report while the boss juggles the makeup of the cabinet. The lesson here is that having a press corps on hand and no hard news is an opportunity for the incoming administration to educate the journalists through daily briefings by visiting experts on all matters that they expect to confront in the next four years.

Finally, tell your nominees to smile and grovel. After the nominations have been made and sent to the Senate, the new president confronts a lot of brush fires and, it seems, at least one truly horrendous confirmation. Nominees must be prepared to endure being confronted by growl and swagger—no easy task for people who also think they are important. To which the best advice of the political sherpas most experienced at leading nominees through the confirmation process is to accept the short-term pain. And handle senators with care. Once senators get the respect they think they deserve, they give the president pretty much what he asks for.

Now What?

And so the team is in place: president, White House staff, cabinet. The last act of the transition is for someone to quote the favorite line of all political junkies: from the 1972 movie, a dazed Robert Redford, the winning candidate, suddenly realizes that now he must actually govern. "What do we do now?"