Oval Office Handover Spats, Grudges (& the Occasional Pleasantry)

Nov 10, 2008 4:42pm

ABC’s John Cochran reports from Washington, DC: The Bush-Obama meeting at the White House has taken place earlier than previous such get-togethers between incoming and outgoing Chief Executives.  Given the country’s current economic problems, an early meeting is generally seen as a good thing. Comparisons will now be made to other presidential handovers.  Ronald Reagan’s transition team gets high marks for preparation in the weeks after his 1980 election, and is regarded by many as the gold standard to emulate.  But beyond the ability of any president-elect’s team are the personal feelings that
lame-duck administrations have for the new crowd, and vice-versa.  And the personal side is what I remember more than who named his cabinet first or who chose his White House staff first. I have been around for six transitions as a reporter including Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford’s assumption of power.  Some would say there was no transition then because Nixon announced his resignation only the night before leaving office.    But we now know that Ford expected Nixon to leave and planned what he would do on and after the fateful day. Veteran journalist Tom DeFrank has written in a recent book that four months before Nixon quit Ford told him off-the-record that he would soon be president.    Ford’s own memoirs acknowledge that, before assuming office, he gave some thought to early actions he might take as president. No one who saw it will forget Nixon’s emotional breakdown as he said goodbye to his staff.   And I will never forget, as some of us were led into the Oval Office for Ford’s first ceremonial duties, how healthy he looked compared to Nixon’s tortured visage in his last hours.  Now, THAT was a transition! Others were less dramatic.  When Jimmy Carter defeated Ford two years later, there was no love lost between the two.  Years later they would become good friends.  But the transition was a frosty affair.  Most Ford aides tried to be helpful, but many had less than kind off-the-record remarks about Carter and "his Georgia boys." The same could be said about George H.W. Bush’s aides and their feelings toward president-elect Bill Clinton and his incoming team.  During the ’92 campaign Bush had told close friends he could not believe the American people would choose a man like Clinton over himself. But when the American people did just that, Bush –with his impeccable good manners and sense of duty– told his staff to offer every assistance to the winners. Eight years later it was Clinton’s turn to offer assistance to a Bush, George W. But the turnover was marred when Bush aides claimed that Clinton staffers left behind rude, profane notes, glued drawers shut, and vandalized equipment. Government investigators later found there had been some vandalism though not as widespread as alleged. One confirmed prank: some naughty Clinton aides removed the "W" from many computer keyboards.  Now, as "W" himself prepares to leave, his staff has been told: no pranks and no damaging of equipment before Obama’s people take over. Which means, I suppose, that the letter "O" will remain safe and secure on White House keyboards. When I started today’s blog, I intended to write about a transition I watched from the inside as a very young Army GI stationed at the White House when Ike moved out and JFK moved in.  But that’s another story, for another day, and another blog.

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