Politics: A History of Bumpy Transitions

The good news for President-elect Barack Obama: following George W. Bush is only slightly harder than following Jane Fonda at a VFW rally. The bad news: compared with governing, campaigning is easy.

As much as Obama may want to turn the page and make good on his change mantra during the first hundred days, he might take a moment to read about the Hoover-Roosevelt transition of 1932-33. Or peruse tales of the clumsy Clinton start after the 1992 election. The period between the first Tuesday in November and Jan. 20 can be a treacherous time for an incoming commander in chief, and history is rife with controversy—from radioactive cabinet nominee dramas to tales of political revenge, catty vandalism and petty theft. "The early months are so important," White House veteran David Gergen has said, "because that's when you have the most authority, but that's also when you have the least capacity for making the right decisions." A brief history of some of the most troubled presidential transitions:

2000- 01
When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, he aimed to make a clean break from all things Clinton. The acrimony, much of it stemming from the 2000 Florida recount and the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, apparently went both ways. Reports of office vandalism and thievery made their way into the press soon after the Bush team moved in.

An initial 2001 General Services Administration audit found little to the story, other than wear and tear when "tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy." But Georgia Rep. Bob Barr pressed the matter, and the General Accounting Office began a deeper probe. A year later, the GAO released a report that found between $13,000 and $14,000 worth of damage. The vandalism included missing items like doorknobs, a presidential seal and "W" keys from nearly 60 computer keyboards. The 215-page report said the damage amounted to a "criminal act" but didn't specifically blame anyone. 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.

The 1992-93 transition is generally remembered—even by those who worked on the first Clinton administration—as unfocused and undisciplined. Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers called the period "hell." In his autobiography, Clinton himself admitted that he "spent so much time on the cabinet that [he] hardly spent any time on the White House staff." One public embarrassment was the nomination of Zoë Baird for attorney general, which blew up shortly before the Inauguration. Baird removed her name from consideration after it was revealed she had employed several illegal aliens and neglected to pay Social Security taxes on their work. Clinton's second nominee, Kimba Wood, withdrew due to similar reports. Clinton seemed determined to nominate a woman for the position and, on March 12, Florida State Attorney Janet Reno was sworn in.

John Tower—the former U.S. senator from Texas, Reagan and Bush adviser, and author of the Iran-contra investigative report—had his nomination as defense secretary shot down on a 53-47 vote. Among the criticisms: his ties to defense contractors and his pro-choice stance on abortion. Some Democrats targeted Tower for payback, angered over their feeling that George H.W. Bush's campaign had used negative tactics against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. But the issue that took up the most newspaper space was his reputed drinking and womanizing. The perception—fair or not—of Tower as a loose cannon overly fond of imbibing doomed his chances. In his memoirs, Tower blamed the episode on the media (whom he called a "lynch mob"), enemies gained over 27-odd years in Washington (especially the then Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn) and other "crackpots and busybodies." Dick Cheney, considered a moderate pragmatist, was confirmed unanimously 10 days later. Tower was the first cabinet nominee to be rejected in more than 30 years. He died in a 1991 plane crash.

President-elect Ronald Reagan assembled his transition team and chose Teamster bigwig Jackie Presser as a labor adviser. The problem: Presser had alleged Mafia contacts, and was a target of a Department of Labor malfeasance lawsuit. Reagan had courted the Teamster endorsement during the campaign (which he got—both in 1980 and 1984). When the news broke, administration officials denied knowledge of Presser's more nefarious connections and rejected the notion his advice would compromise any federal investigation into Teamster corruption. In ensuing days, more bad news surfaced: police witnesses testified that Presser made loans from Teamster pension funds to various organized-crime families. Though Presser denied any ties to organized crime, calls for his resignation grew louder; eventually, Reagan spokesman (and soon-to-be press secretary) James Brady said the Teamster boss's job had ended. However, the Associated Press quoted spokesman Larry Speakes as saying that Presser "may be called on" for "some continuing role." Presser, a Jimmy Hoffa protégé who had previously sought an audience with President Jimmy Carter, was elected president of the Teamsters in 1983.

Theodore Sorensen was nominated to head the CIA by newly elected President Carter in 1976. The choice drew immediate fire from the right. Sorensen was accused of taking classified material during his time as a Kennedy adviser, criticized for having been a conscientious objector during World War II and blasted for his law firm's client roster's including foreign governments. Ideology also played a part. Sorensen was an old-school liberal who had some very definite ideas on reorganizing the agency, including reining in covert operations. Even though Democrats controlled the Senate, Sorensen could not withstand the onslaught. He pulled his nomination in front of the Senate committee, saying, "A substantial portion of the U.S. Senate and the intelligence community is not yet ready to accept as director of Central Intelligence an outsider who believes as I believe." Carter, perhaps afraid of the embarrassment of such an early rejection, decided to cut his losses; he did not forcefully back Sorensen, nor did he ask outright for his withdrawal.

