White House staffers, if you want to avoid a headache next year, take our advice and don’t imitate Bill Clinton’s team on your way out.
We’re referring to transition pranks, a tradition embraced most energetically by Clinton’s staff when handing the reins to George W. Bush in 2001. (You’ve probably heard about the missing W keys on White House keyboards.) There’s a reason President Obama’s senior aides are already setting expectations for a no-nonsense changeover in January 2017, no matter whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton takes over.
Not only do problems generate bad press, but they can also bring out the most neurotic tendencies of everyone involved.
Take this little-known Government Accountability Office report from June 2002, which comprises 220 pages of back-and-forth between the Bush White House staff, the Clinton White House staff and the General Services Administration about, in essence, who stole what doorknob.
So, in the interest of saving everyone from that kind of craziness, here is what White House staff should not do on its last day:
Scatter bumper stickers. Record obscene voice-mail greetings. Damage furniture. White-out computer keyboards. Smear Vaseline over desks. Unplug refrigerators. Write on walls. Take cellphones, TV remotes or presidential medallions. Glue telephones or drawers. Abandon holiday decorations. Smash locks.
Clinton’s team did all of this, and at Congress’s request, the scene was meticulously reconstructed through nearly 200 after-action interviews by the GAO. Did you know Al Gore accidentally took a bust of Abraham Lincoln home, only to return it after Dick Cheney made a fuss? Now you do.
The report also includes anecdotes such as this one:
“A former employee … said that on his last day of work at the end of the administration, he left a voice mail greeting on his telephone indicating that he would be out of the office for the next 4 years due to a decision by the Supreme Court, and he provided his home telephone number.”
And insights like this:
“Staff [described] the office space as being ‘extremely filthy’ or ‘trashed out’ and [said] that a certain room contained ‘a malodorous stench’ or looked like there had been a party. … Three of the [GSA] team leaders said that they saw personal items left behind, such as unopened beer and wine bottles, a blanket, shoes, and a T-shirt with a picture of a tongue sticking out on it draped over a chair.”
In one case, the Secret Service actually took fingerprints from a door where a 12-inch presidential seal had been removed without permission. “No suspects were identified,” the GAO writes.
Let’s be clear: Only 108 of the then-roughly 1,200 rooms in the White House complex were affected, and only a fraction severely. But if you think the GAO was overdoing it, consider this: attorney-general-to-be Alberto Gonzales, then Bush’s White House counsel, complained its efforts were insufficient — in a 76-page letter.
“The President and his Administration had no interest — and have no interest — in dwelling upon what happened during the 2001 transition,” Gonzales wrote.
A casual reader might dispute this based on sections from his letter such as this one, about a “sticky substance” found on desks:
Or this, disputing the GAO’s method for counting pranks:
We’ll let readers decide whether the Trump or the Clinton administration will be more exacting about pranks.
But regardless, a final word of advice to Obama’s staff: If you do steal a presidential seal on your way out, try not to leave any fingerprints.