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Bill Clinton set a bad example with his transition

Bubba got off to a poor start with his transition.

Clintons in 1992
Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign. Cynthia Johnson/Liaison

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

President Bill Clinton’s transition in 1992-’93 is often cited as an example of what not to do in a transition. Clinton picked campaign chair Mickey Kantor to head his transition planning, which began after the Democratic convention. Kantor was hurt by his lack of personal ties to Clinton, however, and experienced tension with top campaign staff, who pushed him out of leadership after Election Day.

Clinton divided the transition effort between Washington and Little Rock. This split proved problematic. While those in Washington had contacts with the political insiders whose support was necessary for a successful administration, they were painfully aware that ultimate decisions were being made in Little Rock.

An atmosphere of chaos and disorganization permeated this transition. Clinton’s policy advisers were divided between centrists and liberals. The president-elect stumbled into a controversy over allowing open military service by gay individuals that soon set him against the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of his own party.

Clinton participated in a televised economic summit in December that demonstrated his policy knowledge but also consumed much of his time during a key point in the transition. He immersed himself deeply in the details of his new administration, particularly the selection of a Cabinet. He spent countless hours making plans with a small group of intimates, most notably his wife, Vice President-Elect Al Gore, and transition director Warren Christopher.

The Clinton team took longer than its predecessors to fill top jobs reflected a trend that had developed across the previous few administrations, driven by legislative action and management choices.

For one, presidents were filling more jobs: The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 created the Senior Executive Service, up to 10 percent of whom could be presidential appointees. (Paul Light discusses the growth in the number of presidential appointees in Thickening Government.)

Second, the Ethics in Government Act gave rise to a demanding financial disclosure process, while the FBI conducted time-consuming background investigations. The increasing centralization of personnel decisions in the White House also slowed down the process.

Finally, the Clinton team made decisions that contributed to the backlog. The lack of pre-election transition planning meant that few personnel decisions had been taken in advance. The president and first lady also insisted on heavy personal involvement, taking a particular interest in increasing racial and gender diversity.

Most of Clinton’s Cabinet picks turned out to be successful — several served for most or all of his administration — but Attorney General designate Zoe Baird soon found herself enmeshed in a scandal regarding her failure to pay Social Security taxes for a domestic servant. This affair lingered for several weeks until her nomination was withdrawn the day after the inauguration. Former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley was managing personnel selection for the transition, but found his attention divided when he was nominated to be secretary of education.

In contrast to his approach to the Cabinet, Clinton treated the organization of the White House as an afterthought. His team lacked anyone with White House experience, and exuded hostility to most Washington insiders. They particularly disdained veterans of the Carter administration. They also disregarded advice from members of the outgoing George H.W. Bush administration to name members of the White House staff early. Clinton chose Arkansas businessman Thomas McLarty, a longtime friend, as White House chief of staff. McLarty suited Clinton’s desire for an “honest broker” who would not impose his own views, but he lacked any Washington experience, and left midway through the administration’s second year.

Otherwise, Clinton’s early White House staff was dominated by young, ambitious figures who had worked on the 1992 campaign but who lacked experience in governing. Clinton’s love for policy discussion and need for human contact were not controlled by the structure that a strong chief of staff would have imposed. Meetings ran overtime, decisions were endlessly revised, and the president spent his time on unproductive tasks. Everyone seemed to have access to the Oval Office. While Clinton arguably performed better later in his administration, few think that his first year in office was especially well-spent. (See John P. Burke’s Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice, chapters seven and eight; James P. Pfiffner’s The Strategic President: Hitting the Ground Running, chapter eight; and Charles O. Jones’s Passages to the Presidency: From Campaigning to Governing, pages 71-81.)

Transition in uncertain times

As a result of the disputed nature of the 2000 elections, President George W. Bush’s transition took place under unusual conditions. In the spring of 1999, Bush asked Clay Johnson, a longtime friend who had served as a close aide during his time as governor of Texas, to start transition planning.

Johnson began a discreet, low-key effort that stayed out of the media spotlight until just before the election. He contacted several Republicans with experience at the highest levels of government, including Jim Baker, George Shultz, and Ed Meese. He also worked with veterans of the George H.W. Bush transition.

Johnson studied the Clinton transition to learn from its perceived failures. He kept the Bush campaign informed of his activities, and met with vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, who was named after the Republican convention as the chair of the transition. Johnson benefited from the deep trust he had built with George W. Bush and his inner circle.

By the summer of 2000, Johnson had developed a list of tasks and priorities for the transition. The incoming administration needed to develop a clear policy agenda and identify potential appointees based on those goals. He urged Bush to pick a White House chief of staff before Election Day; by October, the nominee had settled on Andrew Card, a veteran of both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses. Bush wanted Card to serve as an “honest broker” rather than as a “deputy president”; Card had served as John Sununu’s deputy but seemed to see his former boss mostly as a model of how not to behave. Johnson also urged Bush to be ready to name a Cabinet by Election Day.

While election night in 2008 did not produce a clear winner, the Bush campaign quietly proceeded with its transition planning. The Gore campaign suspended its transition team for a time. After Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified Bush as the winner of her state on November 26, Bush began to behave more like a president-elect. He announced Card’s selection as his White House chief of staff, and stated that Cheney would lead the transition.

The General Services Administration, however, initially refused to admit the Bush team to the presidential transition offices or release federal funding. Conflict flared between the Republican campaign and the Clinton administration, some members of which may have harbored resentment from perceived slights in 1992. Cheney announced that the Bush team would set up its own transition office, supported entirely by private funds. Cheney had already been conducting transition work at his home in McLean, Virginia. He built a transition staff based heavily on personal intimates and former staff from his time as secretary of defense. (Amazingly, Cheney had just suffered a heart attack, but soon returned to work. See Barton Gellman’s Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, pages 45-46.)

The Clinton administration began to proceed as if two transitions were underway. The FBI began background checks. The White House asked for the resignation of Clinton appointees. Bush announced that he was preparing to announce his White House staff. Al Gore had appointed longtime aide Roy Neel to manage his transition, which moved ahead in late November, compiling preliminary lists of appointees and reaching out to possible Cabinet members.

The announcement of Bush v. Gore on December 12, followed by Gore’s concession speech the next day, put an end to this strange late-autumn interlude. The General Services Administration recognized Bush as the incoming president and made available federal funds, office space, and staff. George W. Bush moved quickly to name his White House staff and Cabinet, announcing most major appointments by the New Year. Secretary of labor nominee Linda Chavez was quickly dropped after the press reported that she had once employed an illegal immigrant.

Bush’s White House staff was highly experienced, with many figures having served in previous Republican administrations or having worked for the president-elect when he was governor of Texas. Bush gave two Texas intimates positions of unusual power: Karl Rove as a senior adviser managing political affairs, public liaison, and a new Office of Strategic Initiatives, and Karen Hughes as a counselor managing media and communications.

The Bush White House produced a tight-knit atmosphere that avoided open conflict, but also did little to foster policy debate. Cheney’s unusual role as an incoming vice president who was also managing the transition foreshadowed his centrality in the new administration. He proved skilled at placing loyalists in critical points in the bureaucracy. He reached an understanding with the president that he would have an extraordinarily wide scope of action, covering a wide variety of policy areas.

Despite the unusually tight time frame, the George W. Bush administration was able to get its key figures in place as early as its predecessors, but it faced the same challenges in filling sub-Cabinet positions in a prompt fashion. (See John P. Burke’s Becoming President: The Bush Transition 2000-2003, chapters two through four.)

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