For the first 150 years of the presidency, the transition took place between November and the Inauguration in early March, primarily to account for slow travel time. But as communication and transportation improved, Inauguration Day stayed the same, leaving a lame-duck administration especially lame for four months.

In '32 Herbert Hoover was the lame duck, and for months Franklin Roosevelt distanced himself from all things Hoover—at the time an expedient maneuver, but one that may well have cost the country. Hoover had set in motion government plans to reverse the economic crisis, hoping the appearance of solidarity between the actual and incoming administrations would be a financial tonic. But he was already seen as politically toxic, and Roosevelt had won by steering clear of him. The Democrat rejected Hoover's plea to address the European end of the crisis, calling the war-debt issue the Republican's "baby." In January and February 1933, banks were failing en masse and Roosevelt-Hoover meetings were fruitless standoffs—described by historian Herbert Feis as a "naval engagement on a foggy night between two opposed fleets … the proponents were shooting at shadows and hitting air." So who gets the blame for the depression? Historians have quarreled over the question, but Hoover has borne most of the blame. The economic inertia during the long, contentious winter of 1932-33 did not help. Ironically, the 20th Amendment shortening the transition time to 11 weeks was ratified in late January, but didn't go into practical effect until 1937.

In 1925, Calvin Coolidge nominated Charles B. Warren, a former ambassador and businessman, to be his attorney general. The Senate rejected Warren for his interest in the "sugar trust"—a conglomerate of sugar companies that had been investigated by Congress. In the early 20th century, Warren had been instrumental in consolidating smaller Michigan refineries and later became president of the resulting conglomerate. Missouri Sen. James A. Reed was particularly hostile to the idea of Warren's appointment. "I trust there are enough [senators] left to vote against delivering the Department of Justice into the hands of the sugar trust," he said in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. "Warren is owned in advance." Congress was especially sensitive to cabinet members with backdoor connections after the bribery scandals of the Harding presidency. Warren was rejected 41-39. Upon hearing the news, Coolidge stubbornly resubmitted Warren's name, saying in a statement that he hoped "the unbroken practice of three generations of permitting the president to choose his own cabinet will not be changed." The Senate, its sovereignty challenged, rejected Warren again.

In the first months of 1829, Andrew Jackson supporters from far and wide made their way to the Capital for the Inauguration. Washington was captivated by the Democratic revolution, but the hero of New Orleans kept mainly out of sight. His wife had died in December (after a nasty campaign that sullied her reputation) and for most of the transition, Jackson was in mourning, secluded in his quarters at Gadsby's Hotel and only receiving visitors for three hours a day. A huge crowd assembled for the Inauguration, then flowed toward the White House. Jackson had opened the grounds to all his well wishers—who quickly became an unruly mob in the overcrowded reception room. Many of the people—penned in, hot and liquored up—began to fight or faint. Aides had to form a human ring around the gaunt president to avoid his being crushed. Opened windows provided the only escape route, but the fracas spilled out; aides used ice cream and wine to try to lure the masses outside. Margaret Bayard Smith, a lady of Washington society, wrote of the scene: "Ladies and gentlemen only had been expected at this Levee, not the people en masse. But it was the People's day, and the People's President and the People would rule."

1800- 01
The administration of George Washington was nonpartisan, but as his second term ended in 1796, two competing philosophies squared off. The Federalists wanted a strong central government, banks, military and judiciary, while the Republicans prized states' rights and a laissez-faire federal approach. Due to a deadlock, the election of 1800 was not decided until February, but John Adams knew he was out of contention early on. From December to the Inauguration in March (which Adams refused to attend), the incumbent added 16 Federalist judges. He also created the Judiciary Act, granting the federal courts greater power—especially over land and financial matters. Upon taking office, Jefferson repealed the act and denied many of the justices' commissions. This led to the landmark case Marbury v. Madison, which solidified the Supreme Court's authority.

John Adams was sworn in as the second president on March 4, 1797, and within a few weeks had moved out of the president's house a block away from Independence Hall. President George Washington had left his servants in charge of the transition, who'd 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. He wrote to his wife, Abigail, on March 22: "There is not a chair to sit in. The beds and bedding are in a woeful pickle. This house has been a scene of the most scandalous drinking and disorder among the servants that I ever heard of. I would not have one of them for any consideration."

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