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Jimmy Carter changed presidential transitions forever

By starting his work well before the election, Carter set a precedent that his successors followed.

Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural.
Jimmy Carter set a precedent for his successors by starting his transition planning long before the election.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This is the second of four posts examining the evolution of presidential transitions. Click here for the first part.

Presidential transition has changed dramatically over the past several decades, as the demands on the presidential office and on the executive branch have vastly increased. What was once an informal process over a few months, involving a small number of people, is now one that takes years and includes thousands of career civil servants as well as political professionals.

Jimmy Carter’s influential example

Jimmy Carter established the first systematic exercise in transition planning. He started his effort in the spring of 1976, after it became clear that he would become the Democratic nominee. This was far earlier in the cycle than either John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon had begun planning.

Carter chose Atlanta attorney Jack Watson, a law partner of Carter adviser Charlie Kirbo, to run his transition. Watson hired a group of young Washington insiders for policy planning, most notably Anthony Lake, who would eventually serve as Bill Clinton’s national security adviser. In the weeks leading up to the election, Watson met widely with prominent ex-officials and academic experts, and gave several media interviews. Carter partially funded his transition unit with campaign money, which sparked tension between Watson and campaign manager Hamilton Jordan.

After the election, Jordan personally assumed the selection of administration personnel. He later admitted this was an inefficient use of his time, given that he was the president-elect’s most important aide. Carter presided over a transition of unprecedented size and cost, although he demanded that he come in under budget. More so than other presidents-elect, Carter was personally involved in personnel decisions, which may explain why he was relatively slow in filling his Cabinet.

As is the pattern more broadly, Carter’s transition displayed some of the problems that would bedevil his administration. He immersed himself in an excessive level of detail, perhaps not using his time wisely. He was reluctant to designate a chief of staff, not wanting to duplicate the power of Haldeman or Eisenhower “deputy president” Sherman Adams. As a result, Carter found himself managing his own White House, always a difficult practice for a president.

He found it difficult to establish priorities among his policy initiatives. He relied heavily on loyalists from Georgia in staffing his administration, many of whom found themselves in political trouble. Office of Management and Budget director Bert Lance was brought down by scandal. Attorney General Griffin Bell found his confirmation opposed by liberals in the Senate. Legislative liaison Frank Moore lacked good contacts on Capitol Hill.

Reacting against the Nixon White House’s pathologies, Carter tried to practice “Cabinet government.” The Washington insiders who filled his Cabinet, however, feuded with the Georgians who dominated the White House. Some Cabinet members, such as Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano, found the new president to be naive and unrealistic. Carter also was frustrated by his Cabinet members’ control of their departments, which reduced his political power.

Despite all the problems of the Carter transition, it became a model for those that followed. Subsequent presidential nominees would begin their efforts well before the conventions. They would also emulate the thoroughness of the Carter effort (the same-party transition of George H.W. Bush was an exception), though not the extent of personal involvement by the president-elect. (See John P. Burke’s Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice, chapters one and two.)

The 1978 Ethics in Government Act, passed with Carter’s support, added an additional layer of complexity, defining conflicts of interest. Appointees had to submit financial disclosure forms, which could be obtained by the Freedom of Information Act. Some potential presidential appointees found the process burdensome, discouraging them from government service. The Ethics in Government Act is one reason the length of time taken to fill vacancies in government has increased in recent years.

An ideological transition

President Ronald Reagan crafted and oversaw a new kind of transition process. If Kennedy ran a technocratic transition, playing up the “neutral competence” of staff and playing down partisan patronage, Reagan ran a transition aimed at reversing the ideological direction of the federal government itself.

A team headed by Edwin Meese, who had been Reagan’s chief of staff in California, oversaw a process that emphasized loyalty to the president’s conservative philosophy over other factors. The transition team worked closely with conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institution, which provided the Reagan transition team with extensive plans for the new administration. Heritage published Mandate for Leadership, a thousand-page plan for remaking the executive branch. Heritage also managed a job bank that provided the transition team with lists of ideologically compatible personnel and ran a series of orientation sessions for the new administration’s top appointees. (See Heath Brown’s Lobbying The Next President: Interests in Transition.)

