Although journalists have always instinctively looked to the initial political performances of a presidential nominee as a signpost of his potential strength in office, in the past half-century, reporters have homed in on the transition as a sort of litmus test of a candidate’s capacity to govern.
“Much is made by the calendar-worshippers of the ‘First Hundred Days’ … but probably more important are the 78 days between the election of a President and his inauguration,” the high priest of political journalism James “Scotty” Reston wrote in November 1976. During his more than half-century career at the Associated Press and the New York Times, Reston witnessed the evolution of the presidential transition and its central importance in determining the success or failure of a presidency. Reston noted that these critical weeks were imperative for the president-elect, not only because they involved the selection of the Cabinet and the White House staff, but because they set the tone for the new government.
Reston’s career coincided with the rise of the modern presidential transition. This process began with the ratification of the 20th Amendment in March 1933, which moved Inauguration Day from March 3 to Jan. 20. Thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s popularity and Harry S. Truman inheriting the office, this change meant little until 1952. With Truman retiring, a new administration would have to be built on the fly.
Truman attempted to facilitate a smooth transition process by inviting both party nominees, Democrat Adlai Stevenson and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, for a briefing in August 1952. However, as presidential transition historian Martha Kumar recently explained, that attempt ended in disaster due to miscommunications and misunderstandings caused by partisan friction. This slowed efforts to unify the country, but Eisenhower’s large-scale transition operation was not otherwise affected. With advice from his transition team, including retired Gen. Lucius Clay and lawyer Herbert Brownell, Eisenhower quickly moved to implement key policy decisions, including diplomacy efforts that contributed to the end of the Korean War.
But after another rocky transition of power in 1960 marked by partisan strife, Congress recognized that “any disruption occasioned by the transfer of executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people.” To reduce this risk, Congress passed the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which supplied government funding and institutionalized the process.
The first transition under this new regiment occurred after Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 victory. With a combination of private funding and the new federal funds, Nixon oversaw a proficient transition process, which utilized a professional recruiter to offer recommendations on appointments for executive posts. Nixon’s smooth transition efforts earned the instant praise of Washington’s elite political journalists. Yet, Nixon sacrificed some of the political benefit of this assessment as he grew ever more distrustful of Beltway politicians and leaned more heavily on his inner circle, a move that would come to haunt his administration.
Reston’s 1976 observation that transitions set the tone for a presidency came as President-elect Jimmy Carter was learning this lesson the hard way. At the behest of issues specialist Stuart Eizenstat and adviser Jack Watson, the relatively inexperienced Carter had launched the earliest and most sophisticated transition planning operation in history in April 1976. Carter’s team understood that the complexity of government and the immediate expectations and problems facing presidents demanded a far bigger and more sophisticated effort, beginning far earlier, than the one detailed in the 22-page transition planning memo aides gave President-elect John F. Kennedy two days after his 1960 victory, or even the relatively sophisticated Nixon operation.
Therefore, Carter’s transition planning team, spearheaded by Watson, a wunderkind Atlanta-based lawyer, compiled a talent inventory intended to vet candidates for Cabinet appointments and other government posts and evaluated proposals for a promised government reorganization and domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Despite these efforts, the news media criticized Carter’s team for failing to live up to the newly raised expectations for the transition process.
The growing understanding of the import of transitions had fueled growing scrutiny from journalists like Reston. They recognized that closely investigating ever more complex transition operations provided a better sense of how a presidential candidate might govern. And, in the aftermath of the presidential lies surrounding Vietnam and Watergate, elite political journalists were increasingly skeptical of all politicians and their promises.
Candidates couldn’t win — journalists expected a sophisticated transition effort, but they were also suspicious about the Carter team’s unparalleled efforts during the campaign because they seemed to signal hubris — a cocky certainty that the challenger would unseat President Gerald Ford.
Moreover, in their coverage of Carter’s transition operation, journalists succumbed to two temptations of commercial journalism — the focus on sensational conflict and the need to project unbiased rigor through objectivity. Thus, rumors of intra-staff discord between Watson and campaign director Hamilton Jordan prompted headlines of “bloodless duels,” while early evidence that Carter was failing to live up to his pledge to appoint a Cabinet and leading government officials who looked like the American people produced ledes about failed campaign promises. As Reston and Carter’s own advisers suggested, these early sketches by elite political reporters set the tone for how the media would cover the Carter Administration, establishing the image of a White House in “disarray.”
And, though transition planning has evolved significantly over the past four decades amid additional government legislation and ever more sophisticated transition operations, the Washington media has offered largely more of the same — headlines that focus on conflict and scorekeeping. We’ve seen this already with a parade of stories about how various minority and interest groups are concerned about Biden’s appointments, as well as warnings from Republicans about the confirmability of some Biden nominees.
The trick for Biden will be avoiding Americans forming a lasting impression of an operation riven by factionalism or in disarray. Such perceptions dogged Carter for his entire presidency. In a real way, transition problems helped to doom his presidency. While Biden has picked a highly experienced veteran team, it all may be for naught if the wrong perception takes hold.