Several key figures in the Reagan transition had served in the Nixon administration and sought to learn from its experiences. They also tried to avoid what they saw as the failures of Jimmy Carter. Both administrations taught the same lesson to the Reaganites: Centralize personnel decisions and keep Cabinet members from “going native.”

One of the Nixon veterans was Pendleton James, a personnel recruiter, who managed Reagan’s pre-election transition effort. Like Carter’s transition, the process began well in advance of the convention. Unlike Carter’s transition chief Jack Watson, however, James generally kept a low profile and avoided the media. He also maintained good relations with the Reagan campaign, including policy chiefs Martin Anderson and Richard Allen, two veterans of the Nixon transition. They would join the transition after Election Day.

The post-election Reagan transition ballooned to more than 1,000 people, including both paid staff and volunteers. Meese, James, and incoming White House Chief of Staff James Baker managed the personnel process, with the president-elect having the final say. Reagan sometimes turned to his “kitchen Cabinet” of wealthy California friends, but the transition chiefs managed to limit their influence. (According to Burke’s Presidential Transitions, when a number of “kitchen Cabinet” figures showed up in Washington, Baker had them meet with incoming White House counsel Fred Fielding, who informed them that they were covered by the Ethics in Government Act. When the well-heeled crowd learned of the financial disclosure requirements, they decided to return to California.)

Reagan had initially favored Meese as chief of staff but was persuaded by some of his political advisers to pick Baker instead. Baker had twice managed the presidential campaigns of Reagan’s opponents (Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1976). The selection showed that for all his ideological commitment, Reagan could be pragmatic in picking managerial staff, often favoring Nixon-Ford veterans over conservative “outsiders.”

The White House would be run by a “troika”: Baker as chief of staff, Meese as counselor (and policy chief), and Michael Deaver as deputy chief of staff (with responsibilities for media management). In practice, Baker tended to dominate, but the setup served Reagan well in his first term.

Reagan’s economic policy agenda also took clear shape during the transition, under the guidance of Anderson and incoming OMB director David Stockman, and assisted by a wide variety of task forces. Reagan also took time during the transition to cultivate Washington’s political and social elite, which had often felt neglected under Carter. The transition itself was set up as a nonprofit corporation, supported by $2 million in public funds and $1 million from private donors.

The Reagan transition is often seen as a success by scholars. The new administration got off to a quick start, with top jobs filled and policy goals clear. Reagan managed to strike a balance between ideological fealty and political pragmatism. Conflicts in Reagan’s circle were managed successfully. The White House was organized promptly, and in a form that served the President’s needs well. (See Burke’s Presidential Transitions, chapters three and four; James P. Pfiffner’s The Strategic President: Hitting the Ground Running; and Laurin L. Henry’s “The Transition: From Nomination to Inauguration,” in The Presidential Election and Transition: 1980-1981.)

A “friendly takeover”

President George H.W. Bush experienced the first same-party transition since the 1920s, not including those prompted by presidential death or resignation. Not surprisingly, this “friendly takeover” was relatively smooth. As a longtime Washington insider, Bush did not need the introduction to the federal government required by someone like Carter. In January 1988, he privately selected longtime associate Chase Untermeyer to oversee the transition. Once Bush clinched the nomination in April, Untermeyer began work, but in an exceedingly low-key fashion.

The Reagan administration actively prepared for the transition, providing the Bush team with information on personnel selection and the nomination process. White House staff met with Untermeyer, but apparently not anyone in the camp of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.

After Election Day, the process quickly picked up speed, but Bush’s transition team was far smaller than Reagan’s in 1980-’81. The president-elect relied on a close-knit team of advisers, drawn from his campaign and from a quarter-century in politics. He placed a particular emphasis on rewarding personal loyalists, designating two members of his own family to supervise the placement of Bushies in the administration.

While relationships with the ongoing Reagan team were generally exceedingly cooperative, there was some tension when some appointees from the old administration incorrectly assumed that they would be held over. The selection of John Sununu, the abrasive governor of New Hampshire, as White House Chief of Staff, alienated some Bush associates who refused to serve under him. Sununu would continue to be a controversial figure until he was forced out in December 1991. (See Burke’s Presidential Transitions, chapters five and six; and Pfiffner’s The Strategic President, chapter seven.)

This post is the second of a four-part series on the evolution of presidential transitions. See here for part one, and check back later this week for more installments.